It’s Better If We Keep The Façade.

I like this church, but…

Recently I heard a story on why a visitor did not return to the new church in town.  This could be anyone in Anytown, America.  And I believe this describes a fundamental flaw in our Christianity.  When asked why they didn’t come to the church again, the woman responded that she did not agree with women being permitted to preach.  That’s because she came to visit when one of the women on staff gave the message.  I know, I know. It is kinda funny for a woman to not like women preachers. But I guess the prejudice goes across gender lines.  But when she was pressed a little more, she said she didn’t like how transparent the person speaking was. The lady didn’t like how raw and open the speaker was in sharing her personal story of God’s work in her life.  Now, as I transition back to life in the US, I am becoming acutely aware of the American culture, especially, the American, Christian culture.  And the happy plastic smiles that accompany people to church as they pretend everything is okay just don’t cut it for me anymore.  Where did we get the notion that having it altogether shows that we are better Christians? That a visitor didn’t like the message being so raw with personal trials shows a disconnect from what God is really trying to do in us. Aren’t we all works in progress?  I am not sure where it started, but somewhere in our “can do” culture, we have equated struggle with weakness. Yet scripture says that struggle is what leads us to maturity (James 1:2). We feel that if we are suffering that God has abandoned us.  We feel that if we are broken, that the enemy is winning.  We are conquerors.  No, we are more than conquerors.  So why should we have to deal with pain? These are all great questions, but pretending that pain and suffering don’t exist only perpetuates the hypocrisy deep in the American culture.  I don’t know.  Maybe I am plane weird, but I thought authenticity should be a hallmark of Christianity.  I like reading the stories of the Bible and seeing that the great heroes of our faith were flawed like me.  And more than that, I think one of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is that we can be broken.  Our faith is not about being perfect but being redeemed.  We worship a God that finds us in the mire and pulls us out.  He picks us up and sets our feet on the rock (Psalms 40).  He takes a heap of brokenness and turns us into something beautiful.  His grace shines through our humble brokenness.  When we act like we have it altogether, we are conveying a message that we can save ourselves through enough pure determination. But when we talk about our true struggle, we show how only God can transform us.

broken-manOn the same note, I was recently at a meeting where George Barna detailed his latest in depth research on transformation (The importance of Brokenness) . He pretty much has found few Christians make it along the journey to transformation. He has found that brokenness is a key step in the process to our lives becoming what God wants them to be.  If we neglect or avoid this process, we will only be superficial Christians. We will lack the power and ability to impact this world.  Barna said we need to die to sin, self and society.  I think the woman above typifies many who think that we don’t die, but we live victorious. We don’t need to let people see our flaws.  Maybe if we did, the church could see what God wanted, a redeemed and restored people.  Let’s work on becoming more open rather than less.  What do you think prevents us from being more transparent, especially as Christian leaders ?

Prunes, and Pruning

Do prunes grow from a tree that is pruned? I don’t know but prunes help get the junk out just like pruning a tree helps keep things healthy in a tree.

I am no tree doctor, but I do know that trees need to be cut back from time to time to create opportunities for further growth, healthier growth. Sometimes, we just want growth, so we neglect sharpening our blades, and pulling out the clippers to trim back a few bad branches.

Still in further cases, we let sickness go unchecked so long that a tree needs to be cut back further and further.

A pruned tree and I am not so sure why I want to say prune as much as I do in this post, but it sounds pretty cool, can give off false perceptions. To an untrained or unattentive eye, a pruned tree looks awfully dead. Perhaps a parallel analogy could come from the winter season when a tree loses all of its leaves. Seasons come and go, but as long as the tree stays rooted in the right place, the fruit will come in the right season.

What is the point of all this pruning and season mumbo jumbo you ask?

Well, Jesus promised us that the father would prune us. Sometimes that gets interpreted individually. Yet, can I daresay that the passage in John 15 could also apply to the community of faith in a collective us as the people of God issue.

Sometimes, the church will go through season when God prunes and cuts out the branches that should not be there. And no matter what, as one who has led a church through a pruning from God…it is not comfortable. However, I am looking forward to the further fruitfulness this church and all others that hold onto as God shapes them into the healthy trees that he wants them to be will have.

An Example of Contextualization: A Look at Love

Let me take a side road for a moment in this ongoing discussion of Contextualization on the blog. When I sat in my MA class at Wheaton College with Dr. Moreau, my wife held down the fort with the church in Bangkok. Not only that, she was also taking care of our 16-month-old daughter and brand-new 4-month-old puppy while I spent two weeks taking intensive classes in the Chicago area. Probably not the best idea for us to get a new puppy a week before leaving, but Ellie was desperate to have a dog, and I wanted the extra protection while I was gone.

Not only was my precious wife carrying double, no triple, no triple-and-a-half load for over two weeks, Tina was left home alone on our anniversary. But she never held that against me, supporting me all along as much as any wife could do. She even sent me love notes every hour, scheduled on our Mail Chimp service used for newsletters. I kept getting emails from her throughout class wondering what she was doing up so late. Finally it sunk in when I kept getting Mail Chimp alerts. Mailchimp wasn’t sending me some update about their service or promotion for something new…my wife had a well-crafted and perfectly executed way to show me her love and devotion. I want to share one such letter here that perfectly illustrates contextualization.

Andy,

I hope your enjoying your class today. I was thinking about contextualization and how our lives, our love, themselves became contextualized when we moved to Thailand. No longer could we hold hands or show affection in public after we moved here. It didn’t change our love, just our expression of it. I think the Gospel is the same way. The message, the content, shouldn’t change when we bring it from one country to another but how it is expressed changes. The same base is there but superficially things have changed. Anyways, just a thought…

Love and kisses,

Your wife

Succinct and to the point…We cherish even little trips out of the country for a visa run where we can hold hands again. No holding hands in Bangkok also means no pecks on the cheek, no smooches in public, no arms around the waist…no public displays of any kind. Yet we love each other more now than ever even if some of the forms have changed in how we express and communicate our love.

Shouldn’t the love story of God with his people be able to transcend culture while at the same time inculcating itself within each and every people group?

What word picture would you use to describe contextualization?

My Father is Bigger than Your Father

If any of us did anything as children, we believed that our dad was a superhero with super powers. My dad could beat up your dad.

Now, as an adult, I am comforted to know my father in heaven can beat up anybody. I don’t have to cower in fear before evil spirits, overwhelming circumstances, or difficult situations. My God is a great Father, and I love being his child.

The Bible draws several word pictures of what the church is, or rather who the church is. The church is the bride of Christ, the church is the body of Christ, Again, Peter tells us how the church is living stones, Paul teaches Timothy, and the church is the household or family of God. Businesses, a common ministry model for church today, are not great at producing disciples. They produce products pretty well, but families, bodies, living stones, intimate connections with Jesus produce real disciples.

More importantly, family creates an identity of who we are. When we know who we are as the children of God, and that we belong to the house of God, we know what we can become. I love how Ephesians 2:19 puts it. We are no longer strangers, or aliens as Paul pulls on the former verses that say how we formerly were far from God. Jesus changed everything when he came to bring peace to us. We belong to the family of God not because of anything we do or how the family feels about it, but because of what Jesus did. I love belonging to God’s family. I know he will take care of me, watch over me, and lead me in his path.

We have the ultimate Godfather.

How does knowing your identity shape your behavior?

The Reluctant Missionary

I get asked many times, how did you get to Thailand.

My story as a reluctant missionary begins with a girl. A cute girl came into my life and started me in a whole new direction, or if you read the previous post, onto the correct path meant for me all along.

Since I totally rationalized away the calling God put on my life to be a missionary to my people, I avoided the things that could get me entangled in overseas stuff. Namely, I kept clear of girls in Bible College who told me that had a calling for missions. Ironically, I am in missions now, and am not sure how many of those girls are. I did great to stay away from the girls planning a life in another culture. I made it four years through Bible College, not getting caught in any of their traps. So what happened?

When I moved to South Orange County to lead the student ministries at New Life Christian Fellowship in Laguna Niguel, a cute yet reserved girl caught my attention. Even though she started to fall for me, she kept rock solid in her life goals. She did not want any guy…no matter how cute, to sidetrack her from her calling. That is why she sat me down early on in the relationship to say that she was called to missions. She said, we had three options.

  1. We could date while she served for 1-2 years overseas.
  2. We could get married and serve for a short time together before coming back to pursue my calling in church planting.
  3. Or we could break up.

Did I say, she was determined, firm in her way, strong, oh yes, I did say that.

Well, fast forward to getting married, and going overseas, choosing option 2. After we begin sending back updates and photos, people that went to youth group with me responded with excitement. They were beyond thrilled to see me fulfill my calling. Wait a minute, my calling? Maybe they did not understand, I was following Tina’s calling. Well, they explained more. They told of how I stood up at camp. They still had the pictures of the group of us from our church that stood at the camp together. There were 14, and I was the only one doing it, they said. Finally, finally…it all flooded back to me. I was following God’s calling too…

Wow, talk about a realization that completely blows your mind.

Now, I see the faithfulness of God. Even when we forget our calling, as long as we keep following God, he will get us where he wants us to be. Pretty awesome.

Should There be an American Church?

I’m taking a contextualization class in three weeks. In preparing for this class, I have been doing lots of reading on this highly debated topic. How far is too far for “contextualizing the gospel”?

However, I am still pondering this question. Should we have an African church, a Chinese church, a Thai church, a Latin American church, or even an American church? When we speak like this, it’s almost as if the church’s are in tension with each other.

When I read the New Testament, I find simply the church. Paul wrote the church in Galatia, the church that met in Colossae, the church in Ephesus. Revelation spoke of the church in Laodicea among the other six cities. I get the sense we have turned the church upside down looking to culture as our guide rather than first being an extension of God’s family. We often let culture shape the church rather than the church shape culture.

As a missionary with five years of service in Thailand, I am far from saying I have all the answers. More to the point, I have more questions than clear understandings. I wonder what are the universal indicators that the church exists. I see Paul establishing a church wherever he went with certain unchanging particulars, a DNA of sorts. They each had faith, love, and hope as part of their essence.

How does the church exist in a setting without being defined by its location? At the same time, how does the church become local in its setting? There will always be subtle differences from place to place as how the church functions. The church will look different in language, dress and style, but when does this cross the line from contextualization to compromise?

Reflections from Songkran

As I get a few days away from Songkran, the Thai New Year, I wanted to give some observations of the Thai customs.
Songkran, once a polite and formal holiday in which young people splashed water and went to their families to show honor to their elders. Blessing, cleansing, and honor mark the holiday as people from all corners of the nation of Thailand come together to celebrate with their family. However, I realized through conversations with some of our Thai friends, we come to understand the chaotic water fights have existed always, but the bawdy and wildness has emerged stronger and stronger over the past generation. Last year, teenage girls were taking their tops off; drunkards were making things more edgy, young men look for opportunities to grope the female Songkran participants.
What happened?
People lose their moorings when celebration trumps meaning. When people begin to lose their cultural heritage when they start to forget why they do certain customs. When we decouple the meaning of a tradition, we lose the purpose for doing something.
I have loved watching the church, often seen as a foreign entity, come alongside of Thai culture and help the Thai people hold onto their customs. In some ways, they reinterpret what some of the meaning are or where the blessings come from. However, in Songkran, we do not see the future blessings coming from God.
One example comes from the water pouring blessing, or rot nam dam hua. The young people use this ceremony to show honor to their elders as they go on their knees before their family’s elders. They ask for forgiveness for the things they did in the previous year. They then pour scented water over their elders hands, who in turn pray a blessing over the youth.
The Christians can still participate in this without looking to the spirits of Thailand to bring blessings or curses, but to God. They can see forgiveness coming from Jesus and blessings poured out by their Father in heaven.
We enjoyed watching the church partake in this ceremony, culturally appropriate to Thailand and yet sensitive to Jesus teachings. Thailand has become a party place led by their tourist centers of Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket and others as they jubilantly celebrate their New Year. Others want to fight back against this and hold onto the traditions and the meaning of their deep culture that the New Year starts with a cleansing of the past and openness to the future year. Perhaps the church will play a pivotal role in helping reinfuse cultural meaning into the festivals of Thailand.