Missionary Quote from Ruth Tucker

Referring to the focus of studying missionaries in mission history–

An added bonus was the lively cast of characters. I have often wondered as I have studied missions history if there is any other field of endeavor that has been peopled by such a “crazy” lot. Many of them were, it seems to me, more eccentric and risky and individualistic and driven than other segments of the population. Often self-sacrificing to the extreme, many were also pedantic and critical and mean-spirited— unable to live in harmony with colleagues or with those to whom they sought to ministry.

–Ruth Tucker, FROM JERUSALEM TO IRIAN JAYA: A BIOGRAPHICAL HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN MISSIONS, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), pg 11 (Preface to the Second Edition).

This quote gives me both comfort and caution. The assessment of the quirckiness of missionaries is a bit of a comfort. The stereotype that missionaries go overseas because they ‘cannot hack it at home,’ is generally false, but does point to the fact that missionaries often are idiosyncratic and countercultural in their own homelands. As a missionary who is rather academic, introverted, and (yes) grumpy, it is comforting to know that I am part of a long tradition— a tradition that has successfully spread the gospel throughout the world. It is comforting since mission agencies today often look for extraverts who are more focused with obedient ‘doing.’ It is good in my mind that mission agencies are less focused on the rather dubious thing called the “missionary call.” That goodness may be offset by replacing that standard with personality testing. <Note: My wife and I have a counseling center, and we have done personality tests for missionaries. I have no problem with these testings, but I believe they are of more value for the candidate’s self-discovery, NOT for determining viability.>

As noted, however, there is caution. Missionaries have gone overseas and wreaked havoc. Sometimes in the mission team this is a problem because it reduces morale and increases attrition. Additionally, it can sabotage kingdom growth. There is a deeply flawed view that in ministry, “If even one person responds to the gospel, this makes it all worthwhile.” Ignoring opportunity losses, the fact is that an incompetent missionary or a divisive missionary, can undermine ministry… salting the mission field (a bad thing if you are not familiar with the expression) for years.

Missionaries are on odd bunch. That is a good thing… but they certainly need prayers to ensure that God can use that oddness effectively for His Kingdom.

Quote on “Weak” Missions

Any mission that does not measure up to the Kingdom of God is not a true mission. Mission is solely for the Kingdom of God. Mission comes from the Kingdom of God, and is executed for his reign.

Therefore, as Jesus did his mission from a position of weakness on the cross for the Kingdom of God, we should do our mission in like manner as Jesus Christ, whose mission characterizes a position of weakness. Only by following in the footsteps of our Master, can we be faithful to the mission for the Kingdom of God.

Our ministry is not to be judged by the outward success of a ministry, but by the issue of whether we have been faithful in our mission or not, as in following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some people may be afraid that when we begin our mission from a position of weakness we may have poor results due to ineffectiveness. In reality, the opposite can be true. The most effective mission or the mission that can bear maximum fruits turns out to be mission from a position of weakness. In our mission, nonetheless, the outward result or effectiveness of the mission should not be a priority, because in human eyes success can be very deceptive. True results or effectiveness will appear in the long run. Often times, it is fully understood when the next generation observes history.

Throughout history, many missions that were so fruitful and sacrificial and thus fruitful in God’s eyes, were not recognized as fruitful by the contemporary observer, including even Christian leaders. Those missions were often regarded as failures.

Paul Yonggap Jeong. Mission from a Position of Weakness. Page 4

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Missionary Quote from St. Origen

The following quote is in response to charges made by Celsus, a pagan philosopher, against Christianity. (By the way, Celsus’s work is actually a very interesting read… strong recommendation.) This is part of the response from Origen of Alexandrai (185-253AD, more or less):

But since he is manifestly guilty of falsehood in the statements which follow, let us examine his assertion when he says, “If all men wished to become Christians, the latter would not desire such a result.” Now that the above statement is false is clear from this, that Christians do not neglect, as far as in them lies, to take measures to disseminate their doctrine throughout the whole world. Some of them, accordingly, have made it their business to itinerate not only through cities, but even villages and country houses, that they might make converts to God. And no one would maintain that they did this for the sake of gain, when sometimes they would not accept even necessary sustenance; or if at any time they were pressed by a necessity of this sort, were contented with the mere supply of their wants, although many were willing to share (their abundance) with them, and to bestow help upon them far above their need. At the present day, indeed, when, owing to the multitude of Christian believers, not only rich men, but persons of rank, and delicate and high-born ladies, receive the teachers of Christianity, some perhaps will dare to say that it is for the sake of a little glory s that certain individuals assume the office of Christian instructors. It is impossible, however, rationally to entertain such a suspicion with respect to Christianity in its beginnings, when the danger incurred, especially by its teachers, was great; while at the present day the discredit attaching to it among the rest of mankind is greater than any supposed honour enjoyed among those who hold the same belief, especially when such honour is not shared by all. It is false, then, from the very nature of the case, to say that “if all men wished to become Christians, the latter would not desire such a result.”
CHAP. X.

Against Celsus, by St. Origen, Book III, Chapter 9.

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In the response to the charge by Celsus that Christians don’t really want all people to become Christians, Origen points out that Christians do desire as much as possible to disseminate their faith throughout the world. He then talks about a certain class of Christian who travels from city to village to house to share the gospel message. The description fits the early church picture of an Apostle. As von Harnack noted, the two pimary characteristics (as indicated in the Didache, Shephard of Hermas particularly) of an apostle is mendicancy and zealous evangelizing. Over time, the term Apostle (which as time went on became more associated with “The Twelve”) fell out of fashion for these individuals and so would be usually called Evangelists. Later, the Latinized term, Missionary became popular. Here with Origen the terms he used were “teachers of Christianity” and “Christian instructors.”

What makes this quote import is that it was written in the third century when missionaries or apostles had seemed to have disapeared. Part of this was because of the movement towards power and offices being fully centered in the church… such that people such as Bishops Polycarp and Cyprian would be described as having a certain ‘apostolic’ authority, leading toward the later identification of apostle as being a position inside of the ecclesiastical hierarchy rather than outside. Such great focus was placed on the work within the church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries that if it were not for Origen and later Eusebius we would hardly know of their existence. Even with them, with the exception of Pantaenus, they are missionaries who remain unnamed and unhonored. Strangely, that was the point of Origen. These people shared the Gospel without material reward. If some Christians of means do indeed help them with food or shelter in their travels. this small bit of honor is more than balanced by the dishonor heaped on them by the world around them.

Theological Abuse and St. Jerome

I have been reading a book— Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies, by J.N.D. Kelly. Jerome is… complex. He has done some great things, such as recognize and support the importance, especially in the Western Church, to take Biblical languages (1st Century Greek, and ancient Hebrew) seriously in both translation and interpretation. However, in his book, Kelly summarizes a letter from Jerome to a woman named Paula. Paula was a disciple of Jerome, alone with her daughter, Blesilla. Jerome felt very close to both of them. However, Blesilla died and Paula felt great grief. Quoting Kelly regarding Jerome’s letter to Paula,

Jerome, who seems to have regarded Blesilla as now belonging at least as much to himself as to Paula, was shocked by her distress, and took her to task in no uncertain terms. The letter, which he intended as a threnody, and which starts off as a eulogy of Blesilla, soon becomes a rebuke for her mother’s excessive grief, and at the same time a terrifying exposure of his own religious attitude. First, he concedes that tears have their place (did not Jesus weep for Lazarus?), but protests that his own agony is no less than Paula’s. But the Christian should be able to bear the most shattering blows with meek thankfulness, knowing that God, who controls all things, is good. Secondly, however, the dead man for whom mourning is appropriate is the sinner who has gone down to hell; Blesilla deserves congratulation, for she has passed fro darkness to light to meet Christ face to face. Thirdly, Paula should recall that she is not only a mother but a Christian, and a dedicated ascetic at that. The truly Christian reaction to death was that of the heroic Melania: when she lost her husband and two of her sons in quick succession, who shed no tear but, prostrate before Christ, exclaimed with a smile, ‘Now I shall serve You, Lord, all the more readily, since You have freed me from this burden.; Finally, Paula’s grief is disgraceful to the point of sacrilege. It must be sheer torture to Blesilla, as she consorts with blessed Mary and the saints, to see her own mother behaving in a manner so displeasing to Christ.

Kelly, J.N.D., JEROME: HIS LIFE, WRITINGS, AND CONTROVERSIES (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975), 99.

Jerome had a position of authority over her as her discipler. As such, his is in a position to abuse. This form of abuse is often described as “spiritual abuse.” In this case, I would categorize this form of spiritual abuse as theological abuse since the method of abuse is linked to expressing a form of theology that is harmful/coercive. Here are a few things that Jerome gave a theological guidance to Paula.

#1. Jerome did not, positively, that Jesus did shed tears at the death of Lazarus. However, based on the broader context, it looks like is was shared as a sort of innoculent. The reason I am saying this is that in the letter, it appears to be saying that crying is bad, and that sadness is wrong, and so acknowledges the most well-known counterargument before ignoring its ramifications later.(I don’t have Jerome’s letter— Letter 39, 384 AD— and so I am responding to the summary by Kelly.)

#2. Jerome seems to be saying, “I love Blesilla as much as you, and so if I am not grieving like that, neither should you.” This is pretty classic. One of the classic responses to the grieving is, “I know EXACTLY how you are feeling.” This is often meant well, but does have the sting of saying, in effect— “Don’t share with me how you feel, because I already got it.” This is not a good pastoral response. First, it is not true. Jerome does NOT know what it is like to lose a daughter, and he is not in a position to figure out who is struggling more. Second, even if two people, theoretically, had the exact same amount and quality of attachment to someone who has died, that does not mean that the grief response will be (or should be) identical. God created individuals, not clones.

#3. Jerome implies that if one cannot be thankful to God while grieving. Another, bad response to grieving is, “You really should be counting your blessings!” As one reads the Psalms of Lament in the Bible, one finds songs that express deep sorry along with both thankfulness and hope. We are complex beings. Sadness and thankfulness are not mutually exclusive.

#4 . Jerome suggests that we shouldn’t really grieve because everything that happens is good, because God is good. This relates to a gripe of mine… the responsive formula— “God is good…” “All the time.” “And all the time…” “God is good.” We may say that God is loving. We may say that God is benevolent. However, when we say, “God is good” I think the vagueness of the term requires us to ask the perspective. From a phenomenological or anthropocentric viewpoint, God is NOT always good. That is the point of the Lament Psalms, as well as some of the various prophetic complaints to God in the Old Testament (particularly). We learn and grow through dealing with the challenge that “God is good… but NOT all the time. Not all the time, but God is STILL good.” But even if God is good all the time (on all levels of interpretation), God created us with deep attachments. We were designed to hurt from loss. Grieving doesn’t undermine this. In fact, one could even argue that grieving is a God-given gift to help us deal with deep loss.

5. Jerome states that Blesilla is in a better place so we should be celebrating this. I know some Christians like to talk about funerals as “Celebrating Life” rather than seen as memorizing one lost to death. I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with this. However, grief is not based on where the person is at but where the griever is with respect to the other. One has lost something precious regardless of where that precious one is. We may not grieve as those who have no hope, but we still grieve… and should grieve.

6. Jerome argues that a true Christian reaction is to find joy in the loss. He uses the example of Melania, a Roman Christian who lost husband and two sons and then left for Palestine to found a monastery. The story of her thanking God (seemingly) because He took away impediments to her serving Him, sounds pretty monstrous. I assume the reality is more complex, but if one takes it as Jerome presented it, I suggests an attitude about family and relationships that appears to be far from a Christian ideal.

7. Jerome claims to read Blesilla’s mind in heaven and thinking that she would be “tortured” to see Paula grieving. This is tied to a well-known response to the grieving that, “_________ would not want you to grieve.” Of course, these respondents have no idea what the dead want. Most commonly, what is really meant is “I have gotten tired of seeing you grieve.”

8. Jerome finally claims that Paula’s grieving displeases God. This is just a variation of the previous argument with “God doesn’t want to see you grieve.” Essentially, grieving is seen as a sin by Jerome.

This expresses the theological perspective of Jerome and it is pretty abusive. Of course, this theology comes partly from the times he is in. Starting in the second century there was a gradual growth of asceticism in Christianity. Asceticism is a religious perspective and series of behaviors that exist across many different religions. Denial of physical pleasures, and sometimes even physical needs, can lead to feelings of closeness to the divine, and it certainly is understandable that rejecting material things makes one feel that one is uniquely embracing ‘heavenly’ things. There is nothing inherently ascetic in Judaism or Christianity. Despite this, both have sprung ascetic movements. A presbyter (according to Tertullian) wrote an apocryphal work ascribed to St. Paul called “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” It was written a bit before 160AD. It espouses chastity/virginity is greatly glowing terms. It shows that this aspect of asceticism was already idealized in the 2nd century. This could have come over from ascetic Jewish groups like the Essenes. However, Greek dualism of material versus spiritual certainly could be seen as a source. Asceticism had a big boost in the 4th century with the moral decline of the church as it went from a persecuted remnant to a popular and governmentally supported faith. Monks and Anchorites began to spring up espousing ascetic beliefs as an ideal form of Christianity. With this perspective, phrases in the Bible such as “absence from the body means presence with the Lord” or “Deny thyself and take up thy cross” can be taken to extremes where normal human emotions and desires are seen as being in conflict with God (who actually designed us that way).

Of course, I am not suggesting that everything we want to do is good. However, the Great Commandment makes it clear that loving God is not in competitiion with loving others. We love God AND others, and we express our love for others in some small way as a response to God’s love for us.

Caring about others is not inherently at odds to loving God. While God may be our highest love, grieving does not draw that love into question. It shows that we do, indeed, love.

I feel like this letter from Jerome expresses a certain theological perspective that is not only not sound, but is also harmful. It reminds me of an article I am reading now that tries to make the argument that the the election of God is immune from the charge of unfairness because of how deeply our sin goes against God’s holiness. I don’t quite see that. If I walk up to five people and give one of them a million dollars (a completely fanciful story here) the other four may say that i am unfair for giving the money to the one and not to all of them or another of them. I might argue that all five of them are completely undeserving, but does IN NO WAY undermine the concerns about fairness. In fact, I suspect growth would come from reflection— perhaps in understanding the idea of grace, or rethinking my presumptions of what election is (or is not).

Perhaps it is better not to be too dogmatic with someone struggling. Questions may be better than answers. So, with that in mind, I will say that these are my thoughts and hope you will meditate on this and decide for yourself.

Good Theological Questions from 19th Century Seneca

I was raised up near the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians— a prominent Iroquois tribe.

Recently, I was reading “Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps” by William N. Hoover. In it, he shares a quote from another book that speaks questions that Seneca students had for white missionary teachers serving among them.

In A Nineteenth-Century Journal of a Visit to the Indians of New York, Deardorff and Snyderman noted that often in the evenings Henry Simmons sat with the Indian men and tried to answer many of the questions the Indians had about the whites and their ways. Especially thorny for Simmons to explain was how the whites reconciled their religious professions with their treatment of the Indians. Such problematic questions as: ‘Was it right for whites and Indians to marry since each went to a different Heaven (or Hell) when he died? What happened to the half-breed children? Why, if the Bible was intended for Indians hadn’t it been fixed so the Indians could read it?’ Explaining such contradictions and shortfalls in the ways of the white man would not have been an enviable task for anyone.

William N. Hoover, Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2006), 39.

These are great theological questions? Questions about intermarriage and of mixed race children were extremely practical questions that relate to Soteriology and the eternal destiny of Man. The question of the Bible and why it is not translated into the Seneca language is a hugely important contextual/missiological question. But of these the most challenging was reconciling the high principles of white Christians with their sinful activities. How can Christians be coming to the Seneca expressing high morality while deceiving and cheating the Seneca?

Truthfully, there is no excuse. The correct answer is that Christians often rationalize great evil when there is financial advantage to do so. This is even more so when that great evil is directed at people who are consider to be from “Them” rather than “Us.”

However, I do think that I have a suggested answer. Boccaccio’s Decameron has the First Day, Second Story a situation where a non-Christian discovers how far Christians fall short of their high ideals. I would suggest you reading it yourself. It is a great story. But from it, I would suggest this answer.

“You are right. So many Whites have mistreated your people. I am sorry for this. What makes it even worse is that we claim to be Christians meaning that we claim to follow the guidance of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ would never approve of stealing from your people, or cheating your people, or abusing your people. I am convinced that Jesus Christ, God’s Son is very displeased that people claim to follow Him and yet do such evil things. My hope is that you will not follow the example of so many of the White people you have met, but follow the example and guidance of Jesus Christ.”

This would make sense because as missionaries we are not to lead people to ourselves, or even people like ourselves. We are to lead people to Christ. In fact, it is the great gulf that exists between Jesus and Christians that can help people see Christ more clearly. I don’t recommend, being ungodly so that people identify the godliness of Jesus in contrast. But it is important to recognize that Christianity is not a man-made faith from good people. It is a God-given faith that aspires to that which is beyond the reach of man to attain. That is what led the non-Christian in that story in the Decameron to become a Christian. The sinfulness of religious leaders convinced him that Christianity did not come from them.

Missional Church Quote

I am going to be facilitating a seminar on the Missional Church. This is not an area of expertise for me (one of a plethora of topics that is not an area of expertise for me). But I do know some of the edges of what it is not. I know that the Missional Church is not the same as a Missions-focused Church… despite some who think that it is. I know that the Missional Church is not anti-Missions… despite some missions folk that seem to think it is (and some missional churches that do act like it is at times). I also know that there are so many different understandings of the term “Missional Church” that it is hard to say that it is actually a movement. And people who don’t like the term “Missional Church” are able to find the strawman definition of choice to knock down.

In preparation, I am reading a book written from in the middle of the movement (2007 being well after 1998, but well before 2021). I am a bit more up-to-date on some like Reggie McNeal and Ed Stetzer in terms of writers on this topic in recent years… so I am reading THE MINISTRY OF THE MISSIONAL CHURCH: A COMMUNITY LED BY THE SPIRIT by Craig Van Gelder.

The missional church conversation is being popularized largely by the fast-becoming seminal work published in 1998, entitled Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. This volume is the product of six missiologists who spent two years in intensive discussions attempting to develop a shared argument about the very nature of the church. They sought to explore how the discipline of missiology (understanding God’s mission in the world) is interrelated with ecclesiology (the study, ology, of the church, ecclesia). The result was the construction of a missional ecclesiology, or in short hand, the concept of the ‘missional church.

This conception of the church is now catching hold among church leaders and congregations across a wide range of denominations. The missional church discussion is capturing a basic impulse within many churches in the United States (U.S.) that there is something about the church that makes it inherently missionary. But it is clear that confusion still exists over what the term missional really means. Some appear to want to use it to reclaim, yet one more time, the priority of missions in regard to the church’s various activities. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding continues the effort to define a congregation primarily around what it does. The concept of a church being missional moves in a fundamentally different direction. It seeks to focus the conversation about what the church is—- that it is a community created by the Spirit and that it has a unique nature, or essence, which gives it a unique identity. In light of the church’s nature, the missional conversation then explores what the church does. Purpose and strategy are not unimportant in the missional conversation, but they are understood to be derivative dimensions of understanding the nature, or essence, of the church. Likewise, changing cultural contexts are not unimportant, but they are understood to be conditions that the church interacts with in light of its nature or essence.


Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit, p. 16-17.

In other words, we need to start with understanding what the church is, before determining what the church does. This means that one needs to start from a theological stance. The stance of Van Gelder is Missio Dei Theology. Personally, I think that is an excellent place to start… but I will have to continue reading the book to see where all fo this goes.

Accepting our Mutual “Crappiness”

Before I get into my topic more fully, I would like to share a quote from Martin Buber.

Genuine conversation, and therefore, every actual fulfillment and relationship between men, means acceptance of otherness… Everything depends, as far as human life is concerned, on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way.

Marin Buber, Knowledge of Man: Selected Essays (Humanity Books, 1998), 59. Quoted by Mordechai Gordon “Listening as Embracing the Other: Martin Buber’s Philosphy of Dialogue” Education Theory. Vol. 61, No. 2 (2011) University of Illinois

I am going to relay a story very vaguely. An old friend of mine (only have communicated in the last 30 years on FB) posted a mildly humorous political joke that was presumably slightly pro-conservative (in terms of American politics) by poking light fun at pro-liberals (again, in terms of American politics). I had no real problem with it. I don’t ascribe to any particular American political ideology. But then something interesting happened. One person (who sounded strangely like me… at least in this comment) said something about the two sides should really get together and talk things out. My old friend went ballistic about that. It seemed to be an odd thing comment to get so heated about it. My old friend went into something of the sort… “Where did positive dialogue happen back in _______ when THEY __________!!!!”

That was so strange. But on reflection, it wasn’t so strange. This is a very human reaction. People don’t like to have conversations with people of different perspectives. People like to have “face moves on” (of “to dunk on”) people of other perspectives… or more likely, listen to others who like to use rhetoric to make others look bad. In the case of my friend, he essentially said that he did not want to have a healthy conversation with people of a different perspective because people of that group did “bad stuff” in the past. Curiously, the bad stuff was no more bad that people in his own camp have done at different times. Part of me wants to say that that is not logical… it is not rational. However, people aren’t really rational— and that is okay. We are emotional beings. That is good, but there are risks. Blood feuds have lasted, in some places, for years… even centuries… where each side blames the other for past crimes that their own side had done just as much.

It is not a good look (especially for Christians) when it comes to interreligious communication. But it is probably NEVER a good look. Even the most wrongheaded person is right some of the time. And even the most rightheaded person is wrong some of the time (a LOT of the time).

So what gives genuine conversation? Looking at Buber,

  1. Acceptance of otherness. The other person is not a stereotype… a strawman caricature. The other person is not a demon. In fact, if they believe things from you, it probably comes from a good place not bad. They believe their beliefs are correct and beneficial. They probably are not comic book villains who do things “to perpetuate evil” (at least from their own perspective). Thanos (the movie incarnation of the character at least) thought he was doing things to perpetuate good (even if his plan was pretty stupid).
  2. Accept their desire of others to influence. People believe they are right and that if others shared their views, the world would be at least slightly better. In other words, USUALLY people want to influence others, and this desire comes from a good place, not a bad place. If one can accept that the motives of the other are probably good.
  3. Act Intentionally. To unreservedly accept and confirm the other doesn’t happen naturally. It must be done intentionally. One must choose to override one’s natural tendency to dehumanize (demonize, move from I-you to I-it) others, and accept that different perspectives may come from good motives.
  4. Recognize our Mutual Crappiness. Despite the fact that most of us may have good motives behind our disparate beliefs, our tendency to demonize those we disagree with, and tendency to think that others have bad motives behind their differences—- well, that is pretty crappy. But if we all tend to do this, then we are mutually crappy. Knowing this can also help us break down barriers— we share a common struggle. Our conflict with others, is first of all a conflict within ourselves.

When Mentors Disappoint

Karl Barth in his book “The Humanity of God” wrote,

One day in early August I 914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wtlhelm II and his counselors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, I 9th century theology no longer held any future.

Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans., J.N. Thomas and T Weiser (Richmond, VA: John Knox, l 960) 19.

Mentors disappoint. Serving in a counseling center, I see religious leaders fall… often in spectacular fashion. In my limited experience, something like half of them who fall due to moral lapse truly want to learn, grow, and be restored. The other half, want to maintain their behavior but have the repercussions of the behavior go away. It may be sad to see that happen, but it is even more sad the ripple effect this has on those who look up to them.

I have had that happen as well. Perhaps not in spectacular fashion, but I have had people I looked up to as paragons of faith disappoint in years later. I have had people (I am thinking of one in particular) I respected for their wisdom and virtue not only justify what seems clearly to be wrong, but try to talk me in to the same behavior. I won’t share details for two reasons. First, I believe that person is a good person overall. Second, what he was attempting to get me do is something that many Christians in my faith tradition would agree with. While I am quite confimed in my own understanding of the issue, I have no great desire to argue with people who passionately disagree with me. Right or wrong, in the case I am referring to, I saw it as a mentor failing.

So what does one do? On the bad side, one can lose faith. But if one does that, it perhaps indicates a need for a bit of soul-searching. A spiritual mentor should point a person to God not to himself or herself. If one’s faith is destroyed by the failing of a mentor, then perhaps the mentor did a poor job of mentoring, or perhaps the mentee has simply placed his/her faith in the wrong place. Now, I don’t want to take it too far. I have heard people use this argument and extend it into victim-blaming. They would say, if a mentor fails and the mentee loses faith, that is the fault of the mentee. I don’t think so. A real mentor is responsible to some extent for the mentee, and cannot simply accept no responsibility for the harm done to the mentee. But, again, a mentee should take time to reflect on whether his or her faith is based on who Jesus is, or who the mentor was, or is.

I would argue, however, that there are some good things that can come from the failure of a mentor.

  1. It can point one to God rather than the mentor. (I already spoke about this.)
  2. It can bring an opportunity to reflect on one’s own perspectives. Is the judgmentalism, self-pride, or other poor views that need to be addressed? Every mentor will fail in some way. No one is perfect, so it is good that each of us learn this in some way or another.
  3. In some cases, the “fall” of the mentor may have been for doing something right rather than wrong (martyrdom is full of these) and so the mentor may provide an opportunity for new inspiration.
  4. Other times, like described by Barth above, one must say that the mentor had led one down the wrong road, and it is time to choose a better road.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.