Thursday, April 30, 2009

April Books Post

Oops, meant to publish this one a few days ago. Here are some of the things I read in April.

Nonfiction


Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Danny Danziger. I wrote about this here. Really liked it - a great window into the great museum through the lives of 52 men and women who are part of it. I think I'm going to look up some of Danziger's other works.

Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, by Henri Nouwen. Very insightful analysis of what helps us grow, what holds us back; summed up in the movements from loneliness to solitude, hostility to hospitality, illusion to prayer. Wrote about it here.

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins. Wrote about this in my series on Africa. He's written a lot more about this topic since this book came out some years ago. I'm planning to read all of it, in time.

Fiction

A Matter of Diamonds, and A Matter of Time, by David Manuel. This was as far as I can tell Paraclete Press's only venture into fiction. It's a set of mysteries revolving around a man who belongs to a nondenominational religious order in Cape Cod, and involves his spiritual life as much as the rather rough murders his policeman friend pulls him in to help solve.

Dragonflight, Dragonquest, Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums, all by Anne McCaffrey. They are about, um, dragons. And people. These were written in the 70s. I picked up the latest book set in this "world," written by AM's son, and wasn't impressed. Decided to go back to the beginning and rediscover what it was I loved about these books when I first read them. Each one, though I know them well, kept me up later than I intended a few nights in April.

Full Face to the Sun

"It was in a little wood in early morning. The sun was climbing behind a steep cliff in the east, and its light was flooding nearer and nearer and then making pools among the trees.

"Suddenly, from a dark corner of purple brown stems and tawny moss, there shone out a great golden star. It was just a dandelion, and half withered - but it was full face to the sun, and had caught into its heart all the glory it could hold and was shining so radiantly that the dew that lay on it still made a perfect aureole round its head.

"And it seems to talk, standing there - to talk about the possibility of making the very best of these lives of ours.

"...there is an ocean of grace and love and power lying all around us, an ocean to which all earthly light is but a drop, and it is ready to transfigure us, as the sunshine transfigured the dandelion, and on the same condition - that we stand full face to God."

Focussed: A Story and a Song, by Lilias Trotter, quoted in A Blossom in the Desert.

"Take the very hardest thing in your life," she says in another book, Parables of the Cross, "the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot. Just there he can bring your soul into blossom."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Messin' with the Blog

I've been blogging for a couple of years now and think I'm going to keep it up. I know blogging seems to be on the wane and replaced by other forms of social networking. But there's more space here, and a bit more permanence. I like it.

I'm pondering a few changes, though.

Some of them are technical. I'd like to improve the way the blog functions. I'm not sure I can do that well without moving to a different site, e.g., migrating from Blogger to WordPress or TypePad. And stubbornly, I'd rather see how much I can do without moving. (Because who likes to move?)

Maybe I will switch to a template with fixed-width blogging space; I think that would allow me to format with pictures or textures instead of just color blocks. What do you think? Prefer the cleaner look, or like the ones with backgrounds and cool headers? I'm not sure.

I'd also like to have a couple tabs across the top, instead of being forced to put all non-journal content on the side. None of the Blogger-provided formats have that, but it looks like outside designers have adapted templates to do it, so I could probably switch to one of those. I'd have to create blog posts containing the content I wanted on those tabs; they wouldn't be able to function as separate pages as in other environments. But that would still help.

Two things I'm not sure I can do without leaving Blogger and migrating to something like Wordpress: a tag cloud - which organizes your topics visually instead of just listing them - and a graceful way to display recent comments.

I did finally find a work-around for the latter. I just subscribed to my own comment "feed" and posted it on the side. Scroll down and see. It's not beautiful and it's slow to load, but it's a start. May help readers to feel more "heard" or encourage interaction with each another.

What other features do you like in a blog?

Monday, April 27, 2009

African Church History: Martyrs in Madagascar and Uganda, Prophets in Kongo and Liberia

To see all posts in this series, click here.

During the colonial era the young Africans who were among the first to encounter the Christian faith brought in home to their villages where in spread in local ways. Colonial powers may have been the first to bring the message, but they were not the only or the most effective messengers.

Willingness to Suffer

“Just how deeply, and how quickly, the new Christians appropriated the religion can be illustrated from the many stories of zeal in the face of persecution. In Madagascar in the 1850s, perhaps 200 Christians were ‘speared, smothered, starved or burned to deal, poisoned, hurled from cliffs or boiled alive in rice pits.’

“We can also look at the British colony of Uganda, where Anglicanism was established in 1877 and African clergy were being ordained by the 1890s. Also in this decade, Roman Catholic missionaries started making their own converts. From its first days Ugandan Christianity has produced its share of martyrs, whose stories demonstrate how firmly the faith has rooted itself in African soil.

“Some of the worst persecutions occurred in the kingdom of Buganda, which was later absorbed into the British colony. Christianity made rapid progress at the royal court to the horror of the king. Among other things he found that his Christian male courtiers now refused his sexual demands. He ordered his subjects to renounce the new faith upon pain of death, and hundreds of native Bugandans were executed in 1885 and 1886. On a single day, thirty-two Christians were burned alive.

With such examples in mind, it was ludicrous to claim that the new religion was solely for white people, and the faith spread quickly in both Uganda and Madagascar. In the 1890s, Buganda experienced a mass conversion of astonishing speed. Today, perhaps 75 percent of Ugandans are Christians, as are 90% of the people of Madagascar.”

Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p. 44.

Fringe Movements and Prophetic Voices

While much of the early church growth was in Protestant and Catholic communities, is sometimes broke out in independent movements that appear to be quite different. Consider the former witchdoctor Kimpa Vita, baptized “Beatrice” by Catholics in the kingdom of Kongo. In 1703 she had a vision of St. Anthony who told her that the Colonial churches were mistaken, that Jesus was in fact a black Kongolese and born in the capital city, Sao Salvador. African Christians needed to find their own path to God even if that meant practices condemned by the other churches.

William Wade Harris was another charismatic, prophet-type figure, this time in Liberia. After seeing a vision of the angel Gabriel he abandoned his European-style clothing, put on a white robe and turban, and began preaching across West Africa carrying a bamboo cross, a Bible and a gourd. Jenkins describes his message as “largely orthodox Christianity, teaching obedience to the Ten Commandments and demanding strict observance of the Sabbath” (p. 48-49).

Recognizing the spiritual powers in the popular fetishes and pagan shrines he encountered (scorned or dismissed by European missionaries), he dealt with them directly, taking on the spiritual powers and combating their power.

He also traveled in the company of several wives.

Philip Jenkins suggests more and more the global church is going to be characterized by things that seem strange or foreign to Western Christians. And why not? We’re no longer the majority.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

On Loneliness and Hospitality, from Henri Nouwen

“It is important to stress that every human being is called upon to be a healer… We are all healers who can reach out to offer health, and we are all patients in constant need of help.” Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (1975). p. 93.

Nouwen passed away a few years ago. He was a Catholic priest and teacher and the author of many books about the spiritual life. I picked up this one as much because it happened to be on the shelf at my local library as any other reason. But have found it quite helpful.

An underlying theme in Nouwen’s book is that the more we understand (and not simply deny) our inner struggles, the more fully we will be able to embrace a prayerful and genuine life that is also open to others’ needs.

We all have so much in common, don’t we? But a lot of that common ground is territory we would prefer to deny or run away from – things like pain, and fear, and failure. It reminds me of some lines from a Madeleine L’Engle poem:

Because you’re not who I would have you be / I blind myself who in truth you are / seeking mirage, where desert blooms. / Because I’m not who I would have me be, I idolize two ones who never touch. / Reality would burn. I do not like it much.

In this book Nouwen explores what it means to grow from the state of a stifling loneliness into a content solitude, from a hostility toward others to a receptive hospitality for others, and from preferring a world of illusion to turning to God in honest prayer.

From Loneliness to Solitude

Nouwen writes about having to nearly tie himself to a chair to face a blank sheet of paper, longing for any distraction which would keep him from having to face his own loneliness or explore his own thoughts.

He describes riding in the subway, where nobody speaks to one another or feels quite safe, but sits staring at the subway ads that feature happy people enjoying and encouraging one another – what a contrast.

He talks about going to parties where everyone is friendly but nobody is real, where everyone is welcome but nobody is missed if they do not come.

All are symptoms of the clash between our longings and our fears, a “society growingly populated with lonely people desperately trying to love each other without succeeding” (p. 28), the loneliness of “a world in which a competitive individualism tries to reconcile itself with a culture that speaks about togetherness, unity, and community as the ideals to strive for.” (p. 25)

It’s not surprising then that we try to use other people to fill our loneliness or cover it up, so reluctant are we to be alone with ourselves. He quotes Thoreau, who says (in terms easily translatable to the technologies of our own time):

“In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.” (p. 29)

From Hostility to Hospitality

Maybe it is ironic that when most suffocated by loneliness, we can respond to each other with greater hostility than hospitality. Nouwen suggests that it’s because at its root, what true hospitality is about is accepting and even developing our own sense of poverty, putting aside our needs and agendas and desire to speak, or give, or control, or do something. The teacher, the host, the minister should be willing not to “lead,” to speak, to control, or to offer a solution, but to humble themselves to create a friendly space for the other person.

Hospitality at its most effective is not about sharing your abundance with others. It's about welcome, about receptivity. We who long for someone to talk to, someone who will understand, find that the greatest gift we can give to another person is to really listen.

I think all that might be easier if we could be given some kind of promise that we were going to be treated with hospitality by others – that we were going to be welcomed and received and heard and understood, not just the one who gives those things to others.

Perhaps that’s why this section is sandwiched between the one about finding peace in one’s inner self and one on connecting authentically with God. Because with human relationships, there are lots of happy surprises, but no promises.

Serving One Another

If we really saw our service to one another in terms of hospitality, the way Nouwen defines it, we would prepare people for ministry differently. We would be less concerned about growing in experience and competence, in picking up the tools, techniques, and skills that make us “rich” and able to give out of that abundance.

“Real training for service asks for a hard and often painful process of self-emptying. … Training for service is not a training to become rich but to become voluntarily poor; not to fulfill ourselves but to empty ourselves, not to conquer God but to surrender to his saving power. All this is very hard to accept in our contemporary world… but it is important that in this world there remain a few voices crying out that if there is anything to boast of, we should boast of our weakness.” (p. 108)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Africa Stories: Meet Lilias Trotter, a Victorian Woman in Algeria


Excerpts from the diaries of Lilias Trotter; source here.
“Oh, the desert is lovely in its restfulness - the great brooding stillness over and through everything is so full of God. One does not wonder that He used to take His people out into the wilderness to teach them.”

Lilias Trotter (1853-1928) had a wealthy and privileged upbringing as part of an upper-class family in the golden age of Victorian England, schooled at home by governesses. In her twenties she grew in faith through the “deeper life” conferences being held across England in those days, and volunteered at the YWCA (then in its infancy) reaching out to London’s working girls, including the prostitutes who hung around Victoria Station.

But her other passion was art. When she was in her early twenties and her family was vacationing in Venice, her mother discovered that the painter John Ruskin was staying in the same hotel, and asked him to look at some of Lilias’s watercolors. This began a lifelong friendship between the two.

He considered her artistic talent so great that he told her he could make her “immortal.” That is, if she would give herself wholly to her art.

Though tempted, she turned him down - a difficult decision but one that once made, gave her a sense of liberty; she was surrendered to God and would not cling to anything else. She later described it as "the liberty of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to keep." She wanted to put people first, and threw herself into the ministry in London.

Lilias never became a great artist. It does take a lot of work to become a master of anything, doesn’t it? And that’s not what she chose. She did however continue to fill up sketchbooks, and her letters and journals are well illustrated. (You can see some of her work here.) And more to the point, she continued to see the world with an artist’s eye.

Ruskin had taught her that someone who paints nature or humanity should not just use the two for their art, but that art is a means of seeing, a means of understanding and loving what you see, and helping others love it too:

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”

When she was 35 Lilias left the urban ministry in London and went to Algiers, with two friends. She made a home for herself in the Arab section of the casbah, amid the narrow winding streets. She described her beginnings like this:

“None of us would have been passed by a doctor for any missionary society. We did not know a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic, nor had we a clue as to how to begin work on such untouched ground. We only knew we had to come. If God needed weakness, He had it! We were on a fool’s errand, so it seemed, and we are on it still, and glory in it.”

For the next 40 years she served there, as well as traveling along the coasts of North Africa and South into the Sahara on camel-back. She went places never visited by a European woman. They didn’t build anything impressive – nothing, really, but relationships.

She was sick a good bit of the time, and put much of her energy into praying for others who were doing what she could not. She also wrote devotional material that spoke to the hearts of North Africans and is a big part of her legacy. By the time Lilias died in 1928 they’d established 12 mission stations, and Lilias and left behind a team of 30 workers who continued reaching out to the people of North Africa. Her biographer says she “pioneered means, methods and materials that were 100 years before her time.”

* * *

So, there's your introduction to Lilias. I wanted to share some of her writings as well, but thought the context would be helpful. (Later - here's the second post: Full Face to the Sun)

See also:

Until the Day Breaks: The Life and Work of Lilias Trotter: Pioneer Missionary to Muslim North Africa, by Patricia St. John (1990)

A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, by Miriam Huffman Rockness (2003)

A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, compiled and edited by Miriam Huffman Rockness (2007)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

African Church History: Colonialism

Both Protestant and Catholic mission efforts took on new life after the publication of David Livingstone’s book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p. 37).

During this period Christian missions were intricately tied to political and imperial expansion: kind of ugly. In Southern Uganda Catholics were usually referred to as “baFaransa” (the French) and Protestants as “baIngerezza” (the English) (Jenkins, p. 34).

“For all the hypocrisy and the flagrantly self-serving rhetoric of the imperial age, the dedication of the missionaries was beyond question. Knowing as they did the extreme dangers from violence and tropical disease, it is inconceivable that so many would have been prepared to lay down their lives for European commerce alone, and many certainly viewed missionary work as a ticket to martyrdom.” (p. 36).

The stereotypes about the wrong-headedness of missions and missionaries abound, and have for some time. In modern times a Kenyan leader named Jomo Kenyatta complained,

“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” (p. 40).

Yet even when that’s how it was, the Africans got the better deal, didn't they?

By the late nineteenth century Africa had 10 million Christians of all denominations (p. 38). There must have been something Africans recognized as “African” about the whole thing. The number of Christians in Africa increased from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million by 2000 (p. 4). Staggering.

So, not the white man's religion.

And not necessarily a religion many white men would recognize, either. The fastest growth has been among non-traditional denominations that adapt Christian belief to local tradition… “Their exact numbers are none too clear, since they are too busy baptizing newcomers to be counting them very precisely.” (p. 7).

Monday, April 20, 2009

African Church History: Ethiopia, Kongo

As promised/threatened, a couple of posts on Christianity in Africa.

The first thing I noticed is that it isn't something that began when American and European missionaries sat up and took notice of the place a couple centuries ago. Nope. Goes way back.

The Church in
Ethiopia

The Ethiopian church, as ancient as any, “offers one of the most heroic success stories in Christianity,” but the West knows almost nothing of it since they (like the Armenians) were separate from European Christianity by differences over doctrine.

“The Ethiopian church has many aspects that would surprise a Westerner, including practices that stem from Judaism. Believers practice circumcision, some keep a Saturday Sabbath, and many churches feature an ark. Claiming Solomonic tradition, the kings practiced polygamy. We do not know whether early Ethiopians had been converted to Judaism before they found Christianity, or if (more likely), they just treated Old Testament models with much more reverence than would European Christians. As we will see, many modern-day African Christians likewise feel very comfortable with the world of the Old Testament, and try to revive ancient Hebrew customs – usually to the horror of European Christians.

“But for all the Ethiopian church’s quirks, it would be a daring outsider who would venture to suggest that the faith for which Ethiopians have struggled and died for over 1,700 years is anything less than a pure manifestation of the Christian tradition.”

Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p. 19

The Kingdom of Kongo (see its location here.)

Portuguese Catholics introduced Christianity to the West coast of Africa, and missionaries penetrated inland in several places. The king of “Kongo” was baptized in 1491. (Here's his picture, courtesy of Wikipedia.)

“Observers over the next two centuries remarked on how widely the Kongolese people knew and accepted Catholic Christianity, at least as thoroughly as their South American counterparts. This was no mere conversion of convenience, for the purpose of securing European guns and gold. One of the first Christian Kongo rulers, Mvemba Nzinga, has been described as ‘one of the greatest lay Christians in African church history.” (Jenkins, p. 29)

Christianity thoroughly penetrated the society, and by 1700 Kongolese Catholicism was already in its sixth generation. (p. 30)

In the early 1800s Protestants began mission work across Southern Africa, but in many cases these missionaries were “not so much breaking new ground as reopening ancient and quite familiar mines. In the 1880s, missionaries in the Kongo met with mass enthusiasm that would be difficult to explain if we did not realize that the people were rediscovering what had been the national religion only a century or so earlier.” (p. 34)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Girl...

Hey, notice anything familiar about the girl on the cover of this book? Yeah, the same stock photo my publisher chose for Through Her Eyes. Darn it!

I happened to catch her gaze coming at me from a promotional poster at my favorite bookstore.

I shouldn't be a bad sport; Dom's book sounds quite a bit more exciting than mine. I'd probably like it. It has a spaceship in it, and a global disaster - related, I presume, to the eponymous comet - betrayal, love, and young adults who save the human race. Mine doesn't even have a plot, not really. It's more like a bunch of nonfiction short stories.

Well, I do like that sort of thing, too. I'm reading an interesting book now that provides glimpses of a bunch of people's lives. It's Danny Danziger's Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Composed of 52 interviews with people who work on the five acres in New York that are home to that grand institution, from curators and board members to security guards and janitors. Some of them talk about art. Some of them don't. I found it at the library.

Once again I'm reminded how much I love that kind of work - hearing and telling people's stories. Maybe instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars to go to grad school - as I've been contemplating - I should just spend that much-needed sabbatical I hope to get on conducting a project like Danziger's: research, reflection, writing. By the way, he had an advantage I've never had... someone else to transcribe his tapes!

Topic: Writing

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Most Effective Strategy

There are other strategies for completing world evangelization besides sending out missionaries and evangelists. Broadcasting, literature distribution... ministries of prayer, presence, and compassion... all have a part to play. Is there one strategy that is particularly effective?

Some supporters once asked a mission leader, “What is the most effective strategy in the world today for reaching the unreached?” He answered frankly, “martyrdom.” Briefly stunned, they then asked politely, “What is another effective strategy?” (I've heard this story attributed to two different sources.)

A hard pill to swallow. Or as Jesus might say, a hard cup to drink. I suppose calling it a "strategy" is a bit misleading, since it's not the kind of thing you can really plan or even position yourself for, really. Some have tried; the early church had to be clear that you weren't allowed to turn yourself in, as there was some enthusiasm in those days for getting one's crown in record time. Which of the early church leaders was it who said, "if the lions refuse to eat me, I shall use force on them"?

Yet martyrdom may not be all bad news either. When Jesus said, "You will be my witnesses..." (Acts 1:8) this is clearly part of what he was describing.

Consider how very subversive the whole thing is... Opponents of the gospel have often come to the reasonable conclusion that removing the messenger ought to stem the flow the message – or, if that is not effective, how about a genocide?

Over the last 20 centuries 70 million Christians have been killed for their faith. About 60% of all the Christians who have been martyred for their faith were part of the Orthodox tradition – Russian, Syrian, Ukrainian, and Armenian. Another 18% were Catholic. (Just to put this in context, Muslims considered martyrs by their own people = 80 million, and even Baha'i claims 1 million.)

The worst recent case of persecution took place in China between 1966 and 1967, during that country’s Cultural Revolution. “This," say David Barrett and Todd Johnson, "was history’s most systematic attempt ever, by a single nation, to eradicate and destroy Christianity and all religion. In this it failed." (David Barrett & Todd Johnson, World Christian Trends: AD30-AD2200: Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus, William Carey Library, 2001, p. 7.)

Today, almost one in ten Chinese people is a Christian. And there, more so than in many places, that probably means they are a follower of Jesus. While persecution and martyrdom have left a huge swath of tragedy behind, the same dynamic is true in other places: amazing fruit.

Martyrdom: Long-term Effect on Evangelization 
(Barrett & Johnson, p. 32)
  • Countries with lengthy history of martyrs, now fully evangelized: 210
  • Countries with many martyrs, massive church growth today: 40
  • Countries with few or no martyrs, no church growth today: 30
Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of three men in Malatya, Turkey - a country where, in spite of great efforts, a missiological breakthrough has yet to occur (that is to say the church is still very small and lacks the resources to reach the 70 million Turks and others who live among them). Perhaps the martyrdom of Necati Aydin, Uğur Yüksel, and Tillmann Geske will be part of what turns things around.

The trial of their persecutors continues, and one of the things Turkish Christians are asking us to pray for is that this leads to more positive awareness of their existence - that there ARE some Turks who are Christians, that to be a Turk does not automatically mean you are Muslim.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hey, Did You Know?

Things like blogging and the social networking tools we use, they provide so much – perhaps too much – opportunity for “did you know?” and “hey, listen to this!” communication. It’s like sitting reading the paper with a family member or housemate. Do you find it annoying to have someone read the funnies to you, or quoting an odd headline or story that you might have already read, or are planning to? Or do you enjoy it?

How are the “did you know” style of blogging, facebooking, and “tweeting” the same, or different? Or does it depend on how engaging the blogger, facebooker, or tweeter may be, or how interested you are in the specific topic?

While I do share my own thoughts and experiences I often find myself quoting – you might say parroting – things I’ve picked up elsewhere. And I don’t know if those posts are as much of interest to my readers as they are to me.

Ah well, you’re still here, aren’t you? I don’t run into as many people who tell me “I love your blog!” and I don’t get many comments, as once I did. But still get as much traffic as ever. Well, I do like to think some of what I post is of use to the stranger who find it through a search engine. So I think I’ll keep up doing history and literature posts from time to time. They keep my brain working, too.

Africa Series

I have been toying with the idea of researching and writing a series of essays on missions in Africa. (How many may depend on the feedback or encouragement I get. Though, then again, it may not!) I had thought to start with the plucky Victorian women like those I wrote about who worked in China. I’ve read a few books now about Mary Slessor (Nigeria) and would like to read more about Lilias Trotter (Algeria). And I’ve got the materials I pulled together for teaching about David Livingstone (Zambia). Each one of these characters was something different from what you might expect.

But I’ve realized I don’t know very much about African Christianity, generally. I keep running into people who are interested in Africa, and/or who plan or yearn to go on a mission trip to some part of that continent. So I thought I’d like to be more knowledgeable than I am. They ask questions, or want background or feedback, and I don't know what to say. Over the next few weeks I'll share some interesting bits I’ve picked up in reading Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom.

Monday, April 13, 2009

How to Ask a Question

1. Timing

So, I've noticed that when it comes to email, the day of the week that I write seems to have a direct connection to the likelihood that my email gets a response. (Monday mornings and Friday nights are bad, as are weekends; midweek is best.)

Now I'm wondering if the time of day the email is read also makes a difference. I would hazard a guess that - when you are writing to people who sit in front of computers with their email open all day - the early or mid-afternoon emails tend to generate a quick response. Do you think I'm right? I wonder if anyone's done a study of this sort of thing?

At any rate, that may have been a factor in the active exchange generated by the question I sent to three people one recent afternoon. Each one wrote back quickly; one of them twice, and one suggested another person to contact. This secondary contact was also happy to help, and cc:ed two others on his response. Both of them responded promptly as well. Each of these emails indicated an active interest in my question and included helpful information in response to my request. Within hours I had a fairly rich body of material to send back to the person who had asked me for the information.

I suspect the fact that I received the request at just the time in the day I was most likely to welcome a bit of detective work must have helped, and I think I caught each of my correspondents in just the same frame of mind.

2. A Simple, Clear Request

I asked a fairly simple question to which I had not been able to find good answers on my own, but about which my correspondents had some knowledge. The question was, "Do you know any good missionary biographies about Thailand?" Surely there must be some...

So I started to ask.

3. Guanxi (described here)

The other factor I'm pretty sure made a difference was the level of connection each person had with the one posing the question. CG, who made the original call, didn't know any of us. No guanxi to speak of, between us. But he was warm and friendly, and tapped into the two factors above - good timing, and a clear, simple request. He reached me through BK, my friend and coworker. BK and I have some guanxi; we help each other a lot and feel beholden to be responsive to one another.

I send my request to CD, a personal friend, who took it back to JB, her coworker. JB doesn't know CG but he knows me. JB and CD are good friends.

I also sent my request to SB, a good friend and colleague. SB and I are frequently in touch and like to help each other, so of course he responded.

Then, I sent my request to DD. DD works in our home office in Florida. She and I are friends. DD suggested I contact TS.

TS not only has a great relationship with DS, he also knows me and owes me a favor. After all, last time I asked him a question he took about a month to answer it. So, he may have felt some pressure to be more responsive this time.

Then - here's where the guanxi gets really thick. TS wrote back and cc:ed FS and AS - his parents! They are also subject-area experts. So they have a strong motivation to help people get their facts straight, even if they typically have more people wanting their help than they can respond to. But the question came from their son. And they knew it was for me. AS knows me, if only slightly. They didn't seem to understand that I was asking for CG; but for me, and for TS, they "hastened to reply."

CG lucked out. His question was not perceived by anybody as impersonal or burdensome. Everyone was motivated to help.

And CG knew what to do next: He followed up with a phone call to AS, the subject-area expert, and they apparently charmed one another. "Delightful man!" says CG. Now CG has a direct connection. He will have no trouble getting all the advice he needs, not just about this particular question but other areas that might affect his project. He works with a campus ministry and is taking a short-term team to Thailand this summer.

I wonder how often I ignore or minimize the importance of these factors - timing, clarity, and connections?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Blogging through Holy Week: Sunday

Worthy

And they sang a new song:

"You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth."

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:

"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!"

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:

"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!"

The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Revelation 5:9-14

* * *

When revival transformed the eighteenth-century Moravians in Herrnhut, Germany, they became enthralled with these verses. A visit from men from far lands across the sea, pleading for missionaries, gave them a way to respond. The Moravian mission was motivated in large part by a theology of mission rooted in the worthiness of God to receive worship; their goal was to present worshipers to Christ.

When they were sailing off to the ends of the earth, places like Greenland, the West Indies, or America, they would make their way to the back of the boat to look back at the dock where their friends and family were waiting after saying goodbye to them, perhaps never to return.

The last thing they would do, by tradition, was to shout out these words:

“May the lamb who was slain receive the reward for his suffering!”

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Blogging through Holy Week: Saturday

The crucifixion was over so quickly. A deep darkness fell on the land and the temple curtain ripped in two. Christ did not hang on the cross for long; by nightfall Friday he has been laid in the tomb.

But what a horrible thing to experience at all.

“So deeply was the human race enmeshed with sin that they not only failed to recognize their creator and redeemer on his entry into his world, they put him to death using one of the most sadistic and humiliating forms of execution ever devised.”

So says Alister McGrath, in his book Knowing Christ. (p. 224)

“Part of the task of the Christian believer is to understand the full meaning of the cross. … [It] represents the glorious triumph of God over the forces of sin, evil and despair. …It represents the fullest disclosure of the overwhelming love of God for his sinful creatures and his determination to restore us to all that he intended for us.” (p. 225)

McGrath accepted a challenge from Ignatius of Loyala, the founder of the Catholic order known as the Jesuits, who instructed his followers to imaging themselves present at the crucifixion and talking to Christ as he hangs on the cross.

What an uncomfortable experience that is! Not to think about the cross in abstract terms (like discussing a friend behind their back?), but placing ourselves in the presence of Christ in his agony and asking him what he means, how he wants us to respond. Both understanding and intimacy are things we long for and things we fear. They are messy.

“In many ways it was deeply shaming experience, as it brought home to me the shallowness of my commitment to Christ. I began to realize that I was prepared to allow Christ to affect my ideas – but not much else.” (p. 227)

Do we think of “Jesus-dying-on-the-cross” in the abstract, theoretical, and symbolic, or are we willing to turn toward our Friend and be with him in this?

We don’t know much about what was going on in Jerusalem that next day, Saturday. It was the Sabbath. The disciples had scattered the day before. And Jesus? What was going on with him? What does “…he descended into hell” really mean? I want to know more.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Blogging through Holy Week: Friday

Jesus and Pilate

The most interesting and complex person we meet in the story of that terrible Friday (besides Jesus himself) is the Roman governor Pilate. Having decided that Jesus must die, the religious leaders looked to the Romans to come to the same conclusion and/or to carry out their will regardless. Pilate is the man. Though clearly unwilling, he sends Jesus to his death.

What Herod the Great had been unable to accomplish (see Matthew 2), Pilate seems unable to avoid.

It's far too easy to read motives, character, and emotions into the stories of scripture even in places where they are silent about these things. Yet Jesus seems to let him off the hook.
“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

John 19:10-11

King of the Jews

Though tolerant of the Jews, Pilate is not one of them. Even so it is this title “King of the Jews” though which he recognizes Jesus, persistently holding on to this understanding - much to the horror of the Jewish leaders.

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"

"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?"

"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?"

Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."

"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.

Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."

John 18:33-37

Pilate seems convinced. Unless he's just being sarcastic. That's a possibility. Again, tone of voice is not something the gospel writers provide for us very often. But here's what John says.

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar."

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge's seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.

"Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!"

"Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked.

"We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

John 19:12-16

Pilate had claimed power to make the decision about setting Jesus free or crucifying him, but his decision does not carry the day. He seems to recognize that his own rule and authority are shaky, not absolute.

Even now, Pilate does not give up on this “king of the Jews” idea.

Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, "Do not write 'The King of the Jews,' but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews."

Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written."

John 19:19-22

I wonder if I behave like Pilate – convinced about Christ and his kingdom, testifying to that truth and working to advance it, yet still accepting that the ways of the world or forces of darkness must have their sway. Is that what Pilate was doing?

What do you make of Pilate? Was he justified in behaving as he did, in a sense, since the crucifixion was something that the Scriptures show us “had to happen”?

In my life, I think I respond to the evil and injustice of others the same way; I treat it as inevitable. About what we should expect in this world we live in. Is that a good response, an acceptable response, or a poor response – or does it depend?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Blogging through Holy Week: Thursday

Thursday Jesus observes a Passover meal with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-29, Mark 14:12-25, Luke 22;7-20, John 13:1-38). He imbues the ritual with another level of meaning so significant that as to suggest that this may have been why God established this in the beginning - not just to give the people a way to remind them that he'd passed over and protected them when the Egyptians were struck down, but also to point the way forward to Jesus. Remarkable. (See 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.)

Jesus does something else that night which is so powerful it, too, becomes a sacrament in some circles in the years to come. He gets down on the floor with a towel and basin and washes their feet. Even when you'd think he'd have other things on his mind, his relationship with these guys is what's really important. So much of what he does this day demonstrates that. They don't understand, now, but later they will remember and understand.

Before this long night is over Jesus will go through agonies of prayer (Matthew 26:35-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:40-46). He invites his disciples to join in but they do not. (There's a good post on this at 300 Words a Day.)

Then he is turned in for arrest by one of these, his best friends - who when morning comes will commit suicide in remorse (Mathew 27:1-5).

The trials following the arrest will stretch all night and into the morning (Matthew 26:47-27:26, Mark 14:43-15:15, Luke 22:47-23:25, John 18:2-19:6).

But John's gospel records these words to his disciples, words of comfort and instruction, putting the whole thing into context.
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am."

John 14:1-3
But Jesus speaks of more than just heaven. He also tells them about new life on earth.
"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.

"I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy."

John 16:12-13, 20-22

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Blogging through Holy Week: Wednesday

We don't know much about what happened on Wednesday of "holy week." More of the same, likely. As Luke says,
Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him in the temple. (Luke 21:37-38)
So, let's use our Wednesday post to look ahead, to the bigger significance of what is to come. I think the real hinge of history is not the crucifixion - after all, hundreds or thousands of people have died that awful death. It's shocking that Jesus did as well. But what's more remarkable is the resurrection. (Even then, not unique; others have been risen from the dead.)

But Jesus conquered death and broke its chains. Amazing. It's the beginning of God's "making all things new." New heaven, and a renewed earth, too.

The point of the resurrection, according to N.T. Wright:
"The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…

"What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…

"What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom."

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
To better understand where he's coming from on this and for more food for thought, see also:

Blogging through Holy Week: Tuesday

Tuesday was a busy day for me. That Tuesday was a busy day for Jesus. He was in the temple for part of the day, teaching – responding to his opponents (see Matthew 21:23-22:45), then teaching the crowds (in a rather scathing critique of his opponents; Matthew 23), and teaching his disciples about what is going to happen in the years to come (Matthew 24-25).

At the end of that day there’s that scene where he is anointed with the most costly perfume. It's preparation, he says, for his burial. This is apparently the event that tips things for Judas, who makes his deal to hand Jesus over to the authorities. (Matthew 26:6-13, also in Mark 14:3-9, John 12:2-11)

Each of these passages is full, challenging. Maybe it’s that what he’d predicted when he read from Isaiah, that Saturday in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:17-19), was coming to a climax.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To preach the good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind,
To release the oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

By itself, that prophecy sounds like pretty happy stuff. But as Jesus pointed out even then, there’s a cost; this universal cost of following God which all of us, Jews or Gentiles, have a hard time humbling ourselves to accept.

He calls us to repentance, to recognize that our own attempts to justify or reform ourselves, to be good and godly, are not working, are not enough. That is a hard teaching: a stumbling block, as Jesus says (Luke 20:17-18).

At the same time, it’s a relief, isn’t it, to be found out – especially by someone who loves you and will not condemn you for it?

For the first couple years I was trying to live life as a Christian, like the guys at Nazareth, I had heard the good news, but I had an idea that God’s incredible offer of adoption into his family had to do with him making me the kind of person I wanted to be. Like the first disciples, I didn’t really get it, yet.

Only when I reached the end of my rope and turned from that pursuit of becoming a good person did I experience his joy and power at work in my life.

More than 20 years later I regularly fall back into the old way of self-improvement. Though deeply frustrated and disappointed with my flaws and failures, I stubbornly stay on that road for a while.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. (Matthew 23:37-38)

Monday, April 06, 2009

Blogging through Holy Week: Monday

So, Jesus goes to the temple mount. Looks like it was a Monday, the day after the remarkable “triumphal procession” that we mark as Palm Sunday.

Wasn’t the first time he’d been there, and he’ll go again this week. But this time he causes quite a ruckus. Well, there was already quite a ruckus going on but the people couldn’t see it any more; they’d probably gotten used to the way things were and accepted it. As people do. Assuming their leaders knew what was best.

In this case, they didn’t.

This place, designed to be one where man and God could meet, had been desecrated. Oh, the whole temple would be destroyed before long and Jesus didn’t seem to mind that. But as long as it was there, it was to be a place where God’s glory and holiness was on display. Not, as it had become… Hear how Matthew tells the story:

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. "It is written," he said to them, "'My house will be called a house of prayer,' [Isaiah 56:7] but you are making it a 'den of robbers.’ [Jeremiah 7:11]"

– Matthew 21:12-13

The next bit is rather remarkable. The dirty fringes of society press in. Children, usually kept away or under control, were there too. They were shouting out exclamations about this amazing man sent by God, this Jesus. The temple leaders had been able to take the money changers and animal sellers in stride but this they could not handle. You aren’t supposed to let kids come in and run wild in God's house!

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were indignant.

"Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him.
"Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read,
"'From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise'?" [Psalm 8:2]

– Matthew 21:14-16

“Tomorrow, Monday of Holy Week,” said my pastor, “I want you to ask yourself: What does God want to do to cleanse his temple, today?”

Uh oh. Paul sums it up most succinctly in his letter to Corinth, “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)

As with the temple in Jerusalem, our bodies will be destroyed and this is not the tragedy it might seem. But in the meantime, what happens, it matters.

I know my inner life seems as caught up in consumerism and selfishness and distractions, abusing other people or using them for my own ends, as what Jesus saw that day in the temple. Do you long to see the distraction and desecration in your life destroyed, driven out; to see healing and worship be what are happening, instead?

Psalm 51 comes to mind.

Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

– Psalm 51:6

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Polarized

The phone call may have been a political ad.

It may have been an opinion survey (as claimed).

Perhaps it was meant to be both.

The voice was a recorded one, but designed to lead something of a conversation. In a way, this was a nice change: rather than instructing me how to think, the caller wanted to engage me in a discussion of sorts.

“[Other politician] plans to [do this]. Blah blah blah, do you support this?” the voice asked.

I had answered half a dozen of these yes-or-no questions with more confidence than perhaps I felt when I was asked one I really couldn’t answer that way. I paused.

“If the listener does not say, ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘repeat,’ this survey will come to an end,” the voice threatened. Still I hesitated, and the pollster – a well-known politician whom I am inclined to respect – dropped the call. Apparently he was no longer interested in my opinion.

The topic was one about which many have very strong, entrenched opinions. I consider it a gray area, myself – a matter about which ethical and intelligent people may disagree. And even if they identify the same things as problems, they may disagree about what should be done, particularly by a specific entity such as the federal government. But not to take a polarized position was apparently seen as choosing not to be part of the conversation.

I found myself in a similar situation when a religious leader whom I respect wrote asking what I might know about the doctrinal contents of a recent book by a somewhat controversial author on a topic of some significance to us both. I have the book; I went out of my way to have a copy given to me so I could read it. I did not run it through the same grid as my correspondent did, however, and did not know how to answer his question. In fact, I have not answered. I feel caught in the middle.

In both situations – the political one and the religious one – I recognized that I know people who are willing to lay down their lives for these issues. But to me they are not central issues. I found myself unwilling to be dogmatic, reluctant to claim or promote a strong opinion or to give allegiance to one “side” or another in these areas of contention.

Yet I recognize other matters that I =do= hold as more central or essential than other people do. Maybe we all have certain areas about which we have strong opinions. Others may not understand why we think that issue is so important or why our opinion is so strong.

So, we all know what it feels like to be the one with the opinion, and the one without one, or to be in the middle: a moderate. But what do we do with the result, the fact that what's important to me is not as important to you, and vice versa? I don’t want to be ignorant, or cowardly, or ineffective. But I do find the pressure to have an opinion about everything – to take sides – awfully oppressive at times.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

March Reading

Nonfiction

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell – Another exciting work from Gladwell; I'm definitely a groupie by this point. As you may know, this one deals with how people make snap decisions - for better or for worse. When we ask people to explain why, they may try but generally cannot. But that doesn't mean we can't understand how these things work, and, when appropriate, train our responses. Great book! Couple things I'm considering from this one, in terms of area for personal growth... maybe write more later.

Living with Questions, by Dale Fincher – I appreciate Dale’s thoughtful, engaging approach to re-framing the great questions of life. Great book for teens. Published by Youth Specialties. I didn't realize that when I asked my library to get it. Book design and examples used reflect the youth focus, and often reminded me how much older I am than the intended audience. I suspect they will help the book sell now but limit its shelf life. But the basic contents were pretty timeless, intelligent, and helpful; as Dale says, "a new kind of apologetics."

A History of the United States, by Philip Jenkins - I'd placed a library hold on Jenkins' latest history-of-religion work, but it both came in and expired while I was in Louisiana. So I consoled myself with this, the only Jenkins book on the shelves. It's good, it's really good. He weaves together a chronological look at the nation's history, politically, culturally, economically, religiously, demographically, and racially. Well recommended.

Jenkins aims to be fair and balanced, but is not above inserting droll comments like this:

"The headlong dash to build a continental empire was accomplished with little consideration for the existing residents, whether Mexican or Native American. As the area of white settlement grew, Americans of European descent were brought into contact with native groups who had hitherto avoided the blessings of civilization, and this contact was generally disastrous for the latter population..."

Couple more books I'm still reading:
  • Reaching Out, by Henri Nouwen. He writes about personal growth, in our inner self, our relationship with others, our relationship with God: moving from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, from illusion to prayer. Good stuff.

  • Prayer, by Philip Yancey. I've already written about this extensively; I may have bored my blog audience. But I've really enjoyed Yancey and have saved part of this book to read for later.
Fiction

The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom - Sorry, can't give this one a gold star. Is the best the author can do to make sense of life and death? I don't expect everyone to agree about these things but I found myself feeling sorry for the guy - Albom I mean. Abundant life is on offer, and he settles for... this?

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K Rowling - Yes, a re-read for me, of course. But it’s nice to have a familiar tale - with just the right mix of heft and readability to bring along when flying!

The More the Merrier, by Lenora Mattingly Weber; and The Pink Rose, by Ellspeth Woodward - I wrote about these two fun but silly novels of the 1950s, here.

Uneasy Relations, and Tiny Little Teeth, by Aaron Elkins - Two more good mysteries featuring physical anthropology professor Gideon Oliver. The first is set at the site of a dig in Gibraltar celebrated for the controversial discovery of a human woman clutching a part-Neanderthal child. The second takes Gideon on a cruise down the Amazon river with a group of ethnobotanists and explores, to some extent, the pharmacopoeia and cultures of that region.

The God Cookie, by Geoffrey Wood - A group of 20-somethings talking, fairly casually, about the meaning of life; and since it was written by an actor, with an editor was in the room (albeit invisibly), the dialogue was pretty funny. One thing that stood out was the vocabulary. For a light, contemporary book it had a lot of terms that seemed archaic to me but are probably regional. Deb and I are thinking, Ohio/Pennsylvania, but I'd appreciate any tips from students of culture. The words include: toboggan (referring to a hat), housecoat (bathrobe), stromboli, and fritter. None of which would come up in the everyday chatter of MY 20-something-year-old friends. What do you think?

Mr. Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald - Bit of historical fiction, about another member of the "Beagle" expedition. This one was a bit too artsy and hard to follow for me.

And I'm not quite done with these:

  • Lincoln's Dreams, by Connie Willis - I breezed through it, skipping sections, but intend to reread it in anticipation of a trip to Gettysburg (among other places) in May.

  • Patriot Games, by Tom Clancy - Had never read any of his and one reason is I couldn't figure out where the series began. Although it has a prequel, this appears the place to start. As thrillers go, a good one. I like the characters. I don't know that I necessarily want to spend too much time in the world of international espionage and terrorism, though.