On haircuts and fundamentalism

barber-shopLike many words, “fundamentalist” can be a slippery one. At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, the word was made popular by a series of books called The Fundamentals, a 1910 work including 90 essays outlining orthodox Christian teaching. In recent years, however, the term has come to represent more an attitude than a doctrinal stance. Fundamentalists are those who seem focused on why they are “in” and others are “out.” It is a combative approach that emphasizes doctrinal purity over loving God and neighbor.

Nothing crystallized this sour-faced, narrow approach to religion better than our Gospel concert at the Temple. (The name of the church has been changed). My family was a Gaither rip-off, “The Croffords: Musical Messages with Warmth and Love.” Our high water mark was in ’75/’76 when my dad, mom, my five brothers and I recorded albums at Pinebrook in Alexandria, Indiana, the studio owned by Bill and Gloria Gaither. Usually we sang only on weekends, but this was at the time of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” A meeting of pastors was being held during the week at the Temple, and – not knowing the political agenda – my dad agreed for us to come and present a mini-concert for those gathered.

We pulled out all the stops. Dad took off work, as did my oldest brother. Very exceptionally, my parents released us from school a few hours early that day so we could perform. Before the concert, we had changed into our outfits in the men’s room and had to step around a barber chair. Yes, they were giving haircuts in the men’s room of the church! That was odd, to say the least.

Now this was the day of polyester leisure suits, extended sideburns, and (for boys of any age) long hair. After the concert, we were packing up the sound equipment when one of the men from the local church came up to talk to my dad. “See those sons of yours?” (He pointed to two of my little brothers, aged 6 and 7 at the time). “You really need to get their hair cut. They look like girls. Don’t you know that the Bible says that ‘It’s a shame to a man to have long hair'”?

My dad is soft-spoken, but this man had captured his attention, and not in a good way. “Really?” he countered. “Where exactly does it say that in the Bible?” The accuser left and huddled with a few others in the back of the sanctuary. In a few minutes, he returned and confidently intoned: “1 Corinthians 11:14 – ‘Does not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man has long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Nonplussed, my dad replied: “And what does ‘long’ mean? I have a friend whose hair is very short. He’d say that your hair is too long!” “Oh, no” he answered. “My hair is just right!”

Seeing that the conversation was going nowhere, my dad concluded: “You know, I took off work today. So did my oldest son. Exceptionally, we even pulled our other sons out of school so we could come today as a family and sing this concert because the Temple asked us to do so and we hoped to be a blessing. And after all that, did you come up to tell me that you appreciated the concert, that you had been blessed? No – instead, all you have told me is that my sons’ hair is too long. I think that’s pretty sad.”

That story happened 37 years ago, yet in some quarters, little has changed. There are still groups of sour-faced fundamentalists in churches whose mission is finding fault with other believers. They criticize professors who try to clothe the gospel in terms that will resonate with the current generation, even though the essence of the timeless Gospel message they present remains unchanged. Rather than penetrating the culture in winsome ways, sending out our young people to change the world, fundamentalism is the “pull up the drawbridge” mentality. It is always “us” vs. “them.” It has forgotten that the most effective evangelism is not hiking up the hems of our holy robes so as not to be sullied by the “world.” Rather, it is finding areas of common humanity with all people, then using these to build relationships with those who so desperately need Jesus. If all we ever read are Christian novels, listen only to Christian music, and limit ourselves to “churchy” things, what springboards for conversation will we have with those who have no interest in all that?

Can’t do the “Harlem Shake” – that’s demonic.

Can’t read (fill in the name of popular fun book) – that’s “worldly.”

Can’t listen to this music, or that.

Can’t, can’t, can’t…

And then we’re surprised when we’re unable to sustain a 5 minute conversation with a non-Christian?

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of any of the many trees in the garden, except one (Gen. 2:16-17). So why are we hanging “don’t touch” signs on so many trees, wholesome activities that God has made for our enjoyment?

There was a time when I was ready to do battle over a long list of things. Maybe it’s just that I’m growing older and realize that life is only so long, but my list of “non-negotiables” has gotten a lot shorter. Yes, there are things we should avoid. Some activities are not wholesome and – if persisted in – will begin to cut off our relationship with God. But we should be careful in our world that has lost its sense of moral direction not to over-react, erring in the opposite direction, placing out-of-bounds many of the good things God intended for our benefit.

Paul gives us helpful advice:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things”(Phil. 4:8, NIV).

What an amazing world God has gifted to us! Let’s shake off the fault-finding, narrow spirit of fundamentalism. Let’s turn our young people loose; let’s send them out to affirm all that is good in God’s creation, modeling a wholesome life centered around loving an incredible Saviour, a love that can’t help but love others. Now that’s Good News!

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Photo credit: Gene Juarez

Jonny Steinberg’s Tale of Two Liberias

little-liberia-an-african-odyssey-in-new-york-cityIf you’re looking for a whimsical read, then steer clear of Jonny Steinberg’s Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City (London: Vintage Books, 2012). But if you crave a journalistic style that ably presents riveting episodes from Liberia’s two civil wars (1989-96, 1999-2003) along with their ripple effect upon “Little Liberia” (Liberians refugees exiled on Staten Island in New York City), then Steinberg’s account is for you.

Full disclosure: I cannot read Little Liberia without seeing it through the eyes of my own visits to that country. It was during a lull in the fighting in the Spring of ’95  that I first touched-down in Monrovia, to teach a theology class to twenty pastors. Subsequent visits have confirmed for me the resiliency of this people, a determination to stick together through tough times. To visit Liberia is to love Liberians, a gregarious and hard-scrabble people.

This same enduring spirit imbues Steinberg’s book, narrated through the eyes of two Liberian refugees living in New York City. Rufus Arkoi was a soccer coach and organizer who left Liberia in 1986. His path later crossed with Jacob Massaquoi, whose foot had been badly mangled in a shooting in Monrovia during an outbreak of fighting. Through their childhood stories, we catch a glimpse of the historical dynamics that laid the tragic groundwork for the gathering storm.

What is it that made Liberia prone to such brutal civil wars? Part of it – according to Rufus Arkoi – is the “suspicion and jealousy” that permeates society. When asked where that comes from, his answer is polygamy (p. 149-50):

I always say it is because of how our families are structured: one man, four wives, four sets of children, four sets of goals, not one set of family goals. Jealousy among the four sets of children. This mother is only looking at the interests of her children and is wishing that those children from the other mothers do badly in life. That’s the family structure. That’s the society.

And yet the amazing thing about both Rufus Arkoi and Jacob Massaquoi is that – whatever the cause of suspicion – they both are most of the time able to rise above it, contributing to the good of their fellow Liberians in important ways. Theirs is an optimism that sees not only what is but what can be, both working to help Liberian youth on Staten island get the education that will keep them out of gangs, enabling them to build for a brighter future.

In connection with economic development back in their homeland, one assumption that that author never challenges is that salvation must come from outside of Liberia. It is Liberians working in New York City who – much like Haitians – send a significant portion of their salary back to their country of origin. On the one hand, this is admirable, a sign of solidarity that should be applauded. On the other hand, it perpetuates a cycle of dependency, blinding citizens to local resources. Of course, this is the dilemma of all foreign aid. How can legitimate human need be met without creating in those helped a sense of entitlement? To use the words of the late Jack Kemp, how can assistance be a “hand up” and not merely a “hand out”?

In the last chapter of the book, Rufus Arkoi returns to Liberia and makes promises that he will go back and raise money from American donors, that he will send American soccer scouts to Monrovia to recruit Liberian players for foreign teams (p. 241). One more time, he works from an old paradigm, that someone else from somewhere else will solve our problems. What is lacking is a strategy for developing local resources for long-term sustainability. To borrow a political slogan, how can Liberia move from “Yes, they can” to “Yes, we can”?

For those who have never traveled outside of North America, Little Liberia it is an excellent introduction to dynamics that operate not only in Liberia but across sub-Saharan Africa.  Truly, this is a continent with huge potential and where most of the solutions to most of the problems lie close by, not far away. A pastor from South Africa put it well: “We are a rich people with a poverty mentality.” Yet it is more than outlook; it is also values. Solutions are short-circuited by individual greed, through misappropriating for oneself funds that were intended for the common good. (And lest we Americans get too self-righteous on this score, Google “Bernie Madoff.” Pot, meet kettle.)

As Christian educators, our task remains to inculcate in the young the integrity that will prevent the corruption that has tainted the past. Economic poverty is closely tied to moral poverty, no matter where in the world one is working, Africa included. It is righteousness that “exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). Truly, holiness is Africa’s hope; indeed, it is the world’s hope!

Whether describing the depressing ravages of civil war or the optimism of re-directing youth through sports and education, Jonny Steinberg is a gifted writer well worth the reader’s time. I highly recommend Little Liberia.

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Photo credit: Angus Robertson

Three lessons on the lost – Luke 15

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompei Batoni

Here’s a sermon I recently wrote, based on Luke 15’s lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons.

Some speak of Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” But I wonder if that isn’t too narrow a reading of Scripture? I would argue that Jesus had a “preferential option for the lost,” regardless of their socio-economic status; for him, that was irrelevant. Jesus sought out lost people from all walks of life.

In gratefulness for God’s grace toward us, do we do the same?

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SCRIPTURE READING:  Luke 19:9-10

“Jesus responded: ‘Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a son of Abraham. And I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and save those like him who are lost.’ ”

– re-tell briefly the stories of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons (Luke 15)

PRAYER

I. INTRODUCTION

It’s hard to admit you’re lost. More than once, I’ve said to my wife when driving:

We’re not really lost. I just don’t know where we are.

Jesus, on the other hand, was not afraid to speak the truth. He cared enough about the lost to label them as such. That wasn’t hateful; that was loving. He understood that only when we acknowledge that people are lost will we do whatever it takes to rescue them.

Do we really believe that people without Jesus are hopelessly and finally lost?

I believe it because Jesus believed it.

When Zaccheus the tax collector repented of his sin, paying back up to four times as much as he had cheated from his victims, Jesus declared:

“Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a son of Abraham. And I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and to save those like him who are lost.” – Luke 19:9-10 (NLT)

Four chapters earlier, in Luke 15, Jesus spoke to a crowd of tax collectors and “sinners,” plus some Pharisees and teachers of the law. In that context, in no uncertain terms, Jesus spoke of the lost. From the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons, we can learn three lessons about the lost:

1. The lost matter greatly to God;

2. The lost can be found;

3. God calls us to join in searching for the lost.

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A classic: Shoemaker’s “I Stand By the Door”

Sam Shoemaker (1893-1963) served as a pastor in New York City and Pittsburgh. He was instrumental in establishing the spiritual foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous, particularly the need to turn to God as a way of coming out of alcoholism.

Rev. Shoemaker, toward the end of his life, wrote “I Stand by the Door” (aka “I Stay Near the Door”) as an apology for his ministry. I first heard the poem in 1983 during a devotional time at the beginning of Church History class at Eastern Nazarene College, taught by Joseph Seaborn. The poem struck me that day and ever since by its simplicity and vision; what’s more, I’ve found it crosses cultures.

The version of the poem below is from an online tract. The only change that I have made is to update the language, making it gender inclusive.

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I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world—
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside, and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like those who are blind.
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it . . .
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door—the door to God.
The most important thing any one can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch—the latch that only clicks
And opens to one’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live, on the other side of it—live because they have found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him . . .
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in—
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics—
In a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms,
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening . . .
So I stand by the door.

The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving—preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door—
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But—more important for me—
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch,
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
‘I had rather be a door-keeper . . .’
So I stand by the door.

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Photo credit: All Addicts Anonymous

From “over there” to everywhere

It was a contest I just had to enter. Mrs. Vera McKim, our Upstate New York District missions president, announced the children’s essay topic: “The work of a missionary.” My 11-year-old imagination kicked into gear, as I thought of stories I’d heard about missionary heroes like lifelong missionary to Swaziland Fairy Chism, Scottish surgeon David Hynd, and pioneer missionary to Peru Esther Carson Winans.

At the top of my paper, I carefully wrote: “S.A. on missionaries by Greg Crofford.”

“A missionary,” I began, “is a person God calls to leave the United States and go to the mission field. They are gone for many years, and preach about God. Sometimes they start schools or hospitals. When the church is strong, they say goodbye and go somewhere else to begin all over again.”

That was 1974. Much has changed in the intervening 37 years. The NWMS (Nazarene World Missions Society) is now Nazarene Missions International, but much more than a name change has occurred. Let us consider three shifts in thinking and methodology applied in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission to go and His Great Commandment to love.

The mission field: From “over there” to everywhere

Missionary work by definition is cross-cultural. In Acts 1:8, Jesus called his disciples to begin spreading the news about new life in Christ in Jerusalem, continuing to all Judea, going on to Samaria and to the rest of the world.

As Jews, the disciples first preached to fellow Jews in their own city and country. Next, they went to the Samaritans, distant cousins with some key cultural and historical differences. Finally, the disciples became apostles (“sent ones”), evangelizing cities with peoples radically different from themselves.

Though the Roman Empire had laid a thin veneer of Hellenistic (Greek) culture all around the Mediterranean basin, this masked divergent and enduring local cultures. The Church sent out Paul, Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Luke and the other Jews to proclaim Christ crucified, risen and coming again in places drastically different than their homeland.

Ralph Winter

The founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission Ralph Winter (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: a Reader, 3rd edition, p. 341) has labeled these three gradations – from a shared culture between messenger and listener, to a somewhat different setting, to a radically different culture – as E-1, E-2 and E-3. The second and third levels usually involve learning the language of the host culture, and always include learning new customs and norms.

As a denomination born in the United States, the Church of the Nazarene began primarily with E-1 evangelism accomplished through revival services and camp meetings. Yet from the beginning, there was a concern for E-3 efforts.

The Church sent missionaries to far away places like Cape Verde, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Peru. The “mission field” in the popular imagination was “over there,” a place far from home where American Nazarenes – and sometimes Canadians and British – went to plant the church and spread the message of holiness.

But as the denomination matured around the world, the vision for cross-cultural ministry captured the imagination of Nazarenes globally. The “mission field” is now to everywhere, from everywhere. Missionary work happens everywhere E-2 and E-3 evangelism transpires. A Congolese pastor teaches theology at a Bible college in Malawi and learns the local language, Chechewa. He is engaging in E-3 cross-cultural ministry regardless of whether he bears the title “missionary.” Indeed, most missionary work on the African continent is carried out not by official Western missionaries but by Africans who cross cultural and linguistic barriers.

In the same way, the diaspora of South Korean Christians means the gospel can penetrate places off-limits to traditional missionaries from North America or Europe. Missionary endeavors are no longer unidirectional but multidirectional. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the “world is flat.”

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Team spirit wins the gold

How is being a missionary different than another position like a pastor or an evangelist? – Ben Mauldin (student, Southern Nazarene University)

The Church is like the Olympic Games. Every follower of Christ represents “Team Jesus,” yet each team member competes in a limited number of events. No doubt a basketball player in a pinch could play table tennis and a water polo player could swim the 50m freestyle, but would that be the best use of their abilities? Likewise, God recognizes that the Church will be most effective in fulfilling its purpose if believers are allowed to specialize. In Ephesians 4:11-12, there are several such specialized roles listed, including pastor, evangelist, and apostle.

The dominant image in the New Testament for pastor is shepherd. Peter urged: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care…”(1 Peter 5:2, NIV). In the same passage, Peter calls them to “oversee” those entrusted to their care. The pastor provides spiritual care through preaching, administration of the sacraments, hospital visitation, counseling and other means. Sometimes this is directly, but as the church grows this is often done by organizing others with similar gifting to fulfill these roles.

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Looking at life through Congolese glasses

I’ve been in Goma (Democratic Republic of the Congo) teaching a course to 23 students, both pastors and lay persons. What a city this is! They say that 150 non-governmental organizations (charities) have set-up shop in this dusty town that lies in the shadow of active volcanoes. As my driver has shuttled me back-and-forth to class over the bumpy roads, I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different if I was born here instead of the United States.

Though I’ve lived in Africa at various times – cumulatively for 12 years – I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about this amazing continent. First of all, there is no such thing as “African culture.” Africa is a big place, and sub-Saharan Africa has many cultures.

In Paul Hiebert’s book, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, he outlines 14 characteristics of a Western missionary’s worldview. These formed the basis for one of my class lectures. Since turn-about is fair play – and effective adult education – I gave my Congolese students a homework assignment. “Imagine” I said “that you were sent as a missionary to Brooklyn, New York. Make a list of five characteristics about Congolese culture where you live that these Americans would need to know about you.

Continue reading “Looking at life through Congolese glasses”