Missions Musings 16: The controlling legacy

bulsagaWe’ve inherited a legacy.

My mum always said, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.’   I try to operate by that principle with my blog posting.  Ok, I revise it a little.  It goes more like this: ‘If you don’t have something to be appropriately critical, insightful or encouraging to say, then don’t say it at all.’

Hence my lack of Missions Musings in the past 6 months.  Yes, life has been that ordinary.  But here I am for number 16 to break a few missiology rules, be a little politically incorrect and probably succumb to some form of colonial indiscretion.

Here it goes:

If I was to summarise my time in Bulgaria with one word I would choose the word ‘control’.

When I reflect on my time growing up in Australia I was blessed with the freedom to do what I want, when I want and how I want.  I’m sure that I annoyed my parents, teachers, Bible college professors and the like no end.  I could choose what I would study at university.  I could choose if I wanted to get a job or not.  I had complete control – or so I felt.

I sound like a spoiled brat!

Whatever I may have been I rarely felt as though I was fighting the system to be able to live my life.

Since arriving in Bulgaria we have felt as though we have been doing nothing but fighting the system.  We have felt like a piece of property, or a possession.  We were a resource to be used as the owner felt.  We were not our own.  Whether is was government, church denominations, individual churches, other organizational bodies, and sometimes even friends, we were at their mercy and under their control… well, so they thought.

Why was this, and was this necessarily a bad thing?

I’ve thought a fair bit about this issue because of the pervading reach of it.  My conclusions are not conclusions per se, but thoughts about how this cultural phenomena might be comprehended by a foreigner trying to make it long-term in this country.

brotherFirstly, communism is the elephant in the room.  Control was how the communist rulers perpetuated ideology, and perhaps more importantly its own rule.  If you wanted to head to Sofia for the weekend you would have to report to the police when you left your village and report to the police when you arrived in Sofia.  You could not pack up and move villages or cities easily for work, etc.   If you were a teacher you would holiday with the other teachers.  The engineers with the engineers, and so on, and so on.  The family was dismembered and subjected to the control of the state.

It is clear that this method of operation is still a major part of the DNA of the government structures and voices within it, the non-govenment structures, and also the church.

I’ve observed that the release of control to others in nearly non-existent.  It is closely guarded.  Micro-managing is the natural tendency.  Dissenting voices are not welcome and quickly shut down.  There is next to no leadership development and handover.

As you could therefore imagine, our feeling of being controlled is a fairly normal thing.  A day in the life of 7.2 million Bulgarians.  Our experience is not an exception.  We are just another stat in the fat part of the bell curb experiencing the same thing as everybody else.  It is culture clash.  We are resources to be controlled.  We are a resource that is available for the leaders to use when they see fit.  If you don’t fit then you get thrown out.  It’s really that simple.

Secondly, the culture of control, especially within churches, was in part set up and perpetuated by the workers that have gone ahead of us.  That is, we’ve inherited a legacy of missions that was characterised by control.

Let me explain.  I believe that all cultures should be viewed through the lens of the Bible and critiqued appropriately.  After the changes (late 80’s), it was imperative that the church was lensgiven the skills to evaluate how they have been impacted by communism.  They needed to be able to evaluate themselves in light of the gospel.  They needed to become something from the start that was characterised by biblical principles rather than something that was characterised by assumed communist ones.  Once the changes had happen and the tsunami of ‘missionaries’ flooded in, it was their duty to set up proper working relationships with whatever existing churches there were and the ones that subsequently sprung up.  It appears that these missionaries set up autocratic church structures and relationships, and served within them as such.

Our experience has been that there is a general tendency for churches to treat ‘missionaries’ (forgive the use of the horrible term!) as a commodity.  When I look at the recent past this is not an uncommon story for most workers.  They’ve been subjected to church/denomination control in no uncertain terms.  If they haven’t performed as they ‘should have’ then they were given the royal boot.  This treatment seems to me to be the mere out working of a certain mission legacy that was implemented by the post-fall workers, perpetuated by certain missiological practices since, that is now turning around and biting us newbies on the behind!

Question: Why have we been subject to such a culture of control?

Answer: Bulgaria’s communist past and mission legacy.

I’m not so sure that I’ve nailed this, but I think that I am getting close.  I’d really appreciate my Bulgarian friends to give some input into this.  Being on the inside you would have a much different perspective than me, which I am really interested to hear.



0 Days to Christmas…

Budni_Vecher-620x465Tonight we had the boys from the Learning Center Borovtsi over for Christmas Eve.  In Bulgarian it is called Budni Vecher (Бъдни вечер).  This is the normally a big family occasion.

It’s been a full half day.

Before we began dinner we had a little time to talk about Christmas.  Of course we talked about Jesus’ birth, but we tried to move the discussion of the birth narrative to the Biblical meta-narrative, that is, how Jesus fits into the bigger picture.

This has been my theme for my ‘X Days to Christmas…’ blog posts.   Christmas is not just about the incarnation of Jesus.  It is about God acting decisively in history to save his people from their sins.

For this reason I created a video for the men to watch.  The theme that I try to capture is purpose in confusion.  This is a theme that they know well.

The video is called ‘Unnamed soundsculpture’ and it was created by Daniel Franke.  You can see the original and/or download it here at Vimeo.  I placed biblical text over the top of the film.

The text recounts the big picture that unfolds in the Bible: Creation, fall, redemption, re-creation.

The arrival of Jesus in history is momentous because in the Jesus God brings hope to the hopeless, purpose to the purposeless, and order to chaos.

Jesus is good news.  Merry Christmas!

Racism: The Christian Way

Racism, in my mind, is one of the most grotesque distortions of the Gospel that we can find in the modern church.

Ok, so that was a pretty strong statement to start a post for a Saturday afternoon, but this one’s been brewing for some time.  Racism in the church is something that must be denounced in the strongest terms because it not only contradicts the content of the Gospel, but also undermines the impact of the gospel in the areas where racism and the Gospel coexist.

Firstly, racism is a form of self-centredness.  

Racism speaks more about the racist person and their needs and desires rather than about the person or group being marginalised by the racist.  The concept of racism relies upon a basic principle that can be observed everyday in a school playground, which for our purposes we will call the I’m Normal Your Not principle

It goes like this: Johnny calls Timmy fat and Timmy cries.  The issue here is that Johnny has constructed a norm that of course he himself fits into and which Timmy does not (no pun intended).

Normality is the issue.  What is normal and who fits that definition?  And who decides what is normal and who fits into it?

The problem lies within the view that to be normal is to be normal, which is just not the case.  In other words, as soon as any given individual slips from the realm of normal-ness they become not normal, which is code for being deficient or sub-human in some measure.  The dynamic between Johnny and Timmy is clear.  Once Timmy slips from the realm of normal because of his weight problem Johnny continues to exist in his normal state.  Due to Timmy’s slip, Johnny by default becomes superior.

Johnny is normal and therefore superior.

The point however is not the normal vs not normal dynamic per se, but the deliberate orchestration of this dynamic in order to gain the superior (normal) status.  How can this be orchestrated?  Easy.  Observe those characteristics in another person that are different from you due to their race (or whatever!) and then isolate and articulate these as not normal.  The result is that you will be normal and superior to the person that is different to you.

Well, that’s how they think anyway.

We can stoop lower still.  It is not uncommon to hear professing Christians isolate a particular race with the social circumstances that the marginalised often find themselves in.  So, smelling badly, not being able to think as one educated (whatever that means) and dressing poorly is synonymous with – those that are not normal.  Not only are they a lower class of being because of their racial identity, but they feel the brunt of some Christians’ ire because they smell, speak poorly and/or dress shabbily.

This deliberate use of race and associated social characteristics are highlighted by racists out of self-interest, which flies in the face of the most basic Christian teaching.

I was told the other day by a fellow Christian friend that he was not obligated to love gypsies.  Hmmm… well, that news to me!  Was Jesus just joking around when he said, ‘Love you neighbour as yourself’?  Was Jesus just engaging in the optional extra duties when he talked with the Samaritan woman at the well?  And what do we make of his eating with the tax collectors and other rabble?  What?  That was Jesus, but that is not our responsibility?

Of course not!

That Christians would treat other Christians of a different race in such a belittling manner because they look, smell, sound different is disgusting.  Such egoism and self-centredness is far removed from the kind of interaction that Jesus teaches his followers to engage in.

Secondly, racism demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Gospel.

Of late, me and my friend Vlado have been working our way through Ephesians 2 and 3.  One of the  distinct themes that you cannot miss (well, clearly you can!) is that Jesus has broken down the race barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles.   Reconciliation (among other things) with God is made available to all through Jesus Christ.  It’s pretty clear when we read this snazzy passage:

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.  I (Paul) became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things (Ephesians 3:6-9).

Racism is the turning back of the clock.  Racism strips the Gospel of its sheer beauty.  Racism grabs what Jesus has done away with and shoves it back into the spotlight and proclaims, ‘This is important!’  Racism builds a dividing wall of hostility (see 2:14), and implements the law with its commands and regulations (see 2:15).  There is not one in Christ but many: me, the racially superior creation, and you, the sub-par version.

The spiritual poverty of this view of the Gospel is far worse than any material poverty that some Gypsy will ever live through!

Thirdly, racism misunderstands church and eschatology.

The final eschatological (end times) scene is one of corporate worship.  Have a look at Revelations 7:9-10 at the picture that the writer creates for us.  He makes specific reference to those praising the Lamb as consisting of all sorts.  And they are together:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice...

The picture is one of corporate worship of God; a gathering of many for one purpose, which is not a phenomenon that we see only in the eschaton.  The church partially realises this future reality in the present, which the New Testament is constantly talking about.  The variables that we read about are predictable: young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentiles.  This is the composition of the church in the eschaton and in the present.

For goodness sake, the heart of Paul’s letters were often addressing the discontent and doctrinal error that was found between the Jews and Gentiles.  And how quickly do we forget Paul’s courageous rebuke of Peter for separating himself from Gentiles when eating.  Multiculturalism is not a social engineering fad of the 90’s, but a Gospel reality in the future and present!

It is not enough to merely placate this idea, to agree, to nod.  After Paul’s rebuke, Peter needed to rearrange his theology, his life, and his actions.  He needed a new understanding of race in light of the Gospel.  In our churches today many pastors agree that racism is bad, yet their churches do not reflect this commitment.  I’ve been told that some pastors chase away those of different races because the other church members feel uncomfortable and have threatened to leave.

My response to these pastors is simple: let them leave!

Please God spare us the day that our pastors (myself included) care more about keeping people in pews rather than being faithful to the Gospel and the implications of it.  The church is not a place that should engage with or perpetuate racism in any shape or form because it undermines the very foundation of the church – the Gospel.

Racism is a blight on God’s church because, if understood rightly as self-centred elitism, it is the antithesis of Jesus’ message and cross-work.  We would do well to remember Paul’s proclamation of Jesus’ humility before God his father in Philippians 2:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mindDo nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselvesnot looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

45% of people in Bulgaria…

Yemen is an amazing country.

I’ve been there twice to catch up with a good mate who works there.  It is beautiful and the people there were amazingly warm and hospitable.  The smiles of Adeeb and Mohammed stick clearly in my mind.

If you were to do a google search on Yemen you would quickly learn that it is a country that is ravaged by political corruption, sectarian violence, religious extremism, tribal bickering, poverty, and every other ill under the sun.  People live on under $2 dollars a day in this country.  You’re getting the picture, right?  It’s not a nice place to live.

Now, if I was to say that a Gallup poll (here) was taken in an effort to rank countries according to how they are thriving and suffering it would be of no surprise to you to find out that Yemen polled really badly.  It comes in near the very bottom – 2nd last.  I’m surprised that they didn’t come in last!

I was also surprised to find out who had the dubious distinction of coming in last on the suffering scale.  I mean, imagine this country.  It must be hell on earth!  If I was forced to make a guess as to who would take the honours I would have gone with a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan, or a Central American country like Mexico or Guatemala (sorry Carrrrrrlos).

What country has the greatest percentage of people suffering on the planet?  And the winner is…. Bulgaria!  Yes, disbelief and shock are appropriate reactions, and it wins by not a small margin too.  In Yemen 38% of its population are suffering, whereas in Bulgaria a staggering 45% of people are suffering.  Wow!  That is nearly one in every two people.

So what does one make of this?  Are people really suffering more in Bulgaria than people in countries like Yemen, Syria, Iran and Southern Sudan?  I mean, c’mon, they’re being bombed, shelled and snipered by their own governments in these places.

For those of us that have the privilege of living in Bulgaria and having an outsider’s perspective on things, this poll comes as no real surprise.  Why?

Yes, Bulgaria is plagued by corruption on all levels and it has its own fair share of social ills and poverty, but we need to remember what this poll is measuring.  Have a quick read:

Suffering — wellbeing that is at high risk. These respondents have poor ratings of their current life situation (4 and below) AND negative views of the next five years (4 and below). They are more likely to report lacking the basics of food and shelter, more likely to have physical pain, a lot of stress, worry, sadness, and anger. They have less access to health insurance and care, and more than double the disease burden, in comparison to “thriving” respondents.

We all know that measurement is problematic when there is no standardised measure, and we must understand that this poll has not been carried out according to a standardised measure.  That is, this poll is not a comparative study of life situations by an objective 3rd party, but is rather a subjective personal response to certain questions about one’s present situation.  For the most part this poll is psychoanalysis.  It measure not how do living conditions compare in various countries, but rather, how do individuals within their respective countries respond to their present situation.

Of course, there is a strong correlation between wealth and thriving, and poverty and suffering, but the fact that Bulgaria comes in last on the suffering list is indicative of a national psyche that is struggling to cope with the present conditions, whatever they are.  But what are they?

Let me put it this way.  I haven’t heard of any Bulgarians looking to immigrate to Iran,  although there are plenty of Iranians already in Bulgaria, and I’m sure there are plenty more that are seeking to get here.

So what’s the story?

One of the first conclusions that I drew about the Bulgarian culture after being here a short time was that the average Joe, or Boris as is the case here, is wracked by fear and hopelessness.

It is palpable!

The causes are complex and historically rooted.

In the present, Bulgarians live within a capitalist system that has proven to be impotent and incapable of providing them with a standard of living and way of life that was promised to them.  Then of course there is the not so recent communist rule that shaped a vast proportion of the minds and hearts of the people who live in Bulgaria today.  And then there is the older but still relevant events of the 500 years of oppression by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

Bulgaria is a product of its past.  It reflects on the current situation and thinks of the future in light of the events of the past.  It has good reason to be fearful and hopeless.  While the government is not shelling its citizens, and while elections are for the most part fair and just, the average Bulgarian is trapped within a life that is fearful of the present and hopeless about the future.

I’ve never pretended to be Bulgarian, and I don’t pretend to understand the average Boris’ predicament – all I know is that to be Bulgarian is to suffer.

The Gospel has never been more relevant in Bulgaria.

The Real Easter Celebration

We celebrated Easter in the West last weekend, and now we see that the church in the East is in the middle of their Easter festive season.  So when should we really celebrate it?

I reckon it’s a good question to ask.

Last Friday I wrote about how our small group/church in Borovtsi was celebrating Easter even though we were a tad early. In our Friday Easter (though not Easter) study and reflection we looked at how our view of Jesus and his cross-work cannot be understood apart from the salvation signifying events of the Old Testament, in particular the events surrounding the miraculous saving of the Israelites from the oppressive Egyptian regime.

In similar fashion to the study, my post focussed on how the cross is not able to be separated from the larger story being played out on the canvas of history, as recorded in the text of the Bible.

The centrality of Jesus’ cross-work in (redemptive) history sheds light on when we should celebrate the Easter events.

Of course, we all know the answer to the question, ‘When should we celebrate Easter?’ – let’s say in unison – ‘Every day!’

Easy question right?  Wrong!  For some reason we preachers and teachers seem to often miss this bit.

Two guys who also saw this basic answer to the posed question were Peter and Paul in that order, well, in Acts anyway.  If you don’t believe me, read their sermons in the book of Acts for yourself.

Ahhh, but Daniel you miss one vital point, and that is, that Peter and Paul were not speaking to churches or believers, but to unchurched non-believers.  Is this a fair point?  As a matter of fact I think it is, but before we move on please note their use of Jesus and his cross-work in their teaching.  He is the means for salvation, and also the reason for any given life response.

This being the case, have a glance then at Paul’s letters to the various churches in his care.  See how Jesus and his cross-work informs Paul’s instruction of not only how one is saved but how to live one’s life as one saved.  For Paul the so-called Easter events are the heart, soul and content of his teaching ministry.

Perhaps the events (understood as Jesus’ cross-work) should be the heart, soul and content of our teaching ministry too, but not only in theory, or in principle, or by implication, but in practice.

Indeed, Easter should be celebrated always.

Easter: An eternal reality in time

Easter does not reach us here in Bulgaria for another week, but because we leave for the Motherland (the UK) on Saturday for some R&R, we kinda have to get into the Easter groove a little early:)

This said, because we will be away for the Bulgarian Easter next week we decided to move our new fledgling church Easter celebration to today, the 6th of April.

So, as I contemplated the particular content that we would work through in our study I was challenged because our crew know very little about the Bible, Christian tradition, and other assorted church themes surrounding this celebration time.

I read through and pondered over the appropriate texts in Matthew and Luke and came up short looking for an angle to work with.  Why?  Because they all require prior knowledge.

Of what?

Well, where do you start?  The sacrificial system?  But what is this component of the law if one doesn’t understand the place that it holds within the law.  Furthermore, how could it be separated from the function of the law as a whole and its relationship to the Israelites as God’s chosen people?

Perhaps one should take a few steps back and begin at the passover?  But what is the point of the passover without understanding the reason for the passover in the first place.  Ah Ha!  It’s the Exodus… that’s it!  But what is the Exodus if one doesn’t understand the need for it, that is, their slavery under the Egyptians.  But whose slavery?  The Israelites, of course.  But who are they and why should they be saved by God from such bondage?  And so on and so on.

I find it fascinating that people are reticent to take hold of the Bible as a whole, as one story unfolding, a meta-narrative if you will.

When we come to the Bible as learners, as I am forced to each week as I try to prepare learning for some who have no prior knowledge (a very good lesson for me!), I am driven to the Old Testament to explain how God is at work in Jesus.

My conclusion: Easter, that is, Jesus’ death and resurrection, is a picture, a narrative and a reality.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we marvel at the way that God has brought all things together, according to his will.  It is a masterpiece that points to a master.  It contains large structural components, which give the picture form and substance, without neglecting nuance and subtlety, strokes which train the eye to the real subject.

Easter, understood as the death and resurrection of Jesus, is the culmination of a narrative that unfolds as the playwright would have it.  Life is the stage, and history has captured it.  God’s endeavour to redeem humankind is the plot line, which at times falters, due to the actors’ clumsiness and blindness to the script.  The two thieves evidence this.  The ending is as glorious as the beginning – life from chaos, where God is God.

Finally, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a reality.  Easter is a timeless truth – it reaches into the past, shaping it, conforming it.  It impacts the present as the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection takes root in the minds, and hearts of those who believe.   The death and resurrection of Jesus finds its completion in the future, as humanity and the world waits for the completion of time, when Jesus the risen king will return in glory.

This Easter in Borovtsi, Bulgaria, we will be learning about God in history, and his great plan to redeem a corrupted humanity, through the justifying cross-work of Jesus.