Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Impotence of Contemporary Faith | Time to Bear Witness and Minimize Verbosity

*Note: Admittedly this is a long blog.  Despite this, please take the time to read and share it.

Historical reflection matters.  In fact, it is of critical importance in terms of peaceful relations and co-existence between culturally and religiously different people and nations.

Walter Houghton, former Wellesley College professor and author of Victorian England: Portrait of an Age wrote, “to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn even a flashlight on the landscape of 1850 is to see our own situation a little more clearly.”

Seldom do people, especially the religiously minded, pause and consider the fact that beliefs and ideas have an origin and a prior context of (primary) meaning, as well as a historical development.

A few examples from Christian scripture:

Among evangelicals, in particular, two Bible texts, which routinely are wrenched from their social and literary contexts and misused – both to justify exclusive claim to God and truth, and legitimate mission enterprises to the “heathen” or “unsaved” – include John 14:6, in which Jesus allegedly makes the exclusive claim that he alone is the singular and only way for a person to obtain eternal life, and the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.

one way

In my opinion, the manner in which Christians have, and continue to use John 14:6 as a proof-text to “prove” that their belief and their religion is the true one, expresses more an inner fear and insecurity, than what they think they are communicating – certainty of identity, faith and future.  (*For a few alternative views on this text, see the writings by former Emory professor, Thomas Thangaraj, and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary professor, W. Eugene March)

Let’s be honest.  In disconcerting times and eras, such as the present, who doesn’t and wouldn’t want “evidence” that “proves” one’s life is on the right and true track?

It’s a false comfort, but a comfort, nevertheless, to be able to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Every single day, each one of us use “the other” as “social mirrors,” as aids by which to navigate life and assess individual progress.

self_reflection

We look at others, and occasionally share affirmation, but most often we belittle and criticize, and in so doing it provides momentary, yet false assurance that our lives are somehow okay – especially in comparison to him, her, or them!

The utilization of another as an aide in self-criticism and self-evaluation is nothing new, and as such serves the purpose of a “control group” against which people assess their respective individual or collective progress or development.

Not so long ago, blacks and Indians were utilized by Europeans as “social mirrors” in order to discover attributes in savages which they found first but could not speak of in themselves.

As Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage : A History of Misunderstanding, “The Puritan fought the Devil and the savage within himself, and he called the struggle conscience. . . . Often more terrible than the savage outside the stockade of the settlement was the savage within the ribcage of the Puritan, and his sternness toward all dissenters was frequently no more than fear of his own nature.”

Where has much of this troubling fear of the future come from?  

I find renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Carl Degler’s perspective compelling.

He wrote that prior to the 16th century, Martin Luther, and the Reformation, there existed a relatively predictable, ordered, and secure worldview and belief structure.  That is, a person’s sense of eternal security was guaranteed by the Catholic Church by means of a pronouncement and/or sacrament performed by a priest.

After the non-conformists effectively challenged institutional orthodoxy, coupled with the ensuing sectarian schisms that occurred among dissenters themselves, there emerged an unsettling new reality—the priesthood of every believer.

Every person, thereafter, was obligated to care for his or her own soul.  In effect, individual priesthood became every person’s “own terrifying responsibility.”

Verification of one’s eternal future or elected-ness, has over the centuries since, come to reside in an ambiguous and highly subjective “salvation template.”

It is a template that has unpredictably, yet routinely changed over time, according to Richard E. Wentz, former Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Attempts to secure signs or proof of salvation has changed over the years from a prescribed iconoclasm (destruction of images of worship), to stringent morality (puritanism), to a profession of faith, and finally to an individualizing of faith or to “saving steps” (Four Spiritual Laws).

4 steps

John 14:6, then, became a popular proof-text because it so comfortably accommodated and “proved” the popular four-step salvation template.

What is evident upon historical reflection of all “saving steps or stages,” however, is that in the post-16th century European world, life increasingly was lived as if “conducting an examination,” and Scripture read “as if peering in a mirror”—largely for the purpose of appeasing a troubled conscience and assuaging a loving, yet capricious God.

Illustrating a troubled conscience, are the words of Lucy Lindley’s biographer, wife of American Board 19-century missionary to South Africa, Daniel Lindley:

“Lucy was always in a state of anxiety about them [her children], their health and spiritual welfare.  Her introspection was painful in its intensity.  She was morbidly conscientious.  She who was so transparently good was always lamenting her sins.  The memory haunted her of the wide sleeves she wore when a girl, wasting stuff that might have been sold to feed the poor.  It troubled her for days when she found that a tradesman had given her ten cents too much change: ‘I must return it.  He must see that I am honest’. . . . When she saw Mary playing cards it threw her into a state of prostration that lasted for days.  That one of her boys should go to the theatre, that two of them should spend a rainy morning in the holidays at a billiard table, she took to be sure signs that they were on the road to perdition. Sincerely religious, always pouring out her heart in gratitude for blessings bestowed upon her, religion brought her little joy and serenity.  Not a happy woman; but noble in her high sense of duty and her unconquerable spirit.”

As for Matthew 28:18-20 . . . Given the complicity of imperialism/colonialism with civilizing the “heathen” by means of christianizing them, a legitimizing text was needed for this civilizing venture – i.e., just as U.S. slave owners and South African apartheid proponents co-opted Old Testament scripture as justification for their racist attitudes and actions.

What better, more suitable text for the sailing ships and their crew and passengers than Matthew’s – “Go and make disciples of all nations“?  It fit like a glove.

No one makes clearer this linkage of text with enterprise than Sri Lankan, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham, U.K, who I had the fortune to study under for one week in 2001.

Relying on Alan Kreider’s research, Sugirtharajah persuasively argues by quoting from primary texts that there was very little formal preaching or institutionalized mission during the growth of the pre-Christendom church, and even less admonition to evangelize.

How then did the Jesus movement grow in those early years?

It grew primarily through public demonstrations of faith or people bearing testimony to their experience of faith.  For example, faith was mediated by martyrdom.  Bystanders were astonished and in awe of those who willingly died for what they believed in.  Faith was also mediated by behavior and generous acts of charity.  The Jesus movement also grew, according to Kreider, because of the extraordinary character of worship, which prepared Christians to live exemplary, above-reproach lives in the world.

Concluding Thoughts:

I appeal to my own faith community of upbringing – evangelical, Protestant, Christian – that it’s time to:

Stop idolizing certainty, particularly the Bible and Jesus. 

Set aside your illusionary claim to “absolute” ownership (and interpretation) of truth.

When you are so controlling and insistent on your perspective, it really does not help you love others well. Ultimately it’s your attempt to control even God.

As a Lutheran pastor recently and rightly noted, we live in a time where the “public square” is the forum where people of all faiths and people who reject all faiths come together and bear testimony – not behind pulpits or in moral statements pronounced behind protective and insulated walls.

allaboutgod

Samir Selmanovic, a favorite alternative Christian voice of mine, makes the following remarks in It’s Really All About God:

“Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?”

“We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.  It is really all about God, and God is really all about all of us.  Yet, we are afraid to be in the image of God.  And we are terrified of the prospect of finding the image of God in those who are not in our image.  This is not a call to one religion for all.  It is a call for every religion to find a way that is good for all people.”

“So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Stop thinking you, your church and Christianity as a whole will succeed together in saving the world (a popular 19th century motto was “evangelizing the world in this generation”).

Reality and history communicate the exact opposite – a persistent growth and renaissance of world faiths.

Yes, you can point to numerous examples of individuals whose lives were transformed through a conversion experience or to “church growth” or to “spiritual revivals,” yet these examples communicate a fraction of the truth.

For instance, the growth of the church and large-scale conversions in Africa and in many parts of Asia, are documented by the likes of University of Cape Town professor, David Chidester, as occurring only after their people experienced or were subjugated to the destruction or disintegration of independent economic, social and political life.

Corroborating this assertion is 19th-century American missionary Silas McKinney’s letter back to his missionary board, “They (Zulus) are in a transition state, breaking away from the Zulu nation, and dissolving into little bodies, and coming together again in news forms, and thus placing themselves in positions most happy for the successful introduction of the gospel.”  A colleague, Aldin Grout similarly wrote, “the Zulu nation as such is extinct.  This I have been looking for ever since I left the Zulu country.”

Sharing missionary, as well as mission trip stories of individuals, whose lives were changed when they “gave their hearts to Jesus” should not be minimized, yet neither should they effectively over-shadow or silence the many more stories of people, who likely were repelled and repulsed by both the message, method and motivation of Christians’ so-called “good news.”

Take Mahatma Gandhi, for instance.  In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he wrote, “Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.  I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment.”

In Zimbabwe I once heard a missionary speak of “wind evangelism.”  Upon questioning, he said this was a method of evangelism, whereby when you’re traveling along the highway at 75 mph, you roll your window down and release gospel tracts. These, then, flutter to the feet of Zimbabweans, who are walking or riding a bicycle, and, of course, we are then to believe this method of saving some justifies the means.

A colleague of his shared frustration at the difficulty of obtaining accurate records of baptisms. He then hit on a “novel idea” of offering to pay $1 or $2 Zimbabwe dollars for every certificate that pastors turned in.  Wow – wouldn’t you know it!  Baptisms increased dramatically in the ensuing months!

That’s Americans in Africa, but here in the U.S. it’s little different.  Although popularity seems somewhat diminished of late, I still read of churches re-enacting the Columbine Massacre, replete with shotgun during Hell House at Halloween, or implementing a Top Ten Most Wanted list, whereby you list ten people in your life who “need Jesus” and who you “target” with the gospel.

Insteadstart demonstrating how Christianity (faith) is an appreciably meaningful and practical “way of life” in the present.

Try to stop speaking so many spiritual platitudes, which in effect serve to exonerate one from involvement in the messiness of people’s daily lives.  An example that occurred during a visit by a U.S. “Christian”-based NGO leader to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  If a destitute family welcome you into their home at your request, and then in the course of conversation express a heartfelt need for tuition assistance or a pair of shoes, don’t glibly voice with your pleated Ralph Lauren khaki pants and your buffed, shiny brown Oxford shoes, “Let’s pray and I’m sure that God will provide for your needs.”  No, you are God in those moments and you need to do any and everything within your means to assist this family.

As Samir puts it, “People are not looking for someone to show them how to escape life; they are looking for practicing sojourners and communities to help them walk the landscape of life. There is something impotent about contemporary Christianity, and it has to do with its inability to re-imagine the answer to the question ‘What do I get for following Jesus?‘  For too many Christians the answer is (simply) ‘heaven.'”

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Till We (All) Have Faces

I wish it were possible to somehow insert an additional line into Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech –

“I have a dream that one day we will be a nation and communities of faces.”

A New York City speaker at a 2003 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, was asked if anything positive came from 9/11.  His response resonated with me.  He replied that if anything good came from 9/11, it was this:

For the first time ever, New York City’s 8 million residents became a “city with faces”—referencing the pictorial wall of remembrance, in which pictures of some of the 2,977 victims from more than 90 countries were posted by grieving friends and family members.

A collage of 9/11 victims' faces.

A collage of 9/11 victims’ faces.

I’ve thought a lot about faces and memories of faces since that evening.

As a child, church was seldom an option for me and my siblings. Living in Kenya this frequently meant we attended a remote, mud-bricked and mabati (tin) roofed church.

In early 70’s Kenya, particularly in rural areas, black-white encounters were still relatively uncommon.  As a young boy, who would rather be fishing or playing ball, it was bad enough I had to attend an hours’ long service.  Time was made worse by Kenyan children’s intense curiosity with my white person’s hair and skin.

Typically my parents would allow my siblings and me to leave mid-service and either play outside or sit in the car and read a book.  Sitting in the car was a reprieve from listening to long, Swahili-Luo translated sermons, but it came with a price – persistent children’s faces, often streaked with snot and pestering flies, pressed against the car’s window, and when left partially open for air, young black arms sneaking in for quick touches, squeezes, followed by giggles.

An Afghan child looking into a car

An Afghan child looking into a car

These many years later I sometimes wonder why that bothered me so?  After all, my best friends back home in the town of Kisumu were Oginga and Ogoro – Luo boys, themselves.

Were the frequently un-wiped noses and bloated malnourished stomachs simply too much of a discomfiture for an 10 or 11-year-old boy? Would my discomfort be mediated had I known their names and shared more in common with their lives? Would I have been as bothered if they were young white arms reaching in? Perhaps it was the proximity of these young faces.  They were within easy arm-reach, too close for comfort.  Too intimate.

I don’t know if it’s “natural” or not – it is disrespectful and shameful – but have you noticed how people of one race tend to view people of another race in a one-size, “all look-alike” category?  That is – among whites, anyway, it’s quite common to hear the following type comments about Asians, for instance: “I can’t easily tell them apart! They all look so alike.” or “I just call them by their ‘English names’ because their mother tongue names are too difficult to remember, let alone pronounce.”

During my post-graduate research I came across the story of a white Union army commander, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was assigned the task of leading an all-black regiment.  He confessed that initially he was unable to distinguish the soldiers from each other, yet “as one grows more acquainted with the men, their individualities emerge; and I find first their faces, then their characters, to be as distinct as those of whites.”

black soldiers

Similarly, an American missionary woman, Carrie L. Goodenough, stated of the Zulus in a letter of 1883 from Natal, South Africa, “At first I thought their faces all looked alike, but I see difference now, both in features and expression; and after one is accustomed to the Zulu type of features, many of the faces are really pleasing.”

Culture and media have combined to promote a sense that beauty is outward.

What about the many, however, who are born without a model or actor’s face, or even worse, perhaps, born with an attractive face and it’s then yanked away by an act of violence or disease?  Many U.S. soldiers have experienced acute facial disfigurement due to IEDs.

One publicized example of disfigurement is Charla Nash, a 56-year-old single mother, who, several years ago, went to help a friend contain a pet chimpanzee and ended up having her face and hands ripped off.  She later underwent a complete facial transplant.

ap_charla_nash_jp_120628_wblog

I just googled “the wonders of the face” and got nothing, zero.  Just a listing of links to various “wonders,” including the seven wonders of the world, the seven wonders of Egypt, wonders of Africa, et cetera.

Doesn’t anyone but me think the face should be classified as an eighth wonder of the world – even those disfigured?

I realize the face is quite daunting and intimidating if you prefer to live a life void of intimacy, which men, in particular, might opt for (but only as an act of bravado). Men such as Tommy Lee Jones’s character “Arnold” in the movie Hope Springs; the story of a 31-year marriage in an acute state of disrepair.

Arnold and Kay (Meryl Streep) sleep in separate bedrooms. They tell their last-ditch, marriage saving therapist, Steve Carell, that they last had sex five years back.  Carell assigns them homework, one of which being to have sex.

It’s painful to watch, but eventually lying on a rug beside a crackling fire they almost succeed in culminating a rekindled passion.  Unfortunately the moment and mood is spoilt by Arnold’s inability and unwillingness to look directly into his wife’s eyes and face while making love – apparently a long-held, intimacy avoiding trait, which is almost the undoing of their marriage.

I simply felt like drawing attention to “faces” today.  I don’t know what your particular “take away” will be from this blog, if anything, but I hope you risk looking more deeply and intimately at and into the faces of friends, family, and even day-to-day acquaintances, whether it’s the check-out person at your local grocer, your librarian, teacher, colleague, even that person who frustrates you to the 100th degree.

Perhaps like Arnold, if you persist in trying and looking into the faces of those within your concentric circles of relationships, you’ll experience a newfound, even heightened sense of respect and appreciation for the others in your life – maybe even call them by name.

 

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Insularity of Life and Faith Equates to Insecurity | The Example of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod

Last week, a side-margin story in The New York Times caught my eye.  Perhaps you’re aware of it. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/nyregion/lutheran-pastor-explains-role-in-sandy-hook-interfaith-service.html?_r=0.

A Lutheran pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, who lost a parishioner in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, was first reprimanded, then forgiven (only after writing a letter of apology).

His wrong doing?  Participating in an interfaith service for victims and their families where Muslims and Baha’is were also represented, and thereby, it was reasoned by Synod leadership, that the pastor, Bob Morris, in effect endorsed the false teaching of those religions, as well as communicated to the LCMS’s 2.3 million members that religious differences are unimportant.

Thank God for another LCMS pastor, David H. Benke, who unlike Morris refused to apologize for participating in a similar post-9/11 interfaith service. He said of the Synod’s demand for Morris to apologize, “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it.  If we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?”

If you read my “concluding thoughts” in Calling A Spade A Spade, you’ll know that I perceive Americans are largely unconscious of how much “power,” and its corollary “control,” are aspects of our cultural heritage, worldview and faith.

I see our propensity to power and control as largely to-be-expected results of a century and a half of global political, economic and military predominance (aka, super power status).

Our “might,” as it were, is in many respects a by-product and development from a much prior historical moment, more than a millennium and a half ago, when in the 4th century, emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the Roman imperial religion.

Overnight almost Christianity went from a status of being a small and persecuted sect within Judaism, to one wedded to and wielding immense political, economic and military power. The entanglement of faith and power were no where more vividly depicted, I’ve read, than on a Roman centurion’s weaponry, where the insignia of the cross was displayed.

The seeds of this faith-political entanglement were exported to the Americas by the first shipload of Puritans on The Mayflower in 1620, and in my opinion, are evident in LCMS’s (and other U.S. conservative denominations, such as Southern Baptist) effort to control what Benke rightly refers to as the “public square” of religious discourse.

Concluding Thoughts:

Growing up I remember a neighbor lady taking me to a movie cinema along with her kids.  The movie didn’t leave an impression on me, but how this lady tried to shield us from the “evils” of secular society, did.  That is – she refused us early entrance to the cinema, so as to prevent us from viewing the movie trailers and advertisements.  I can’t fault her motives and intentions, but I can her reasoning.

One has to wonder how the LCMS censors its ministers when it comes to preaching from the New Testament, and the many sacrosanct life stories of “their Jesus.” After all, there are many scripture passages in which Jesus associates with and alongside the equivalent of a pervasive, even dominant religious and cultural plurality, false teachers, and social and moral pariahs (prostitutes, tax collectors, murderers and criminals).

In my opinion the LCMS’s logic and decision to disengage from the so-called false teachings and corrupting influence of religious diversity, particularly for such a hallowed event as an interfaith prayer service for victims of a massacre, convey at least two realities.

One, the reality of an accustomed life of societal privilege, whereby the LCMS leadership, in particular, and perhaps many of its 2-million members have little or no social and material need, and no compelling circumstances whereby they have to associate with anyone different from themselves.

And secondly, in contrast to what the LCMS are attempting to convey – a uncompromising allegiance to Jesus Christ and his message of eternal life – they are, in effect, communicating its opposite: an insular and insecure faith.  A faith that is so frail and unsure of its own relationship to God, that it requires the separation from and the damnation of billions of people so as to false-assure themselves that they are among “the final elect.”

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Calling a Spade a Spade | Church Mission Trips – More Self-Serving Than Other-Serving

Last week I heard of a local church planning several mission trips to East Africa in 2013.  As a child of missionaries, myself, I’d like to speak to the immense popularity of mission trips among “Christian America,” recognizing and risking that readers might take exception to my perspective.

Mission trip promotional poster

Typical mission trip promotional poster

I acknowledge that this is not a thorough and researched treatise, as it were, on church mission trips. Rather, it’s a short, somewhat atypical perspective, which I hope will provoke at least a modest questioning and rethinking about mission trips.  I do not disparage any and all “good,” which might result from such trips, but I’m unconvinced “the good” outweighs “the bad.”

It seems to me that the underlying, oft-times unconscious purpose of many, if not most church mission trips, especially short-term and itinerant ones, could be typified as: 1) Self-enrichment; 2) Finding self and a life meaning; 3) Growing my church and “the kingdom”; and 4) Holiday-with-a-social-service add-on.  These, in contrast to an altruism of commitment to the well-being of “the different and distant others,” who according to Desmond Tutu, we should consider as “family.”

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, professor of global studies and sociology in the Global and International Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as author of White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, made two observations about Christian missions, which I agree with.  Although he wrote in the past tense of the 19th and early 20th centuries, regrettably, I believe little has changed today.

whiteonblack

First, missions were (are) engaged in, at least in part, as a rejuvenating cure for the home church’s faltering spiritual and numerical decline.

Secondly, fund-raising for overseas’ mission ventures was (is) dependent upon conveying a “demonized image of the heathen under the devil’s spell, and on the other the romanticized self-image of the missionary in the role of saviour.”

The two stereotypes were (are) interdependent, in that, “The glory as well as the fund-raising of the missions were (are) in direct proportion to the degradation and diabolism of the heathen.”  Btw – I could easily corroborate the continued practice of this second point simply by sharing verbatim from several recent emails in my Inbox.

My postgraduate mentor was insistent in telling students that language is formative in shaping people’s perceptions, attitudes and actions toward people different.  For example, he especially disliked the term “non-Christian,” because it implies a standard of value measurement, in which “Christian” is the absolute or sole source of good and truth, while any and all things and persons “non-Christian” are less-than. Instead, when possible, use an expression like “people of other faiths.”

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

In the same spirit, he warned students not to use “uneducated” in their semester research papers, because that too communicates a less-than-me attitude toward someone different and less economically fortunate.  Rather, in referring to a person(s) who lacks a school education, say something like “s/he lacks formal education,” but don’t ever say “uneducated” because many “uneducated people” of the world are without question some of its most intellectually brightest.

One example is the Khoi and Bushmen of Southern Africa’s Khoisan language compared to the relative simplicity of the English language. An early explorer’s impressions of the Khoisan language, as taken from Lancaster’s Voyages, states, “Their speech is wholly uttered through the throat, and they cluck with their tongues in such sort, that in seven weeks which we remained here in this place, the sharpest wit among us could not learn a word of their language.”

A San family

A San family

Many recipients of “Christian humanitarianism” of the 18th through 21st centuries, experienced “mission” in a less-than self and culture-affirming manner (*the enmeshing of Bible and Christianity with imperialism, colonialism, and present-day globalization is well-known, and succinctly depicted by historian Brian Stanley’s book The Bible and The Flag) .  

Bible&Flag

The coupling of so-called “good news” and reigning political and economic power is evident in a well-known statement attributed to Kenya’s independence fighters, the Mau Mau, “Formerly we owned the land and the whites had the Gospel. Then the missionaries came, they taught us to pray and close our eyes, and in the meantime the whites took our land. Now we have the Gospel and they have the land.”  

Despite advocates who argue that “mission” is a neutral term, citing its popular and frequent use in the corporate world of “mission statements,” from my perspective “mission” persists in conveying power, control and militaristic imagery, and communicates the idea that somethings or someones need “saving” or “saving from.”  It’s a tacit admission that “they” and “them” need “us” in order to experience a happy and fulfilled life, find God, and obtain a “get-into-heaven” pass code.

If you question my evidence for the historical and continued militaristic conveyance of “Christian missions,” spend some time researching church and missionary archives such as the Congregationalists’ American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  You will observe that young boys and girls were organized into local “Mission Crusader” clubs, all with the express purpose of “fighting for Christ and His Kingdom . . . against the Evil one and his Kingdom.”  In the mid-1840s, the analogy of Napoleon’s conquests was utilized as incitement and preparation for overseas missions.

American Board missionary to Syria, Eli Smith, in an address to members of the Society of Inquiry stated, “They forget that the object for which the church is organized, is not so much the maintenance of fortresses already taken and garrisoned, as for universal conquest.”  Later he described foreign missions as a “foreign war.”  Furthermore, each issue of The Missionary Herald (mission magazine) contained sections entitled “Recent Intelligence” and “Foreign Intelligence.”

Although a missionary was supposed to be a spiritual herald of good news and an ambassador of God’s love, his primary vocation, according to the American Board’s own “mission commander,” Rufus Anderson, was as soldier to the cross.  Their order was to “make conquests, and to go on . . . ‘conquering and to conquer’. . . the idea of continued conquest is fundamental in missions to the heathen.” Elsewhere he wrote that the “idea of spiritual conquest is the predominant and characteristic idea of the [mission] enterprise.”

bibleflag

Concluding thought:

What prompted this blog’s topic, and what disturbs me most about the popularity and fondness of Americans for overseas mission trips, is the absence of much, if any, suggestion or emphasis on reciprocity – i.e., the idea that American Christians need “them” (the religious and cultural “different others” targeted by mission groups) as much as, if not more than they need us.

Church mission trips, from my perspective – with some exceptions, of course – persist in demonstrating and communicating a singular, single stream attitude and perspective: We save them, We help them, We give to them, We pray for them, We teach them, We heal them, et cetera.

As former Columbia University professor, Edward Said, persuasively argued in his book Orientalism, identity is a construction, and as such, it is “bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society.”  What I have discovered through years of exposure to mission groups is that by and large Christian Americans are seldom conscious of how entwined with their nation’s own Super Power status their faith and worldview is.

It is disappointing that churches are quick to organize, promote and engage in overseas mission trips, yet upon questioning them, one often finds their awareness of and involvement in their very own residential backyards (communities/cities) unknown and unmet. The movie Blind Side depicted this side of Christian America, in that many of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s (Sandra Bullock) rich friends were aghast that she involved her family in the life of a young black man from a poor, crime ridden section of the city.

Meanwhile mission trips and their participants repeatedly convey to the world’s poor and struggling people of Americans’ economic and political power / dominance by spending billions of dollars on airfare, visas, travel inoculations, 3 to 5 star hotel accommodation, food, travel accessories, clothing, and most times a final several days’ “safari” – a great percentage of which monies, could arguably have been spent on direct aid to people and communities in need.

I’m not necessarily advocating eliminating church mission trips.  But I do think, at minimum, they should be re-named for what they are.

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

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Frazzled, Frustrated or Fearful? Focus on Your “Grass”

Several years ago I asked a friend and former senior executive at Markinor, a market research firm, how they came to a single-word mission statement.

Sylvia recounted the following short story, which I paraphrase from memory.

One evening during a private school board meeting she asked one of the members, a dairy farmer from Mooi River in KwaZulu-Natal, what or who he credited for turning his near bankrupt farm into a profitable one.  She expected any variety of business-type responses, from restructuring to equipment upgrade to marketing.  His response surprised her, as I’m sure it will you – and as it did me.

He said, “I tried this and that for a period of time, yet my multi-focused, fix-it management approach only heightened my personal anxiety and stress, leaving unchanged the farm’s dire financial bottom-line.”

Frustration, anxiety and despondency miraculously gave way one day, like a fog dissipating as the sun rises, when he came to the realization that most variables were beyond his control, including weather, drought, market prices, insect infestation, disease, and consumer demand.

One thing, however, was largely under his control . . . grass.

He then began to focus time and effort on his pastures. Before long, he told Sylvia, his cows were producing record quantity and quality of milk, and the secondary result was a healthy profit margin.

dairy cows

Concluding thought:

A frequent personal challenge of mine these days is focus. After two and a half years of full-time managing our home for three active, school age girls, plus weekly volunteering in client rights at a state mental health hospital, all while my wife completes her advanced practice nursing studies, leaves little time and energy for what is always foremost, yet of necessity, on the back burner of my mind – re-engagement of a full-time job search.  Each day’s challenge is identifying the “one thing” that most requires my attention.

When I hear any “one thing” kind of story, I am always reminded of a line in the movie City Slickers.

Perhaps you, too, identify with Mitch’s (Billy Crystal) near state of emotional frazzled-ment, which in effect, pushed him away from work, home, family and city, in a one last-ditch effort to find an inner sense of peace and fulfillment on a dude cattle drive.

One day rough and scary trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance) asks Mitch “Do you know what the secret of life is?”

Mitch replies, “No, what?”

Curly holds his index finger up and Mitch says, “What? Your finger?”

onething

“Curly” – Jack Palance in City Slickers

Curly responds, “One thing.  Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”

Mitch says, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?”

Curly answers, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

I hope this story of a dairy farmer focusing on his grass can be a visual motivation and priority reminder as you live out each day.

Perhaps if you’re successful in identifying and tending to that one important variable in your life, job, business, marriage, child-rearing or studies, it will – like the dairy farmer – have far-reaching and positive secondary results in other areas as well.

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Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend

Let me tell you about my former friend Peter Khosa.

Peter was a refugee from Mozambique, who I first met in 1990 in the small town of Malamulele, in what is now Limpopo Province, South Africa.  Peter was managing a non-profit food relief project for thousands of people fleeing Mozambique’s civil war.

Peter distributing food to two refugee children.

Peter Khosa distributing food to two children.

Peter’s English was imperfect, yet eloquent.  He was the hardest worker I have known.  In order to support his immediate family of six, plus, family in Mozambique, including parents, Peter bought an old 4×4 bakkie (pick-up truck), and made weekly trips of 900+ kilometers to purchase bulk fresh produce, including cabbage, onions, potatoes and citrus.  His wife, Rosa, then sold the produce for minimal profit in two local open-air markets.

Peter & Rosa's "bakkie" (truck) and vegetable stall.

Peter & Rosa’s “bakkie” (truck) and vegetable stall.

 

Peter's family

Peter’s family

Peter died in 2007 of brain cancer – a disease he fought for five years.

Peter Khoza

Peter

I take this opportunity to share how Peter affected and shaped my life.  I am a bi-cultural person, who was born in the United States, yet grew up in Africa.

In addition to his ethos of hard work, Peter was extremely truthful and candid.  He didn’t put on airs of niceness merely to please (or deceive). Two cases in point:

One day in Thohoyandou, Venda, my wife and I had several unexpected visitors.  Offering hot tea or coffee, plus something to eat, was a Venda cultural expression of respect to visitors, and my wife did this with our three Venda male visitors.  Not long into their visit, Peter also unexpectedly showed up.  After greetings were exchanged my wife brought Peter something to drink and eat without asking, but upon offer, Peter politely declined.

tea

His “cheeky candor” became a topic of light-hearted discussion among our Venda guests. “Oh, but you have to accept it, Peter!  We have just ‘trained’ Mme a Daniel (mother of Daniel) in the ways of our culture and now you’ve gone and sown confusion in her mind.”  Peter responded, “But I’m not hungry!  Why should I accept and waste food and drink when I have no need?”  Discussion continued over cultural differences between such close neighbors as the Venda and Shangaan people.

A final example of Peter’s candor.  One late afternoon he, along with his wife and a friend of hers, arrived unannounced at our house.  I had spent the afternoon making what I believed to be an excellent potjiekos (=small pot food), an Afrikaaner “stew” cooked in a three-legged, cast iron, Dutch rounded potjie (cooking pot), which is slow-cooked on an open fire.  A hint of what is to come . . . I had been taught the “art” of potjiekos cooking from a fellow American, although in fairness to him, my culinary skills should not be blamed on anyone but myself.

On this occasion I recall making a potjiekos of chunks of fresh beef, white onions, potatoes, slices of mango, and a generous dash of red wine.  A secret of good potjiekos – so I’m told – is in choosing the right ingredients, on correctly layering the ingredients, and on slow and precise cooking.

A potjie on an open fire.

A potjie on an open fire.

We invited our guests in, and despite their insistence that they were not in great need of food, I served them my “delicious” potjiekos, anyway.  My wife and I then sat across from them at the dining table.  We engaged in conversation, all the while I kept expecting them to comment on how delicious my potjiekos was.  Affirmation never came. Food consumed, they excused themselves.

We walked them to the front gate and their bakkie.  As they were driving off and we were waving, Peter suddenly did a 360-degree turn.  He drove up alongside us, stopped, rolled down his window, placed his hand on my arm, and smilingly stated, “My friend, when you come to my house I will teach you how to cook!”  With that he rolled the window up and drove off into the darkening night, leaving a cloud of fine red Venda dust in his wake.  He was true to his word.  Another day, another time, he made me Portuguese style food, including a large steak, topped with two or three medium fried eggs, served with a generous portion of “chips” (french fries), a side salad, and a large glass of Coke.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

In addition to Peter’s candor, what some might mistake for impoliteness, he also frequently demonstrated affection and vulnerability.

One time I spent several nights at Peter and Rosa’s house. One evening, just prior to dinner, he suggested we take a walk in the neighborhood.  As to its relevance, you decide, but know that Malamulele is mostly, if not entirely, a “black town.”  Its city center consisted of a few small shops and cafes. Neighborhoods included a mixture of face-brick homes with tiled roofs, to rural looking thatched rondavels. Needless to say, a white man walking in the community, while not unheard of, was not common.

"Three Rondavels" in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

“Three Rondavels” in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

At some point during our stroll, and as Peter pointed out different features of his community to me, several fingers of one hand softly held my own.  It was then him leading me around the neighborhood.

Black,+white+handshake+hands

I’m as “American male” as the next person, and it took a few seconds or minutes, I can’t say exactly which, before I was able to come to terms with this newfound, and highly cultural “holding hands experience.”  After my inner macho man-ness was convinced that the experience did not awaken any latent gay feelings of pleasure, and that no bystanders were aghast, I actually appreciated the feeling that came from knowing Peter took my hand because he felt a close kinship with me – that I had become to him like a brother and family.  Holding hands then became to me something of a badge of honor.

Concluding thought:

All of this is to say . . . I miss close friendships and “connectedness” like what I shared with Peter.  A friend who is kind yet candid, who offers you his best hospitality and troubles himself to walk the neighborhood with you, taking your hand, and showing you what you might not otherwise have seen or experienced.

I’m almost three years into Austin residency and I have yet to feel much connection to this city and its people.  I’m sure the fault is shared by me.

Initially, and as a newcomer, I sought some measure of connection through the tradition I grew up in, that is, church and the Christian community.  In those faith communities my family and I frequented, I did find “nice” people, yet my family’s experience suggests one becomes an “insider” by coming to them, reaching out to them, and it helps significantly if you have disposable and leisure income, which can enable you to participate fully in all social and “ministry” events.

I find it somewhat ironic that in what many people call “Christian America,” my family have had as many if not more invitations to dinners, parties, house dedications, and even offers of job networking from Hindu and Muslim neighbors and friends, including our girls’ school friends’ families, than from full-time pastoral staff of my own faith tradition or members. Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this generalization.

 

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