Thursday, April 26, 2012

Every Good Gift

I told my Pre-kindergarteners about Uganda yesterday. I watched their eyes widen as I told of hundreds of children without parents. I witnessed their disbelief as I added that most don’t have homes. They made anguished faces when I described the only food the children at Smile Africa get to eat each day –a cup of porridge and a bowl of rice- and how the children at King’s Primary spend 9-10 hours a day at school without lunch or even a snack. They tried hard to imagine children like themselves so hungry they have difficulty thinking and learning.

 I showed them a five minute video from last summer’s trip and they couldn’t get enough…”Again, again!” they shouted, and we played it again.

 What happened next shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. A spontaneous session of thanksgiving erupted among my little troop of four and five year olds. They thanked God for their mommies and daddies, for their sisters and brothers, for the yummy breakfasts they had and the dinner they knew they would enjoy later, for warm houses, for bedrooms and snuggly covers on their beds, and of course for toy dinosaurs, puppies, paint sets, and Barbie dolls.

 Even before walking into my classroom yesterday morning a verse was playing in my mind. I shared that verse with my students, urging them not to forget that God is the giver of all things good, that even the good things we do are God’s gifts to others through us. The next several minutes were spent brainstorming what they could do for the hungry children across the sea. “Do they have milk?” one bright student asked, “because we could get them two cows -a girl cow for milk and and a boy one to eat.”

 Just as my day was ending I received an email from a friend that included the above photo. For the past two years my friend’s nine year old daughter, aptly named Grace, has requested pillowcases for her birthday. Then she and her mom make them into dresses to clothe orphan girls in Africa. She and her mom pray as they sew, for each future recipient of a dress –the dresses in the photo are the ones Grace made this year. I have the privilege of delivering those dresses into the hands of beaming, grateful girls –a very good gift from the only Father they have, and proof that He has not forgotten them.

 The photo itself was a precious gift to me, but I was astounded to see printed on it the same verse that had been running through my head all day –the one I had shared with my students:
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1:17

Saturday, April 21, 2012

May God By Any Name...Be Praised

I have been neglecting my blog, in part because for the past 13 weeks my time has been spent taking the class "Perspectives on the World Christian Movement." Today it occurred to me to share one of my personal responses from the class as a blog post. It may encourage you; it may disturb you; it may stimulate your thinking. In any case, may the one true living God in three persons be praised!

I particularly loved the reading for Chapter 10, especially the Redemptive Analogy stories and examples of using locally recognized names for God.

The over-arching theme was the concept of working within cultural frameworks -using what is good and workable and familiar to any particular ethnic group- to build relationships, communicate the gospel, and start churches.

It has always intrigued me that so many different cultures have stories that resemble the salvation story in some way. One example from the reading is The Asmat people and the “New Birth” ritual between warring villages that they observe. This practice sheds light on the biblical concept of being born again. Another example is the osuwa of the Yali culture of Irian Jaya. It took a long time for missionaries to discover this redemptive analogy, but that discovery allowed them to liken the osuwa -a sacred place of refuge- to Jesus, who is our refuge. This understanding of Jesus made all the difference in the lives of the Yali.

It makes sense for missionaries to get well enough acquainted with a culture to discover these links and use them in communicating the gospel, because these are already known concepts to which the people can easily relate. It is important for missionaries to view these redemptive analogies as opportunities rather than obstacles -to not only tolerate them, but to seek them out and make use of them.

One of my favorite stories was the one of the sycamore tree that had special significance among the Gedeo tribesmen in Ethiopia, who believed that Magano, the Creator, would one day send a messenger to camp under that tree. When Albert Brant of the Sudan Interior Mission unknowingly camped under the tree there was a huge response to the gospel, resulting in 250 churches starting over the next 30 years. Now that’s opportunity!

I find it especially poignant that our word “God” is an Anglo-Saxon name for Deity that the Celtic missionaries used, rather that insisting on the use of Jewish or Greek names such as Theos. Similarly, Allah is a pre-Islamic word for God. This is food for thought, especially for those who might insist that Muslims give up using the name “Isa” which is familiar to them, and use our word “Jesus” instead. In this case, the person of Isa is our common ground with Muslims –in many cases the best gateway to mutual respect and understanding. We can either choose to build on our common knowledge or begin with an argument about who “Isa” is or is not. The latter approach seems counterproductive, and more likely to cause a greater rift instead of beginning to build a bridge. Another way to phrase this is that God is much greater than any title assigned to Him. Far more important than what we call Him is who we perceive Him to be and how we respond to Him.

That God “can have ten thousand aliases if need be, in ten thousand languages,” may be a radical or dangerous notion to some, but it makes sense to me. In the Bible alone many names and descriptors are used for God. He is, after all, the Word, and yet we can never fully describe Him with just one.