Christian Missions is Not “If it Works, Do it.” (Quote)

“Jesus at the outset of his ministry was forced to contend with three of the most powerful temptations Satan could offer— expediency, popularity and power (Mt 4:1-11). It would have been expedient, logical and even strategic for Jesus to have ended his forty-day fast by turning stones into bread. He could have attracted the attention, interest and admiration of an entire nation had he leaped from the top of the temple and landed on his feet. Most of all, he could have ruled over all of the earth if he had just bowed down to Satan.

Think of it— Satan offered Jesus the opportunity to complete all he came to earth to accomplish— in one stroke he would rule the world. Would something like this be a temptation to Mission, Inc.? At long last the Great Commission could be fulfilled in our generation by our efforts and ingenuity. Jesus had a very different agenda, however. His was to be a spiritual kingdom based on unwavering obedience to all that he had learned from his Father. He engaged in no sloganeering to “complete the task,” no triumphalistic Great Commission countdowns, no strategic plan and timetable other than the certainty that he would be forsaken by his followers and left to experience a traumatic, lonely death.

We suggest that those of us on this missions pilgrimage reexamine our rhetoric and publicity. Let us join in the sober recognition that the spiritual kingdom of Jesus is distinctly and irreversibly countercultural. It is all about communities witnessing to Christ’s kingdom without the convictions of worldly expediency, glamour and power. Yet without fanfare it transforms the world.

-James F. Engel and William A Dyrness, “Changing the Mind of Missions” (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 180.

 

The Great Commission: Changing the Starting Point

The Matthew 28 version of the Great Commission speaks of developing Disciples. There appear to be three basic steps: They are Evangelize, Baptize, and Teach/Train.

GC Three Cycle

The question is where does it start. Within the context of the various Great Commission versions, the start seems to be with Evangelize. That is because the key issue of the Acts 1 version is for the apostles (“sent out ones”) to serve as witnesses of Jesus and proclaimers of Jesus’s message to the world. And since the recipients are people who are not followers, it rather makes sense that Evangelism is the first step.

Of course, things did change. As Christianity, as a religion, became naturalized to families and communities, there was more of a move toward the initial step being baptism. Babies of Christian families would be baptized and brought formally into the church. the children would be trained within the church until they become confirmed in the Christian faith. So Baptism in this case would be the first step. As a Baptist myself, I don’t really prefer that particular starting point, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

But it could also be argued that Training can (or even should) be thought of as the starting point. This can be seen in a couple of ways.

Number 1.   There has been a growth of “try before you buy.” Many seekers will become involved in church before they decide to believe. They want to see Christianity lived out. That can be awkward, because they may not just sit in the back of the congregation. They may want to jam in the worship team. They may want to discuss uncomfortable topics in Bible study or Sunday School. They may want to get involved with social ministries. They may want to join a short-term mission trip.

This first one can be awkward. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable in church with uncomfortable questions. I remember a woman standing up during church service after a deacon had given an (overly strong, and perhaps manipulative) appeal to tithe, and she asks the question to the entire congretation, “Does God’s love need to be bought?” It was a good question, but the church response was to guide her out of the church. Not ideal. I have sat in an evangelistic bible study with a young man who was dressed in women’s clothes. The bible study leader does a fine job for quite awhile and then the dam burst as she started rattling off every verse she knew that spoke negatively of homosexuality.

In both of those cases, I feel that the guests were handled poorly by Christians. They showed up at the church for some reason. Maybe their reasons were sincere… maybe not. The result was that the church pushed them out. The woman never returned, and although the young man did not walk out of the Bible study, he did not continue with the weekly studies.

Number 2.  Engel and Dyrness in “Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?” (InterVarsity Press, 2000) on pages 65 and 66 note that it is not really Biblical to start with transmitting a message without giving people a “taste” of Christian compassion and holy living. I kind of think that this statement is taken a bit far. However, I do believe it is generally true. Charles Kraft speaks of Power Encounter always preceding Truth Encounter. Again, I think that this pushes a particular tradition rather than expressing a Biblical principle. However, Jesus almost always gave a taste of the Kingdom first. This may be miraculous signs, and healing. It may be violating cultural taboos, and upending social structures.

Engel and Dyrness in the same book (see page 64) described Evangelism as it has become popular in the Market Evangelism of the late 1900s Evangelicalism. They noted the Great Commission became tied to two Omissions:

  • Evangelism became disconnected from Social Transformation. Many believed that social transformation would follow Evangelism. Engel and Dyrness noted that at least since the mid-1800s this has not happened. Social Transformation should work hand-in-hand with (or even precede) Spiritual Transformation. Focusing on cognitive change (without an understanding of how such a cognitive change is supposed to connect to a life lived for God) commonly leads to anemic Christianity.
  • When Evangelism drifts into Marketing a product to as many people as possible to get the most people to make some sort of identifying indication of response, discipleship as a total process tends to wilt.

Perhaps a better idea is to start in a better place:

  1.  Welcome people into the church, bible studies, ministry activities and more as seekers and skeptics to experience the Christian faith lived out, and where they can ask uncomfortable questions and get honest (unpracticed thoughtful) answers. In this way they can experience an aspect of the Kingdom that is tied to the message. Of course, this requires Christians to live out their faith socially, as well as doctrinally. This can result in 4th century Christianity where churches moved from small groups of the faithful to being large groups of the immature. But I don’t think this is a necessary result. A church can be a holy gathering of the faithful while maintaining it as a safe space for inquiry and doubt.
  2. Welcome these people to place their faith in Christ to become what they have been experiencing.
  3. Welcome believers into the mystical church— the body of Christ— through baptism.
  4. The people would were trained as believers become trainers of new seekers and skeptics, living out their faith with humility, and demonstrating holy brokenness and social concern to all. (And the cycle continues.)

I don’t think it is controversial to say that we teach unbelievers. It may sound controversial to say that we disciple unbelievers, but if discipleship is the entire process, of course one must disciple unbelievers. What probably IS controversial is to suggest that Proclamation/Evangelization is most commonly the wrong place to start.

And Evangelism that is built around marketing schemes does tend to lack the Biblical base and Spiritual foundation of regeneration.

I think we need to wrestle with this.

 

 

 

 

Guessing Rather Than Talking

Today I got a call asking my opinion about a missionary using the term “Isa al Masih.”  The official concern relayed to me was that the missionary was using the Arabic term for Jesus Christ. The issue was not that the term is Arabic, but rather that Isa al Masih is a term that ties to a Quranic depiction of Jesus rather than a Biblical depiction. From that understanding, although the Quranic and Biblical terms point to the same character, perhaps it is wrong to say that the terms are equivalent.

Of course this is nothing new. Are Yahweh, God, and Allah the same or not? All answers are inadequate. In a sense the answer is Yes. All three point to an Abrahamic understanding of the God of Heaven and Earth. In a sense the answer is No. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic understandings of God do differ considerably. If the descriptions are different, how can one say they are the same?

For me, the best answers are “No but” and “Yes but.” A Christian might say, “No, but we are seeking to worship the same God,” or perhaps “Yes, but we don’t all necessarily know the God we worship.” The latter is suggested in Jesus’s  response to the woman at the well in John chapter 4.

I would argue that “Yes But” or “No But” also works for Jesus. Both Isa al Masih and Jesus Christ are terms that seek to reference Yeshua of Nazareth. But the terms have wildly different interpretations of who he truly is.  One can say No they are too different… but both terms seek to discover the Jesus who is.

But… do two people mean EXACTLY the same thing, ever? No. We are always translating our thoughts, inadequately, whether we are talking to another of a different language or worldview… or same.

So if one is talking about Jesus the Messiah to one with an Islamic worldview… the closest term is “Isa al Masih.” The term is inadequate but is still adequate and necessary as a starting point for dialogue.

On this first point then, I believe the missionary used a perfectly fine term.  Yet I wonder if this wasn’t the key issue. The pastor(s) concerned may not have an issue with the term itself.

The chief concern may be motivation… at least as it is guessed by others. A religion is not only a body of beliefs, but a social construct. The language we use and the actions we do (and do not do) reinforce these social bonds.

Conflicts are rarely about language we use or actions we do. Conflicts tend to spring from what they guess motivates differences, not the differences themselves.

One sees this in many situations— religious or otherwise. I have known Christians who came from non-Christian settings. For example, I have known Christians from a Muslim background. They did not eat pork and they would get some level of grief from Christians. Why? It is not because Christians must eat pork. Christians have freedom. But there is often pressure to conform to “Christian culture.” Note… I live in the Philippines where eating pork is deeply ingrained in the culture.

Some Christians, upon discovering that a fellow Christian doesn’t eat pork start asking to themselves, “If ______ is one of us, why does ______ not act like us.” I heard some joke that one such Muslim background believer must be a “secret Muslim.” And maybe they were not joking. I have had people question who I ‘really’ am because I worship differently or vote differently. We know that only God can see the heart… but we tend to think that we can as well sometimes.

Perhaps some heard the missionary talk about Isa al Masih and instead of thinking “Oh the missionary contextualizes Christ to her place of ministry” they think “Maybe the missionary is getting confused in his beliefs— maybe he is not one of us.”

The answer is simple… ask. If language exists in Yes But and No But, rather than Yes or No, and we cannot read minds and hearts, we need feedback. We need dialogue.

Of course I am guessing myself. The one I talked to just had questions only. I cannot read the hearts and minds of the people involved. I have to remember to dialogue… to seek feedback.

Dialogue in Diversity

Social Media and Toxic (Non-)Dialogue

A few weeks ago I decided to leave Facebook… mostly. I still have a few activities that require me to pop in there for at least brief moments. However, I am pretty sure that my time there will continue to decline and not return to its past.

It started in a minor way. A friend of mine on FB had shared a rather silly little cut-and-paste that humorously sought a “divorce” of “real” Americans from various people in news and entertainment (mostly) who tended to trigger political conservatives. It was mildly humorous, but overall I found it a bit annoying. I have become increasingly concerned with tribalism in US religion and politics where there is a tendency to demonize people who hold other views rather than see value in diverse perspectives.

I would have let it go but most of the comments were unabashedly positive not merely to the questionable entertainment value of the post, but the actual idea espoused underlying the humor.

There were a few comments that were less positive, and so I decided to respond in a way that was not at all supportive of the post. I stated that I disagreed with pretty much every sentence in the post (probably an exaggeration), and felt that diverse views were a healthy part of society.

One guy (I will call him “Jay”) seemed really bothered by this response and suggested that I should not talk. I gave some vague response to this. I don’t even remember what I wrote now. He responded, that I should keep my opinions to my self, and then instead of addressing it to me, “Bob,” he addressed it to “Philippines.”

Okay, I felt like I got it. Jay felt that because I lived in the Philippines I really should not share my opinions on US politics. Strangely, I actually get that. I have Filipino friends over here that will, occasionally, express opinions about American politics that in my mind are so out of touch with what is actually going on— often reading or hearing the worst of US op-eds. Several times, I had felt tempted to tell my Filipino friends to stay out of what they don’t really understand. Thankfully, I refrained from it because I really do believe that we learn from each other. But I get the temptation to ignore people who don’t have a direct investment in a situation.

I responded to Jay that I am a US citizen and Virginia resident and serve as a missionary in the Philippines. Jay responded something about me being some liberal socialist something or other who would cause “Virginia Regulars to be rolling over in their graves.” Politically, I am rather eclectic (somewhere in the Conservative-Moderate-Libertarian range of things_. I don’t think my views would fit into the liberal or socialist side of things, but it is true that I have never tried to limit my views to any oneside of any political spectrum.

I got especially annoyed about the Virginia Regulars and their cemetery tumblings. Virginia Regulars were Confederate military. I am not an expert on the political beliefs of CSA military, but I generally thought that would be considered a good thing today to hold views that would decidedly out of synch with the Confederacy.

I wrote some smartass response somewhat clarifying my political stance and insulting Jay for jumping to yet another assumption. (It seems to be his thing.) But after about five minutes I went back on and deleted that post.

That is when I figured out a few things. These things I already knew but I got reminded.

  1. It was a bit foolish of me to make a vague sweeping response to the initial post. I was raised in a church that was part of the Fundamentalist and Separatist movements in the US. That church had (and has) many good qualities. Many people get bothered by the term “Fundamentalist” and picture all sorts of horrible things. However, for me, the FAR bigger concern is actually “Separatism.” It is a tribalizing philosophy and squelches dialogue. It is missiologically suspect and Biblically weak. I would even suggest that Separatism as a secular movement within American society is destructive to democracy. However, given a vague blanket statement actually triggers a separatist response. And of course it would. I someone responds to this post with the statement— “I disagree with pretty much every statement in this post” —- I would not take the writer seriously. It doesn’t feed dialogue, it squelches it.
  2. FB doesn’t really support healthy dialogue. It is not much better than Twitter to discuss important issues. Important issues can’t be handled with one or two or three sentences— or with a GIF or a like or a frowny face. It promotes a stereotyping of views. Also, short bursts of text done in the moment often get misunderstood and feelings get hurt and eventually people move into little echo chambers of mutual admiration societies each trying to one-up each other in greater extremes of view and attacks on others who don’t share those views.
  3. It sucks to not be understood. I remember taking our young child to the emergency room because of a bout of asthma. The nurse essentially accuses us of smoking around our child. It got us mad, especially my wife who was a nurse, because we don’t smoke, had not smoked, have no people in our house who smoke, and have never even had visitors come into our home and smoke. It is annoying to have someone come to a conclusion based on very limited information and act like they figured you out. But it is tempting to do that. Consider Jay for a minute. It is quite tempting for me to make guesses about him. He seemed to be annoyed that I was an Asian sharing opinions about America. When he found out that I am actually a (white) US citizen, he suggested that my Confederate ancestors (of whom I have none) would be horrified by my politics. It is pretty easy for me to GUESS that he is a raging racist MAWA (“make America white again”). But that would only be a guess. If I don’t like having Jay guess (extremely poorly) about my views, I should avoid doing that with him and others.

So I have decided to step away from FB. Not merely because of this rather mundane little conversation but because of years of these silly little problems.

But I do have to recognize the irony. I want healthy dialogue between different groups. I think Separatism is flawed. Yet I am separating myself off by stepping away from Facebook. I am still trying to work this out. I do believe that dialogue is valuable, but some formats don’t promote healthy dialogue. I don’t see FB as a place that promotes healthy dialogue… generally at least.

Not all formats support growth through dialogue. I recently read an article in a Jewish publication that questioned having interviews of Anti-Semites published in their Jewish papers. The reason for publishing these was to help Jews understand the perspective of those with very different views. However, I would agree with those who have expressed concern. While dialogue is a good thing, giving a soapbox for Anti-Semitic “hate speech” may not be a very effective way to promote mutual trust and growth.

Still trying to figure this out. Maybe we just have to accept the limitations of social media. In the end, most all of us really want to be understood— understood in our beliefs and values, and understood in our fears and hopes. It may be too much to expect to be understood on an media platform— at least until we learn to TRY to understand others in a similar way. But I think there is hope.

Back in the 1960s, the Evangelicals separated missiologically from the World Council of Churches. Each started meeting as separate entities. Both groups embraced some views that were pretty messed up, in my opinion. The Conciliar missions tended to reject the uniqueness of the message of Christ and moved from a ministry of evangelism to a ministry of presence. The Evangelicals embraced evangelism but did so by rejecting much of Jesus’s social ministry. Both sides were deeply flawed. Thankfully, there were a few (John Stott being perhaps the most well known of these) who maintained involvement and dialogue in both groups. By the 1970s the worst excesses of these groups were eroded. Both groups accepted that evangelism and social ministry are part of Christ’s call to the church. I can’t help but think that those who kept dialogue going had a role in this.

But if FB and Twitter and Reddit and other social media platforms existed back then would dialogue have improved? Not convinced. I am still trying to figure it out.

Father Jonadab

This is, with modest changes, the sermon I preached for our online quarantine church here for Father’s Day.

Good morning.

Happy Father’s Day. Please open your Bibles to Jeremiah 35. We don’t read Jeremiah very often and it is not used in sermons a lot. Yet it is actually the biggest book in the Bible. It has more words in it than even the Psalms. And God has a lot to say in it.

In Jeremiah chapter 35, Jeremiah is talking to a group of people known as the Rechabites. A lot of names are shared and they get confusing. But we can focus on one person and one group. The group is the Rechabites, an extended family or clan. The other is Jonadab. He was one of the ancestors of the Rechabites. The rest of the names are not that important. Let’s read it together:

Read Jeremiah 35:1-11

So here is the story, God tells the Prophet Jeremiah to bring the Rechabites to the temple and offer them wine. Arguably it is a nice thing to do. But in reality, it was a test. So Jeremiah takes some of the leaders of the Rechabites to the temple. When they get there, there is wine and cups all prepared and Jeremiah invites them to drink,.

But the text says they, as if all of them said the same thing, NO, we will not drink. He goes on to explain. Generations before, their ancestor, Jonadab had told his children. None of you are to plant vineyards or drink wine. Rather they are to live in tents. They say that because of this, the entire clan has followed this guidance and they cannot have wine even if Jeremiah the prophet invites them to. This is actually pretty impressive. It is not like Jonadab would hear about them drinking wine and yell at them later. Jonadab lived approximately 250 years before this. Generally, I don’t even know who my ancestors were 250 years ago, and certainly would not take their guidance seriously. How about you.

This seems like an odd story… but God had a purpose to it.

Read Jeremiah 35:12-17

God gives a prophetic message to Jeremiah. God says, see how things are. The Rechabites obey the command of their ancestor Jonadab. Yet, I have been telling the people of Israel generation after generation what they need to do. And they have not listened and have not obeyed. Now God is angry. The Rechabites faithfully honored and obeyed their ancestor… for 250 years… yet the people of Israel could not seem to honor and obey God from one generation to the next.

Jeremiah goes on to say, that God would bless the Rechabites for their faithfulness to Jonadab. But the people of Israel would be punished for their unfaithfulness to God.

What can we take from this story?

First Idea.  The obvious meaning is that we are supposed to be faithful to God. God said something… and He shouldn’t have to keep saying it over and over. As Christians, Jesus said “Love God. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Love your enemy.” God should not have to keep reminding us. Yet, Christians don’t have a great record in following this. We tend to find reasons to forget to be loving or rationalize why God’s commands don’t apply to us. God really shouldn’t have to threaten to punish us for being disobedient. He is God. God shouldn’t have to try so hard to be taken seriously by those who claim to follow Him. And that is a good message. If God says we should do something, we should do that. If God says not to do something, we should not do that.

But let’s consider two other possible messages in the story. One of these possible messages I believe is not correct. But the other, I think may be quite true.

I have heard some people say that this story tells us that we should always obey our fathers… or our grandfather… or our ancestors. That seems to make sense and it sounds good.

Children obey your parents. The problem is that much of the rest of the book of Jeremiah says the opposite. Much of the rest of the book says, Don’t obey your parents.

In fact in the chapter right before this, Jeremiah 34, we find the opposite. Jeremiah notes that the people of Jerusalem started rejecting the works of their ancestors and God was pleased… but then they changed their mind and started doing again what their ancestors had been doing and God was angry. The thing was that in this case, the ancestors were doing wrong and guiding their children and children’s children to do wrong as well. In several places Jeremiah said, “Your ancestors rejected God’s commands. Don’t be like them. Do not follow their guidance. Follow God instead.”

The Bible does say that we are to honor and obey our parents but that can never be used as an excuse to do what is evil. God is our heavenly Father and therefore is always the higher authority.

Years ago, my family were members of a church. The church seemed to be good, but the pastor started picking up some bad teachings. One Sunday morning he stood before the members of the church and said, “Always obey your pastor. Also do what your pastor says. Even if your pastor tells you to do something that is wrong, obey him, and God will bless you because you were obedient.” That was the day we realized that we had to leave the church. God is not impressed when you obey a pastor or a boss, or a mayor or a president, or a mother or a father who tells you to do what God says is wrong.

In Jeremiah 35, God blessed the Rechabites because they were faithful to a man of Faith. A godly man.

And we happen to know that because Jonadab is mentioned earlier in the Bible— in II Kings chapter 10. Jonadab lived in the time of King Ahab, and his children. King Ahab was an evil ruler and was opposed by the Prophet Elijah. One day, Elijah became very depressed and told God that he wanted to end his life because he was such a failure. He told God that he had been faithfully serving God but no one else has listened and he is the only one left. God lets him know that this is not true. In fact, Elijah is not alone. There are 7000 men who have not bowed down their knee and worshipped false gods. Well, Jonadab was one of those 7000 men who were faithful to God. When the king said Worship Baal, Jonadab said I will worship the God of Israel.

What makes that even more amazing was that Jonadab was not even an Israelite. He was not from one of the tribes of Israel. He was a Gentile. Yet he committed to serve the God of Israel even when it was dangerous to do so.

Sometimes we read the New Testament and say, Ah… here is where God now opens up His message of hope to the Gentiles. We may read the Old Testament and say, Ah… here is where God only cares about Israel. But spread throughout the Old Testament are stories of godly Gentiles who served God. Often, they were raised up as pillars of faithfulness when compared to many of the Israelites at that time.

We have the Gentile Jethro giving wisdom to Moses. We have Ruth of the Moabites being an example of godly faith, becoming the ancestor of King David, and of Jesus. We have Naaman the Syrian who shows greater obedience to God than the Prophet Elisha’s own servant. We have Uriah the Hittite, who shows more godly character than his boss, King David. We have Phoenician sailors and the people of Ninevah who are more repentant of their actions and attitudes than the Prophet Jonah. And here was Jonadab, a Gentile who worshiped and obeyed God alone when most Israelites fell away.

That’s comforting to me. I am a Gentile, you are Gentiles. It is nice to know that God did not start being interested in Gentiles starting in the New Testament. He was concerned for Gentiles both in the Old Testament and New.

So I don’t think the message in Jeremiah 35 was that we should always obey our ancestors. Sometimes they are wrong. None of us are perfect. I fail at times. I think we all fail at times. I don’t want my children to do what is wrong because I did wrong, or said what is wrong.

Second Idea.  So the second idea that I want to suggest is this:

There is great power in a godly father. Jonadab was a godly man and a godly father. His faithfulness to God, and faithful to his family, during a time of great sin and persecution, set an example that over 250 years later, his descendants were still following.

And we know that his example even continued on longer.

Read Jeremiah 35:18-19

God blesses the Rechabites for their faithfulness to a faithful and godly man, and God says that their family will endure forever, and there will always be at least one among them who will be a faithful servant of God among them. Jonadab’s example was still felt on his descendants 2 and a half centuries later and serves as an inspiration for us 2 and a half millennia later.

So those are the two messages.

For all of us. We are to be faithful to God… always. We are to obey God and God alone.

But to Fathers, I believe there is a second message… and a message that is appropriate for us today as well, on this Father’s Day. There is great power in being a faithful and godly man. We have great impact on our children… and even on our grandchildren and beyond.

Fathers do not fall into the traps of this world that lead us into what is wrong. Be like Jonadab who was faithful to God and a great example for his family even when temptations were great and there were great dangers. As fathers we all have great power to influence future generations… for good or for evil.

The Poisoned Paradise Theory of Communication

Yesterday, I removed the Facebook App from my cellphone. Life feels good. But it got me to wonder how it got to that place. I have a bit of a theory. I am sure there is a better name for it, but I will call it “The Poisoned Paradise Theory of Communication.”

The name comes from the following idea.

garbage on body of water
Photo by Yogendra Singh on Pexels.com

Suppose the Garden of Eden still existed. Perhaps it was discovered fully intact. I think most of us would know what would happen within 10 or 15 years of it being discovered. It would be flooded with tourists who would trample the vegetation, and litter it with plastic wrappers. The Tree of Life would be covered in spraypaint and the initials of people who wanted to “leave their mark.” Hotels, roads, shopping centers, and parking lots would replace much of the greenery. If paradise is not fully destroyed it would only be because a few people with power and money took it over, walled it off, and limited access to the few privileged (who would ruin it in their own ways).

Our tendency to destroy what we love, applies to communication as well. I won’t deal with all forms of mass communication, but here are a few obvious ones.

  1. Mail. Mail was and is such an amazing blessing. For a relatively small amount of money, I can send a piece of written piece of paper to someone almost anywhere in the world. In many places, it can be sent from one’s home and be delivered directly to one’s home. That is truly amazing. Of course, it got abused at times. Hate mail would get sent sometimes, as well as letter bombs, and chain mail, but they were not that common. However, what DID become common was junk mail. When I was young I was so excited to see the mailman stop at our mail box and I would hurry to the end of our driveway to pick up the daily mail. In more recent years junk mail became so common that getting the mail was a chore– something to go, collect, and quickly throw out 80% of it or more. It even got to the point that we moved a couple of times and I did not give the post office our forwarding address. I just told the few who needed to know where we moved to of the change.
  2. E-mail. E-mail was such a boon. Near instant communication, that was “free”— or at least no additional cost. A few years in, marketers started sending advertisements. At first there was a strong reaction against it. However, soon “SPAM” began dominating emails, to such an extent that special filters were built into the email apps to remove the most obvious junk emails. Since, sending out millions of emails is hardly more expenseive than sending out one email, SPAM became dominant… followed soon by SCAM. My Spam filter is flooded with “Dear Beloved” emails, Business Opportunity emails, and Lonely Heart emails. Most of these emails are so obviously fake that one is sickened by the fact that the scam is based on flooding the Internet in hopes of finding the most gullible and helpless. Things have gotten so bad that I have friends who really don’t use their email now much except for online user ID and verification.
  3. Messenger. This application, tied to Facebook, is like some other forms of instant messaging and groupchat, but this is the one I am most familiar with. At first glance, it seems like it has solved the problem with emails. Strangers can’t send you messages… or at least stranger messages automatically go to an electronic dustbin that one can glance in once in awhile. It seems as if SPAM would be solved since only friends can contact you through Messenger. But wouldn’t you know it… friends start sending SPAM. The least eggregious are the emojis and GIFs. Less tolerable are the chain letters, and junk articles and youtube videos that friends think should be shared with all their “friends.” Now, many of my friends immediately leave group chats after someone puts them in. Groupchats do appear to be the worst places for this. For mail and email I understand the motivation— money. People want money and so they screw up channels of communication in hopes of getting some of that sweet sweet cash. But messing up Messenger and other Instant Messaging services seems weird as most of that is not driven by money. Perhaps we simply like to mess up paradise.
  4. Twitter. I dropped out of Twitter some months ago as it seemed to be a place for a few people to talk almost incessantly, and the rest to get overfed with tweets from these garrulous folk and organizaitons. However, I never did figure out the appeal of Twitter in the first place so I won’t mention it here.
  5. Facebook. Facebook was such a blessing. It was like Myspace and many other of these personal blog sites, but where almost everyone I knew had an account. As such, it was such an easy way to maintain social connections. Living 12 timezones from home, it allowed me to maintain social interaction with so many from childhood, church, school, and more. People started sharing silly articles and videos with sensational clickbait-y titles. A lot were fake. I even knew some people who created these fake articles. Others would share quotes falsely attributed to famous people. Usually the quote was a generally positive one incorrectly connected to someone who has reached John Maxwell’s highest level of influence (adding false credibility to the statement). Later, false “bad” quotes were connected to respected people to try to tear those people down. False articles are shared that don’t stand up to even a quick fact check— usually to an echo chamber of people who love the article because of the sentiment, even if the information is untrue.

I have been distinctly disappointed at the number of Christians who have been doing this. One pastor shared a sensationalistic fear-article with a comment that said, “I don’t know if this is true, but it is too important to ignore.” Well, it took me about 15 seconds to verify that the article was not true. And since it is untrue, while pretending to be true, it is NOT too important to ignore. Another pastor would search out every anti-Muslim article he could find online and share them without balance and without fact-checking. Yet another pastor turned his FB page into a political campaign site for a political candidate over here in the Philippines.

It goes on. One pastor shared a picture of Pope Francis looking like he was angry with the caption to the effect of saying, “Reading the Bible is dangerous, Listen to me instead.” When that pastor was told that the source of that semi-quote pointed to Pope Francis actually saying the opposite– Read the Bible it is powerful and important– the pastor defended sharing this completely deceptive lie. This is similar to still another pastor.who shared COVID-19 statistics in late May to show that we are making a big deal about nothing. The problem was that the data was over 2 months out of date, and so gave a completely false impression of the scope of the problem. He also defended his use of the data, despite the fact that his argument was completely undermined by the use of highly deceptive data.

I can deal with that. I can also deal with people who are a bit more clever. They will share articles from sketchy sources, adding a comment like, “Interesting read.” This seems to be a form of plausible deniability because one can find opinions and made-up news reports “interesting.” However, over time one discovers that that person only finds articles that support a specific agenda as being interesting. I suppose that if one found dubious reports from both sides interesting plausible deniability would be justified. But if one only chooses one side, that is no longer the case. I can handle these wastes of time as well.

My children basically stopped using FB, except for Messenger years ago. Most of their friends have as well. I refused to leave FB because I am a missionary and the value it has in connecting me to supporters and people back home in the US seemed to be too big to let go of. But over time, I have changed my mind. Fewer and fewer of my supporters use FB much. Most of them I can reach in other ways. Some don’t use it at all. And there has been a big increase in fearmongery and hatemongery on FB. The strongest comments I ever got against myself was when I suggested that diverse perpectives are good. I would love to say that it is not my FB friends who are doing this. And MOSTLY I can say that. Most of the really horrible, hateful, false, demeaning, un-Christian stuff are from Friends of Friends. FB in the US in particular has become the home of trolls and flamers. Even those that seem to be a voice of reason tend to be electronically surrounded by hoardes of nasty people ready to hit and hurt as they have opportunity. It is not just on one side. Politically for example, I tend to be a Moderate-Conservative-Libertarian type. Most of my friends in the US tend towards being more Conservative-Authoritarian. A lot of hate speech there. But I have some friends on the Liberal/Progressive side as well– some of whom get pretty vicious at times as well.

And that is fine I suppose. But it concerns me that so many of these people describe themselves as Christians. Much of their conversations are so far outside of the example of Jesus, that it would be nice if they simply did not say or suggest that they are Christian or that their words come from any corner of Christianity.

Anyway, I decided to leave FB. I will still keep my account open. I may have to go on once a week to post for our local church. I won’t leave email— my spam filters are generally keeping up with the torrent of SPAM and SCAM. But I don’t expect you to care about any of this. I don’t expect you to care if I have left Twitter and FB, and I am certainly not asking you to leave them or any other online communication service.

I would, however, like to ask you why we tend to poison paradise. I believe saying that we are sinners is inadequate. I suppose one could take the point further and say that Sin is ultimately a breaking of harmony and relationships. Therefore when we are given a tool that helps us connect to more people more easily, we revolt against that by pushing back with fear (and its secondary emotion, anger).

Additionally, I suppose it could be argued that if 90% of us can be civil with each other, then 10% cannot. And if these 10% have access to the same communication streams with the 90%, they are likely to mess things up pretty bad. Maybe as a species we feel that we must destroy what we love.

As Christians, not only do I think we have the ability to do better, we are called by God to do better. We can express love and hope to our friends, relatives, strangers, and enemies.

Looking For Opportunities to Change My Mind

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall
Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

Vignette #1.  Today, I was looking at Facebook again. There were a lot of notes talking about how the WHO (World Health Organization) has changed their view yet again about some aspect of COVID-19 response. Tied to this is the implication that WHO is untrustworthy, and because it is untrustworthy… well, it should be defunded perhaps, or treated like an enemy, or some such thing. Hold that thought for a minute.

#2.  Each election cycle a person will run for political office. Many will, and often one such person will express a view on a hot topic. Soon after people will point out that years ago the person held very different views. From this people suggest that the politician is a liar— telling people what he or she thinks the people want to hear just to get elected.  Hold that thought as well.

#3.  I am listening to a podcast (Tripp Fuller with Jeffrey Pugh) on Bonnhoeffer. Pugh noted that Bonhoeffer’s theological and political views changed over the years as a theologian. It was noted, that many try to see a consistent viewpoint or will try to see Bonnhoeffer’s views through the colored glasses of a specific religious or political perspective. The fluidity of his views are frozen in a sort of single-perspective Bonnhoeffer orthodoxy.

#4.  More generally, I was raised up with the culturally supported perspective that women “always keep changing their minds.” I could be wrong, but I felt that the subtext of this cultural perspective is that changing minds speaks poorly to the character of women, especially as it comes to leadership.

If one just takes these four above situations, one sees four different responses to changing of one’s mind.

  • #1 Changing mind is a sign of incompetence.
  • #2.  Changing mind doesn’t really happen. Rather “pretending” to change mind is a sign of lack of integrity— an evidence of moral failure.
  • #3.  Changing mind doesn’t really happen. Understanding, at least to some extent, the views of someone at one point in time reveals someone and guides how the person can be understood at all points in time.
  • #4.  Changing mind does happen and is a sign of lack of character.

We see these show up in odd ways. Leaders are often judged poorly for being indecisive and praised for being decisive, regardless of whether the decisive move is correct and whether or not there was adequate information to make an informed decision in the first place. This is a bit of a mix of #1 and #4.  Today, a friend of mine showed (pulling in some American politics for a moment… sorry) that the first 23 blacks (African-Americans) to enter US Congress were Republicans. This was meant to show that Republicans are the more “black-friendly” or at least  the less “black-unfriendly.” Of course that is a case of #3.  If one party was good at one time, it must still be good. If one party is good today, it must have always been good.  It is the belief that continuity of structure suggests continuity of vision and purpose.

However, not only is such logic flawed, but it also hides the truth.  For example, the WHO (and the CDC) really SHOULD be changing their minds regularly. They are facing a problem that is new. As such, there is little rock solid information they can use for guidance. As such, they are somewhat groping in the dark. Despite being in the dark, governments and news media keep coming to them to get definitive answers. So they try to give good answers, but must keep changing as data flows in. This is normal and healthy.

Politicians should change their minds. People grow and times change. Admittedly, it would be good if a politician can explain what led him to changing his mind. This is not because it is wrong to change one’s mind. Rather, changing mind can evidence being a political hack who sways whichever way the breeze blows— or it can evidence a thoughtful person who analyzes, learns and grows. It would be helpful to know which is the case.

Bonnheffer kept changing in his politics and theology. That is good and healthy. A good theologian is a changing theologian. Millard Erickson in his book on Systematic theology descrbes several characteristics of good theology. Three of them (putting them in my own words) are that good theology is (a) Contemporary, addressing the questions and concerns of the present context, (b) Practical, provides wisdom as to how to think and act in ministry, the church, and broader society, and (c) Addresses knowledge from outside of theology. Since knowledge changes, context changes, and circumstances change, theology can and should change, and so theologians should change.

According to one study I saw (sadly, cannot remember the source, so you can research it yourself to be sure I am not wrong, or confused) found that men change their minds as much, or more, than women. It is just that they tend not to vocalize the vacillations of thinking as much. One could then argue that women should not be blamed for changing their minds, but rather men should be blamed for poor communication. OR… why blame at all. Affirm communicating uncertainty AND affirm quiet reflection. But most of all, affirm that we are all learning and growing.

So… Keep learning, keep reflecting, keep questioning. Embrace new ideas as a potential friend rather than a dread enemy.

That Nagging Racism Problem

A friend of mine (who is not American, but who has lived in the US before) asked the following question on FB:

Aside from prayer, what is your specific solution or concrete and actual suggestions to end the racial problem in the US?

It is hard to give specific, concrete and actual “anything” on FB because of the limitations in that format. I guess I would like to give three modest suggestions.  All of them are targeting Christians in the United States. If Christians in the US were able to get past racism (and knowing that a nice majority of Americans at least describe themselves as Christians), the US would be on the right path.

Teach good Theological Anthropology in church. That is, “What is Mankind in terms of relationship to God, ourselves, and Creation?”  Some churches may teach the Falleness of Man, but to do this they must also emphasize the “Falleness from What?” Some churches speak of the Goodness (or potential goodness) of Man, but must also emphasize what fulfilled goodness would look like in society.

This is not to say that this will come easily.  The early chapters of Genesis undermine the foundations of racism, yet much of the Hebrew Bible points to the challenges the Israelites had with racism, nationalism, and exceptionalism. That disconnect between Israelite view of other peoples and God’s view is the theme of the book of Jonah. In the New Testament, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles reemphasize God’s love for all peoples regardless of ethnicity, nationality, language, and tribe, and call on the church to break down these barriers. Revelation shows Paradise where all peoples dwell harmoniously, and in harmony with God and Creation. Yet racism has endured.

Still, I remember when I was young and would hear about how the “three races of man” came from the three sons of Noah, and that one of the three (Ham) became the father of “cursed races.” This and other “cursed race” beliefs may belong in Mormon theology, but certainly not Christian theology. Some of these beliefs I heard in church, although at least not preached in the pulpit. In other churches in the US, some learned of “British/American-Israelism” or “Lost Tribe Theology.” Some of these and other teachings actively support racism or national exceptionalism, while others may simply support the status quo.

Just as bad as bad theological anthropology is,  teaching NO theological anthropology may be worse. Some churches actively do NOT teach theology. For some it is seen as not important while for others it is seen as divisive. Unfortunately, if we don’t teach a theologically (Biblically) sound Doctrine of Man, Christians will be getting their beliefs on gender, race, national identity, and more from sensationalizing journalism and hatemongering politics.

Teach Cultural/Social Anthropology in Church. While some churches attempt to train their people in Theological Anthropology, few teach Cultural Anthropology. When I am speaking of cultural anthropology, I am speaking of this topic as seen through a Christian lens. This topic is taken very seriously as a topic of Missiology. It is, however, rarely brought into the church. It is the praxis side of Anthropology. If we are to love all people and share the message of Christ to all people, how do we do so in a way that is understandable to them. How can Christians honor their own birth culture, while being a good Christian, and challenging what is flawed in their own birth culture? How can churches be relevant to their culture— expressing the best of that culture while guiding people to live out that culture as God desires? How do we love all people when some people act and think very different from us?

Cultural Anthropology is not simply doctrinal— meaning in this case imparted to memory.  It must be taught and modeled.

A final suggestion would be to Separate Theology from National Identity. Churches in the US love traditionally to have patriotic songs in their hymnals, a national flag next to the “Christian flag,” behind the altar and pulpit. They love to have fervently patriotic sermons certain times of the year. Some preachers actively bring nationalistic themes into their sermons. I recall one pastor at a church I was attending at the time preaching on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution. He said that as a Christian there are some beliefs one should be willing to die for— the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, Deity of Christ, the Blood Atonement, and the Right to Bear Arms. Some churches seem better at honoring those who have died for their country than at honoring those who have died for their faith.

But why would this help? Nationalism is not the same as Racism. Agreed, but I believe that mixing national and religious symbols creates a civil religion, and a civil religion, traditionally, supports the status quo. Christianity should be a faith WITHIN American culture, but it never should be seen as the faith OF American culture. In my mind, we have millennia of evidence in Church history and outside of Church history of problems associated with state-sponsored religion, “court prophets,” and religious movements joined uncritically to political movements. The church must have a clear understanding of what its boundaries are and challenge those both inside and outside of those boundaries. It is hard to be a light in darkness, when we find it politically expedient to call the darkness light.

IRD Intro

I decided to make some minor updates to my book, “Dialogue in Diversity: Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World” during quarantine.

I decided to put the Introduction here.

Imagine that you have a toolbox. Maybe you are a carpenter, but in your toolbox you have only one tool — perhaps a hammer. Can you build a house only with a hammer? Poorly at best. Can you hammer screws? Again poorly. Other tasks are likely even worse — leveling, sawing, drilling, and more.. The carpenter would be exhausted and the constructed house would be a disaster.

A wise carpenter has three things:

  • What. A toolbox with a variety of tools associated with his craft
  • How. Skills to use each of the tools effectively
  • Which/When. Wisdom to know the right tool to use for each task

Now imagine that each Christian has a toolbox of skills associated with serving God. Some tools may be spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, witnessing, and meditation. Other tools may be less specifically religious such as teaching, polemics, argument, encouragement, and counseling. Having a wide variety of skills/disciplines is important, but this is not enough.

One must know how to use each tool well. A carpenter may own a power saw, but still need considerable training to use it expertly. A minister may “know how to preach,” but still there is a great distance between this and preaching well or effectively.

Skillful use is not enough. One must have the wisdom to know the right tool to use in each specific circumstance. Some people are very skilled in prayer, but as important as prayer can be, there are times when prayer is the wrong tool… or at least an inadequate tool. A hungry neighbor needs something in addition to prayer. There are times when preaching is needed, and times when it is inappropriate or unhelpful.

This book is about a tool — dialogue. Specifically, it is about the tool of dialogue, and how it can be used effectively as a Christian minister in interacting with people of other faiths.

At a basic level, most everyone knows how to do dialogue. But this does not mean that everyone is equally competent to dialogue well. This also does not mean that everyone knows when to use it and when not.

This book is primarily aimed at missionaries and ministers who work in cross-cultural or religiously pluralistic settings. However, the places on earth that are monocultural or religiously monolithic are decreasing rapidly. Therefore, there are fewer and fewer ministers who can say that they are competent in their ministry without skills in interreligious dialogue.

Philosophically, this book sees interreligious dialogue as seeking understanding. This is in contrast to those who see it primarily in terms of either focusing on similarities (“common ground” or relativizing approach) or on differences (apologetic approach). As such it is consistent with Evangelicals, who take very seriously their own truth convictions regarding religious faith. However, it also challenges the presumption of many Evangelicals that the most effective way to interact with people of other faiths is through preaching, teaching, or arguing.

Sadly, a book is by its nature a form of one-way communication. Since this book is about dialogue, it is my hope that readers will have an opportunity to go through this book with others — and especially with others of a variety of viewpoints. Dialogue, as a tool, is practiced, not simply read about; and is made sharp through practice with those of diverse opinions.