Swimming upstream

512px-Salmon_fish_swimming_upstreamQ – What do salmon, coho, and rainbow trout have in common?

A – They all swim upstream for reproductive purposes.

Biologists believe that odors of the home waters where they were spawned remain wired in their brain. Sciencing.com explains: “At maturity, they are instinctively drawn back to the place of their birth.”

These three species of fish hold a lesson for Christianity:

Reproduction requires swimming against the current.

Going with the flow is easier, but spawning the next generation of believers mandates a counter-cultural approach. We are upstream Christians in a downstream world.

The words of Paul to Titus have a timeless quality though they were written 1,900 years ago:

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds (Titus 2:11-14, NLT).

They, too, were to be upstream Christians in a downstream world. In a society that was “evil,” Paul called Titus and the flock he shepherded to lead lives characterized by “wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God.” Their attention was to remain hopefully focused on the future, the day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, there was no place for idleness. In the same way the twelve-year-old Jesus insisted that he must be busy with his Father’s work (Luke 2:49), so Paul reminds Titus to commit himself to God’s good work in the world (v. 14).

What is striking about Paul’s advice to his young protégé is that living in an evil world never justified jumping out of the stream. Upstream fish remain in the stream but are strong enough to swim against it. To succeed in this counter-cultural feat, believers must remember three things:

1) Remember that our help comes from the LORD. Isaiah 26:3 reminds us:  “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV). The would-be crushing pressure from our surroundings must be matched by an internal spiritual force that pushes back. Andrés Filipe Arias knows this well. Caught up as a pawn in a geo-political chess game, this former Columbian Minister of Agriculture now sits in a Miami detention center. His petition for assylum in the U.S. hopelessly delayed, he faces 17 years of wrongful imprisonment if extradited to his home country. Such a force would have crushed many, but the husband of one and father of two has deep faith in God. When asked how he is coping, he replied: “I feel strong and at peace. Of course, every second I long for my home, my wife, and my kids. But I’ve learned to accept God’s will no matter how mysterious are His ways.” As to his sanity, he testifies that God sees to it.

2) Remember to swim together.  The salmon, coho, and rainbow trout swim upstream together. In the same way, resisting the downstream pull of our culture is best done when we stick together. This is the strongest argument for the church; there is strength in numbers. It’s no accident that it wasn’t a single Hebrew but three Hebrews brothers who together refused to bow before the idol of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:16-18). Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV) teaches that a “cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Jesus calls us to be like the light set on a lampstand that draws people in from the darkness to the warmth of the light (Luke 11:33). We shine best when we shine collectively.

3) Remember to keep on loving. Being counter-cultural is no excuse for aloof disengagement. Jesus told of a time when evil would increase. What would be the result? “The love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12b, NIV). Our love for God and for others is the ultimate measure of holiness (Mark 12:28-31). If our churches are shrinking, could it be that would-be seekers coming in from the cold – in the words of evangelist Charles “Chic” Shaver – never found enough love to keep them warm? What kind of “love” inscribes “all welcome” on the church sign but freezes people out once they step inside?

Like Paul and Titus, we live in a world that too often is evil, yet this is no excuse for downstream living. With the strength that comes from the Lord and banding together, followers of Christ model a different path, a better way. May our love never grow cold! Instead, let us open our arms wide to all, inviting people to join us and our Leader in this epic swim upstream.


 

Image credit: By Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Oord’s Uncontrolling Love of God: A Critique

OordTom Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of God’s Providence (IVP, 2016) has sold very well, including the Kindle version that has slept unread on my iPad for the past year. But now I’m teaching a course in contemporary theology, so the timing was good to read Oord alongside my students.

Let’s begin with what’s right with the book. First, Tom Oord is unafraid to tackle tough issues, and none is tougher than theodicy, what C.S. Lewis called “the problem of pain.” In the first chapter, he rehearses what anyone who has been a follower of Jesus for any length of time knows: Sometimes, God lets us down. What’s more, horrific things happen in our world, events that seem to defy our common understanding of God as both all-powerful and all loving. Oord’s timely and practical introduction draws the reader in.

A second positive aspect of The Uncontrolling Love of God is its down-to-earth style. You don’t have to be a trained philosopher to make sense of what he’s saying. Further, Oord has done a decent job of presenting biblical evidence to support his thesis, though it’s apparent he is more at home wearing his philosopher’s hat than his Scripture cap.

Which brings us to the question: What is his central idea? Oord explains:

God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control (Location 2001, Kindle edition)

The phrase “God cannot” is the hardest hurdle to clear, and Oord understands this. The reason he insists on using the phrase anyways is that the nature of love – according to Oord – is always non-coercive, or “uncontrolling.” Here Oord tries to carefully circumscribe the meaning of “coerce,” clarifying that it does not carry a psychological, violent, or bodily sense, only a “metaphysical” sense, meaning that – in such a scenario – God would “act as a sufficient cause, thereby wholly controlling the other or the situation” (Kindle location 2547).

I’m still reflecting on this central premise. I agree with Oord’s observation that if God can control in some circumstances in order to mitigate evil, then it becomes difficult to understand why God seems to stay quiet on the sidelines at other times (Kindle location 3000). Yet the biblical witness that God sometimes controls is too obvious to easily dismiss. For example, attempting to follow Oord’s model, I find it hard to believe that uncontrolling love alone can bring about the consummation of the Kingdom of God described at the close of the New Testament. In fact, Revelation makes clear that persuasive love alone will not be enough to reign-in the devil, the incorrigible enemy of God and all that is good. In overwhelming force – yes, coercion – Jesus will return and arrest the devil and his minions, casting them into a lake of fire (Rev. 20:7-10). This is a case where God in Christ will “wholly control the other or the situation,” to use Oord’s words. In fact, the spiritual warfare worldview as promulgated by theologian Gregory Boyd presupposes at least some form of coercion. This worldview is the default for nearly a billion of the world’s inhabitants that call Africa home, yet it seems not to register on Oord’s radar. Arguably, it is as much a challenge to his model as are miracles (addressed in chapter 8).

But let’s set aside the adjective “uncontrolling” and talk about the noun, namely, “love.” Throughout the book, Oord is critical of the Calvinistic penchant for making power (or sovereignty) God’s most important attribute. On the other hand, Wesleyan theologians often cite love as the essence of the divine being, and Oord is no different. But it may be asked:

Do we need to identify a single divine attribute that is most important? What purpose does such prioritization serve?

How would Oord’s project look different if — instead of beginning with love then building the superstructure of his argument upon that — he esteemed all God’s attributes equally, whether that be sovereignty, faithfulness, love, or a dozen other characteristics? Instead of looking at Philippians 2 and its kenotic interpretation as central, what if we rather saw that passage as only one piece of a much more complicated puzzle, one that also encompasses attributes seemingly opposed to love, such as wrath? In short, to identify love as the most important divine attribute is a judgment call. Some theologians will agree; others will decide on another attribute and reference his or her own proof texts. The only alternative is a far more ambitious project, to look at providence and the problem of evil in light of the various attributes of God’s character even if that means holding them in creative tension.

Tom Oord wrestles commendably with the problem of evil and suffering, yet he leaves out key Christological considerations, most importantly, the resurrection and the return of Christ. Without a future tense, theodicy is unsolvable. I wish Oord would be a little less philosophical theologian and a little more creedal theologian, for nested in the Apostles’ Creed are phrases that can give hope to every hopeless situation he eloquently describes in the first chapter of his book:

“On the third day he rose again.”

“I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

The same comforts pastors provide at a Christian funeral should have something to say in a discussion of theodicy. Indeed, the resurrection is the peg on which the whole of the Christian faith is suspended. Arguably, it should also be the peg on which theodicy hangs. “Jesus rose. We too shall live.” The rest is details.

Where I think The Uncontrolling Love of God can help is with the non-believer for whom the resurrection might one day hold comfort (should they come to Christ) but who for now finds traditional theistic explanations of evil and suffering a deal-breaker. Oord’s book allows the reader to question whether what well-meaning Christians have told them about God and God’s ways is in fact completely accurate. I can see the book as facilitating a rethink for those who have concluded – through their experience – that God is either sadistic or non-existent.

The book’s weaknesses notwithstanding, I recommend The Uncontrolling Love of God. Even in the areas where the author and I disagree, it forced me to think about why I was disagreeing. That can only be healthy for any thinker who desires to plumb the depths of God and how God interacts with the creation.

 

Two sayings broken beyond repair

penWhen I was a boy and something broke, I’d take it to my dad. In my mind, he could fix anything. We’d go down in the basement to his work bench where we’d poke around in some of the boxes and containers. One tube of epoxy glue, one vice and 24 hours of patience later, whatever had been broken was as good as new.

Sometimes it’s not just objects that are broken. Sayings can be broken, too. Sometimes they can be fixed; other times, they’re beyond repair.

One of Israel’s favorite proverbs was broken and could not be fixed:

What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: ‘When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer’? As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! (Ezekiel 18:2-3, CEB).

The proverb had become an excuse to shift blame. The rest of chapter 18 drives home the point that we must not blame our sins on those who came before us. Each of us is morally responsible before God as individuals.

Could what was true in Ezekiel’s day be true in ours? Is God asking us to jettison some sayings that have become counterproductive? Here are two that – like a dusty can of corn whose expiration date has passed – should be tossed in the trash, no longer fit for human consumption.

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”

God’s grace is an amazing thing! Without it, we would be lost (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11). But in practice, we don’t read all the way to the end of the sentence. We get bogged down in the first four words, putting a full-stop where it doesn’t belong: “I’m just a sinner.”

The result is a sinning religion, a Christianity full of forgiveness but devoid of Christlikeness. We “get saved,” meaning that we’ve tucked our ticket for heaven in our wallet or purse for safekeeping. Now – so we think – we can do what we please. In theological terms, we may have been justified but we’ve stopped short of sanctification. The summit of the mountain lies ahead, but we’re satisified to camp out in the foothills.

Yet God invites us to climb higher. The lowlands of sin are behind us and there’s no turning back. Paul reminds the Corinthians that – while sin was a part of their past – it is no longer what they are about (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And because of this, Peter insists: “You will be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, CEB). 

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace” can be an entry ramp to the highway of spiritual compromise. It’s the travel companion of similar sayings like “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” It rationalizes our sinful ways by conditioning us to live with a divided heart, forgetting that those who are double-minded are “unstable in all their ways” (James 1:8, CEB). Yet Christ calls us to a deeper life, one characterized by joyfully living into the ways of God. John Wesley called it “holiness of heart and life,” understanding that the very essence of holiness is love for God and others (Mark 12:28-34).

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

If love is the very essence of holiness, then we must address a second saying that claims to be loving. But is it?

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

The saying at a certain level sounds like Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9, NIV). But can we ignore the repulsive effect that the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb has upon listeners? It is often in social media conversations around sexuality that well-intentioned Christians trot out the proverb, thinking all the while that they’re being graceful in doing so. But any communication has two parties, a transmitter and a receiver. Effective communication only happens when the message transmitted is accurately decoded by the listener in the way that the sender intended.  And it is here that the breakdown occurs. The first phrase – “Hate the sin” – begins with the imperative, “Hate.” Like a flash-bang grenade tossed into the conversation, it deafens the listener to any words that follow. They never hear “love the sinner” because the only message they’ve received is that they are “the sinner” who is hated. If our objective is an evangelistic conversation, has the door just slammed shut? 

Some have suggested reversing the words so that the saying becomes: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” At least we then lead with love, not judgment. This seems closer to Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). First, he pronounced words of love to her: “Neither do I condemn you” (11a, CEB). Then, he instructed her to abandon her wrongdoing: “Go, and from now on, don’t sin any more” (11b). 

But I still wonder if the saying is beyond repair. Even if we lead with love by frontloading the words “love the sinner,” the proverb still has a whiff of smug judgmentalism about it. Phylicia Masonheimer asks:

Do we actually hate sin, or do we simply love judgment?

In “hate the sin, love the sinner,” the couplet “the sinner” comes across as clinical, like a medical journal article discussing “the patient.” It’s cold, aloof, and off-putting, like when a man talks publicly about “the wife.” What listener wants to have the verbal label “the sinner” taped on their chest? While it is theologically correct as a description of those who have not yet come to Christ (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:10), we need God’s wisdom to know when is the right time as a relationship develops to speak of sin and its meaning. In our social media interactions, we forget that often we have not yet earned the right to speak at that deeper level, that many of our readers are still ripening to God through the action of prevenient grace. Our words will either stir up that grace or douse it. Experience tells us that whatever our intentions, the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb pushes people away.  Isn’t it time for it to go?

Summing it all up

My dad was gifted at fixing broken objects. Sometimes when sayings are broken, they, too, can be mended. But there are other times when it’s best to just throw them out. The expressions “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” and “Hate the sin, love the sinner” are two such popular sayings, well-intended but counteproductive. May the Holy Spirit help us to be sensitive to these and other sayings that produce negative effects.

 

 

Going up the down escalator

Escalator_in_Japan_(6394120847)

Admit it. You’ve done it, too.

Maybe you were in some department store at a time when few were around. You could have taken the escalator going in the right direction, but what fun is that? So you looked down to make sure your shoe laces were tied, then stepped onto the rolling metal steps. You shifted into high gear, then started straining against the tide, pumping your legs at double-speed. Chances are you got some dirty looks along the way, but a minute later you raised your arms at the top in Rocky-like triumph:

You made it up the down escalator.

What you did was totally optional. After all, to make it to a higher level, you could have done what you usually do. You could have just taken the “up” escalator. But something strange has been happening lately. More escalators seem to be going down.

Marijuana? “Legalize its recreational use nationally,” some say, even though it is causing big problems for one state that already has.

Pornography? “No big deal,” though South Dakota and Virginia think otherwise.

Coarse language? “They’re only words. Take a chill pill!”

Cheating on exams? “Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.”

Undocumented workers and their children? “Send them back to where they came from!” makes a popular talking point, despite the fact that many are high achievers and are contributing to the nation’s well-being.

Lesbian daughter? “Kick her to the curb until she straightens out. What would people at church think, after all?” (So now we have many homeless LGBTQ youth.)

These days, we seem to be flocking to the down escalators, dulling our senses, hardening our hearts and consciences, even as we sink to lower-and-lower levels. To buck the trend – to get to the next floor up – we’ll have to brush off an old skill:

We’ll need to gather our strength, steel our resolve, and walk up the down escalator.

The Bible can help. Paul reminds us in Romans 12:2 (NLT):

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

There are those who resist the tide. Former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson brought his son back home, pulling the talented player from the Nebraska football program. His reason? Keyshawn Jr. got distracted by university party life and was busted for marijuana. He forget why he was there in the first place, to excel at football. Fans applauded the unusual decision by a strict and caring dad.

Thankfully, some “up” escalators still function. Find them and use them; invite others to join you. Volunteer for Little League. Take your son or daughter along to visit an old friend at the nursing home. Make it a family activity to help pass out food at your church’s food pantry. There are many ways to keep your community’s “up” escalators well-oiled and in-service. In so doing, we’ll be modeling – as Rick Warren insists – that “it’s not about you.”

Sometimes your community’s “up” escalators are broken; all escalators are rolling downward. It’s decision time. When you exert yourself and walk up the down escalator, rest assured: You’ll get dirty looks. Pressure will mount for you to go with the flow. Don’t give in! Get enough people walking against the grain and someone’s bound to ask what happened to all the up escalators.

Meanwhile, don’t grow tired. Join with others who are going up and encourage each other. When you land at the top, thank the Lord, then have your moment of Rocky-like triumph, together.

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Photo credit

By Yuko Honda from Tokyo, Japan (何の気なしに乗ると予想外の動きをするのでうわっ!てなるエスカレーター。) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you’re the minority

eggsIt’s known as the country of hospitality, and for good reason. Living for 4 1/2 years (1999-2003) in the welcoming but scorching and malaria-ridden African nation of Benin was simultaneously a joy and a monumental challenge. We’ll forever be grateful that they took-in an American missionary family and – despite our failings – opened their hearts to us and loved us. We will always have Beninese soil in our shoes!

For all the positive memories of Benin that I treasure, one negative memory was a phrase we heard too many times to count:

Yovo, yovo, bon soir. Ça va? Cadeau!

Translation: “White person, white person, good evening. How are you? Give me a gift!”

It was a little sing-song that parents taught their children, what they apparently thought was a harmless ice-breaker. Every day Monday through Friday, I’d arrive at the church office to the enthusiastic greetings of a small group of neighborhood children. “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” I knew they meant well, so I’d shake their hands and tell them:

It’s true, my skin is white, but I have a name. It’s Pastor Crofford. What is your name?

I’m a teacher, so I was confident I could gradually teach a proper greeting to a group of little boys and girls, and they responded well. No longer was I “yovo.” Little-by-little, they called me “Pastor.” But around town was a different story. Outside of restaurants? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” Walking down the street? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” Arriving at one of our new churches? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” And it wasn’t always just children; sometimes adults also called you “yovo.” I’d remind myself that it didn’t matter, not to be so sensitive. But when it’s happening for the 10th time in one day, it’s like a grain of sand in your shoe on a long walk. It might be small, but it starts to grate you. You begin to wonder: 

Is the only thing about me that’s worth mentioning…my skin color?

Somewhere down in my soul, a seed of resentment quietly sprouted and took root. “You’re a Christian, a missionary no less!” I would preach at myself, but like fighting the Borg, resistance seemed futile.

One Sunday night we had a Bible study. Missionaries from various churches gathered at the house of an American diplomat. We always supsected that high-ranking U.S. Embassy personnel like “Rick” (not his name) lived in an involuntary bubble, but Rick confirmed our suspicions. He’d already lived in Cotonou for over a year. A week earlier, he’d been drafted to run in a 5k, representing the U.S. mission. We asked him how he’d done. He’d run well, but many had called out to him from the sides of the route, so he asked us:

What’s with this “yovo” thing?

We burst into laughter. We’d known about it since our first day in the country.

My wife, Amy, had a chance to chat with her adult English students, a dozen or so upper-class and well-connected Beninese. “What do you think of Benin?” they asked. She complimented them on the many things we liked, but got brave. “There is something you should change,” she remarked. “Get rid of the ‘yovo, yovo, bon soir’ chant. Ex-pats hate it.” It was an eye-opening moment for them. They thought the chant was welcoming; we saw it as a nuisance, a constant reminder that we were “other.”

Before we left the country a year later, we noticed fewer children were chanting it. When I visited Cotonou again four years later, the chant was gone!

Living in two West African nations for nine years forced me into a skin-color role reversal I never would have otherwise known.

In the New York state Erie Canal town where I attended school as a youth, African-American students – or “Negroes” as was commonly said then- were rare. Likewise, the college and seminary where I studied were almost entirely white. After seminary, I pastored a church in a Midwestern town that until 1948 had maintained two hospitals, one a well-equipped facility for white citizens and a separate (and inferior) hospital for black citizens. Our ministerial association had only white pastors, though there were some small all-black churches on the “other side of the tracks,” far away from our all-white churches.

My experiences in life until age 30 had been as a white person living in a white world. I had zero experience being in the minority. It’s hardly surprising then that I had no way to interpret the seemingly over-the-top comment of an African-American pastor who guest lectured in class one day. The only black man in the room speaking to a room full of white seminarians, he bravely observed (paraphrased):

Whether you acknowledge it or not, everyone in this room is at least somewhat racist. You can’t help it; that is the way you’ve been shaped by your white culture.

That was until I lived in West Africa. Only then, as a white raft adrift in a sea of black, did I have some appreciation of what it means to be perceived through the narrow lens of skin color. One of my Ivorian students admitted: “When we were little, our parents told us that when white people sleep, coins fall out of their ears.” I laughed! Maybe this was the tooth-fairy legend garbled? “No coins in my ears or on my pillow,” I assured him.

But when do seemingly harmless stereotypes mutate into something more sinister?

In the United States, white supremacist ideology is pernicious because it stubbornly rejects what God has revealed, that all human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). It thrives on discredited notions of eugenics, that there are superior “races” and inferior “races” rather than a single race, the human race. Contrary to the Apostle Paul, who taught that we are “one in Christ Jesus” no matter our gender, our nationality, or whether we are slave or free (Galatians 3:28), the twisted thinking of racism conditions children to fixate on the minor differences that divide us rather than celebrating the major similarities that unite us.

Sometimes the seeds of discrimination are planted subtly. When I was five or six, I’d sometimes watch public television. (It was “Sesame Street” or a similar educational program.) Three colorful round shapes appeared on the screen, and one square one. The catchy jingle?

One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.

It’s only in retrospect that I’m appalled by the lesson since little boys and girls have no way to process it. How would I have felt if I were Bruce or his sister, Julie, the only two African-American students in my class of twenty-five at elementary school? The sub-text was clear: I’m not like the others, so I don’t belong. 

This was public television, but shouldn’t Christian churches do better?

I loved my childhood church. At church, I learned many good things, including what it means to love God, but it’s not all that I learned. One adult, “Steve,” (not his name) would tell jokes at church at the expense of black people. His prejudiced yarns drew nervous chuckles from his grown-up listeners, but no one challenged him publicly.

Or how about the pastor who a few years ago – after a missionary service where they’d responsed well to the report of our work in Africa – walked us to the parking lot. He advised us to turn right out of the parking lot and not left. Why? “You’ll want to avoid the ‘bad part of town.’ ” The pastor drove off, but when he was out of sight, we turned left anyways, driving into the “bad part of town.” (It looked fine to us). For an hour, we enjoyed a tasty meal at a restaurant, the only white customers yet welcomed by the smiles of two dozen African-Americans who seemed to enjoy the food as much as we did.

Once, my fellow bank-teller during a lull in the drive-thru lamented (in all seriousness) that black men were “out to sleep with white women.” I mumbled a half-hearted protest, but uncomfortable, changed the subject.

NileCrocodile

Racism is pernicious because – like a crocodile – it lurks just below the surface of the human heart. You never know when it’s going to surface, clamp down on a victim and drag them under. Like the person who sees the splinter in the eye of her sister, not realizing the board she has in her own (Matthew 7:5), we must constantly bring ourselves before the Lord and ask God to examine our hearts, to “see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:13, NIV). We must sing the old Methodist hymn: “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

When all your life you have been part of the majority group, it’s tough to put yourself in the shoes of the minority.

Yet if my experience in West Africa of being a minority teaches me anything, it reminds me that my “default” position should be to give credance to the complaints of minorities and not simply shrugging: “There they go again, playing the race card” or dismissing charges of prejudice out-of-hand as exaggerations.

Change came when the Beninese took our “yovo, yovo” complaint seriously, and started teaching their children a different way of interacting with expatriates. How about us, as white Americans? Are we willing to listen, to allow minorities to point out our blind spots, and to adjust our behavior accordingly? May we be willing to pray, as Jesus taught us: “Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others…” (Matthew 6:12, CEV). And once forgiven, may God grant that we become the Lord’s agents of reconciliation.


 

Image credits

Eggs — Keira Hamilton, on Linked-In

Crocodiles — CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66978

Cultivating curiosity

1024px-Curiosity_in_childrenJames writes that our life is but a vapor, here today, gone tomorrow (James 4:14). Life’s brevity means that we can’t experience everything, even if you give full-time to your “bucket list.”

There is so much to learn, and so little time.

While I’ve been able to experience some things in my life that others will never experience – such as living as a missionary in four different African nations – what one chooses necessarily precludes other choices. There are other paths unchosen that I’ll never walk, even if I had the aptitude early on to do so.

I will never…

-Pilot a 747, though as a boy I thought I would become a pilot and was fascinated by jets;

-Be a bank officer, though I’ve been a teller more than once and was eyed by management for promotion;

-Work as a medical doctor, though I was in the top 3 of my zoology class as a college freshman;

Obedience to God’s calling on my life has led me in a different direction. I married, went to seminary, pastored a church, had children, then went overseas as a missionary educator. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Yet one of the dangers of specialization is the death of a wider curiosity.

As a theological educator, most of my reading is given to religious topics. I can read entire books on theological subjects that fascinate me but that would seem esoteric to you. How many people, after all, care much about the soteriological implications of the eschaton? (Eschatology – the doctrine of “last things” – is high on my list, and I’ve even written a book about hell). Someone once defined doing doctoral research as “learning more and more about less and less.” There’s some truth to that!

With the advance of knowledge, specializaton seems unavoidable. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had the reputation of being a “universal man.” Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was similar; both had broad interests, expertise, and accomplishments in multiple fields. But in the 21st century, it’s hard to find anyone who has an encyclopedic knowledge like theirs. Too many additional volumes are in the encyclopedia now, too many “hits” from a simple Google search.

The downside of specialization – no matter what your field of study – is that a kind of glaucoma can set in, an intellectual narrowing of the field of vision.

So while I can have a stimulating conversation at a meeting of a theological society, what do I say when I sit on a plane next to a fellow passenger who is a supply chain manager, a physical therapist, or a gay activist? We live in different worlds. Rather than engage the conversation, I might choose to watch a movie or read my book about John Wesley. It’s a safe choice, but there’s no connection. Community suffers.

Yet specialization need not mean the death of a broader curiosity. With a healthy curisoity comes the ability to interact fruitfully with people from various walks of life. To this day, I will sometimes read about airplanes, follow financial news, or learn something new about biology. Though I didn’t walk down the career path of pilot, banker, or medical doctor, when I need a break from theology, I’ll dip my toe in another pool.

Curiosity is the mother of learning. Here are a three practical ways to cultivate curiosity:

1. Get a liberal arts education. I’m part of a denomination that sponsors multiple liberal arts universities. (Full disclosure: I teach at one, Africa Nazarene University). Though I was a religion major in undergrad, Eastern Nazarene College required me to take a number of “core” courses including World Literature, Living Issues, Intro to Math, Arts and Music, and General Psychology. This helped me situate the “tree” of my own discipline (religion) within a broader “forest” of knowledge. Even if what I gained was just general knowledge about various subjects, I at least knew where to start if ever I wanted to dig deeper. Because of a liberal arts education, I’m more likely to ask good questions from specialists if I want to know more. That makes for human connection.

2.  Listen to others with opposing viewpoints. One of my life’s guiding principles is this:

The first duty of love is to listen.

512px-Ear

 

Are you pro-choice? Read a pro-life website. Are you a Republican? Read a Democratic friendly news weekly.

You may not be convinced by the other side, but the discipline of curiously probing why others draw different conclusions than you do will help us avoid demonizing the “other.” Curiosity helps us co-exist, even if sometimes we must “agree to disagree.”

3. Read a book outside your discipline. During this “staycation,” I’m reading Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations (2016). It was a gift from a friend who knows you can’t hammer out good theology if you don’t understand the context in which you’re theologizing.

Ours is a world of specialization. While mostly a blessing, let us not become so narrow that broad-based curiosity dies. Let us keep cultivating a healthy curiosity so that – while we may never totally agree with one another – at least we can understand each other. Then maybe, just maybe, we can live together in peace.


 

Image credits

Big brother and baby: By Vitold Muratov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons;

Human ear: By David Benbennick (took this photograph today) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Blind spots

1024px-Car_side_mirror_sunsetWhen I was 16, my dad taught me to drive a car.

They say fewer American teenagers have a driver’s license now, but for me and my agemates, it was a rite of passage. I vividly recall heading with my dad to a rural road west of Rochester, NY. He pulled the Chevy to the right shoulder, parked, then switched seats with me. It was one thing to pass a 20 question, multiple-choice exam for a learner’s permit. Now, it was time for introductions: “Theory, meet practice.”

You’ve deduced that I acquitted myself well that day in June. After all, I’m typing this! Yet that experience was just the beginning of a months-long driving mentorship with my father. There were dozens of pieces of driving advice, good practices that over time have for me became good habits, second-nature.

One of those lessons endures: Watch out for the blind spot.  Seasoned drivers know that cars overtaking in the left lane disappear for a few seconds from your side-view mirror. If they’re in the blind spot – that invisible zone – you might slam into them when changing lanes.

Blind spots happen not only to drivers; they happen to believers. Acts 10 is a story of a blind spot. The religious narrative in which Peter and company were raised had shaped the way they viewed the world. In their day, there were only two categories of people: those who were chosen and those who were not. There was the People of God, aka the Jews, and those who were not the People of God, everyone else, the so-called Gentiles.

When Peter accepted Jesus as the anointed one of God, confessing him as “the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16, NIV), he was acknowledging Jesus as the long-awaited deliverer of the Jewish people. But what Peter did not perceive – his blind spot, if you will – was that this Christ was more than a national Savior; he was the Savior of all humankind. It took a divine revelation on a rooftop in Joppa – a command to kill and eat animals which the Mosaic law called “unclean” – for God to correct his faulty vision.

Peter followed the messenger and arrived at the house of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile centurion. When Cornelius and his household decided to follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. Later in Acts 15:9, Peter testified to his incredulous brothers gathered at the Council of Jerusalem:

He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith (CEB).

There was a longstanding way that they had interpreted Scripture which made it difficult for them to see something new that God wanted to do in the world. In short, they had a blind spot until the Holy Spirit in a disturbing vision performed worldview surgery on Peter.

In the same way, God has sometimes needed to correct my vision. He has used individuals to help me see what I could not see before. As a student at Eastern Nazarene College, Prof Helen Garretson taught abnormal psychology. She returned a report I’d written and deducted points for my use of  non-inclusive language. Before that day, I had no idea what the term “inclusive language” even meant! But she took the time to explain that speaking of the human race as “man” excluded half of human beings, while writing “humankind” or “humanity” included females and so empowered them, too. Honestly, at first I thought she was nitpicking; I resisted the change. Yet in conversations with my female classmates, I discovered that Prof Garretson was not alone in her viewpoint. Reluctantly, I changed how I used the English language and now have eyes for a gender equality issue to which before I had been oblivious.

1024px-Lasik_eye_surgery
Lasik surgery to correct faulty vision

Among evangelicals, tokenism is another blind spot. If there’s a gathering of church leaders with ten speakers, how often will the program include a 9:1 ratio of male to female speakers? We may be sensitive to how publicity brochures will look if they feature slick photos of all men, but rather than fixing the deeper systemic issue, do we avoid criticism by inviting the token woman? Never mind that qualified women whom our Universities and Seminaries have educated struggle to find even a small church where they can fulfill their pastoral calling.

Both of these examples speak to whether we really believe Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (NIV).

Here in Kenya, tribalism is another manifestation of blind spots. In 2007, violence erupted following a nationwide election, resulting in the death of more than 5,000 victims. In a recent chapel service, our assistant chaplain directed us to join hands in prayer for peace. As I looked across the room at brothers and sisters with hands clasped in prayer, I no longer saw Kikuyus, Merus, Luyas, Luos, Kambas or Americans. Rather, we were simply worshipers of God, united in Christ and our desire for peace as we anticipate a new round of elections.

In the 19th century United States, we had our own more severe form of tribalism, a deep-seated hatred nurtured through two hundred years of slavery. Those of European descent had long indentured those forcibly removed from Africa. We as a people rationalized a great evil, even as Christian preachers cherry-picked Scripture verses to justify the servitude of black men, women, and children. Even the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for purposes of representation to Congress counted a slave as only 3/5 of a human. God had to take our nation and its leaders up on a Joppa rooftop to perform painful worldview corrective surgery. Thousands of Civil War casualities shook us to our core, letting us finally see things in a new way. Old prejudices began to wither, a process that sadly is still far from complete.

As we think about blind spots, it pays to remember: Blind spots produce victims. Like the driver who changes lanes and crashes into the fellow motorist she couldn’t see, our blind spots can do serious damage. From the unplaced would-be female pastor who throws in the towel, to the grass that gets trampled when the proverbial African elephants fight, there is always a human price exacted. I wonder:

What other persistent blind spots might we as Christians have individually and collectively, blind spots that are taking a human toll?

Driving is a fine art. There are many lessons to learn to become a good driver; I’m thankful that my dad took the time to mentor me. Knowing there’s a blind spot in a side-view mirror still helps me avoid accidents. In the same way, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal our blind spots, doing for us what God did for Peter. May we like Peter not resist rooftop visions, always open to God ‘s corrective worldview surgery. Clearer vision is worth it.

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Image credits

Side-view mirror: The sunset viewed from a car’s side view mirror. |photographer=J RAWLS |photographer_location= |photographer_url=http://flickr.com/photos/94571281@N00 |flickr_url=http://flickr.com/photos/94571281@N00/13037170 |taken=2005-05-09 00:10:05 |reviewer=Tintazul }; via Wikimedia commons

Lasik eye surgery: By Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, USA (Lasik : Laser Eye Surgery) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons