A New Genre: Reality from fantasy


pretendI was sitting in the James Cook University library each morning before class reading the newspapers, waiting for it to happen.  I unfortunately remember having that feeling of ‘Ooo, I can’t wait.’

Each day it got closer and closer.

It was inevitable.  It was a no-brainer.  They had them and they were a threat to not only their regional neighbours but also to every country in the world.

The photos were presented to convince me.  They did.  They were as clear as day.  It was all true.  Well, that was how it read anyway.

History has shown us that Saddam did not have the dreaded weapons of mass destruction or WMD’s, which in hindsight sounds more like a gaming acronym rather that a real life military threat.  In truth, the whole premise for the war has been shown to be as fanciful as the most realistic World of Warcraft scenario!

Eyes closed.

From the fanciful beginnings emerged a reality.  Shock and Awe was the descriptor given to the initial pounding of Bagdad, and it would be fair to say that ten years on the world is in shock and awe at what happened back in March of 2003.

It was the most tremendous ride, but it had an all too familiar ending.  We all know that feeling when you wake up baffled after the gritty realness of the dream.  It’s thrilling, until you wake up and realise it was, yep, just a dream.  It wasn’t true.  The reality is that this dreamtime ‘reality’ is composed of images, chemical surges and the odd bit of life-half-truth that takes on the form of real life.

A lie?  No, it is real.  It is a real dream

But how stupid is the person who wakes up and continues on as though their dream was reality and that real life was impacted by the make-believe?

Eyes opened.

Duped.

And like any sick practical joke the pranksters swagger off and the poor ol’ fool is left to clean themselves up – the humiliation of defeat, the grotty slimed face, lying on the floor wondering why those guys joined in and why everyone else just sat around and watched it happen.

Now the fantasy turned reality is starting to be retold.

Last night I was watching the RT News channel and I watched a small documentary on the dramatic rise in incidences in birth defects in Fallujah, Iraq.  The pictures were horrendous!  The hospital administrator who was documenting the incidences linked the defects to the phosphorous bombs that were dropped by the US.

Then today, I saw a letter written by a US servicemen who posted a scathing online letter regarding the fanciful dream.  He states:

“You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans – my fellow veterans – whose future you stole.”

The ‘you’ in the letter is referring to the then president of the United States, George W Bush.

So what do you do with the most powerful man in the world who at best made a mistake, or at worst lied in order to begin a war that ended up killing up to 190 000 people, 70% of who were civilians?

No fantasy of mine every had that costly a reality, but then again, I was never a Prime Minister or President.

Today we see the roles reversing.  We read about the fantasies of the North Koreans and how they are targeting the US nation on the basis of these realities.  Would we agree that the basis for their war waging is preposterous?  Of course, but we should slow a little to also acknowledge that their idea is no more preposterous than the one that we were all sold some ten years ago.

And so we return to the poor ol’ Iraqis.

A fitting end would be to finish where we started – pretending.  Let’s pretend that it is over and nothing ever happened.

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Jesus’ Patchwork Kindness


blingJesus didn’t really mean it.

Is it true that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said in Mark 10:17 when he told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor?

How do we play this text away to justify that Jesus didn’t really mean it?

Most often we use the ol’ Jesus was really talking about the man’s heart.  However, it should concern us not a little that Jesus did not say, ‘Have an attitude of the heart that demonstrates that you would sell all your possessions and give them to the poor and come and follow me.’  This is not in the text.

question_markBut let’s ponder this line of reasoning for a minute.  If we truly had the attitude that we would sell it all, what would the circumstance be where we would put that commitment into action?  Hmmm…

I’m pretty sure that whatever circumstance we might insert here actually exists, which presents a bit of problem.  By our own reasoned standard, who of us has the proposed attitude of the heart that is willing to actually sell all we have and give it to the poor when the occasion arrives?

As I prepare for a seminar on the topic ‘Is is possible to have faith?’ (for a Bulgarian primarily secular audience) I’ve been reading a bit of Dietrich Bonheoffer.  It is impossible to not be challenged by the guy, especially when you get hold of chapter 2 in The Cost of Discipleship where he breaks down our rationalising and relativising of the said text.

He takes the last clause of the text (come and follow me) as serious as the selling everything clause.  Jesus is demanding a life of commitment, not merely commitment.

I think the way that we render this text has implications on the way that we help the poor.  We’re not obligated to sell all we have to help the poor and so we live this out.  We don’t sell what we have to help the poor.

imagesInstead our lives become patchwork gifts.

We find a cause here or there to contribute to out of our excess and in so doing we fail to engage with Jesus’ point – die to self and follow me.

We give cups of water when we a) manage to find a spare cup b) have some spare water lying around c) have some spare time to hand it over and c) find a spark of motivation to do it.

This means that our lives are not characterised by a) sacrificing our own wants for others’ needs and b) giving to the poor and needy, let alone c) following Christ.

Maybe Jesus means what he says.

If you want get a hold of this personally, head on over to www.thecriticalgap.org and get on board.  Or like The Critical Gap facebook group here

Trumbo, wallpaper and a bad musician


trumboLast night I watched a documentary about Dalton Trumbo (1905 – 1976).

Trumbo was a movie director that won a number of Academy Awards, however, he was not able to accept them because he had been blacklisted for being associated with the commies in an era when red was definitely not in vogue.

His name was sullied for the next 10 years when in 1947 he refused to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about how communism was impacting Hollywood.  Trumbo’s refusal to testify earned him 11 months in prison for contempt – a charge he never denied, even after his release.

Is this modus operandi a relic?

If one does not live a life that is the result of conscious decision-making that is based upon core values, what steers the course of one’s life?

Trumbo’s actions and other similarly principled lives have become a bit like wallpaper to us, in two ways.

paperFirstly, like wallpaper, they are a bit eccentric.  Like the passionate violinist who bothers us at the restaurant table for some coinage on a Friday night – quirky, but a bit odd, cute, but a little on the pongy side – they stand out from the crowd.  We go on eating our penne polo and drinking our Belgian pilsner hoping the next mouthful will be minus the accompaniment.  But this vain attempt to rid them from our dinner existence is futile. They do exist and they will impact our meal and our evening whether we succumb and dish out the spare change or not.

Never mind, it will soon be over.  The eccentric violinist who was wrecking our meal vanishes to table 34.

Out of sight and out of conscience.

People like Trumbo confront our conscience.  They stand up and stand out because they stand on principles.  We are forced to deal with them whether we like it or not.  I find ignoring them or placating them is easiest.

Secondly, people like Trumbo are like wallpaper because in the end they do disappear into the banality of our own principled-less lives.  At first they shock (good or bad) and then they becomes like the off-white paint.  You don’t see them.  They blend in and become a part of life’s clutter.  You walk in and you don’t notice the lively colour and difference anymore.

But wallpaper is wallpaper.

Blindfolded1Trumboesques make the principled-less life not only seem banal but prove that it is banal. Through a sleight of mind trick one might move the inconvenience out of sight and out of conscience, but this bares little on the real contrast between their lives and our own.

No, Trumbo’s actions against the un-American, House of Un-American Activities Committee were not something that someone just does.  People rarely stand for the sake of standing.  Most often they have worked through the issues and have decided on which hill they will die.

And so we arrive at one pertinent monologue that stood out to me in the documentary.  I forget now his exact words, but Trumbo pinpointed what he thought was the modern curse, or perhaps more accurately put, the Western modern curse.

Choice.

One can decide to go with the pastels and off-whites, or one can decide to go with the bright colour.  The problem, which Trumbo highlighted, is that the sheer quantity of choice is blinding.

Rather ironic.

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.

 

10 Days to Christmas… a killing


chrisyThis weekend we have been reminded that evil cares little for our festive season.

When we read that 20 odd children have been gunned down in cold blood we stop and wonder.  We wonder about many things, including what could have been.  This was Obama’s point.  These kids will not get to enjoy growing up and enjoying the best of life.  Their families will forever wonder about what could have been.

We also wonder how someone can be so evil and carry out such a heinous crime?

How can we not wonder how such a developed country can have such an undeveloped sense of duty to their own people?

rightsWhile their kids are being slain in their classrooms the world watches and shakes it head at a nation that is too proud to rewrite history.  It cannot bring itself to change its God-given right to carry arms; even for the sake of the most innocent and vulnerable people in their country – children.

Some might say that this is not the time for such a discussion but clearly it is.  Is there are a better time to deal with this issue than now?  We are supposed to be celebrating the time-honoured notion of peace on earth and goodwill to all men (people?), but instead it is being shot down around us.

Like last time, and the time before that, and the time before that, and, well, you get the picture, we pray for the families that are left to deal with the horror that has happened.

A merry christmas is not likely for many.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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.

Missions Musings 15: Sneaky sneaky


Colonialism is a swearword.

Why?

Well, look what Mr Dictionary.com has to say…

co·lo·ni·al·ism

   [kuh-loh-nee-uh-liz-uhm]  

Noun

1.  the control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people.
2.  the system or policy by which a nation maintains or advocates such control or influence.
3.  the state or condition of being colonial.
4.  an idea, custom, or practice peculiar to a colony.

The concept of colonialism is often coupled (rightly or wrongly) with the historical Christian ideas of mission or being a missionary.  I think it is fair to say that colonialism is an unwanted and unhelpful concept in the realm of christian missions.

The other week I watched a Facebook discussion unfold on the concept of mission and those who carry out Christian mission.  At one point in the discussion one person made the comment that a person who works a secular job has greater possibilities for evangelism than missionaries because they were surrounded by non-believers in the workplace.  In fact he used the analogy that a worker in a secular environment could be a light in a dark place – as opposed to, I assume, a missionary who cannot or has a limited capacity to be a light in a dark place because of their lack of contact with non-believers.

It was also interesting to me that the emphasis of the observation and subsequent inference was based on a missionary’s capacity to evangelise.

Fascinating!

What might we make of this comment?

Perhaps, his experience has been that missionaries work in churches doing church stuff.

Or… in his experience, missionaries do humanitarian stuff and so are not involved with either believers or non-believers at any length which inhibits the development of any real relationships and therefore any capacity for evangelism.

Or…he doesn’t have a clue what missionaries do.

Or…missionaries are working more with believers than non-believers because they are living up to the modern missiological trend of training nationals to do the work.  If they are not seen to be in the secular market place it is because they have trained or are training nationals to be there instead – to do the work for themselves.

I’m not going to speculate as to what he actually meant by his comments about missionaries and their work, but there is a curious departure that I want look at.

While thinking about these possibilities, which I’m sure are not exhausted here, I started to delve a little deeper into the last one.  Could it be true that many missionaries cannot be seen engaging with non-believers because they are busy training locals to go out and do it alone?  In many ways this idea appears to be a keeper.  It is culturally appropriate.  With this missiological trend the missionary is not imposing foreign ideas and methods on any given culture.  It’s all about empowering locals.  It’s all about raising up leaders.  It’s all about developing a national heart for evangelism.  Hard to disagree with, really.

But I could not avoid observing the sneaky sneaky covert operation at work –  a modern sneaky version of colonialism is alive and well in many ways.

Some might argue that Christianity is a western construct that has been used to establish a power base to control the masses.  We could, for example, begin with Constantine and trace the abuse of Christianity as a power tool through to the present.  So, any idea that someone today would go to any context to perpetuate Christian ideology could fall into the colonial basket as they seek to extend the literal rule of Christianity.  Well, if this is how one views Christianity then a ‘missionary’ is a colonialist.

But let’s be honest.   If one were to dig a little deeper into a context where this missiological trend is effectively being put to work, that is, the training of leaders, helping nationals to engage with the content of Christianity, etc, then how can we say that this is not in some sense colonial.  The same is being perpetuated but by different people – nationals!   What is happening is this: nationals are being trained to not only take on certain ideas, concepts, structures, and methods, but also being trained to perpetuate them.  To put it crudely, the nationals are doing what those with colonial motives cannot do without being colonial.  They are developing the colonial rule for the colonialists.  The Gospel and the methods of perpetuating it are going with the intent that others will take it on too.

It reminds me of documentaries that I’ve seen when the CIA, for example, goes into a given country to effect change through training and equipping according to the US  agenda.  It is sneaky sneaky.  Governments support national leaders in foreign countries to get them into power so that they will serve their own political interests.  We call these countries puppet states.  The puppeteer manages to extend their own reign without taking them over.

It is high time that cross-cultural mission had a discussion about the ethical merits of such a method.

But let’s be really honest and this is where it really hits the road.  The Gospel is unapologetically colonial.  The Gospel is about a kingdom that is in the business of extending its own rule throughout the world.  It does not care about national boundaries, language or culture.  The implications of the Gospel not only look colonial but are colonial.  It expects lifestyle change where it does not align appropriately.  Furthermore, it expects that those who submit to this rule will go on to proclaim the Gospel.

In what sense is the Gospel of Jesus not colonial?

I’m gonna say that we haven’t answered this question well enough.  In an attempt to rub out our colonial past modern mission efforts have tried to de-colonialise by opting for a covert CIA style operation, but this, as I showed very briefly, is at best dubious and at worst deceptive.  An honest portrayal of the Gospel proclaims the reign of Jesus over every part of everyone’s life including every aspect of any given culture that one finds themself in.

Why is it that we are happy to run this line of argument in our own cultures but when it comes to others we hesitate and create elaborate schemes to infiltrate them so as to propagate that same message?

More discussion and honesty is needed.