Our Ministries

Over 19 years plus our work in the Philippines has been complicated. I decided to make a chart of all of the organizations we have been involved in. History is valuable for self-reflection. I think it shows at least two things. First, we had no idea what we were doing for many years. Second, God did have a plan to guide and sustain… but part of that plan involved experimentation and learning. There were relatively few FAILURES…but there were many opportunities to learn through mistakes.

The link to the chart is below.


bobandceliamunson.wordpress.com/2022/10/02/ministry-chart/

Contextualization as Finding Meaning

One of the statements given in missions is that contextualization or incarnational ministry is about “walking in another person’s shoes.” Clearly, this is a metaphor, but a metaphor that I think has value to us.

But how does one know that one is walking in “another’s shoes” or whether one is imagining the other of walking in “one’s own shoes”?

I think a bit of an answer exists in Pastoral Counseling. A principle in PC can be described as a formula:

Facts + Feelings = Meaning

I will use an example that I use is the book that my wife and I wrote (The Art of Pastoral Care), but I will do it as two different conversations… between Tom and Susan.

Conversation #1.

Tom: “Hi Susan. What is new?”

Susan: “Hey Tom. Well, my next door neighbor just died last night.”

Tom: “Oh my, Susan. I am so sorry to hear that. What can I do to help you? Please let me know what I can do to help you.”

Susan: “Uhh… no. That is not necessary. What’s new with you?”

Conversation #2.

Tom: “Hi Susan. What is new?”

Susan: “Hey Tom. Well, my next door neighbor just died last night.”

Tom: “Oh my, Susan. I had not heard. How are you feeling right now.”

Before finishing Conversation #2… we have to consider some of the possible responses from Susan.

Conversation #2— Feelings Options

Susan (A): “I am so angry. He threw away his life leaving his wife and two children.”

Susan (B): “I don’t feel much of anything. I hardly knew him.”

Susan (C): “I am devastated. He was like a father to me.”

Susan (D): “I am thrilled. He was such an evil man. I am glad he is gone.”

Each of these feelings give the first statement (death of the neighbor) greater clarity. Up until that point it was only a fact. Once the feeling is known, the meaning of that event for Susan is known. And, typically, once the feeling is known, this opens up the conversation for more facts that give the meaning context.

Obviously for conversation #2, Tom would need to respond differently depending on the feeling response of Susan. Suppose, for example, that the statement was option D: “I am thrilled. He was such an evil man. I am glad he was gone.”

Now, Tom must look at how to respond to this.

One option would be to reject those feelings and say something like, “Susan! You shouldn’t feel that way. That’s not very Christian…”

Another option would be to accept those feelings and seek to understand more the context. He could seek to (gently) draw out more from Susan regarding the relationship between her and the neighbor.

Conversation #1 is not contextualization. Tom does not try to “walk in her shoes.” Rather, the response could be one of two things. First, it could be a failure to understand her context. Tom could be thinking, “Well, I am pretty sure I should say something soothing because that is what people do when a person dies.” However, worse, a second option could be trying to “get her to walk in his shoes.” Perhaps, he had a neighbor who died who he was very close to. In essence, he is saying to her, “Your neighbor died so you must feel the same way I did when my neighbor died.” Both of these are a failure to contextualize.

Conversation #2 is an attempt to contextualize. Tom seeks to gain meaning as to what is going on rather than simply go with facts. That is good, but one can still fail. As I showed in one of the options after finding out the meaning that Susan gave, Tom judged her and said that she (as a good Christian) shouldn’t feel that way. While this MAY (or MAY NOT) be true, Tom is not really in a position to judge. He doesn’t know enough about the neighbor and his interactions with Susan to speak. He needs to gain a greater understanding. If he fully knew the situation, he may well have said, “Wow Susan. I am so sorry to hear that. If I was in your shoes I would be happy he is dead as well.” Of course, we don’t know because we still don’t know the context.

So what does this have to do with missional contextualization? In missions we need to know more than facts (observations and data). We need to know meanings. If someone says something or does something, if we don’t understand the meanings behind these what happens? Well, we supply our own meanings. In other words we think something like “If I did that, what would I be thinking and feeling in that situation.” That is not being incarnational or attempting to contextualize. That is trying to get them to walk in our own shoes.

However, once we find the meaning, we still need to delve deeper. We cannot simply go… “Okay, I understand the situation fully now. Now I can judge.”

The classic case of this that people use is the practice of ancestor veneration. We see a place in the house with pictures of ancestors, with incense and fruit and things. As an outsider, we might look at that and say, “If I had something like that in my house it would either be because I am worshiping” (like a household god) “or have an unhealthy obsession” (like stalkers who set up a “shrine” to whoever they obsess over). Either way one must talk to the person with this ancestor “shrine” to find out what it means. Is it a place of worship— drawing out feelings of religious adoration and awe? Is it a place of entreaty (seeking help from a family member, even though deceased)? Is it a place of honoring (like flowers placed at a gravesite? Is it a place of carrying out a family tradition, with little meaning beyond doing one’s cultural duty?

The truth is that even after one discovers what it means to a person, one is likely still not in a position to judge. As I have said in previous posts, when Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” I think it is more than simply a warning about being judgmental. I believe it is also pointing out that we lack competence to judge. We don’t get to “peek over God’s shoulder” (as Merold Westphal would say).

Incarnational ministry involves an active continual quest for meaning that searches beyond facts to feelings to meanings, and then from meanings to more facts that must be tied to feelings to new meanings.

Another Important Life Story

The last post I included the first life story I created. As I stated before, none of us have a life story. We have to create them… and there is a potential for infinite stories based on our experiences, thoughts, motivations, interconnections with others and the world, and meanings we come from the interpretation of these things. Some such stories are more important than others. Some may even be described as formational— key to how we view life, and live our lives. He is another one. It is not as old as the one I shared previously. This one only goes back to the time I was 9 or 10. Even then it was just an occurrence. Only gradually was it distilled into a formational story.

I originally shared this story on the webpage back in 2015, as well as in a book that I never formally published. If it sounds a bit trite… you are probably right. But it has been important to me even if not to others. That is the way stories tend to be.

ARKWRIGHT FALLS

When I was young, my father and Mr. Dyer were Sunday School teachers at our church.    The two of them took several of us boys, students in their classes, camping.    We set up tents on some state land a mile (more or less) from Arkwright Falls.    We had a great time hanging around the campfire roasting marshmallows, swatting mosquitoes, and doing other campish things.    We slept, tightly packed, in our little tents.    The night was cool, but not too cold.    In the morning, we ate our Spartan breakfast.    Learning how to make toast using a stick and a fire was interesting.    Then we prepared for our hike.

Arkwright Falls is not the largest falls around.    Fifty miles away is Niagara Falls, which is many times larger.    But there are no people at Arkwright Falls– just river, forest, and falls.    The Falls are on no map that I have seen.    People near it know where it is.    Sometimes the serenity and peace are more important than what are the biggest and the “best.”    We had a great hike.    We goofed around, as kids are prone to do.    Although out in the wilds, the dirt path there was smooth and straight.   

The water sure was ice cold, but the day was hot and bright.    So it felt great!!    We stayed and swam and splashed in the pool at the foot of the falls.    In movies I have seen, people seem to be compelled to go to the top of the falls and jump off into the pool below.    But since there was no movie being done there that day, we did not do anything particularly death-defying.    Besides, I doubt my dad would have let us.

One can only appreciate a waterfall, large or small, for so long.    Eventually, it was time to start going back to our campsite to pack for home.    We were all soaked now.    Our canvas top sneakers “squished” as our wet feet “squooshed” in them, sockless.   

Some of us started walking and jogging faster than the rest and in a friendly sort of way we became a bit competitive.    Competitive may be the wrong word, but gradually I came to the conclusion that I would win (who knows what?) if I made it to the campsite first.    So I started moving faster and faster.    Soon I was jogging along at a pretty good pace.    It became apparent that the return trip would not be as fun as the trip over.    The sun was high now in the heat of the day and the sweat generated from running soon attracted many happy little bugs of the forest.    I also was not one who particularly enjoyed running.    Years later, two years on High School track only further clarified my general dislike of running.

Weary, hot, and buggy I arrived at the campsite first.    I had won.    Looking back I discovered that there was no one else racing.    I had raced myself while everyone else was having a merry stroll along the path.    Worse, I discovered a problem with running sockless in wet canvas-top sneakers.    My ankles were heavily abraded and I was bleeding.    Eventually, everyone else came along happy and relaxed.    We packed up and left.

Yes, I know.    This was one of the most boring stories ever, right?    But for me it was not boring at all.    It was one of those life-lesson moments. I gave the story plot and meaning, and that meaning is still with me today.  

  • Success is not always being first
  • Success is not always “winning” (however you define winning)
  • Sometimes success is in the journey

My First Important Life Story

How many stories does a life have? I would like to suggest the following as the two possible correct answers:

First, a very good answer is ZERO. Nada. Wala. We interact with the universe in near infinite ways in an approximately infinite number of moments in a span of time that connects eternities. Things happen near us, far from us, around us, to us, through us, inside of us, and (in some sense) because of us. There are people, but no cast of characters. There are events, but no theming or plot. Pretty much all causation and motivations are tentative at best, and meaning is pretty arbitrary. No stories exist of themselves.

Second, a very good answer is “As Many as We Choose to Make.” To make a story from one’s life, one takes one short period of time, or a series of points in our lives, remove the vast majority of things associated with what was going on around, ascribe motivations, theming, causal relations, and relevant charactors, ultimately ending up with a plot. The end result is a story, and that story will typically “mean something.”

One of the most important stories I made from my life was when I was pretty young— when my first baby tooth fell out.

I don’t remember how my first baby tooth fell out or even which one it was. It was certainly one of the ones in front. I am sure it wiggled a little and then wiggled a lot, and finally came out. Some of my baby teeth were helped with a string. Some just fell out as I was eating. I have no memories of these details. But I do remember a scene where I was in the living room of our farmhouse showing my tooth to my dad. I think my mom was there as well—- standing to the left of my dad. He said, “Bob.” I think it was Bob. My mom would say Bobby or Robby, but I think my dad always called me Bob. Anyway, “Bob, you put that tooth under your pillow tonight, and the Tooth Fairy will come and exchange that tooth for a quarter.”

Back around 1970 a quarter was great. I did not receive an allowance at that time, so I had to ask for anything I wanted at the Ivory Story down the road from my home. A quarter went quite a ways in the candy section, and I could choose how it was used. That was pretty exciting.

But something wasn’t right. Fairies are like Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. Even at that age I found this suspicious. Fairies did not sound real. Where we lived we had fireflies that would flash lights as they would seemingly float in the night air. But they were clearly bugs… not fairies. I had to ask something.

Uh dad,” I queried, “is that really true? You know, fairies and all?”

I seem to remember my dad looking over at my mom for a second, and then saying, “Well no, not really. It is just a game we play… for fun.”

Oh. Okay. Thanks.” I responded. That seemed like a good answer. That night I put my tooth under my pillow and I was so surprised in the morning to find the tooth gone and replaced by a quarter. I was not surprised because of the magic of the Tooth Fairy. Rather, I was amazed that my dad was able to make the switch without waking me up.

Actually, it took until my fourth or fifth tooth before I found out how he did it.

This is a story— it has plot, theming, characters. It includes relevant parts of my motivation and thoughts. Perhaps most importantly, it has meaning.

This story is one of the most important stories of my life to me. To a large extent, this story guided me to who I am today.

Actually, the story has two meanings… but those two meanings work together, rather than in conflict with each other.

The Lesser Important Meaning. There is nuance in this world. Many people see the world in black and white—- or good and evil. But there are things in between. One could believe in the Tooth Fairy and act according to that belief. One could also not believe in the Tooth Fairy and act according to that lack of belief. But one could also not believe in the Tooth Fairy while acting AS IF it did. The same thing with Santa Claus. My parents never pretended that Santa was REAL. However, Santa was part of the GAME and TRADITION of Christmas. Honesty and rationality doesn’t have to crush the whimsical. I can hunt for easter eggs left by the Easter Bunny while still knowing that my parents had hidden those eggs themselves (and my sister and I helping color them the day before). This is not necessarily a life-changing principle, but I am so thankful that my story had that meaning in it.

The Greater Important Meaning. My parents believed that it was important to be honest with me. They might explain things in simple terms so that I, at whatever age I was, could understand, but they would not lie to me. That was a great gift to me and helped me to grow up as a man of faith. Why? I knew what my parents believed about fairies, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. They were fun traditions that did not correspond to the real world. For my parents, however, they told me that God was real, Jesus was real, and their faith in Christ was vital in their lives. I knew this was true for them… because they told me. If it wasn’t, they would not have told me it was.

Over the years, my parents told me lots and lots of things. Some over time I came to the conclusion was not true. However, it was clear to me that my parents did not lie to me… they told me because they believed it to be true. I am thankful for that. I wonder what it is like to have been raised by parents who would say “God is real, and one should go to church” while also saying, “Santa is real and will only give you a gift if you have been good all year.” The dishonesty of one would seem to me to lead to distrust about the other. I could be wrong… but I have always tried to be honest with my children. I think that was the right thing. I also tried to not let that honesty destroy whimsy.

Or maybe I did destroy the whimsy. I never did dress up as Santa like my father did (my build would make a much more believable Santa than he). I am not sure. Perhaps my children have created their own stories that put me in a much different light. That is fair.

Stories are created… even our own stories.

<I would describe this as my first important life story. There were earlier stories. I remember when I was 4 years old, I was at my friend’s birthday party and I cheated at “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” I felt guilty about that… until many years later when I realized that I certainly had not fooled anyone (not at age four).>

Is a Theology of Luck Probable? (Part 2)

<Yes an odd topic. I strongly recommend reading Part 1 to make sure that when we both are using the word “luck” we mean the same thing.>

Now, you may not care for this language (luck, lucky, unlucky)— I am not sure I do either— but this definition of luck does have one advantage. It is phenomenal. That is, it looks at something as a phenomenon, without necessarily addressing the cause. So, for example, if John asked Tammy, “Do you believe in UFOs?” a reasonable answer might be, “Well, I certainly believe in UFOs as a phenomenon. That is, I believe there are things we see in the sky that appear to be flying that we are not always able to identify. However, if you are asking if I believe in alien technology flying through the skies with little green (or gray or reptilian) creatures, then ‘No,’ I need a lot more data to be convinced.”

So if we are looking at luck as a phenomenon of either (or both) variance from the mean, or being on the desirable side of probability of an event, I think we can make some tentative theological statements with regards to luck.

#1. God DOES play with dice. Supposedly, Albert Einstein, expressing his doubt of quantum mechanics, had quipped that God does not play with dice. (I did not take the time to try to verify the quote. Einstein has been credited for a lot of things, both wise and foolish, that he never said.) But at the quantum level there does appear to be true randomness built into the universe. On the macroscopic level, a lot of phenomenon are, at least on a practical level, appear to be random or at least resulting in a Weibull distribution of outcomes rather than a clearly predictable result. Whether there is true randomness in the macroscopic level is not certain… but what is certain is that we have a limited understanding of cause and effect, the underlying mathematics to create realistic models, and have a poor understanding of initial conditions. We are not really sure whether our own thoughts and actions are deterministic or not. Harvard’s Law (the less humorous form of this law is that that organisms do whatever they want to do regardless of our attempt to control their responses) suggests the answer is NOT— our ability to predict the future is often much poorer than we think it is. Desirable things happen and undesirable things happen, and this doesn’t always happen as we think or wish. The doctrine of Common Grace comes into play here. God gives rain to both the just and the unjust. That is, there is not always a causal relationship between things we consider as blessings, and the behavior or character of those who receive these blessings. Ecclesiastes likes to explore this point. The same might be suggested the opposite way. Abel died “before his time” while Cain lived a long life even though Abel was the one who found favor with God. And both Abel and Cain had great toil to survive in this world regardless of their righteousness or lack thereof.

#2. God sometimes uses loaded dice. God doesn’t always act on common grace (or common fall). He rigs the system sometimes. He sometimes “stacks the deck.” We sometimes describe this as a miracle. An interesting story in the Gospels is the case of the healing of the man blind from birth. People were asking whether this man had sinned or whether his parents had sinned. They were looking for a clear causal relationship. They were revolting against the idea that this man had the bad fortune/luck to be born blind. Jesus was unwilling to support either suggestion. He gave a different answer— he was blind to glorify God. This answer is very much open to interpretation. Does it mean that God purposefully made sure that he was blind for 20 or 30 years just so Jesus could heal him? Possibly, but Jesus had balked at simple causations elsewhere. In answering the question of whether those crushed by the falling tower of Siloam, or those sacrificed by Pilate were being punished, Jesus expressed this in doubtful terms, but then says to watch out lest worse comes our way. A reasonable answer to this might be— good and bad things happen. We don’t always have control over this and often cannot predict this. But God is ready and able to step in “with loaded dice” and act with intent in what otherwise may seem a chaotic world without clear meaning or structure. The blind man may not have been born blind for any satisfying reason. However, his blindness is given meaning with God stepping in to change things— acting against the odds. Some things do not have inherent meaning… but God can give meaning. This seems to be the idea of Paul’s statement that God works everything for good for those called according to His purpose. It is not that God makes sure that everything that happens is good for those called. Rather, things happen, random meaningless things happen, but God can step in and give these things meaning.

#3. We cannot always know the difference. When something happens we don’t know if it happens as part of the random and complex mechanisms beyond our ability to predict or control, or whether it is an act of Divine action. We don’t even necessarily know if our own actions bring results or whether it is a matter of luck (or Divine action). If I plant a church and you plant a church. If my church dies and yours flourishes, does that mean that you are better at churchplanting than I. It is definitely possible… but upon honest reflection, the best answer we could give is we just don’t know. As Merold Westphal would say, we are unable to look over God’s shoulder. We all are exploring a vast territory using a map with large pieces missing or illegible.

#4. This should increase our faith. Yes. This sounds backwards. The first and third points seem to drive us fear, doubt, and distrust. But do they? There is always a part of us that thinks that we can captain our own ship. We want a predictable world, with a predictable God, who we can predictably control/manipulate. Effectively, our faith is in own selves. However, if that is completely false. If we live in a thoroughly unknowable world with an unpredictable (although benevolent) God who we ask of but cannot control, we are left with few options. We can wander aimlessly in despair— not a great option. We can ignore this reality and pretend that we are in control. This option reminds me of a (very nice) lady from a church we attended, who would regularly tell us what God was going to do in a situation. When her predictions were (almost invariably) wrong, she seemed to never notice but confidently tell us what God was going to do in the next situation coming up. I suppose that option is better than the first. Some might even commend her for her faith. However, I would argue that her faith was in a god she created and felt that she either completely knew, or completely controlled. Sadly, this god rarely seemed to line up with the God who is. The third option would be to embrace our own inability to predict the future or control outcomes. We are walking into the future with blinders on. However, unlike a horse where the blinders limit vision to the sides, our blinders block vision straight ahead. We see what is around us, but not what is to come. We embrace faith— not a faith that that suggests that we can control the future, but faith that God ultimately will bring us where He wants to take us.

#5. We should be slow to judge. Jesus said that we should not judge unless we want to be judged ourselves. This verse, I believe, doesn’t simply say that it is unkind to be judgmental, but moreso taht we are truly incompetent to judge. Elsewhere Jesus notes that we see the external, unlike God who can see the heart. Related to this, while the terms “good luck” and “bad luck” have problems, they at least are prone to be less judgmental than terms like “blessed” and “cursed.” Job’s friends saw Job, sitting with him for 7 days. They decided he was cursed… and this, not surprisingly, led them to accuse Job of “getting what he deserved” since it must be that God did this for a reason that would make sense to people. Again, they thought that God was predictable, and that God was controllable. Suppose, on the other hand, Job’s friends decided that Job was unlucky— after all looking at luck as a phenomenon, not addressing issues of causation, he certainly WAS unlucky. Would this have been better. Actually, it probably would have been. We tend to be less judgmental of people we think are unlucky than of people we think are cursed. I think that using the terms “lucky” and “unlucky” can at times be quite problematic (the righteous person in Psalm 1 was more than just lucky, much as the unrighteous person was more than just unlucky). Still, at least the terms unlucky and lucky may at least give us a moment to pause— withhold judgments before trying to fit something into our own narrow perspective.

#6. Our eschatology should be based on the benevolence of God rather than our own ability to predict the future. The points up to now suggest that we are not particularly good at predicting the future… and further, it could be argued that God is good with that. We are called to faithful as we grope our way into the future. The parable of the faithful (and unfaithful) servant suggests this. The faithful servant does not know when the Master returns and this leads to an ethical response— doing the right thing every day. The unfaithful servant presumably thought he could guess or time the return of the Master. As such, he could live his life as he wanted and then fix things later. Perhaps that is part of the reason that Future prophecy is written in a way that is pretty hard to interpret. We are not meant to use it to come up with specific times and events.

Interpreting Biblical prophecy to work out exact dates, times, and events is a cottage industry for many Christian groups. In the past, Bible prophecy appears to make sense in hindsight more than in foresight. Some see this as a failing of, or a reading into, Scripture. I can see that particular viewpoint. However, if we are supposed to rely on God day to day, week to week, year to year, then we are not really supposed to know the future. And if that is the case, prophecies should be more ethical than predictive. For example, the Book of Revelation is a beautiful book that makes it clear throughout, that all followers of Christ need to be faithful to the end. God ultimately loads the dice to ensure that those who seek after God will experience God’s eternal favor, while those who don’t will suffer eternal loss. At the same time while these are the ultimate fates, in the short-term bad things will happen to all people, the just as well as the unjust. Revelation seems to have order and purpose and that which seems unfair and perhaps even random. We are left with trusting God. But some prefer to instead look at Revelation (and some other Scriptures) as a roadmap for the future. I feel like that is actually the opposite of the purpose of futurist Scripture.

Anyway, these are a few preliminary views on Theology built on a certain perspective related to luck.

Is a Theology of Luck Probable? (Part 1)

Years ago, I was driving through Ohio on my way to college when I heard a radio program by a guy who was rather well-known at that time, named ‘Reverand Ike.’ This was back in the 1980s and his beliefs were… idiosyncratic. I am not sure if he should be described as a Christian preacher— I was not an expert on his beliefs then or now. On that drive, his sermon was essentially an advertisement to the radio listener for a book he wrote called, “The Secret of Good Luck.” He had some people give testimonials on the wonderful blessing the book was to them. One man said something (to the best of my memory) like this:

“A few years ago I was struggling. I worked two jobs but still could barely feed my family and pay the rent on the tiny apartment we had. But then I got Reverend Ike’s book, ‘The Secret of Good Luck.’ Now I am a millionaire with two houses and I DON”T DO NOTHING.”

I never got the book, though I see that there are some videos one can purchase online today based on the book. I found it interesting since as Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christian, I was always told that either (1) there is no such thing as luck, or (2) luck is ‘unchristian.’ So having a guy who at least liked to quote the Bible using luck in a positive way surprised me. I was more used to a different spin. A few years after that, someone, I am pretty sure it was Pat Robertson, emphasized that luck was unchristian, and at least implied that it was demonic. He said that the word “luck” is tied to the Norse god Loki. I suppose the convoluted argument goes— Loki is the Norse equivalent of Satan (although he really isn’t), and the word luck comes from the name Loki (I can’t seem to find anyone who agrees with this etymology), so therefore luck is Satanic or demonic. Since both premises appear to be false, the end result is false. Beyond that there is an implied step that says, “if you can link a word with something else, that linguistic connection is meaningful in other ways.” There are Christian groups that do embrace a bit of magical thinking in this area. For them, words don’t just have symbolic or cultural power, but a form of power to manipulate of themselves. I think that is pretty doubtful. I suppose some may be fearful of Wednesdays because they are tied etymologically to the pagan god Odin (Woden) in English, or the pagan god Mercury in Spanish and Tagalog. Words definitely have cultural power, but I don’t believe that they have power in an of themselves.

Rather than jumping all over how bad it is, I think it is more useful to decide WHAT luck is. For a lot of people, luck is rather like “The Force,” a power field that permeates the universe (or perhaps like the Tao or Chi). Like the Force, it operates in duality. There is Good Luck, and there is Bad Luck. The goal is to “Attract Good Luck” and “Repel Bad Luck.” With the Force, the “Good Force” flows through a person who is dispassionate (sounds a bit sociopathinc, actually), while the “Bad Force” flows through and empowers those who yield to (or seemingly even to acknowledge) passions. Good luck versus bad luck involves at least three different strategies. One might be thought of loosely in terms of magic. If one has certain objects or symbols—- talismans attract good luck, amulets repel bad— one can control the flow of luck. The same can be in terms of following certain ritual behaviors. Another one is pretty much the same thing but put in more distinctly religious language. In this case, luck is seen more in terms of ‘blessings; and ‘curses,’ and seen as coming through spiritual intermediaries such as spirits, angels, demons, god(s), ancestors, etc. A third, could be seen as more karmic— ‘what goes around, comes around.’ This can also be seen in more religious terms or more neutrally in terms of “this is just the way the universe operates.” If we accept that luck is something that flows within the universe (NOTE: I am NOT saying that I do accept this), we need to look at it as worthy of theological reflection. All three of the strategies listed for trying to control the flow of luck, and especially the last two, very much relate to religion or theology.

However, there is a bigger question— Does luck exist? I have been classically told that luck does not exist. I have been told this in both in secular and reliigous circles. The problem is that the terms “luck” and “lucky” seem to be useful. So if one says it is an invalid concept, one must come up with a different word that applies. Suppose one is playing the game Monopoly, and one needs to get a six to pass Park Place, Luxury Tax, and Boardwalk. If one rolls a six, one will lose no money and instead collect $200. One would be said to be lucky. Some will try to avoid the term by saying that one is “fortunate.” However, fortunate is a word of Latin origin, unlike lucky which is of Germanic or Frisian origin, that essentially means the same thing. Some may believe that fortunate seems less random than lucky since it often connotes the idea that there is personification called Fortune that is smiling on one person and not on another. On the other hand, suppose one rolls a five lands on boardwalk, which your friend owns and has placed a hotel, certainly you could be said to be unlucky.

Luck can be a useful term to describe a human situation, while still rejecting it’s objective reality. Many an expert has shown that people really aren’t lucky or unlucky. Eventually, over time, everything slowly moves toward some common probability of occurrence. A fair coin will over time lead to about 50% heads and 50% tails, while a fair six-sided die will tend to get equal numbers of each side if tossed enough times. Sometimes things are weird. In 9th grade, for math class a friend mine and I flipped two coins at a time for 100 times. We ended up with exactly twice as many Tails/Tails than we got of Heads/Heads. That is a very inprobable result, so it could be described as quite lucky (or maybe unlucky). However, if we flipped coins enough times, it is likely that that ratio of 2 to 1 would lessen until pretty close to 1 to 1. This is called “regression to the mean.” So if a 3-point shooter in basketball has a ‘hot hand’ one night and hits 10 out of 12 3-point shots in a gaime, even though he normally hits about 50% of the time, over enough games it is likely that he will have some poor shooting days that gradually brings things back closer to 50%.

Some see this “Regression to the Mean” as the explanation behind luck— both good and bad. What seems like good luck is just the weird variance that occurs with a small sample of occurrences. That view is valuable to me. That doesn’t prove that luck doesn’t exist, of course. One could argue that Regression to the Mean simply suggests that over time, good luck and bad luck will even things out.

For me, however, I prefer to follow Daniel Kahnemann’s apparent view of luck. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he regularly notes that many things, such as successful predictions about stock market changes, upon analysis appear to be more about luck than skill. Suppose there are two groups: Group Random and Group Analysis. Group Random consists of 100 stockbrokers individually picking stocks completely randomly on one day, and selling them a specified time later. In Group Random we would expect that there is a certain average performance, but some will do better than average and some will do worse. For Group Analysis 100 different stockbrokers individually picked stocks based on their best analytical skills and then sold them at the same specified time later— the same timeframe as Group Random. We might expect them to do much better than random. However, this is not normally the case. The average skilled stockbroker is likely to do little to no better than the random one. However, in both scenarios there will be some individual stockbrokers who will do quite a bit better than the average stockbroker, and some who will do quite a bit worse than the average stockbroker. For Group Random, it is quite reasonable perhaps to say that some were lucky and others were unlucky. However, for Group Analysis, did the stockbrokers who did far better than the rest do so because of skill or luck? And the similar question could be asked of those that did far worse than the others— was this due to incompetence or bad luck? It is hard to tell. If this test was redone several times over a few years, if the same people were at the top and the same at the bottom, we may suspect skill. If the the names keep changing at the top and bottom, we may suspect it is more about luck than skill.

From this perspective, a phenomenal perspective, luck could be described in a couple of ways. One way, would be in terms of variance from the mean. That is like in Group Random, where one had the good fortune/luck to do the best (and another had the bad fortune/luck to do the worst) despite NO skill being involved. Although very similar, a slightly different way of looking at it is in terms of probability or likelihood. Suppose it is a 1 in 10 million chance that a lottery ticket is ‘a winner.’ If one has the winning ticket, one could be described as lucky. If one suffers a sad event, such as succumbing to an ailment that a majority of people recover from, one could certainly be described as unlucky.

Part II, I will look at some possible theological ramifications of this sort of understanding of luck.

Propositions Versus Stories

Some Christian seminaries really love propositional statements. A propositional statement is a statement that can be judged to be TRUE or FALSE. It can be objective or subjective. “The sky is blue” is often thought of as an objective proposition since it is a statement that can be determined (objective) whether it is fact or fiction. Of course, two people could argue all day and beyond what it means to say that the sky IS blue. Subjective (axiological) propositions cannot be determined objectively since it is tied to value judgments. A subjective proposition might be “The sky is beautiful.” That is a statement of aesthetic judgment. Another subjective proposition could be “Stealing is wrong.” That is a statement of ethical judgment.

Personally, I prefer stories. Some seminaries don’t really see it that way. I remember going to a Christian college and being told that parables have one (and only one) point. In theory, the story is then only a vehicle to carry that one point. To me, stories are rich and complex and overflow any container such as can be boiled down into a propositional statement.

Consider the ethical (subjective propositional) statement, “Everyone should get an equal share.” This is a perfectly fine statement, but it doesn’t really embed itself in our thoughts, feelings, or (in all likelihood) actions. It needs a story (with characters) to do this. So let’s try a story from Cordilleras in Northern Philippines (I am definitely not trying to tell it accurately).

———————————————–

Paulo and Tomas were brothers living in a community in Benguet. Their father had died a year before, and their mother struggled to care and feed them. Where they lived, they would have periodic watwats (community meals). Paulo and Tomas would be sent by their mother to the watwat to get food to help them make it through the week. Arriving at the gathering, they got into line to get meat to take home with them. The women distributing the food looked at the two boys, appraising them. “Okay orphans,” said one of the women, “Come up and get your share.” Where they lived, they were considered orphans even though their mother was alive. They were given no meat or organs. They got chicken feet, goat hooves, and skin. Paulo and Tomas expressed thanks and returned home.

During the week, the elders of the village came to the tiny home of Paulo and Tomas. One of the duties of the elders was to go from family to family to bless homes. They brought a chicken with them. After saying some prayers, they sacrificed the chicken to ensure the house was protected for the coming months. Then, as tradition dictated, the mother of the boys took the chicken and made it into a soup and then provided other foods to produce a good meal for the elders.

When it came time to eat, the elders were shocked and disturbed. The chicken was well prepared, as was the rice and fruits. But as for the rest of the dishes, it was all hooves, feet, and skin. The elders chastised the mother for how disrespectful this was after all they did for the benefit of the home. The mother apologized with tears. She explained that as a widow, she had so little to offer, but gave the best she had. As far as the meats, all she could give was what she received from the watwat— chicken feet, goat hooves, and skin.

The elders were silent for a moment and then talked quietly among themselves for a moment. Then the head elder spoke to the woman. “It is we who should apologize. We have allowed a great injustice to continue in our village. I am sure our ancestors must be angry that we have allowed— where those that need the most help, get the least. From now on, we will ensure that everyone gets an equal share.”

Paulo and Tomas grew up healthy and wise, and eventually because great elders in their community, ensuring that all in need are cared for.

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The story expresses the concept of giving equal shares more effectively than the single statement, or “lesson or moral.” Why? Because we connect with the characters. Equal shares is no longer a concept, but a visceral experience. We connect with the two boys who are looked at as less deserving because of a status they have no control over. We connect with the mother who is humiliated because she has so little to give. We also connect with the shame the elders have for blaming a widow for something that was, to some extent at least, their fault.

Of course, other stories can explore other aspects of “Everyone should get an equal share.” The classic movie, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ humorously explores how difficult equal shares can be in a complex world. The more recent movie ‘Worth’ (starring Michael Keaton) not only explores the difficulty of equal shares, but even explores the challenging question, “Is giving equal shares always the moral answer?” Ultimately, more than the plot itself, it is the characters that we connect with that make the concepts connect on a visceral, even spiritual, level.

Well… They Couldn’t Agree on Missions Either…

The last 60 years of Christian missions has certainly had a lot of disagreements (and yes, I know one can find conflicts much further back). Consider:

  • One finds in the late 60s conciliar missiologists claiming that proselytism is antithetical to missions, at the same time that Ralph Winter was saying that missions is evangelism only to “unreached people groups,”
  • Evangelical missiologists were arguing in the late 60s and early 70s whether missions is only “spiritual work” or holistic ministry, while others promoted an almost totally social ministry.
  • Some today believe that one should not send money for missions, while others suggest that one should ONLY send money.
  • Some believe we should promote self-theology of new churches while others believe that this will lead to syncretism and heresy.
  • Some think that literacy is key to spreading the gospel message, while others believe that hearts are often reached more effective without written text.

The list could go on. Some of these conflicts there is a clear right versus wrong (for example, Stott right and Wagner wrong, in my opinion), but in many cases it is not so clear.

That is why it is comforting to find the early church had similar disagreement about so much. This is quite true of Christian missions as well. Consider the conflicts that Paul had in terms of Missions.

#1. Paul and Barnabas. As we know, the two stopped working together due to John Mark. Well… it wasn’t really John Mark. It was all about Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark on a second missionary voyage (a second chance) while Paul didn’t. We don’t really know why Paul said No. Knowing that Barnabas had the nickname “Son of Encouragement” (his real name was Joseph) one might wonder if he really wanted to help out one who was struggling. Paul, however, seemed willing to take on a mentoring role himself, so perhaps he saw the issue of John Mark as something to do with nepotism (since Barnabas was the uncle of John Mark). We don’t really know why John Mark left the first voyage. We might assume a lot of things but we just don’t know. If we knew why, we may be more likely to side with Paul in this, or Barnabas.

We also don’t really know if one should see this as a missiological conflict or simply a conflict of personalities. Barnabas mentored Paul and trained him in missions. Perhaps now Paul wanted to flex his wings and fly on his own, and John Mark was the excuse. Maybe going separate ways was the best thing to happen. John Mark appears to have had an illustrious career, thanks the work of Barnabas. And Paul did not do so bad either. Their may not be a clear missiological conflict here, but that can be true in missions today as well. Personalities often are the underlying cause of conflicts.

#2. Paul and Peter. We know the story. Paul was in Antioch, and Peter was visiting. Antioch was a multicultural church— Jews and Gentiles. They were all fellowshiping together. But a delegation of Christians from Jerusalem, a decidedly monocultural church— few if any Gentiles— visited. When this happened, Peter went with the Jerusalem group. Barnabas, who had deep roots in the Jerusalem church went with them as well. Paul, who was trying to promote unity, saw this as hypocrisy (according to his Epistle to the Galatians).

However, we never really get to hear the perspective of Peter or Barnabas. They might argue that they are practicing good missions. Paul himself said that he is a Jew to the Jews, but behaved differently for other groups. Peter and Barnabas may say that they are contextualizing their ministry to who they are working with— supporting the weaker brother. From a missiological standpoint today at least, both sides have their point.

And maybe that is the point. Sometimes there is more than one right answer. Some may argue that since we only get Paul’s side of the story and that side is canonical, that means that God agrees with Paul. Makes sense, right? Not so fast. If both sides are right but in different ways, then we need to look at how each are right. Within the context of the Epistle to the Galatians— dealing with “Judaizers” Paul was absolutely correct. However, in the second century, there was a counter move to remove Jewish influence and practices from Christianity— creating a sort of Greek or Roman monoculture in the Christian faith. If the Bible was written during this time, we may see a very different (and still inspired) version of the story told. Many of the stories in the Bible are shared without giving a clear cut moral lesson. It would be a grave mistake to think that just because a servant of God did something (such as curse a bunch of young men for calling him bald) that it is God-sanctioned and approved.

#3. Paul versus Luke. After Paul’s Third missionary voyage, he states that he wants to go to Jerusalem. He even says that the Spirit of God told him to go. However, Church leaders where Paul was serving not only said don’t go, but even told him that that the Spirit said that he should not go. As we read this, it seems to me as if the narrator inserts himself into the story a bit. Luke was a disciple of Paul, but it seems like Luke is siding with the church leaders here. Paul had in the past attempted to do ministry work in Jerusalem but to no avail. Luke does not directly say that Paul is wrong, but simply states the overwhelming opposition to his going, and then records 5 years of Paul being generally unproductive going from one jail to the next.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Luke is right, any more than that Paul was right. We don’t know what the “path not taken” would have given. Certainly, by pretty much any standard, Paul’s ministry in Judea was not great, he did eventually interpret it as his road to Rome. And perhaps he was right. Or maybe he was wrong. Missions can also have conflict between missionary vision and the vision of supporters and locals. These happen.


Conflicts did not end in the first century. They continue throughout church history. In some cases one side is clearly wrong and the other clearly right. More commonly the issues are more nuanced. In some cases both sides can be right. God is a god of diversity.

Six Robust Foundations for Contextualized Christian Theology?

One of the big trends in recent years in Christian missions has been to think about contextualization for cultures that place a higher value shame than on guilt. As work in contextualization for honor/shame cultures, three things happened. First, there was a growth in the realization that the Bible not only focuses considerably on honor and shame. In fact, it could be argued that there is more in the Bible on honor and shame than there is on guilt and innocence. Second, there was an increase in realization that the Bible was written within an honor/shame culture by honor/shame prophets and apostles to honor/shame people. Third, there was a growing understanding that much of the theology developed, especially Roman Catholic and Protestant was focused on guilt and innocence, but Biblical theology could quite easily be built off of a focus on, for example, spiritual adoption (a major metaphor associated with honor/shame) rather than justification (the most commonly used metaphor associated with guilt/innocence). I might even go so far as to suggest that honor and shame may be at least as good of a foundation for Christian theology as guilt and innocence.

But that brings up a question of what other frameworks could be used to develop a robust Christian Theology. I think there are at least three criteria to consider. First, it should tie to a major cultural pattern. Second, it should be linked to at least one major theme in the Bible. Third, it should express a common human longing/need that is answered in God’s grace. I would like to suggest a few.

A. I would like to start from the Three Cultural Types from www.honorshame.com. I am not sure who actually developed this. Perhaps Jayson Georges or Jackson Wu… or someone else. The three cultural types are:

-Guilt/Innocence

-Shame/Honor

-Fear/Power

Jayson Georges has noted that Fear/Power has been developed theologically, at least somewhat in the Pentecostal and the Charismatic faith traditions. I would argue that Liberation Theology is probably a better expression of Fear/Power since most Pentecostal and Charismatic theology is still built on a foundation of Guilt/Innocence. It does seem like a very robust theology can be guilt off of Fear and Power.

So we are at three robust theological foundations. Let’s add to that.

B. If we look at the Four Frames of the Gospel, described by Tom Steffen in his book, Worldview Bible Storying (in Appendices E and F), the ones listed are:

-Guilt/Innocence

-Shame/Honor

-Fear/Power

-Pollution/Purity

The first three are already dealt with, but the fourth has not been looked at. I must admit that my first reaction is to rebel against this one. I am not excited by the thought of a theology built off of Pollution/Purity. Still there are major themes in the Bible that inadequately covered by the one’s that have been listed so far. One of these in Uncleanness versus Cleanness. That doesn’t fit at all well with Sin/Innocence. It fits a bit better with Shame/Honor, but still not comfortably. The opposite might be said of Unholy and Holy (Sacred or Set apart). This doesn’t fit well with Shame/Honor, and only somewhat better with Guilt/Innocence. Additionally, from a cultural perspective, it fits a bit better with what David Augsberger calls “Cultural Ethics” which can also be described by the dualistic Unfit/Fit.

So now we are up to four. Are there any others. Well, I think so.

C. Robert and Christopher Strauss in Four Overarching Patterns of Culture describes (unsurprisingly) four patterns found in cultures around the world.

-Justice

-Honor

-Reciprocity

-Harmony

Of those four, Justice already has a theological model— Guilt/Innocence. Honor also has a theological model— Shame/Honor. Regarding Reciprocity, one might suggest that Fear/Power is tied to that since Reciprocity deals with flow of power tied to patronage and indebtedness. However, I think that Reciprocity could also be said to link to any of the other models without requiring own separate model. For example, in Guilt/Innocence, one of the challenging aspects of this model is the issue of the issue of “Free Gift of Salvation.” While that is a common understanding among many Christian groups, especially Evangelical Christians, there has often been the question of how it ultimately ties to the working out of our salvation. The attempts (such as in what is sometimes called “Hypercalvinism”) that seeks to divest salvation from works so much that even Faith or Belief is found unnecessary since it might be considered by some as a work, appear t.o prioritize a form of logic over Scripture. However, in Reciprocity, an answer may be suggested. In this pattern, the patron expresses Benevolence to his people, while the people respond with Fealty (or faithful allegiance). Since this also aligns with a number of the (suzerainty) covenants in the Bible, this may inform a middle ground, where God benevolently gives grace without works, but works are the covenantal response to grace given.

I don’t think Reciprocity is a good foundation for a robust theology (despite being useful in theological work), but I think there is much greater potential in Harmony. One might describe this in terms of Chaos/Harmony, or Disharmony/Harmony. I think I will use Dissonance/Harmony. Many cultures idealize harmony, balance, order as opposed to their opposites. Daoism, particularly, embraces this view but Greeks also valued balance, harmony, the Golden mean, and such.

Additionally, the Bible’s Grand Narrative can be described very much in line with this. The Bible starts with God transforming chaos into order, and order into paradise. In paradise (Eden), God, Man, and Creation exist in perfect harmony. But Satan disrupts this, leading to Adam and Even disobeying God, and breaking up the natural order. Now there is lack of harmony. Order goes to disorder, and peace has been replaced by conflict. However, Jesus came to restore order. The Kingdom of God points to the new harmony that will be— Paradise Restored— God, Man, and Creation in Perfect (restored) Harmony. At first, one may wonder whether Dissonance/Harmony could be used since it seems rather high-end and abstract. Christianity is high-end and societal, but it is also personal. I believe that the Dissonance/Harmony theological model would demonstrate itself on a more personal level in terms of conflict. We are in enmity or conflict with God, but Jesus is the one gave Himself over to the enemy so as to make peace and restore harmony. (Note: this view is much in line with Don Richardson’s expression of salvation in Peace Child.)

D. So now we have five possibilities for foundations for robust Theology. Are there any others? Well, one can go in a different direction and look at W. Paul Jones’ book Theological Worlds. In it, he speaks of five different “alternative rhythms of Christian belief.” The five are:

-Separation and Reunion

-Conflict and Vindication

-Emptiness and Fulfillment

-Condemnation and Forgiveness

-Suffering and Endurance

Several of these, however, do fit comfortably within the foundations already mentioned. Condemnation and Forgiveness clearly is tied to Guilt/Innocence. Conflict and Vindication probably fits under Dissonance/Harmony (although Fear/Power might also work). Separation and Reunion lines up, I think, with Shame/Honor. Suffering and Endurance probably fits best with Fear/Power, especially the Liberation Theology side of it. But that leaves one more— Emptiness/Fulfillment.

I feel that this one fits very well with the Bible. It can be seen in more than one way. It can be seen in terms of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of “Theosis.” It can be seen in terms of “Becoming Who We Are”— children of the King. It can also be understood in terms of meaning and purpose. As such, it brings back the metaphor of Jesus as the gate and the way.

There may be others, but let’s look at these six.

-Guilt/Innocence

-Shame/Honor

-Fear/Power

-Pollution/Purity

-Dissonance/Harmony

-Emptiness/Fulfillment

Each expresses a major problem in mankind, and how the Gospel of God, made effective through Christ answers it.

I have to think about this more, but as I try to draw it up, it seems right to me to think of these six fitting into two categories.

It seems like three of these relate to issues that are more static or unmoving. These are Guilt/Innocence where one exists in a state of disobedience, Pollution/Purity, where the state is impurity, and Shame/Honor where one is in a state of being shameful.

On the other hand, three feel to me more dynamic, or at least more chaotic. These are Fear/Power where one is in the emotionally chaotic state of fear, Dissonance/Harmony where one is in the relationally chaotic state of conflict, and Emptiness/Fulfillment where one is in the volitionally chaotic state of purposelessness.

Anyway, these are very preliminary thoughts. In the next few weeks hopefully I can thicken these thought threads. Once I do, I will probably add a new chapter to my book on Missions Theology.

“RTV” Counseling. Part Two

Continuing from Part 1. “RTV” Counseling is that type of so-called “Biblical Counseling” that is the least Biblical. It stands for “Read This Verse” Counseling.

#3. “RTV” Counsleing often devolves into bad hermeneutics on two levels. On the first level, there is often bad hermeneutics (process of interpretation) of the Bible. For example, a common RTV passage for counseling is Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This seems like a great verse for people who feel unable to do something. And yet it really isn’t. The passage is about Paul lacking the ability to do some things. But in Christ, he has the ability to endure all things. That is often quite encouraging… for me I find it greatly encouraging… but very much in a different way than it is often used. But of course this passage is not the sum total of what the Bible says about enduring challenges, any more than Matthew 18 is the sum total of what to do about church conflict, or Matthew 5:32 is the sum total of the Biblical message on divorce. Even if the right verse is used for the right situation, it will almost always be sub-biblical because the guidance in the Bible is much broader than what is contained in one passage. On the other side, there is often bad hermeneutics of the client. Anton Boisen describes people as “Living Human Documents.” as such, they must be “read” and interpreted. Until one has carefully listened and clarified, one has not truly read the person. Cutting out this process just deals with the superficial.

I bring this up because we have a Christian Counseling center. I have heard people say things like, “Oh… I heard that you don’t use the Bible when you do counseling.” Frankly, that is far far away from the truth. For a long time I was curious at that. Of course, even in Christian counseling there can be competition, and one way to make a charge that is almost completely unverifiable is to say, “They are unbiblical.” Still, I was curious if there was truth to this. I think it is because when they are thinking of Biblical Counseling, they are really meaning RTV Counseling. Unfortunately, the Biblical Counseling movement, going right back to Jay Adams and at least some of his followers embraced a certain superficial and limited use of Scripture with a bit of Job’s friend methodology.

If one wants to call one’s counseling Biblical, it should have the following qualities:

  1. It should utilize a thoughtful use of the whole of Scripture, not a list of encouraging or challenging verses. This is not easy, and such an integration probably should be described as Theological, to avoid the temptation to verse-drop or verse-bomb.
  2. It should be modeled after Jesus Christ in character and practice, and demonstrate the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
  3. It should come from a position of humility and mutuality. The counselor is, at best, a wounded healer (drawing from Henri Nouwen). The counselor is never an expert or perfect model.

For me, I like the fact that people in my denomination are gravitating toward the use of the term “Biblical Counseling” rather than “Spiritual Counseling.” I think their avoidance of the second term is because of its new-age connections. Still, “Spiritual” is a word that can mean anything… or nothing. Even though people misuse the term “Biblical,” in my opinion, at least it is a word that means something. On the other hand, I don’t like the term “Biblical Counseling” as it is used in my denomination as a weaponized term. Just a week ago, a person from my denomination came over to the Philippines to promote Biblical Counseling, and the first thing she did was to put it in conflict with Psychology. There is much wrong with Psychology… but when it is wrong, it is wrong because it is wrong.

I know that last sentence sounds non-sensical. However, Psychology is wrong when it does not correspond with truth. The same is true of (so-called) Biblical Counseling. A lot of what is called Biblical Counseling needs to be challenged by Psychology because a lot of Biblical Counseling is far less than Biblical (far less than good theology). And Psychology needs to be challenged by Biblical Counseling… but both must be challenged by truth (God’s truth).

I fear that another problem with the use of the term “Biblical Counseling” in my denomination is because of its reluctance to attach itself to the historical church. My denomination likes to link itself to the primitive church. I like the term “Pastoral Counseling” because it links the Bible to the Historical church in terms of counseling. However, I understand the term “Christian Counseling” as useful the Christian Counseling movement embraces more of an integrationist stance (all truth is God’s truth). Still, I prefer Pastoral Counseling as my term. However, all counseling associated with Christians should be Theological.