Escaping the Labyrinth: A Parable

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is well-known. In the story, Theseus volunteered to enter the Labyrinth— a maze-like structure created by Daedalus, in the Minoan capital of Knossos. Doing so was considered a death sentence. Either Theseus would be killed by the Minotaur, a creature who is half-man and half-bull who roamed the Labyrinth, or he would become hopeless lost in its twisted, confusing passages. However, the daughter of King Minos gave Theseus a thread that he could unwind as he traveled deep into its depths to give him a return path.

One can, perhaps, add a tiny bit to the story. One can imagine that Theseus had just killed the Minotaur. As he began to wind the thread to guide his way out, he saw some shapes begin to come out of the shadows. He soon found that there were several others who lived in the Labyrinth. These were other enemies of King Minos who were sent into the Labyrinth as their punishment. They had managed to stay out of sight of the Minotaur, only coming out when he slept, to gather food scraps for their own survival. Their lives were a daily misery, but now one of their great concerns, the Minotaur, was dead. One more remained, getting out of the Labyrinth.

After greeting each other, Theseus said, “Please join me friends. I know the way out.”

One responded, “I don’t know. There is a breeze I have noticed that comes out of the passage near the Minotaur’s sleeping chamber. I am sure that must mean that it is a safe passage out of here.”

Another said, “That passage is heading downward. Escape must be upward not downward. Above us light comes in. Now that we are safe from the Minotaur, I can tie together wood scraps to make a ladder to climb to freedom.”

Yet another said, “That’s dangerous. We need help from others. Now that the Minotaur is dead, all we have to do is leave a note in the lift mechanism that the King’s servants use to lower food to the beast. Once, they know he is dead, certainly they can be convinced to pull us up out of this pit.”

Theseus was frustrated and spoke over the bickering group. “Friends!” he said. “What you all are saying makes sense I suppose. Following a moving air, or light above, or maybe friendly outsiders may work. I don’t know. Maybe there are a hundred ways out of this place. But the one thing I know is that I have the thread and it connects this place to the entrance of this place. I will follow it, and I will get out. If you want out, I recommend following me. Otherwise, all I can do is wish you well and pray your plans work out for you.”

With this, he began following the thread again. How many followed him. I don’t know. Of those who chose their own way, we don’t know how many found their way and how many were trapped there until their deaths.

All we know is that Theseus was saved by a thin thread that led to his freedom..

“When Bill Caught Death”— A Reflective Story

Bill texted me early today. “I CAUGHT DEATH!! GET OVER HERE NOW!” Bill was not one to CAP LOCK his messages so I figured it was important.

I drove over and Bill opened his door even before I got out of the car.

“Get in here now! I got him… or it… or whatever!”

I followed him in and down the stairs. He kept talking but was a bit incoherent. His basement was unfinished. It had a ping pong table with dart board and couch as if an attempt to have a game room. Dust and general clutter had long taken over this space. Opposite the stairs was a solid metal door. I believe the room beyond was mostly used to keep food stuffs, especially preserves of fruits from their garden— before the divorce.

Bill walked over to the door and put his ear to it as if listening for something.

“Be careful,” he warned me. “I am going to crack the door open so you can look in. Be ready to pull it shut immediately if he tries to get out.”

Bill undid the padlocked hasp, and then unlocked the door, and with great care began to crack open the door. He motioned me over to look over his shoulder into the space beyond. The room was well-lit with a flickery fluorescent tube that brought back memories of the unpleasant lighting at our high school years back. However, one corner of the room had a shadow. It took me a moment to realize that there was no object that would create this shadow. It just seemed to exist there slowly undulating. I realized that beyond the hummmmmm of the light there was a strange whooshing sound coming from the shadow. Within the amorphous darkness, two lights glowing red suddenly appeared, Then a voice came out of the shadow and whooshing that sounded like three voices— one child, one adult, and one aged— speaking as one, “Release me… release me… release me…”

The shadow started to fill one end of the small room and move towards the door. Bill quickly shut the door and double-locked it.

“What in the world was that?!” I asked.

“Death I told you. I saw it following me around this morning. It was trying to avoid being spotted, but I knew my time must be over, but I am no fool. You know that I am not one to give up without a fight, right Bob?”

“Yes Bill. You are always ready to fight.” Not one of his better traits, I added to myself.

“So I pretended not to notice him and I nonchalantly went down to work in the storeroom. It followed me and settled into the corner where you saw it. I quickly dashed out and secured the door. It made such a ruckus. The house literally shook for a bit— but it was trapped.”

“Okay… so what are you going to do now? You can’t just keep it there, right?”

“Of course I can!” responded Bill. “I will just leave it in there. I am thinking as long as it is in there, I am immortal! Maybe everyone is.”

After this, Bill invited me to have some coffee with him. But he just kept going on and on about death. I didn’t need this, so I declined coffee. I gave my apologies and gave some excuse about having to take care of some chores for my wife, and returned home.

I returned to an empty house— the rest of my family were up and out running errands or visiting relatives. Maybe today is a good day to work on taxes. However, as I was preparing my morning coffee, I kept thinking about death. I rarely do— I am hardly a morbid person, but the dark shapeless shape with glowing eyes in Bill’s basement really left me unsettled.

As I sat thus, I noticed a shape moving on the edge of my vision. I turned my head suddenly and saw it. It looked like a gnome, or fairy, or leprechaun, elf, duwende, or some such small creature from folklore. (I never really learned the subtle differences of mythical creatures.) It looked so familiar like I had seen it many times before, but I had never really noticed it… like a poem that is framed on a wall that one knew was there, somehow, yet was never read.

I knew what it was. It was Death. It looked nothing like the horrifying creature at Bill’s house, but something in me just knew. This was Death.

I immediately turned away and shut my eyes hoping that if I did not notice it, it would not notice me. But that seemed stupid, every bit as stupid as locking Death in one’s basement.

I tentatively turned back and it was still there, smiling at me but silent.

“Uhhh… Hello Death,” I said as I realized how stupid that sounded. “I thought you were locked up in Bill’s basement.”

“No,” Death replied. “That is Bill’s Death in his basement. Everyone has their own Death. I am yours.”

“So this is my time? I am dying today?”

“No,” said Death again. “I mean, not as far as I know. I don’t know when your time comes, anymore than any other Death knows when their living one’s time will come. I am always with you until you die.”

“That’s creepy,” I thought, but knew better than to say out loud.

Apparently reading my mind, Death responded, “It is not creepy at all. I am here to help you. When you need me I will be there.”

“No offense,” I countered, “but if there is one thing I don’t need or want is help in dying.”

“I have never understood this. Everyone needs help with dying. Most humans love life and hate or even deny death. Some love death and hate life. Both attitudes are equally disturbing in my opinion. Life and Death are the two greatest gifts humans have been given. Why not be thankful for both?”

I could not think of a response to this. Instead I said, “Why have I not seen you before? No one else has seen you or any other ‘Death’ as far as I know.”

“Oh you have seen me before. You have even listened to me on occasion. But like most people, you look away, consider my words a random thought, and most commonly just block me out of your perception. For most people, Death is the ultimate blind spot. It’s okay. Even today, you left Bill rather than talk about death, and now you are trying to change the subject.”

I had to admit that Death had a point.

“Okay then, tell me this. If you are Death, and Bill’s Death is also Death, why do you two so different.”

“Well, like I told you, my job is to help you with what you need, even when you don’t know what you need. Bill needs Death to be something that he can fight and conquer. Most likely as his time comes closer, his attitude will change. Is that what you need? Do you need me to be a monster to fight and conquer?”

“No,” I admitted. Reflecting for a moment, I added, “I suppose I need you to be with me helping me to value the life I have and accept what I need to let go of.”

“I can do that,” said Death as we sat there sipping coffee on a Saturday morning.

Ollie and the Meaning of Life— A Story

Ollie hatched and drifted up to the surface of the pond. As his eyes adjusted to the surrounding landscape. He saw a dragonfly clinging to some grass growing from the edge of water. Of course Ollie did not know what a dragonfly was, or grass. All he knew was his name and he did not even know why he knew it— it just seemed right.

Ollie greeted the dragonfly, the first living thing Ollie talked to, so he had not mastered the art of chitchat.

“Why am I here?” asked Ollie. “What am I supposed to do?”

The dragonfly was not offended. Dragonflies only rarely are asked such things. “Well youngster, you are blessed. You are in part of a huge world— a place of limitless experience. I am getting old and so don’t have much more time. But for you, all things are possible. So many choices. So many opportunities. Grab every moment to live life to the fullest. You are truly fortunate little one!”

Ollie did not understand all of it, but it sounded exciting… and a little scary.

A turtle was basking on a log and jumped in. “What foolishness. Don’t listen to a bug. Flitting around. That is no way to live. You are here because you are supposed to be here. You need to figure out your place in this great web of life. Once you have found your place in the world, life becomes simple. You know your purpose and you live your purpose.”

Ollie thought this made sense… but it certainly did not sound simple.

While he was thinking of these things, a bullfrog who was floating on the surface nearby stirred and bellowed a “BRRRRRRRRUP!!”

Ollie now understood…moving over next to the frog. Settling in, Ollie responded with a contented “brrrrrrup!”

Uncle Clem Fell Down in the Well— Two Parables

The first parable comes from the Judy Canova Show. It was a radio comedy program from the 1940s. The humor, especially little skits that are supposed to be drawn from Judy’s childhood, embrace a certain “hillbilly humor.” This is a story loosely based on a one-off joke in one of these skits. It is funny ONLY because the premise is patently absurd.

The second story is based on a short story written down by Duane Elmer in his book “Cross-cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility.” Chapter 3

#1. Uncle Clem Fell Down in the Well

One day Judy returned from her work in the big city to visit her family up in the mountains.

She walked straight into the house and called out, “Hey Maw! Hey Paw! I finally made it home., What is new?”

“Good to see you, Judy!” said Paw startled awake on the davenport. “Good to see you, Judy!” said Maw from the kitchen.

Maw continued, “Not much is new. Looks like it is going to be a good apple crop this year. And your sister Emmie has a new beau– new young man down at the sawmill.”

“Don’t forget your brother Clem…” jumped in Paw to Maw.

“What happened to Uncle Clem?” asked Judy.

Maw responded, “Last week, Uncle Clem was splitting wood out back and he got off balance fell down in the old well.”

“Oh dear,” replied Judy. “I hope he is okay.”

Paw reassured Judy. “He hollered up a storm there for quite awhile. But we are pretty sure he is okay now. He stopped yelling a couple of days ago.”

“Yes,” confirmed Maw. “He had us worried there for quite a bit.”

Story #2. The Monkey Rescues the Fish

One day in the rain-forest an especially intense downpour had caused flashflooding. The water rose, the river became turbulent, and many animals were washed away, or were trapped waiting for relief from the raging storm.

One of the lucky ones was a monkey. It had found a strong well-rooted tree and climbed high into tree and found a crook in the branches where it could wait cradled for the storm to subside.

Looking down in the water, the monkey saw a fish. It was struggling against the current that was trying to pull the it downstream. The monkey felt sorry for the fish. It had seen so many, from its safe perch, drawn helplessly along in the flow being pulled to places unknown. But unlike the other animals, this fish was on animal the monkey could possibly help.

The monkey climbed down out of its place of safety and went out on one of the low-hanging branches almost out the end. Straining, it was able to dip his arm into the river and after several failed attempts, the monkey managed to snag the fish and quickly returned to his roost.

The fish struggled in the grasp of the monkey. The monkey held the fish close to calm it down, but the fish kept struggling to get loose.

Finally, it was over. The fish stopped moving. The monkey relaxed. It had successfully saved the fish.

These two stories are opposite to each other in some ways. Primarily, the lesson of one seems to be the importance of doing something, while the other one seems to give the lesson to be the importance of NOT doing something.

But there is a lesson that both of the stories highlight…

NEVER ASSUME THAT SILENCE IS A SIGN THAT EVERYTHING IS OKAY.

Sadly, there is truth that commonly it is ONLY the squeeky wheel that gets the grease. However, Silence does not mean agreement. Calm doesn’t mean compliance. Peacefulness doesn’t mean lack of strife.

Exactly Where He Was Supposed To Be— a story

Many, many years ago, I was an mechanical engineering student at the University of Buffalo (SUNY at Buffalo). One of my professor’s was named Dr. Isada. Despite the Japanese name, he was Filipino, with a relatively strong accent and infectious laugh, and was at that time nearing retirement. I liked him as a teacher. I had him for Vibration and Shock I, and then I took him for Vibration and Shock II, even though that class was mostly populated by Master’s degree students. Dr. Isada told me and two of my undergraduate friends who were taking the course, “You got guts! Don’t worry, I will take care of you and make sure that you make it through the course.” And he did. The course was beyond our paltry undergraduate math skills, but in the end we all passed.

One day, in class, Dr. Isada was talking and said something like this (as best as I remember it)…

“Back when I was a student in college <1950s perhaps?>, I was asked what I wanted to focus on in my studies. I told my professor that I was very interested in computers and in studying earthquakes. My professor, along with others in the class thought this ridiculous. ‘Why focus on computers? There are just a few giant computers in the whole country. What is the chance you will be able to do anything with them? And earthquakes? Who will pay you to do anything with earthquakes?’ So here we are a few decades later. Computers are everywhere. And just last week, our university received a $200 million <I can’t remember the exact amount> grant from the US government to study and test building designs for surviving earthquakes!”

At that point he just started laughing and laughing. It is rare to see an engineering professor so happy at work.

At the time, I thought his laughing was because he was picturing in his mind going back in time and talking to his old prof and fellow students and telling them how foolish they were and how right he was. And yes… I think that was part of it. But I also think that he felt some sort of sense of pilgrimage. I use the term pilgrimage to describe a sense of destiny in terms of religious life. However, it could applied more broadly. Perhaps he had a sense that his life and his passion all was leading him to that point in time where not only is his life vindicated, but where he could look back on his past and see how the weird twists in the road of his life all made sense now.

It is a bit like the book by John Irving, “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” It is a weird book of a weird kid who believed that he was God’s instrument, despite little to support it. But in the end, everything comes together like in a way that made the nonsensical— make sense. I suppose the movie “Signs” also has a bit of that quality.

I am sure I am probably reading too much into a laugh, but for those of us who find themselves on a bit of a pilgrimage, I think many (like me) see a bit of the patterns that help things make sense, but are not quite there yet. I am not convinced that everyone will have that sort of feeling of pulling the veil back on destiny. I think most all of us can only see things like that in a mirror darkly, but such a perspective is certainly a blessing.

Around eight years later, my wife and I visit a medical doctor and I was surprised by the coincidence that his name was also Dr. Isada. I mentioned to him the coincidence, and he told me that my professor was his father. It was a coincidence indeed since he and my wife and I lived over 500 miles away from where I went to university. He told me his father was now enjoying retirement. That was around 27 years ago, so I assume he has passed on by now.

Alive or dead, I thank him for his small but significant role in my pilgrimage.

Actually— Sort of a Missions Sermon

I don’t preach missions sermons very often. Why? Well… as bad as many (most?) churches are in terms of missions, I rarely feel that that is the topic that is needed on Sunday. However, I am in the US right now, and preached this Sermon at one church, and will preach this same sermon three times this Sunday. So I may as well share it here.


Good Morning, We will be in Acts chapter 8 today, but I would like to start with a story. The story is called “The Three Little Pigs.” This is not the more common version of the story, with the house of straw, the house of sticks, and the house of bricks. It is more like a follow-on to the story.

In this story, the three little pigs are now wiser. They each have their own solid brick houses. One day the first little pig returns home after work. He opens his front door… and discovers that his house is now filled up with manure. Perhaps the family of the big bad wolf had done this as a malicious trick. Even though the three little pigs were… pigs… they did not really want to live in messy homes. They liked things tidy.

The first little pig was angry and unhappy but outside of griping never did anything about it. Every day he would come home to his filthy home that smelled worse each day. He would take pictures, put them on Instagram and complain about how this is proof that the country is falling apart.

The second little pig also returned home one day. He too found his house fool of manure. After thinking about it a bit… he rolled up his pig sleeves and got his pig shovel and pig mop, and began cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. He filled up a big dumpster and a truck came and hauled all of the manure away, Soon he was able to return to a clean house— as good as new.

The third little pig also came home to his own house and found it full of manure. He thought about it and thought about it and then got to work. Rolling up his pig sleeves and getting out his pig shovel and pig mop, He cleaned the whole house from top to bottom. As he did, he spread the manure on his garden. Soon he had a clean house and the best vegetables and flowers in the land.

Hold onto that story and please open your Bibles to Acts 8.

At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

This is a bad situation… a real problem. There is persecution. Perhaps you are like me and don’t like to use that term. So many have watered down the term so much that almost anyone can claim to be persecuted for almost anything. But this was real persectution. People were breaking into the homes of Christians and throwing them in jail. Stephen was actually killed, and certainly more might be added to that list. Things were so bad that those who were not yet in prision felt the need to escape the city. Many went into the surrounding villages in Judea. Some went into the villages of Samaria.

Things seemed so good in the first four chapters of the book of Acts.— almost perfect. It seemed so good that 2000 years later we will still talk about trying to recapture the spirit of the first century church. But I don’t think God wants the church today to embrace some unhealthy nostalgia of the past. After all, God inspired the writer of Ecclesiastes to warn people not to embrace the foolish notion that things were better in the past than they are now. So God through Luke showed the church in Chapters 1 through 4 as almost perfect, but then clarifies things in Chapters 5 through 8 showing that things were far from perfect.

Chapters 1 through 4 showed the church of Jerusalem growing in leaps and bounds. Chapter 8 shows the church of Jerusalem shrinking back to almost nothing. Chapter 4 shows generous selfless giving. Chapter 5 shows giving that was selfish and deceptive. Chapter 2 shows a joyous church praising God. Chapter 5 shows a fearful church, Chapter 2 showed a church receiving the favor of their neighbors. Chapter 8 shows a church hunted by their neighbors. Chapter 4 shows a united church. Chapter 6 shows a divided church. Chapter 1 shows a church started by resurrection and miracles. Chapter 7 shows a church suffering its first murder— its first martyr.

In many ways, the church of the book of Acts is like the church of today. A mixture of good and bad. Of great highs and great lows.

The wording of this passage suggests that the only ones still in Jerusalem (outside of those locked up in prison) are the Apostles— the Twelve. The rest of the church went to Judea and Samaria

But as we move to verse 4… we discover, surprisingly, that this is good news, not bad.

4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.

Now we need to look at the story from this new angle. The trials going on in Jerusalem were not destroying the church. Rather those trials were like a gust of wind hitting a dandelion seed ball. Whoosh… seeds scatter everywhere to start new plants wherever the wind sets them. The stronger the wind the further they go. Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. These were not necessarily professional ministers. These were most likely pretty ordinarily people. They preached God’s message of hope to those around them. Where? Wherever they were taken as they were fleeing the city.

And then we learn about Philip. He was one of the 7, like Stephen who died. Stephen’s death did not destroy the witness of these 7. As one went down another rose up. Philip goes to Samaria. Jesus told His disciples that they would be His witnesses even to the ends of the earth. That is an awful lot of places. He specifically mentioned Samaria as one of the places to be a witness. Philip went to Samaria. Samaria is close to Jerusalem. However, Samaritans were very unpopular with the Jews. Samaritans were like the neighbors that we ignore, or wish would move away. But sometimes those are the very neighbors who were placed there for a reason. Or maybe we were placed next to them for a reason.

Philip did not wait for the Samaritans to come to him. He went deep into the heart of Samaria… and began preaching and healing. And they responded to the message and there was great joy.

I won’t keep going through this passage verse by verse for the sake of brevity. But word gets back to the Apostles in Jerusalem that something big is going on in Samaria… so they hurry up there. Persecution would not make them leave Jerusalem— but the excitement of seeing the Spirit of God do amazing things? Yes. They must see that. And they WERE amazed by what they saw. People were praising God and the Holy Spirit confirmed that they were God’s own. It says that Peter and John who had hurried up there… well, they then returned to Jerusalem. But on the way back they did not hurry. Rather they preached along the way in Samaritan villages.

That is pretty shocking. Consider John, for a moment. Only a few years prior John asked Jesus if He would give himself and James permission to call down fire on a Samaritan village that had not welcomed them in. That tells you a lot about the disciple’s view of Samaritans, I think. Jesus and the disciples were rejected in many Jewish villages, but there is no record of them asking Jesus permission to call down fire on them. God did not bring down the fire of judgment on the Samaritans. Instead, here in Acts, He brought down the fire of the Holy Spirit. Now John, as well as Peter, is caught up in the excitement of what God is doing.

So what are some lessons we might take from this.

Let’s return to the story of the three pigs. All three pigs had a bad thing come into their life. Each was in a bad situation… a problem… something that ruined their day. All three were given problems.

The first pig embraced a strategy I would call, “Resignation.” He resigned himself to the situation. In the Philippines, we use the expression, “Bahala na.” Hard to translate into English but something like. “It is fate… so you may as well accept it.” One may complain… but ultimately one does nothing substantive about it. The problem remained and grew.

I would say that the second pig embraced a strategy I would call “Restoration.” It means to restore… or bring back to normal. It is like a TV sitcom. Things are doing well. A problem springs up… craziness ensues. Eventually, someone comes up with a solution and everything returns back as they were at the beginning of the episode… all ready for a new situation next week. The second pig did this. He undid the problem. The problem is now gone. Things are back to normal. No worse, but also no better.

This seems like a pretty good strategy. It is the strategy of the fixit-man. Find problem. Fix problem. Not bad… but in the Bible, I think we find a better way. And that way is the strategy of the third pig.

I would call this strategy, the the strategy of Redemption. Redemption means saving or returning value to something ruined or broken. Usually it implies making things better than they were before. Can a problem be turned into a benefit. We often speak of God’s salvation in terms of redemption. When I was young, I was taught the memory aid for Justification— “Just as if I never sinned.” It is a good memory aid, but still inadequate. That is because, in God’s saving work, we get more… we get… “More than if I never sinned.” We are not just returned to the Garden— literal hedged-in place— called Eden… we are a part of a whole new creation… as joint heirs of this creation with Christ. We are not just receiving visits from God, strolling with Him in the cool of the morning. We will be dwelling with Him… Heaven and Earth joined.

The churchmembers of Jerusalem were certainly fearful and probably angry… and they could have simply embraced those feelings… effectively doing nothing. But this is not what they did.

Perhaps they could have aimed for the Second Strategy. Restoration. Perhaps they could have tried to work against the problems in Jerusalem and get everyone back into the city with the church as it was before.

But they went to the Third Strategy. Redemption. They did not do nothing. They did not simply reverse the problem. They embraced the problem. Under persecution they spread out over the land. The church was not crushed by hate, attacks, persecution. It grew— outward. Did they understand that they were carrying out Jesus’ plan to be witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and even the ends of the world. I don’t know. Whether they understood it or not, God led them into that situation and they responded. Philip was only one of them.

Persecution does not automatically lead to good things. I teach missions history… and history is complicated in this area. In the first three centuries of the church, persecution appears to have fueled its growth. However, in 7th and 8th century in North Africa, the church disappeared under persecution. In other places like in Lebanon and Egypt, the church has not grown or dissolved under persection, but has faithfully endured. But even today, God has used persecution to grow His church. In modern-day China and Iran, persecution has led to great growth of the church. Why do some places grow and others wither under persecution? I don’t really know. And I think it is better to admit ignorance than to claim knowledge I don’t have. But I have to think that how one responds to it… must be part of it. The people fled Jerusalem, but they did not see themselves as fleeing from God. They understood that God was with them in persecution and they were bringing Christ and His message wherever they went. It is not wrong to run… it just depends on where and what one is running to.

Maybe that is something we can gain from the first century church. We live in a time of pandemic. We live in a time of nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyber weaponry. We live in a time of scary technology and environmental disasters. We live in a time of great suffering and immorality. Most of these things we cannot fix. The problems are too big, and we are too small. But we are not called to fix things… undo the problem.

We are called upon to redeem. To open our minds and hearts to God’s plan to transform… bringing hope and salvation to a broken world.

As a church, don’t look back at the first century church and say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church… perfect, and growing in leaps and bounds.” That was not the whole story. Rather, maybe we could say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church that responded faithfully to trials and tribulations and transformed what was evil for good… and in the process turned the world upside down.”We want to be like the church that embraced problems as potentially… good.

You have supported Celia and myself in serving God in the Philippines, training up Christians in Asia and Africa to serve God. These Asian and African Christians as we train them, often serve in places of great persecution. Sometimes as missionaries, sometimes as pastors, chaplains, or pastoral counselors. We thank you for your support and prayers, and pray that those we train will serve God fearlessly in dangerous places serving redemptively, flowers for ashes,… embracing the heart of Joseph who told his brothers who sold him into slavery— “What you meant for evil, God used it for good.”

Quote on Myth

‘The myths of primitive society are merely the result of an endeavour to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’ —Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (as noted by E.O. James in ‘The Nature and Function of Myth’ in Folklore, 1957).

There is nothing wrong with the quote. But I still want to play with it. My first point is that the term “primitive” is completely unnecessary in the quote. All societies have myths that support the dominant perspective and idealization in it. And since we are talking about removing words, let’s get rid of “merely” as well. There is nothing trivial about this role in a society. We can also get rid of the first “of society” since the only myths I am concerned about are one’s that are embraced by society. Oh yeah, we may as well get rid of the first “The” as well. That gives us:

‘Myths are the result of an endeavour to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’

This is pretty good, but I am not British, so I would like to avoid the term “endeavour,” regardless of how it is spelled. So maybe I would go with.

‘Myths are an attempt to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’

I don’t know, I think it works. A society is regulated partly through certain cultural values. However, these are very abstract, and so symbols, metaphors, stories are created or embraced that reinforce or express these values.

I recall years ago talking to missionaries who worked with a tribe that dwell in the Amazon basin. They had actually made a picture book out of one of the central stories of this tribe. The story seemed to be a bit nonsensical. The missionaries, however, noted that it was less nonsensical than the other stories they had heard in the tribe. But my suspicion is that it made good sense within their culture. The story had lots of animals doing strange things, but I would assume that the animals mean something within the culture. By knowing the values of the people, and what the animals symbolize PROBABLY would make the story clear. I could be wrong, of course. However, if you watch a movie like “Spirited Away” you see a great example of story that can be extremely confusing if one does not understand the symbols from Japanese/Shinto culture.

If a myth doesn’t make sense, one of two things may have happened. One, it may have lost relevance in the culture. As such, it may be called a myth still, but lacks that function in a society. Two, one is too much of an outsider (etic perspective) to understand its significance.

Man of the Sun

Man of the Sun. That was his name— ironic that he

File:Lovis Corinth - Der geblendete Simson - Google Art Project.jpg
Lovis Corinth – Der geblendete Simson

had not seen the sun in many months, and would never see it again. A cruel joke of a name. But there were many cruel jokes.

People would listen to his every word with deep reverence. Now he was a laughingstock.

His fabled strength was only matched by his many weaknesses.

He was favored by God— gifted beyond his peers. Born to lead a nation, but now he had to be led by a child.

He embraced freedom that few of his time could dream of, but now was in chains.

He was so clever– none dare disagree. But now the cleverness is gone. He was established to be “the man of the sun,” but he could not bring light or life… only death.

And so all he could do, a final offering to the One who made him, was destruction— a sad yet fitting end.

 

 

Subverting the Tropes in Christian Missions

The following is an excerpt from my new little book, “Missions in Samaria.” This section seeks to look at one principle for missions that can be drawn from the history of missions work in Samaria and with Samaritans. This one is about Subverting the Tropes.

Missions in Samaria

Subvert the Tropes. Jesus did this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story could have followed a classic structure maintaining a mythic role supporting cultural values and prejudices. Consider the following story:

One day a Gentile had business in Jericho and so started the windy arduous road down to that village from Jerusalem. At one of the blind turns of this road he was accosted by highwaymen who stole everything he had and left him for dead.

As he was lying there bleading, a tax collector came upon him. However, the tax collector did not even slow down but hurried on past. “No profit here for me,” he thought, “and whoever attacked him may be waiting for me as well.” Soon another man came along the trail– a Samaritan. “Better him than me.” He also hurried onto his destination.

After awhile, a poor Jew came by. He saw the Gentile and had pity on his plight. He thought to himself, “The Law says that I must show hospitality to all, including aliens and strangers. I certainly cannot just leave this man here.” So the poor Jew cleansed and bandaged the Gentile’s wounds and clothed him as best he could, and put him on his donkey and brought him to Jericho where he tended to the man until he was able to care for himself.

This story fulfills the common tropes of the time with tax collectors being too concerned with self and with money to provide help, and Samaritans being bigoted, selfish, and not obeying the Mosaic Law. The poor Jew, however, piously does what is right in honor to his faith and to his God.

As you know, I am sure, Jesus did not do this. The unmerciful ones were not only Jews, but they were Jewish religious leaders. The merciful one, the hero, was the Samaritan.

By learning the stories, tropes, prejudices that exist driving communities apart, we have the tools for subverting them. Stories that challenge the status quo and the preconceived notions of a culture have a parabolic role– serve in the role of a parable. Jesus did that a lot. His stories would often subvert commonly-held values. The one most precious is the one that wandered away. Divine love is most clearly visible when it is given to those who seem to deserve it the least. The most weak or seemingly insignificant things are often what matters most. The wealthy may not only NOT be closer to God, but the wealth may actually be a hindrance to their being righteous in God’s sight.

A second way to change the narratve is to Change the Focus. Consider the old trope of the silent era (lampooned in the cartoon shorts of “Dudley Doright”) of a love triangle of a rejected ugly bad man, a beautiful but helpless young woman, and a handsome noble hero. Ultimately and predictably, the hero overcomes the bad man and wins the heart of the ‘fair maiden.’ There are many options to subvert this story, such as making the woman heroic and capable rather than helpless. However, the narrative also changes when one changes the focus. In this classic example, the focus is on how the hero resolves the conflict by “saving the day.” But one can also focus on the woman who lives in a world of objectification, or on the bad man, driven to hate and revenge for reasons that could be fascinating to explore.

In the story of the ten lepers we see a change of focus from the norm. Jesus tells ten lepers who are seeking to be healed to go to the priest to be declared clean (a requirement in the Mosaic quarantine laws). On their way, they discover themselves healed. Nine of them joyfully continue their journey to be legally declared clean. One however, turned back to express thanks to Jesus. The story specially notes that the man who thanked Jesus was a Samaritan. The story could be presented as many other stories in the Gospels with Jesus as the focus. In this one, however, the focus is not on Jesus primarily. It is also not primarily on the lepers as a whole, but is rather on the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude.

Sometimes we need to change focus. A few years ago in the United States there was a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” It was a response to some questionable shootings of African-American men by police officers. In many of those cases the police were exhonerated by the justice system, often despite pretty damning evidence against them. Some people, including many Christians, responded negatively to the Black Lives Matter movement suggesting that it is better to say “All Lives Matter.” In a sense they are right— All Lives do in fact Matter. However, when there has been a strong amount of discrimination and marginalization in a society, it needs to be responded to with focus, not with generalities.

During this pandemic, there are people, again including some Christians, who are making the argument that the elderly should be given lesser priority. Some see it as a “thinning of the herd”– a surprisingly Darwinian attitude. For others, it appears to be driven by a higher value on economics than of human life. If one would seek to counter this attitude, saying “All Lives Matter” would be inadequate. We would may need to say that “All Elderly Lives Matter,” or “All Medically Under-insured Lives Matter.”

Taking this same example into first century Judea, saying that one must love one’s neighbor, or one must love everyone, may be true but is too general to hit home. Focus is needed to make the message hit home. You must love your enemy. You must love Samaritans. You must love the poor. You must love Gentiles. You must love tax collectors and prostitutes. And you must demonstrate that love not only through words but through action. This leads to the second point.

Jonah– a parable

photo of driftwood on seashore
Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com

The Woodcarver saw it on the beach.  It was much larger than the normal pieces he would take to be turn into wooden utensils, statues, and a variety of tchotchkes for tourists. He liked pieces of wood that had character to them— gnarled branches, hollow logs, and even stumps with roots. But this big one caught his attention. Perhaps it is a bad choice. He could tell it would be a stubborn wood, difficult to work, dulling his tools. It also had knots in awkward places. But the Woodcarver saw something in it.

 

The Woodcarver saw a man. Maybe no one else did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. The wood just needs to be dried, carved, and post-treated. The end result will be a man. He may not look like the original wood, but it is the same substance, with the unnecessary parts carefully cut away. It may take a while, but vision and patience are key qualities of the Woodcarver. He could see the man in the piece of wood trying to get out. It will be done one day, but never sold. The Woodcarver never sold His best work.

It will be worth it… you just wait and see.