Notes From a Fallen World

It’s going to be a great day; Sam and Bec are getting married. There will be a worship service, food, wine and a ceilidh. Best of all, a great young couple get to start out on one of life’s great adventures. I’m not a great one for ceremonies and such, but marriage is great and it points to something better.

Meanwhile, not too far away, just over the Irish Sea, my brother is having surgery to remove a cancerous kidney. By all accounts, the prognosis is good and there is nothing to worry about, but I’m worried all the same.

As world created to be good, but ruined by the fall is full of these sorts of contrasts. But one day, through the victory won on the cross, it will be restored. Till then our wine and dancing are mixed with tears.

The Cross and Mission Financing

At one level, the question of financing world mission seems dead simple. People in the rich world give money and those in the developing world benefit from it. No problem.

If only it were that simple.

I’ve dipped into this question numerous times over the years, but I recently had an epiphany that helped me rethink some of the issues. Firstly, what are some of the issues that make this question so thorny?

  • The first problem is that a continual drip-feed of finance from the rich world can breed an unhealthy dependency, by discouraging local generosity and initiative.
  • It can make the recipients feel as if they have nothing to contribute to the work they are doing.
  • The other side of the coin is that it can develop an unhealthy sense of power among the donors. It is depressing to see how many Christian fund raising videos and such highlight the way in which Westerners have changed the destiny of a village or people group through their gifts.
  • When funds come from outside, they are often used to meet the goals of the donors and agencies, which may or may not line up with the goals of the local community.

I could go on. In an unequal world, problems like these are part and parcel of the world of mission and development; we all struggle with them. That being said, this doesn’t obviate the Christian responsibility of rich people to be generous to those who are not so well off.

The only way to work through these issues is through open and honest dialogue. However, my experience has been that these dialogues are often pragmatic – what should we do. Recently, I found myself wondering whether we shouldn’t take a step back and begin our dialogue at the Cross; where he who was ‘rich beyond all splendour, all for loves sake, became poor’. Would reflection on the cross and the call for all of us to lay down our lives change the way we reflect on these questions?

I’d love to see it happen.

World Vision Turnaround

Today, I’m going to do something that no charity CEO should do, I’m going to discuss a decision made by another organisation. In case you hadn’t heard, three days ago, World Vision USA (not any other part of World Vision) decided that they would employ staff who were married to a partner of the same sex. This decision was overturned two days later.

I don’t plan to look at the underlying questions about sexuality and employment in any depth, there are other blogs which do that sort of stuff far better than we could. All I want to do is make a few remarks from the point of view of cross-cultural mission.

  • I think the initial decision by World Vision USA was wrong. This is partly because I hold to a traditional view of marriage but also because the decision was bound to be divisive.
  • That being said, if they believed that the decision was the right one to take, they should have stuck with it. The fact that they could overturn such a major policy in just two days implies that they hadn’t really thought it through in depth.
  • Christian Charities should make decisions based on Biblical values, not pragmatism and certainly not on the basis of what will bring in the most money. From the outside, it looks as though WV are bending one way and then the other in order to please their donors.
  • Some of the reaction of Christians to this whole thing has not been pretty. When the initial decision was made, I saw some very nasty and ungracious things written about WV by conservative Christians. Then when it was reversed, some liberal and progressive Christians were just as vocal and just as unpleasant. I don’t care where you are on the theological spectrum, but if you can’t argue with grace and charity; stay away from social media.
  • We’ve taken our eye off the ball. The purpose of World Vision is not to provide employment for Americans, be they gay or straight. They exist to serve the poor people of the world; who have been somewhat overlooked in this whole process.
  • More importantly, yet again the Christian world is talking about sexuality and not about Christ. I know that issues of inclusion are important, I appreciate that charities have to make difficult decisions (tell me about it!), but there is a needy world out there that needs to hear the saving message of Christ crucified and a large part of the Christian world is consumed by an internal debate. This isn’t what we were sent to do.

I mentioned at the top that I hold to a traditional view of marriage. I know that some readers of Kouya Chronicle will disagree with me. Please can we just agree to disagree; I really don’t want the world mission focus of this post to be lost in the comments. 

What It Takes To Translate the Bible

I love this diagram by my friend Jason Ramasami which comes from the latest Wycliffe magazine, Words for Life. There is so much going on in the picture that I suspect everyone will focus on different bits; but the things that stick out to me are:

  • It is God who is at the centre of everything; breathing life into the work.
  • Despite being sovereign and central to the work, God also responds to the prayers of his people.
  • Clearly, translation isn’t a work for the Lone-Ranger, it takes a big team.

Of course, any diagram like this is only an illustration and can’t cover all of the aspects of translation work. If it were really accurate there would be so many people doing lots of different types of ‘something else’ that you wouldn’t be able to make anything out.

The point of the diagram is to highlight the different ways in which people in the UK can contribute to Bible translation work and it does a brilliant job of that. My one, slight, reservation is that it doesn’t really reflect the leading role mother-tongue speakers in the the translation process – perhaps that’s a subject for another diagram in the future.

If you receive this blog post by email and the drawing doesn’t show up, you can find it here.

A Church Divided

Even more regrettably, modern denominational divisions are often driven by crass motives of money, power, and pride. Often, new denominations are created simply as ways to exercise control and power by a person or faction, and then justified by some obscure doctrinal rationale. All this makes a mockery of the church’s witness. So the existence of more than 40,000 denominations in the world is not only a measure of flagrant disobedience with respect to God’s desire for the Church; the paths that have led the church to this reality are littered with sin. Our contemporary practice shamelessly violated biblical teachings in ways unimaginable to those who wrote the New Testament  and to leaders of the early church.

From Times Square to Timbuktu by Welsey Granberg-Michaelson (p.15).

One of the reasons I enjoy working in Bible translation is that our work generally does not have a denominational basis, indeed it can serve to bring believers from different backgrounds together; I wrote this in a blog post 8 years ago, but it is as true today:

Bible translation is one area in which Christians from different confessions can unite in order to advance the Gospel. The Scriptures are above our theological differences; there is no premillenial Bible as opposed to a post or amillenial one. The faithful translator strenuously avoids placing their personal slant or theological spin on their work – and where inevitable mistakes occur there is a rigorous checking procedure to ensure faithfulness to the original. If we are truly Christians, of whatever background, our concern must be to make God’s revealed word available to the millions of people around the world who still can’t read the book in their own language. Placing the Bible and God’s desire to communicate through it, above our own theological and cultural convictions is a liberating experience. It allows Christians who might never meet or who might, in other circumstances, be hostile to one another to work together towards a cause that is bigger than them and their secondary convictions.

I Think I’m Going To Like This Book

The astonishing ability of Christian faith to embed its truth in the life of widely diverse and endlessly changing cultures is the key to is growth, durability, and vitality through time and across geographical space. Christianity rests on the conviction that God became flesh and blood in Jesus. This incarnational foundation projects Christianity into an ongoing pilgrimage, constantly asking how it finds expression and vital witness in the world’s changing history and culture.

From Times Square to Timbuktu by Welsey Granberg-Michaelson (p.3).

Short Term Mission?

In 1962 Mary Steele arrived in Ghana to work as a Bible translator. Moving up to the North of the country, which was very under-developed at the time with few schools, Mary started work on the Konkomba language.

When the Konkomba New Testament was completed and local language literacy well underway, Mary started work in another language, Bimoba.

Then when the Bimoba NT was translated, she returned to help the Konkomba team work on the Old Testament.

20140321-083527.jpg

Last night I attended a reception at the British High Commission in Accra to celebrate Mary’s 52 years of service to this country. Perhaps the most remarkable intervention was from a former government minister from the Konkomba area who said that he and other successful Konkombas could not have received an education and done as well as they did without the work of the woman they call their mother.

Mary’s story brought to mind a recent blog post by Rollin Grams in which he writes:

The local church can support a missionary perspective by separating the recent concept of ‘short-term missions’ from ‘missionaries.’ Missionaries are called into a life-time of cross-cultural ministry. They are skilled in cross-cultural interaction, Biblically educated (or should be!), able to share the Gospel clearly, and working to evangelize, plant churches, and nourish people and churches in the faith through training in the Scriptures and for ministry. Their example is Paul the apostle and his missionary team, not the Peace Corps or the Red Cross.

Not everyone has the health and strength to serve for 52 years, but mission work is by its nature a long-term venture. This is something our short-term church culture needs to grasp.

20140321-085210.jpg

Local Food

There is nothing like travel to broaden the culinary horizons. I’ve eaten cane rat in Ivory Coast, delicious curry from street vendors in Thailand and something unidentifiable – but tasty – for breakfast in Cambodia. Today I ate lunch with a group of church leaders in Accra and was delighted to find this ‘local’ delicacy being served.

20140320-143456.jpg

Not as good a my mam’s, but not bad at all.

God at Work in the World and Our Place

This Sunday evening it was great to be back at Above Bar Church to take part in their series on discipleship. Not surprisingly, I was speaking on the theme of Disciples of All Nations.

The session seemed to be well received, though the person taking this photograph obviously preferred to stay in the lounge rather than come in and listen!

If you would like to listen, you can use the little player thing below and you can even view my powerpoint slides as a handy pdf document if you wish.

It’s Not All Black and White

Why do Christians easily fall into an ‘either/or’ mentality, rather than a ‘both/and’ one?

I don’t have any solutions, but I just thought I’d air a little frustration. For reasons I can’t fathom, many Christians act as though things are mutually incompatible, when they are actually two sides of the same (often multi-sided) coin. In the area of mission we see false dichotomies created between proclamation of the Gospel and works of service as if Jesus didn’t tell us to do both. You get competition between mission at home and cross-cultural mission to the wider world and so the list goes on.

Another expression of the same theme is the way in which when someone suggests a new way of doing things, others will immediately take this as a rejection of everything that has gone before. A new approach doesn’t mean that the former ways were bad, just that things have moved on and we need to take a fresh look at what we are doing!

I don’t have any solutions, just the mild bemusement that people who live in hope of a eschatological Kingdom, find it so hard to reconcile different ideas in the here and now.

It’s Not A Nice Book

If you think the Bible is full of encouragement, joyous events and all round sweetness and light, can I suggest that you are not reading it very carefully.

Just think about the book of Ruth for a moment. It is often portrayed as a sort of Biblical RomCom (well, perhaps not so much Com, but a lot of Rom). A foreign girl settles with her mother in law in the land of Israel, she works hard, meets a nice man whom (against the odds) she marries and, wonder of wonder, she becomes King David’s great-grandmother. Yes, but…

This is how the book of Ruth starts

In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him.  The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.

Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. The two sons married Moabite women. One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.

There was a famine that was so severe, that a family were driven from their home to a foreign country. Elimelech was almost certainly a peasant farmer and he would only have forsaken his fields and possessions if things were truly hopeless. We’ve all seen footage of refugees in famine struck lands; this isn’t the stuff of a nice romantic comedy. Despite everything, they made it to Moab and even settled down to make some sort of a living, but within ten years, three of the four refugees had died. That’s three quarters of them; just pause and take this in. Naomi and her daughters-in-law were left with nothing and no way to keep body and soul together, so Naomi decided to go back to her homeland; a refugee in reverse.

Yes, the story works out well, but it is a story soaked in pain and suffering. Even the nice sounding bits about ‘gleaning in the fields’ are really all about hard, back-breaking work.

The thing is, the Bible was written out of situations like this one. It’s a book which was written by people who lived under foreign occupation, who knew the realities of war, who suffered famine and who, all too often, met untimely deaths. Because of this, the Bible speaks to people who know these situations today; it is a realistic book, a painful book, but not a nice book.

In our nice comfortable Western world, we like to sanitise the Bible; to do away with the difficult bits, but we do it an injustice if we do. The Bible was written by people who lived hard lives in tough situations, it reflects their experience and speaks to people who face the same issues. This is why the Bible continues to be so respected and sought after around the world.