Righteous Deeds

Ancient wisdom from Jesus ben Sira:

Let us now sing praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations … Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten …
(Sir. 44:1, 8-10, cited by Thomas O’Loughlin, Discovering Patrick, p. 41)

Should you and I feel we have not been sufficiently recognized, have not made the media parade, or might soon be forgotten once we are gone, Jesus ben Sira reminds us that righteous deeds are never forgotten.  He would tell us that the reason for righteousness is not notoriety, our aim is not Twitter, and our reward is not praise.  There exists in the righteous deeds themselves ample reason, aim and reward.

Stories and Storytellers

Our past is sedimented in our present, and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves, as long as we can’t do justice to where we come from. -Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 29.

We want to live now – with reference to little else but the now and with reason based solely in the now.  We ask – “Why spend time studying thinkers, movements, or events of the past?  That’s just dead, dry history.  Isn’t life about me, my life and what is in front of me?”

And yet, can we really escape the past?  Everything we see, touch, and experience is full of the past.  No matter how we might wish to dismiss or ignore it, the past is with us, defining our present.  Charles Taylor is right – if we fail to “do justice to where we come from,” we will misread our present and thus “misidentify ourselves.” Continue reading

Reread, Re-envision

For more than two centuries [Western power] has provided the framework in which the Western churches have understood their world missionary task. To continue to think in the familiar terms is now folly. We are forced to do something that the Western churches have never had to do since the days of their own birth – to discover the form and substance of a missionary church in terms that are valid in a world that has rejected the power and the influence of the Western nations. Missions will no longer work along the stream of expanding Western power. They have to learn to go against the stream. And in this situation we shall find that the New Testament speaks to us much more directly that does the nineteenth century as we learn afresh what it means to bear witness to the gospel from a position not of strength but of weakness.
-Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret[1]

A reframing of missions capable of countering the modernizing tendencies within the mission movement must offer an alternative that is substantial and potent. Such an alternative must come from sources that are more than cultural and religious, especially since these have been implicated in the initiation and justification of Western dominance and control. Surely, if we are to find an alternative, correcting voice, capable of defying the powers that so easily seduce and intoxicate us, we will need to look beyond the familiar to substance that is more than merely political, national, or cultural. Such substance can only be found in Jesus Christ and the scriptures that point to him. Continue reading

The Christian Imagination

At the urging of a friend, I now have in my possession Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale, 2010).  Jennings will be a holiday companion and guide beyond the boundaries of race, oppression, and citizenship; that is, once grading and graduation are done.  Thank you Joe Bumbulis for the recommendation.

Violent Roots

Church history recounts too many acts of violence carried out in the name of Christianity.  Self-identifying Christians throughout the ages have employed threats, coercion, censure, shunning, imprisonment, and even torture and murder to force conversions, to enforce particular brands of orthodoxy, and to persecute non-believers.  Those who should have known better did not do better.  Instead, they behaved in ways worst than most non-believers and thus betrayed the cause of Christ. Continue reading

Missions and Bath Water

‘Throwing the baby out with the bath water’ is a way of saying that in an attempt to rid ourselves of the dirty, bad, or undesirable, we toss out that which is essential or prized.  The idiom is quite graphic.  Imagine a mother lovingly washing her daughter’s face, arms, and hair.  She is careful not to rub too hard but thoroughly washes between fingers, behind ears, and around eyes and mouth.  All the while, she softly reassures the child that she loves her.  Once the mother is done, she takes the tub full of water and baby to back door and toss both into the yard!  We get the message – you don’t throw out something or someone of value just because it sits in that which of no value.  Besides being mentally unstable or out of touch with reality, a mother might throw her child out with bath water because she thinks (wrongly) that the only way to dispose of the nasty water is throw it and its contents into the yard.  The problem is that she cannot differentiate between the value of the child and the filth of the water.

A surprising number of people inside the church feel that the only way to deal with the ugly past of missions is to throw it out with the bath water.  They want to “own up” to the fact that missions was party to some of the ugliest episodes of human history – colonial aggression, slavery, cultural genocide, and power grabs.  For its distractors, missions belongs to an era of unenlightened and even brutish abuse and disregard, motivated by religious naiveté and simplicity.  They insist that in order to be free from this unsavory past, we must distance ourselves from every part of it.  And yet, such an opinion is itself too simplistic and, frankly, is an over-reaction motivated by an attempt to resolve an uncomfortable past.

We must differentiate between value and filth.  Missions is too valuable to throw out for at least three reasons. First, the value of missions can be seen in the myriad of good done by men and women on mission.  In fact, I would say that far more good has been done in the name of missions than bad.  We must not allow ourselves to be blinded to the vast amount of good and noble by dark and unsavory exceptions.

Second, missions is valuable because it is an enactment of the mission of God.  Missions is a human endeavor, carried out by culturally bound and sinful men and women, and thus, it will always be in need of a bath – repentance, refinement and humility.  And yet, in some miraculous way God demonstrates his love, grace, and glory through the human means of missions.

And third, without missions the church becomes too established and secure in itself.  Much of the reason for rejecting missions is that it is not respectable, or it is unsophisticated.  Missions is an embarrassment.  The church needs missions because of its embarrassment and offense.  Through participation in missions, we are reminded that we are a pilgrim people, exiles, sojourners, and witnesses of someone far greater than ourselves.

Who am I to dismiss, vilify, or reject missions?  I am merely a broken, and yet redeemed, man invited to participate in God’s movement toward humanity.  God’s mission uses me – my dirty bath water and all – to reveal his love, grace and glory to the world.

A time of theological renaissance

Today I begin a summer-long sabbatical study in which I will be reading like a mad man and hopefully get some writing done.  I plan to post throughout the summer, and thus share with you, challenging, provocative, disturbing quotes and thoughts that I stumble across.  The first of these is from an essay by Andrew Walls regarding what the church in Africa could bring to us …

“The Western theological academy is at present not well placed for leadership in the new situation.  It has been too long immersed in its local concerns and often unaware of the transformation that has taken place in the church.  It is often hugely ignorant of the world in which the majority of Christians live, their social and religious contexts, and the history and life of the churches.   Its intellectual maps are pre-Columbian; there are vast areas of the Christian world of which they take no account.  Nor are its products always readily transferable outside the West.  Western theology is, in general, too small for Africa; it has been cut down to fit the small-scale universe demanded by the Enlightenment, which set and jealously guarded a frontier between the empirical world and the world of spirit.  Most Africans live in a larger, more populated universe in which the frontier is continually being crossed.  It is a universe that comprehends what Paul calls the principalities and power.  It requires a theology that brings Christ to bear on every part of the universe, making evident the victory over the principalities that Paul ascribes to Christ’s triumphal chariot of the Cross.  The new age of the church could bring a theological renaissance with new perspectives, new material, new light on old problems, and a host of issues never faced before.” Walls, “The Great Comssion 1910-2010,” in Considering the Great Commission: Evangelism and Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit.  Edited by W. Stephen Gunter and Elaine Robinson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 19.

The Hope of Missions

David Bosch ends his magisterial study of missions by concluding …

“Throughout most of the church’s history [mission’s] empirical state has been deplorable.  This was already true of Jesus’ first circle of disciples and has not really changed since.  We may have been fairly good at orthodoxy, at ‘faith’, but we have been poor in respect to orthopraxis, of love.”  (Transforming Mission, 519)

Bosch’s words are a reminder that the kingdom of God comes via the feeble witness of weak, broken, and flawed individuals who even though they find it hard to love as they should continue in the hope that God’s love will be found in every word spoken and each act of kindness.  The hope of missions remains – God is love and his love reigns despite our imperfect motivations and deplorable means.


Jeffrey Cox, Professor of History at the University of Iowa, in an article entitled “What I have Learned from Writing The British Missionary Enterprise from 1700” (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2008), distills a number of his conclusions from his study of and book on British missions.  Below is a quote from the article that coincides with and reinforces a salient point Dana Robert makes in her new book (see my post of March 31). 

A majority of missionaries were women. Specialists in the field know this, but I still find audiences that are surprised to hear it, largely because the image of the missionary is almost entirely male. The problem in mission historiography is to establish the role of the wives of male missionaries as missionaries in their own right, which they were from the very first days of overseas missionary effort. There is a hidden clause, however, in most generalizations about nineteenth-century missions: “not counting the wives.” That unspoken exclusion makes it difficult to count the true number of women missionaries, but it is not impossible to make plausible estimates.


Unwritten Stories

In the second half of Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, Dana Robert highlights crucial themes in mission history.  In a section entitled ‘Women as Missionaries’, she notes-

Around the globe, more women than men are practicing Christians. Measured by regular church attendance, pilgrimages, prayers at home, fund-raising, and teaching children about faith, Christianity is a women’s religion. The ratio of female to male Christians is approximately two to one. Within Catholicism, sisters outnumber brothers and priests by more than 50 percent. Yet because the priests, preachers, theologians, public leaders, and famous missionary entrepreneurs are typically male, the crucial roles of women in mission remain buried in the unwritten stories of human relationships. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in both Catholicism and Protestantism, the majority of missionaries were women.  However, until recently overview histories of mission have scarcely analyzed women’s roles or acknowledged that women typically make up the majority of active believers (p. 118).

It seems to me that the telling of the worldwide advance of Christianity from the vantage point of relationships and home, hospitality and social change rather than institutional power and privilege may produce a history of the faith in which women are the chief witnesses.  And yet, as Robert points out, these stories remain buried within relationships and not in the ecclesiastical records or institutional ruins.  There is the history written by those who dominated and won, and there are the stories of the faith winding their way through families and marriages, school rooms and marketplaces.  The history of Christianity is woefully incomplete without these women and their unwritten stories.