Can You Learn Something Good From “Playing God”?

We generally use the term “Playing God” to

ground group growth hands
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

What are some things one learns as a community developer?

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

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

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

 

 

The Quest for Aesthetic Perfection

The following is an excerpt (first draft) of an article I am writing. The article’s title is “Better than New: Reflections on Wabi Sabi as a Metaphor for Christian Perfection.”

The Greek ideal of beauty is tied to Platonic philosophy. With this, the goal is to conform an object to an ideal form. A carpenter making a beautiful, “perfect,” chair is then attempting to reproduce the idealized form of a chair. His skill as a craftsman is understood in terms of how closely he is able to conform his creation to that ideal chair. Since the ideal forms cannot be perceived, the standard for perfection is unavailable for judgment, and the imperfection of a creation becomes, in essence, an act of faith. In the eighteenth century, this understanding began to be challenged with J. G. Sulzer and Immanuel Kant, who taught that beauty did not necessarily imply perfection. However, even with Kant, there is still a serious attempt to see beauty as an objective quality, not simply subjective, so a form of idealism persisted.7 The Greek ideal for beauty/perfection could be thought of as otherworldly and superficial. It is otherworldly since the standard is something that does not exist in the world we live in. It is superficial, because beauty is limited primarily to perception – something that is quite literally skin deep. Such a metaphor of ideal forms could be said to be seen used for the animal sacrifice among the Israelites, and the Bride of Christ as described in Ephesians 5. However, I Samuel 16:7 reminds as to the limitations of lessons one can draw from this metaphor since God values more what people are unable to see, and that appearance (beauty) can misinform as to character.

In time, the quest for a flawless perfection became questioned further in the West. As John Ruskin noted in the 19th century.

…imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we

john_ruskin_1863
John Ruskin, Art Critic (1819-1900)

know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom,—a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom,—is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain, irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect…” 8

Returning to the Bible, flawlessness is not the only aesthetic view. Another is commonly seen in the Old Testament. It has been described in different ways. One way could be an “aesthetic of natural abundance.” This term follows the logic of Gerald Downing who recognizes that natural abundance is not merely a utilitarian appreciation, but also an aesthetic evaluation.9 The Israelite nation was primarily an agrarian society, and so were tied to the land economically. But there is more than this. This writer was raised in an agricultural community and can attest that members of that community can see a large sow with a dozen piglets, or an apple tree straining under the weight of its fruit as objects of beauty. As Yeshua Ben Sirach stated, “The eye likes to look on grace and beauty, but better still on the green shoots in a cornfield.”10 The Hebrew Bible has much appreciation of natural abundance. Psalm 65 would be good example.

Much like the aesthetics of idealized forms, the aesthetics of natural abundance is used at times to point towards ethical holiness and a form of perfection. An example of this is Psalm 1 where a righteous, godly person is compared to a well-watered tree whose leaves never wither, and produces abundant fruit. Isaiah 58:11 speaks of the righteous as being as a well-watered garden. The aesthetics informs the character of the righteous. Berleant and Carlson note that this sort of “environmental aesthetics,” as they describe it, has a quality to it quite unlike an aesthetics based on static ‘flawless’ perfection. Beauty seen in the form of living abundance has an “engaging, inclusive, dynamic character.”11

7Alexander Rueger, “Beautiful Surfaces: Kant on Free and Adherent Beauty in Nature and Art” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 16(3) 2008: 535-557, 535-536.
8 John Ruskin, “The Stones of Venice, Volume II” Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30755/30755-h/30755-h.htm, p. 171-172.
9 F. Gerald Downing, “Environmental Beauty and Bible” Ecotheology 7.2 (2003), 185-201, 193-195.
10 Ecclesiasticus 40:22.
11 Quoted by Downing, p. 199.

HCICD — Holistic Church-Initiated Comdev

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Years ago when I was looking into a topic for my dissertation, I wanted to study, utilizing grounded theory, HOLISTIC CHURCH-INITIATED COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, in the Philippines.

In the end, I dropped it. I switched to studying Christian medical missions events here in the Philippines. The main reason for this was that I had trouble finding many examples of holistic church-initiated community development. Generally one of three things exist:

  • The ministry is not holistic. Ministries from churches tend to be spiritualistic or tend to be social, but rarely do a good job of bringing these things together to deal with the whole person.
  • If the ministry is holistic, it is not normally church-initiated. It tends to be a ministry initiated by NGOs, or cooperatives, local government, or international agencies. Often,
  • If the ministry is holistic, and church-initiated, it is not community development. It is often church-development. That is, the focus is on developing or growing the church, not primarily helping people or the community.

I prefer holistic ministries, but some ministries are always going to be more limited. And there is nothing wrong with some programs being initiated by groups other than churches. But the last one is more my concern. Many churches struggle conceptually with the idea that they should place greater focus on people rather than the success of their church.

And this is a general problem that often comes up with people and organizations all over the world, and I will repeat it here:

ONE SHOULD NEVER PLACE AN INSTITUTION ABOVE PEOPLE.

One should not put the church above people inside, or outside, the church

One should not put one’s government above people

One should not put the institution of marriage above the individuals in the marriage

One should not place the Sabbath above those in need

Anyway, our counseling center is utilizing “ihug” with Celebrate Recovery for dealing with those struggling with illegal drugs. I like the fact that it seeks to be holistic (S.O.S. — Social, Occupational, Spiritual). They prefer for it to be church-initiated (although not required). And the goal is for it to be missional… benefiting those in need with no requirement, explicit or tacit, that the local church will gain directly from the ministry.

Not a bad idea.

Valleyview, a Short Story

This story was used by the Mendozas of Holistic Community Development and Initiatives (HCDI) in its Training of Trainers program for CHE (Community Health Education). I don’t really know who came up with the story first. I modified it just a bit.

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There was a small mountain village we can call “Valleyview.” The mountain it is on is very steep and so the only connection to the surrounding world was a steep, winding, dangerous footpath.

Unfortunately, the villagers would have to walk down this path to go to River City to sell their products and pick up supplies. Sometimes this treacherous path would claim a victim as a villager would slip and tumble down to the valley below.

Usually the one who tumbled down the hill would not be killed, but would only be maimed. He would lie at the bottom of the mountain trail until a vehicle driving through the valley would spot him and pick him up to take him to the clinic. Or perhaps another villager coming down the hill would spot him and run ahead to River City to get help.

Clearly this was not a good situation, so the villagers had a meeting to come up with a good solution. After a lot of discussion, they come up with a wonderful idea… PLAN A.

PLAN A was to pay a villager to stay at the bottom of the hill. When someone tumbled down the hill, he would be ready to get immediate help. And the plan would work. When someone tumbled down the hill, the paid guard would quickly run to River City, and get help.

Eventually, the villagers became unhappy with the situation. If the guard at the bottom of the mountain could not hitchhike a ride on the way to River City, the injured villager may end up lying at the bottom of the mountain for an hour before medical help could arrive. After further discussion, a new plan arose… PLAN B.

PLAN B was to give the guard at the bottom of the hill a vehicle… an ambulance. When someone fell off the path and landed in the valley, the guard could quickly lift him into the ambulance and drive off to River City to be treated. This was great, for awhile. But it was rather expensive to maintain a vehicle and pay someone whose only job was to drive the injured to River City to be treated. But then came a brilliant idea… PLAN C.

PLAN C was so obvious. Why drive them off to River City to be treated? Why not treat them where they are? So the villagers built a medical clinic at the bottom of the path. Now as soon as someone fell off the path, a medical team and equipment was immediately available to provide help.

And perhaps this would have been a satisfying solution, if it were not for the high cost of maintaining the clinic, and the lost labor due to injured villagers stuck healing at the clinic. For a long time the village dealt with the burden of PLAN C because it seemed to be the only good solution.

But one day, a child in the village, was asked to go to River City. He had never been off the mountain before. Looking down the path, he got scared and said, “I’m not going down there until someone puts in a handrail.”

And that’s exactly what they did.

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This story is used to show the value of prevention over cure. In health, we often focus on pills, hospitals, and operations. Yet the better focus in health is diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Additionally, in missions, we often focus on money solutions. Throw money at problems. A medical clinic is impressive and one can put a big brass plate on it. But a better solution, a handrail is less impressive, and is not as easily explained to supporters. Supporters love hospitals, but may not value handrails.

Missions should be more focused on prevention and transformation rather than dealing with the aftermath of problems. Missions should also be more focused on the needy rather than on supporters

Challenges to Church-Initiated Community Development in the Philippines

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3/challenges-in-doing-churchinitiated-christian-development-in-the-philippines&#8221; title=”Challenges in Doing Church-Initiated Christian Development in the Philippines ” target=”_blank”>Challenges in Doing Church-Initiated Christian Development in the Philippines </a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3&#8243; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a></strong> </div>

I was originally thinking about doing my dissertation on this topic. Then I realized that there were so few churches in the Philippines that do real community development (most focusing on “relief” type ministry, if they are involved in social ministry at all). So I switched to medical missions. However, I did write this little paper before making the switch.

Ooooops! Some Mistakes I Have Made #3

Parable of the Talents
Parable of the Talents (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mistake #3.  The Challenges of Dependency, Paternalism, and Stewardship

One of the first things I learned in missions is the danger of paternalism. A missionary should not amass control others but empower others. Therefore, one should not pass on resources with a lot of strings attached.

I also learned that giving can create dependency… so there is a risk in providing resources. One should focus on helping people discover and utilize the resources they have.

But problems come up.

When we tried to give without strings attached, sometimes we got burned. We forgot that one of our roles is a steward and we are responsible also to our supporters. This risks of paternalism are there… but the risk doesn’t justify bad stewardship. There is a tough balance here. Too much control can cause problems. Too little control can cause problems.

We provided help to people in need… sometimes it helped and sometimes it did appear to create dependency. And yet, some people when they were helped would take off and soar. Again, there is a stewardship issue here. Just as in the parable of the talents, one needs to find out how the person responds to a little help. Some rise up and some fall down. Again, I learned I needed to provide a certain amount of oversight to mentor the person. Generally, it seems like giving long-term to a group results in dependency. However, giving to individuals can empower or debilitate… it depends on their character and the nature of the relationship between the supporter and the recipient.

I read books on the dangers of dependency and of paternalism. However, in the end, these have to be balanced with the need for stewardship as well as the need to be a source for empowerment.

Some successes and some failures… but always learning. But learning only through books has its drawback, because it often takes real life situations for one to discover the nuances of ministry that are not really covered in books.