Can You Learn Something Good From “Playing God”?

We generally use the term “Playing God” to

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describe a bad thing. But let’s try to think of some ways that are a bit more positive. Being a parent (or a pet owner) and leading a government involves a bit of playing God— embracing some of the roles that God has, but on a smaller scale. In fact a couple of metaphors for God are “Heavenly Father” and “King.” However, I would look at being a Community Developer as also being an analog for many of the roles of God  A community developer seeks to take on a redemptive role among people, and to help and transform.

What are some things one learns as a community developer?

  1.  One generally learns that what people need and what they think they need are not the same. While a CD practitioner may start with paying attention to felt needs, staying with felt needs usually means working on fixing symptoms rather than curing the disease(s). Ultimately, that doesn’t bring long-term change.
  2.  Symptoms of a problem are less important than the underlying problems and one must really learn to seek the underlying problems and work on them.
  3.  Solving problems for people tends to backfire. Solving problems for people tends to make them more dependent… and that dependence often makes the underlying problems worse, not better.
  4.  CD practioners are generally seen as needing to live with and identify with the people they serve.
  5. Serving is the critical term. The goal is not to lead long-term, but to train, empower, and release people to lead themselves.

Let’s just stop at these five and consider how these may be analogous to some of the areas of theology that we struggle with.

  1.  God does not always give us what we want. God does not always answer our prayers as we wish and this does not always give us what we want. This is based on  His love for us, not His indifference or his anger.
  2.  God focuses more on our underlying problems (such as our moral brokenness and social disconnectedness) rather than the symptoms that we tend to talk about more, and more interested in having “fixed.” God may uses awesome signs to open the door… but seeks to move from there to more core issues soon. These core issues are not fixed by miraculous signs.
  3.  God doesn’t hand out “prosperity” because it is typically bad for us. As broken, selfish, disconnected people, the power associated with prosperity is likely to make our situation worse, not better.
  4.  God does not help us from a distance. God is not fully transcendent. God is very much immanent— in the temple, in the incarnation of Christ, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The presence of God is not irrelevant but key to our transformation.
  5.  God chooses to work primarily through people. Dependence on God is tied to recognizing our need for God, but is NOT tied in God trying to keep us incompetent. God seeks our development and empowerment to serve. God serves us so we can serve Him, and others. We are blessed by God, not to live in a state of being blessed, but to be blessings for others.

 

 

Missions Theology— Problems of Reaction

Consider Quote from Corbett and Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts:

As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreting the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the “Great Reversal” in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.

It is important to note that the Great Reversal preceded the rise of the welfare state in America. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not occur until the 1960s, and even FDR’s relatively modest New Deal policies were not launched until the 1930s. In short, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not— as many asserted— to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor.    <Corbett and Fikkert, page 45>

In the 1960s another shift reaction occurred but this time in Missions. During this time, theological liberalism was having a growing impact on Western Protestant missions due to the growth of belief in pluralism among Protestants, and a unique interpretation of Missio Dei. The former reduced the feeling that non-Christians needed an allegiance shift to Christ. The latter saw Missio Dei, the understanding that God is working on mission everywhere at all times on earth, as making the role of Missio Ecclessiae doubtful. In fact, from a mission perspective, if God is working in other cultures, for a missionary to come in an challenge the beliefs and practices of a people, could it not be a working against God? As such Missions is seen as a ministry of Presence rather than Proclamation.

In reaction to this, there seemed to be a narrowing of mission work among Evangelicals to proclamation and church-planting. Exacerbating this was a focus on what I would call Apocalypticism. That is, Christ is returning any moment, so what should we work on right this minute to be ready for this return? While this focus may seem reasonable, the result was that anything that might be considered a “long-term investment” in terms of ministry (such as poverty alleviation, cultural transformation, community development) were seen as too slow and not a priority. Further, Kingdom of God over the decades tended to be associated more and more with Heaven so problems on earth (ecological and social injustice) were seen as lacking value.  We still find these problems. I was reading a recent mission CPM book that discouraged social ministry or even friendship evangelism as “slowing things down.”

I could go on. But let’s stop here a moment and think what’s been going on:

  • Evangelical Missions has often been reactionary. Rather than centered on God’s word, it tended all too often to react against theological liberals, or pluralists, or liberationists, Catholics or others. (Often these other groups were seen as “the enemy.”) As such, Evanglicals often were guilty of what they charge others (of not treating the Bible as authoritative and basis for faith and practice).
  • Relatedly, short-term marketing choices were often given formal “blessing” regardless of whether they were based on solid principles.

There has been success in Evangelical Missions over the last 6 to 7 decades, but there has been a cost. It has lost relevance in many sectors not because of opposition but intentionally pulling out of those sectors. Failures in social justice and poverty alleviation, and focusing on Heaven only, have resulted in reinforcing the charges of Marxists that religion is about serving as an opiate for the masses. Failures to transform (or even try to transform) societies and cultures has led many to see as a failure of Christ and Christianity, rather than simply a failure of Missions theology. Focusing on UPGs (and an abusive use of Matthew 24:11) led to poorly considered and invasive tactics.

This post is long enough. But we can clearly do better.

Better than Scribblings on a Scrunched-up Piece of Paper at a Bus Stop

I was in a seminar in our seminary about doing research. The issue came up of what sources are legitimate for research. Image result for bus stop litterWhen the issue of blogs came up, the speaker, one of my colleagues, said that while many professors don’t allow citations of blogs or “personal websites” not all feel that way. For the speaker, it depends on who the blog writer is— what is his or her academic credentials. The speaker specifically named my blogsite as one she deems to be acceptable for citations.

That is an honor. So many weird blogsites out where if a student says “I got this information from a blogsite or a personal websites” is akin to saying “I found it scribbled on a Scrunched-up Piece of Paper at a Bus Stop.”

But it did get me wondering about how I thought about my blog being used for citations for research. I guess the best answer I can give is “ambivalent.”

First, I do put a lot of work into this blog— content-wise, even if not in terms of look or style (Howard Culbertson’s webpage has great stuff even if the style is… awkward.) Since I put a lot of thought and work into it, I feel great that people are able to make use of it. But… on the other hand,

Second, I use my blog as a bit of a ministerial and reflective diary. As such, some of my thoughts are disorganized, and perhaps a bit half-baked. Do I want to be referenced for things I am not even sure whether I believe myself? On the other hand,

Third. My words are my words. As such, quoting what I put on a blog is probably better than quoting what I say off-the-cuff. Given a choice, I would rather be quoted in something I had thought, written down, and edited, rather than something that just came to me in a moment, and then perhaps incorrectly, copied down by another. In addition to this,

Fourth. Some of the things that I put on my blog are original thoughts. Some of those thoughts tarnish over time. But some thoughts that started out as tentative blogposts did eventually mature into something I feel pretty good about. Among these are:

  • Questioning the primacy of Power Encounter (as espoused by Charles Kraft) and suggesting that Love Encounter is far more important, and more universally applicable, than Power Encounter. I feel pretty solid on that one.

  • Suggesting the incompleteness of the Three Waves of Protestant Missions (by Ralph Winter) and suggesting that we are entering a fourth wave where UPGs are being replaced by GUCs (great urban centers). Yup, time seems to be supporting this one pretty good.

  • Suggesting that Christan perfection is better identified in terms of redeemed flaws rather than flawlessness, and that our aesthetic language may create some problems in Biblical understanding that is not really in the text. I think this is a pretty important one… and I see that in recent years it has been a growing trend to express Christianity in terms of metaphor of an aesthetics of flaw and age.

Even if I am wrong on these, they express well-developed thoughts that are worthy of consideration regardless of whether they are in peer-reviewed journals, formally published books, or not.

I guess my final conclusion is not so much dwelling only on how I feel about being cited in a blog, but what should I do about it.

I think it places a responsibility to put more quality effort into my posts. I should take research more seriously as well as citing works. I should also (at least consider) figuring out ways to make my blog more user-friendly.

If some people take my writings as more authoritative than a message scribbled on a scrunched-up piece of paper at a bus stop, that places a certain responsibility on myself to not just treat blogging as a scribbling on a piece of paper that will be thrown out and read by no one.

Updated Book, “Dialogue in Pastoral Counseling and Training”

Celia and I have gone through our most recentfront art-27357538485030309008..jpg book, Dialogue in Pastoral Counseling and Training, and made a few modest changes. Some of these were fixing small glitches. Played with the structure in spots as well. I think the book is stronger now.

Yes, I know that this blog is MOSTLY about missions, and this particular book is more for training chaplains and pastoral counselors. I have noted that there is a strong overlap of pastoral care and missions, despite the seeming opposite goals. Several of the chapters are quite relevant to missions. The most obvious one is doing pastoral counseling in different cultures. However, theological reflection, group dynamics, family dynamics, and supervisory relations are just a few of the topics that are quite relevant.

As of January 6, 2020, the update of the book has already taken effect for the Kindle version on Amazon. I assume that the paperback version will have its changes approved and available no later than January 9th.   The Book is Available by CLICKING HERE.

By the way, the next book, I think, will be back to being more formally missions. The topic would be Mission to Samaria. The overarching theme of the book is on missions that focuses on the neighbors we tend to ignore. Anyway, that is enough for now. Hopefully, it will happen this year. Still need to work on the online courses for Pastoral Care, and for Cultural Anthropology. I probably should do that before I work more on the new book.

 

Is Righteous Anger Righteous?

Before getting into the topic, I would like

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to with my view of anger. I think anger is neither good nor bad. It is an emotion and emotions are not good or bad. Emotions begin to take on ethical concerns when tied to motives and actions. In this sense, then, I believe that anger itself is neither righteous nor unrighteous. Thus, the term “righteous anger” is neither self-contradictory, nor even paradoxical.

“Righteous Anger” seems to have come out of the cultural belief that anger is in itself… bad. Some prefer the term “righteous indignation. Of course, to some extent indignation can be seen as a different emotion, or perhaps a more nuanced emotion. Often indignation suggests anger that is motivated by injustice. Thus Aristotle saw it as a healthy state— between envy and spite. Therefore, righteous indignation is anger motivated by the injustice of the success of the undeserving. (Are there, however, people who deserve to be successful and people who don’t?)

In Christian circles, I think indignation is usually just a euphemism.  A person who is clearly angry may choose to defend himself by saying… “I am NOT angry… I have righteous indignation.” That has the double problem to me as it seems to be both emotionally dishonest, and suggesting false virtue.

For Christians, it is big concern since the Bible describes God as angy at times. The dominant emotion of God in the New Testament is Love, the dominant emotion used to describe Jesus in the Gospels is compassion,  and the dominant emotion ascribed to God in the Old Testament is mercy. The latter two, compassion and mercy, could perhaps be better said to be emotions tied to motivation and action. Nevertheless, anger or wrath are certainly described as emotions of God.

Some would argue that God doesn’t have emotions. Emotions are neurochemical responses that we have as biochemical lifeforms. God is spirit not flesh so emotions are not really part of His nature. From this view, God could be seen as not having emotions as we do (impassibility), and the emotional descriptions of God are simply attempts to make God make more sense to us (anthropomorphisms). I would argue oppositely. I would argue that God does have emotions, and created us with a biochemical analog of this characteristic of God.

That being said, I do think that sometimes the anger of God is used in the Bible to help explain something about God to us, rather than explain His actual emotional state. A good example of this is in the theological concept of Propitiation. The concept is drawn from a term in the Bible meaning to assuage or satisfy the wrath of God. As it is used by some theologians, it says that God is full of anger because of our sins, and the only thing that can fully satisfy or remove that anger is the blood (death) of Jesus. I personally, think the language is more metaphoric than literal. My main reason for believing this is that Jesus was able to walk around for over three decades on earth without appearing to be full of rage about people’s sinful behavior. Many Christians like to use the expression, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” In the case of Christ, it seems more like “Love the Sinner, Inspire the Good.” The term “propitiation” seems more like a metaphor for salvation, much like “justification,” “redemption,” and “adoption.”

Additionally, in some places in the Bible, hate or anger appear to be emotion-laden terms that actually refer to a much less emotional activity. When it says that for God, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated,” this seems to be less about emotion, and more about choice. After all, God actually chose to bless both brothers. However, the salvific history of God runs through Jacob.

Other places, it is not that simple. Jesus showed a wide range of emotions that have the spontaneity of the emotions we are familiar with. In Christian theology this should not be surprising since we see Jesus as fully human. However, such genuine emotions does not seem to be out of touch with the description of God’s quality. Thus, Jesus as fully God is not inconsistent with his emotions.

I like the quote of B.B. Warfield in this regard,

“Our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Matt. 4:2), thirsted (John 19:20), was weary (John 4:6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred His soul… Not only do we read that He wept (John 11:35) and wailed (Luke 19:41), sighed (Mark 7:34), and groaned (Mark 8:12), but we read also of His angry glare (Mark 3:5), His annoyed speech (Mark 10:14), His chiding words (e.g. Mark 3:12), the outbreaking ebullition of rage (e.g. John 11:33 and 38), of the agitation of His bearing when under strong feelings (John 11:35), the open exaltation of His joy (Luke 10:21), the unrest of His movements in the face of anticipated evils (Matt. 27:37), the loud cry which was wrung from Him in His moment of desolation (Matt. 27:46).”

When I was young, I was told that anger was okay, ONLY if it was directed in support of the holiness of God. Jesus expressed anger at the sellers at the temple because it lowered God’s glory by turning a place of worship into a den of thieves. But is this the only time that anger is good?

Years ago, I was driving in Baguio City, when I saw a small girl walking on the sidewalk. She was carrying her books close to her, was hunched over, and appeared to be crying or on the verge of crying. Right behind her were two boys slightly larger than her. They were saying things that appeared to be derisive (although I could not hear them) and were tossing small pebbles at her. I also noticed that others who were around were ignoring her situation. I felt angry. I stopped my car in the busy traffic got out of my car and yelled at the boys to stop what they were doing immediately. Was that unrighteous anger. I don’t know. Perhaps it was. It certainly wasn’t directed towards defending God. But I would argue that God has called on us to focus more attention on defending the weak, the innocent, the disempowered, and the marginalized, than on defending Him. God can defend Himself quite well if the need arises. I think this type of anger is quite appropriate.

Since anger is built into our limbic system to trigger quickly, even though it is a “secondary emotion,” almost before we can identify the trigger, it seems as if God designed us to be angry… at times.  Overcoming anger is not always a virtue.

That being said, in missions one must also realize that in many cultures, anger is seen as almost always wrong. It is also true that many people have used “righteous anger” as a justification for unspeakable evil at times.

So where are we? My post has been pretty convoluted. However, it seems like the answer is that we should throw out the phrase “righteous anger.” Anger is anger. It can be triggered by appropriate things as well as inappropriate. It can motivate one to good actions or evil actions. It can be healthy to express anger in some environments and unhealthy to express that same anger in another context. In the end, I just don’t see it as a useful term. The guidance of St. Paul in Ephesians 4 seems appropriate:

Be angry, but do not sin.

 

 

Um… Maybe Missions is NOT for You.

Before I get into this… a bit of a confession time. I may not be the great exemplar of a missionary. I am not adept at language. I am an introvert, when it seems as if the extrovert is the ideal promoted. I am prone to be a bit grumpy. I am also not particularly evangelistic. Oh yeah, and I am horrible at fundraising. (Not all of these are that important. I think the jury is out still as to whether introverts or extroverts make better missionaries. And, in the age we live in, missionaries in most parts of the world are needed more in skills training and leader development rather than being evangelizers or churchplanters… the latter roles issionaries are usually second-rate as compared to locals.) It is still fair to say that these are all pretty good reasons for me NOT to be involved in missions. Confession time over.

You know… some people just really really should not go into missions. I know we have really rousing missions conferences with “altar calls” to get people to commit to mission work, but some really should be discouraged from this. I know many people think that God gives certain people a divine moment that tells them they must be missionaries— no turning back. Not so sure, and this matters, because there is dangers to the wrong people going into cross-cultural ministry. That is because although mission work can truly advance the Kingdom of God, done wrong it can also hinder or undo it.

The people who always make me the most nervous here in the Philippines are the highly ethnocentric missionaries. Usually, these are Americans who often embrace many of the “Ugly American” stereotypes that we were warned about back in my Navy Days before our ship sailed into foreign ports of call. It is interesting that the US Navy tried to drill this concern into our minds while many groups (especially churches sending individuals or short-term mission teams) do not. Some such mission folk are loud and abrasive, and think they know more than locals. Some seek to bring over their churches from the US bringing their own style, doctrines, and prejudices to be imparted into their mission churches. I know of two people who were kicked out of the Philippines because they were missionaries. The Philippines is so lax on enforcing rules regarding mission work that it is hard to imagine any being sent home for illegal mission work. However, the fact was that it was the local church they were working with here that turned them in to the BI (Bureau of Immigration). I never did find out what this American couple did that would motivate Filipinos to turn on them (a rare thing indeed). While I said this as if only an American thing, I have seen a few other nationalities (I will leave these unlisted) that feel the temptation to bring in their superior attitudes to the field. If you feel the need to bring your political perspectives and train up your people in them on the field, you are probably in the wrong job.

Some people struggle with being self-driven, and self-accountable. While everyone needs accountability in mission work, the oversight is commonly less than at home. In most cases it is easier to get away with laziness or acting out when one’s boss is hours away. If you need someone looking over your shoulder to make sure you are working, mission work is probably not for you.

Some people struggle with flexibility. Cross-cultural work involves cultural flexibility. Mission work, in general, requires activity flexibility. Rarely is one day like the next. If one needs routine, or can’t handle being expected to behave in ways that are markedly different than one was raised up, mission work is probably not the best for you.

If you are success-oriented, and want to be a big name… again probably not ideal to be a missionary. Even if you are fairly well-known to a small group of people where you serve, people in your home country are likely not to know you. The activities likely to get one to be well-known (like getting killed for illegal trespassing on lands of hostile locals, or getting caught sexually molesting MKs) are exactly the things one REALLY SHOULD AVOID. Frankly, most famous missionaries, like St. Paul or William Carey, really became famous mostly after their deaths.

If money given to you as a steward for ministry feels like your own money… you probably should not be a missionary.

A great list is 10 Reasons NOT to Become a Missionary, by Laura Parker.

Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part II)

In Part I, we looked at Christians in culture. It seems clear, I hope, that Christians should live on three levels as it relates to the Idealized Culturesurrounding culture.

  1.  We should live in many ways like those around us… fitting in quite comfortably with the broader culture.
  2. We should live in many ways like what the broader culture idealizes, even if the members of that culture rarely live up to its own standards.
  3. We should live in many ways according to God’s standards in opposition to the culture.

This is built on the presumption that all cultures are, although far from perfect, good. They are good to the extent that they provide cohesion and guidelines for their members.

But not everyone sees it that way. Some tend towards the demonization of cultures.  In this case, often the person embraces a foreign culture as “holy” and the local culture as unholy. The goal is to rid the church of the “stench” of its local cultural roots and embrace an outside culture as ideal.

Here in the Philippines, this is often seen in the “demonization of pagan roots.” The Philippines has a rather short distance to paganism, or tribal animistic faiths. In fact, animistic faiths are alive and well as both separate religions and as syncretizations of world religions. It has become popular to demonize paganism… and sometimes Satanize paganism.

For example, every Halloween and every Christmas people write about the pagan roots of these holidays. (In a few weeks articles about the pagan roots of Easter will be starting up as well.) In these holidays, the case for the pagan roots is not nearly as strong as people think they are. However, what is most interesting is that those elements that have been incorporated into the present holidays that have roots in early pagan cultures are not just thought of as “pagan,” but as “demonic,” or even Satanic. The connection between pagan and demonic is rather debatable. In the Bible, idols are sometimes linked to the idea of worshiping demons, but at other times is seen as worshiping wood and stone— created things, rather than the Creator.

Samhain (linked loosely to Halloween) and Saturnalia (linked by present pop culture, rather than actual history, to Christmas) were pagan events, but not Satanic. One may argue that pagan symbols are not from God, or that they point people away from God, and in this way are Satanic. This seems too broad of a leap. Satan is described as a liar, an accuser, and a deceiver. So if you are a person who lies at times, it may be quite accurate to say that in a very important way you are Satanic. But that seems unhelpful. Such hyperbolic language is akin to the humorous observation that any argument on social media eventually results in comparison of one or both sides to Hitler.

It is interesting that Paul takes a more nuanced approach to the paganism of the Hellenistic around him. He was grieved at all of the idols in Athens (and other places) but did not express fear or horror of them. In more than one place, he emphasized to the people that God was pretty forgiving of their pagan activities since they did so out of ignorance. He also instructed Christians to avoid idolatry, but not to fear that the idolatry has power over them. I have an acquaintance over here who has described Christmas as the greatest work of Satan today. I feel this language is really unhelpful. There are problems with Christmas (especially as a materialistic, consumeristic, activity) but hyperbolic language undermines the argument. And it is actually worse than this. The problem the person has with Christmas is not its connection to greed, but rather that it seeks to subvert or redeem some formerly pagan symbols.

I would argue that such subversion is commendable. I know of no Americans who think that the Fourth of July is demonic or Satanic even though fireworks are used for the celebration. (For those of you who don’t know, fireworks have been traditionally used by pagan cultures as part of a celebration to “scare away” ghosts and demons. Fourth of July may have problems in that some celebrate a certain unhealthy jingoism in it, but the fact that it has subverted the symbolic meaning of (pagan) fireworks is not a bad thing.

A different form of demonization is idealizing another culture. I have friends here in the Philippines that are practicing a form of Christianity that embraces strongly Jewish symbols. Is this wrong? No. Is it useful for non-Jews to embrace Jewish cultural symbols? I doubt it… but I suppose it is harmless. What is not so harmless is when Christians celebrate Yom Kippur (a perfectly fine day to celebrate) but then suggest that Christians who celebrate other days have fallen away from the truth.

Of course, they are not the only ones. There are churches here in the Philippines that are KJV-only. It is hard to understand why any missionary would try to get Filipinos to embrace a version of the Bible that is not only not their language but is not even their century. Of course, up until 50 years ago, the dominant religious group in the Philippines required the Bible to read only in Latin… a language that is native tongue to exactly 0% of Filipinos. I have heard some KJV only folk call the NIV the “New Infernal Version.” This is demonization of a translation of a Bible. A translation may be better or worse, clearer or murkier, but I don’t think any honest attempt to make God’s word understandable should be called demonic.

And it is not only them. As one goes around to different churches in the Philippines we find that an awful lot of churches here mimic churches elsewhere… in building design, dress, songs, and so forth. They are also often best known for how they refuse to interact with a lot of the local cultural activities (because people from their denominational roots wouldn’t participate).

Demonization of culture is unhealthy. I would argue that a more healthy understanding of culture is in the three areas listed at the top. Demonization of culture does not get one closer to God, but farther from the community in which one serves.