Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Religious symbols as aid to developing local theology

I’m reading William Dyrness’ book entitle Invitation to Cross-Cultural Theology. Here, Dyrness did five case studies of the way ordinary Christians, in a variety of settings, think about and live out their Christian faith. He points out that Academic theology have a lot to learn about theologies of the people that are done outside the bounds of Western academic setting and from written sources. He quotes Robert Schreiter who says that “to develop local theologies… one must listen to popular religion in order to find what is moving in people’s lives. Only then can local theologies be developed and the liberating power of the gospel comes to its full flower.”

I became a Christian in a Baptist denomination from a strong Catholic background. Although as a family we observed the Angelus and went the “big” church occasionally, however I consider us as nominal Catholics as most people in the Philippines are, nonetheless, the symbols of the Filipino Catholicism which is described by sociologists as “Folk Catholicism” is the best source of Filipino theological insights. A framework to start in developing local theology.

One of the most loved religious symbols in the Philippines is the Black Nazarene. The image of the black Christ is the work of an unknown Mexican artist that was brought in the Philippines in the 16th century.

The feast day of the Black Nazarene is celebrated every 9th day of January. The image is carried to the streets of Manila, with normally more than 100,000 people who crowd around in order to touch the image, or at least the ropes that are connected to the image. Many of the people who joined the procession are men from the squatter’s areas who perform particular ritual on that day. They all wear white shirts and a towel around their neck. They will use the towel to wipe the image and keep the towel as a religious object. These men make vows to perform in honor of the Nazarene during the coming year.

I had never seen the actual procession much more joined it. Because of the large and unruly crowd of people usually men, injuries are common and not unusual--deaths. This yearly event is also a major tourist attraction.

Dyrness observes that for Filipinos, particular dynamics are at work here. First, it seems that images provide a particularly dynamic witness to the incarnation of God in Christ. This image is “witness to the incarnation, to the reality of God’s presence and to our participation in the very life of God” says Beltran, a Filipino Catholic priest. Filipinos believe that they are vulnerable to the evils of the world, and only in a very concrete fellow feeling can offset this cosmic sense of weakness. Images like this tend to give the believer a sense of confidence, almost invincibility when the rituals are performed faithfully and properly.

Secondly, the performance of the rituals is essentially social. Filipinos are most themselves when united in some common action—to join with others in such a procession appears to satisfy a deep need of pakikipagkapwa (being in relation), both to God and to other people.

Thirdly, a more properly theological motive at work in their identification with the image is the most characteristics attribute of God for Filipino—mercy or pity (awa). Here God is seen as someone who is ready to intervene on behalf of a people who are in extremes. Beltran comments: “The life of the Nazarene is the all-seeing love and compassion of God operating under conditions of temporality.” So, that homage to the Nazarene is a way for people with little or no human solace or material security, to recognize and hold on the reality of God’s redeeming love as they are able to understand it.

William Dyrness, Invitation to Cross-cultural Theology, Zondervan Publishing House, 97-99.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Who is a theologian?

“I have no theological training! I don’t even have short course training about missions but I’m here in preaching the gospel!” my friend said emphatically as he delivered his sermon last Sunday. For me, his lack of training became apparent as his sermon was loaded with big theological terms that I guess most people in the congregation never heard before. He claimed he is not a theologian and he doesn’t need to be one to be used by God. I agree and disagree.

Who is a theologian? The problem arise when we think that the word theologian is to be used strictly for those who are academically trained and competent expert. But as Barth, Bultmann, R.C. Sproul, Moltmann among others would say every Christian is a theologian. Moltmann says it well,
“Theology is the business of all God’s people. It is not just the affair of the theological faculties, and not just the concern of the church’s colleges and seminaries. The faith of the whole body of Christians on earth seeks to know and understand. If it doesn’t it isn’t Christian faith. This means that the foundation for every theological specialization is the general theology of all believers, which corresponds to the Reformation’s thesis about the universal priesthood of all believers. All Christians who believe and who think about what they believe are theologians, whether they are young or old, women or men"
I know Pastors who don’t have seminary training, but the way they study the Scripture and expound it when they are preaching made the Word of God simple, clear and concretely applicable to everyday life of the believers. And I mention this in contrast to those who have “training” but seem to cloud the meaning of the Scripture because there is just too much background info and abstract ideas. When we study the Bible and communicate its message to the people, we are theologians. As Moltmann further says, “the text of biblical message is the same everywhere. This cuts across the different cultural contexts and creates ecumenical context, which extends through out ‘the whole Christendom on the earth’….academic theology is nothing other than the scholarly penetration and illumination by mind and spirit of what Christians in the congregation think when they believe in God and live in the fellowship of Christ.”

Indeed, we are all theologians, for better or for worse… the task I believe is as Christians we should all strive to be better theologians.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

An Unusual Invitation

One morning, a woman we have been visiting and have been coming to the church lately, dropped by our house and gave me an invitation card. Her mother-in-law has died and I was invited to attend a Buddhist funeral. I felt strange. I have never been invited to a funeral before. I grew up in a culture where nobody invites you to attend a funeral. If you know a friend or a family of the deceased person, you are expected to come. But of course, I am not supposed to reject the invite. A friend gave us a good advice; don’t wear anything bright-colored. I wore black.

The body was laid in the community meeting hall and the street was blocked off. It did not look like a funeral; it was more like a party. We ate and talked with people who looked like they were having a good time. The family hired catering company and constantly serving food. Then perhaps after a couple of hours of waiting the monks started their chanting. And everyone around us put their hands in a prayer position and just stayed still. But some just continue chatting in that position.

When the chanting was finished, the coffin was put on the pickup truck on elevated platform. However, when it was time to go, the poor thing won’t start. It was kinda funny, the driver kept turning the ignition for more than 30 minutes and the wretched thing won’t bulge. I thought of pushing it, but the coffin might topple and nobody wanted that to happen. The relatives talked to the dead and said “pai liao” meaning “you have to go.” They thought the dead wouldn’t want to be buried because she was waiting for her son who failed to come to the funeral. They believed that spirit or consciousness of the dead person was still around floating in the air aimlessly.

Anyways, to make the long story short, at the cemetery, before the body was cremated there was a very long ceremony of merit making. Relatives were called to give gifts to the monks in a very formal manner; it took forever, because evidently the clan was big. We looked at the monks during this time, and they were all sleeping at the back. After all the relatives finished their turns, it was now time for the monks to receive all the gifts. Suddenly they were all awake, they chanted again for 30 minutes and took all the gifts. And many more ceremonies like glasses of water spilled on the ground among others. I couldn’t remember everything now, and then they put the body inside the oven and finally it was cremated. I and my wife went home with a terrible headache but not after we had been splashed with a bucket of water on our way out from the cemetery.

It was more like a party than a funeral. And I guess the children had a reason to feel good. They had done all their best to make merit for themselves and for the deceased person. In fact, all the male grandchildren became monk for at least a day. They make merits so that the karma of the deceased person would give her disembodied consciousness would have a pleasant and heavenly subsistence until she is reborn again to a better condition than her former life. Until she reach “nirvana.”

Christians don’t need to make merits to gain a heavenly existence after death. Christ did the ultimate merit making so that we will experience eternal life that we have through Him.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Less Postings and the Lament of the Abused Laptop

I apologized to my readers, yes, the two of you, that postings had been scarce here. It doesn’t mean I lost the desire to blog. I have many reasons and but let me state two reasons. First, our internet connection has been very bad and I think it’s not getting any better. I’m not complaining and even if I complain, my provider would just tell me to upgrade to faster and better connection and of course I have to pay more. No way! I’m content and happy that just to receive and send emails and browse the web and read my favorite blogs in a very slow and meditative manner.

Second and perhaps a more convincing reason is that our abused laptop is giving us a hint as if it is saying, “I quit.” You see this wonderful endearing laptop (a Toshiba Satellite A70/A75 series) had been with us for two years. And it never complained. But I guess, it wants us to know that “I had enough.” I can understand it, you see, during our first few months of staying here in the mission field; this laptop is everything for us. It is our link to the outside world and to our love ones back home. It is our sound system, we play music here all day whether it be audio CD, or MP3 or WMA, it never complains. It is also our home theater; we watch movies here, DVD, VCD, etc. I do my sermons here, PowerPoint presentations in seminars and worship services that we have had. I use it for blogging. It is here where we layout and print our newsletters. Here where we do and print the visual aids for Sunday school and evangelistic Bible stories, the English lessons visuals and handouts. In short, as I mentioned above, we do everything with this laptop. Now the DVD/CD-RW drive is totally useless. Furthermore, it shuts down by itself. I try to clean the vents and the cooling fans, but it doesn’t change a thing. It quits every time it feels quitting. Now, I’m not complaining again, I’m just happy that I still can use it.

Perhaps, it explains why posts here are scarce, but perhaps not.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Suffering

It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Best Contemporary Theology Meme

In response to Patrik's meme about top three best contemporary theological works from 1981 to 2006, these are my personal choices (3 and 4 are actually tied in third place).
  1. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, 1981
  2. David Tracy, Analogical Imagination, 1998
  3. Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 2000
  4. William Placher, The Domestication of the Transcendence, 2000
And if you read this and you think you can nominate what you consider are best theological works in the last 25 years, consider yourself tagged.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Things to look for about world mission

I was playing with my very old version of Quickverse and tried to look for an article about world mission. I found some very interesting facts.
Recent trends in the church and its missions alert Christians to possible future developments.

First, the growth of Third World churches and their missions will make it incumbent upon Western leaders to give greater consideration to a true partnership in church and mission endeavors.

Second, changes in all branches of Christendom will increasingly require that all Christians who would be faithful to Scripture and the historic creeds of the church rethink the basis of true faith, of interchurch and intermission cooperation, and of world mission.

Third, the expanding penetration of non-Christian religions and ideas into the Western world will force true Christians to reaffirm the implications of the uniqueness of Christ and the Christian faith in the face of religious relativism and inclusivism.

Fourth, a justifiable and growing concern for the alleviation of injustice, poverty, and suffering make it more difficult for Christians who take the Great Commission seriously to sustain a priority for the preaching of the gospel and the development of New Testament churches worldwide.

Fifth, antagonism on the part of foreign governments toward missionary endeavors that aim at the conversion of non-Christians to Christ will mean that Christians will have to think of alternative ways in which to reach a needy world for Christ.

When looking ahead, Christians are exhorted to be alert and ready for Christ’s second coming (Matt 24:42). In His Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25; Luke 21), Christ prophesied of dire events both in the church and in the world. But none of those events will prevent either world evangelization or His glorious return (Matt 24:14,30).

Source: Quickverse on Holman Bible Handbook

Missionaries must be theologians

"Missionaries must cross linguistic, cultural, and social boundaries to proclaim the gospel in new settings. They must translate and communicate the Bible in the languages of people in other cultures so that it speaks to them in the particularities of their lives. They must bridge between divine revelation and human contexts, and provide biblical answers to the confusing problems of everyday life. This process of cross-cultural communication means that missionaries, by the very nature of their task, must be theologians. Their central question is: 'What is God's Word to humans in this particular situation?'"

Paul G. Hiebert, R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou. Understanding Folk Religion. 1999:26

Blog note

After our observance of Lord Supper last Sunday, we sang the traditional hymn for the occasion. I would like to quote the verses:
Bless be the tie that binds; Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds; Is like to that above.

Before our Father's throne; We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one; Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other's woes; our mutual burden bear;
And often for each other flows the sympathizing fear.
The words ring true for me. Working here in a foreign land assured me once again that those who put their faith in God would always find a community that they can belong. Our congregation is composed of people from different nations, tribes and tongues. Neither language nor nationality can become barriers to a joyful fellowship.

I feel the same here with the community of theology bloggers. I am aware that my theological knowledge is wanting and I always mention this here that I do learn a lot from other theology bloggers and I feel close kinship with some of them.

When I learned at his blog that Byron is sick and has been going through hard times, I prayed for him and I will continue on praying. Theology bloggers are indeed yet unmet friends and perhaps will remain so... but it will never hinder us to be a blessing and encouragement to others.

Byron's faith and positive outlook about all that is going through is indeed a blessing. This is what he said:
There is shock at the ugly presence of sickness and wrong in God's good world. There is sadness at lost or delayed plans. There are bouts of some anxiety and uncertainty, mixed with pragmatic necessities and reflective moments of insight and new perspectives. There is joy in the love of friends and family and the daily gifts God gives. There is a yearning for Christ to return and bring healing to his entire groaning world. Overall, we are feeling well in spirit, trusting the God who calls into existence the things that are not and raises the dead. There is no reason to fear, because the light has dawned on all of us who sit in darkness, in the shadow of death.

Friday, January 05, 2007

New Year Notes

Sawat dee pee mai! Happy New Year!

The year 2006 (2549 for the Buddhists) passed by so quickly. My prayer right now is that 2007 will be a fruitful year for us as we live as “strangers” in a foreign land. At this point, I want to look back at the past year and note down here the significant events in our lives.
1. Our coming to Thailand exactly one year ago.
We came here one year ago to respond to God’s call to become harvest field workers. In spite of the hindrances and difficulties God made a way for us to come and work here. We are celebrating God’s faithfulness to us, he sees us through and he provided all we need by using people through out the year.

2. Our Visa struggles
We have been turned down once and we experienced difficulty in processing our non-immigrant visa. A lot of money was spent and we experienced physical and emotional stress. The problem was compounded by abrupt changes in the Thai immigration rules. But God was with us every step of the way.

3. Church family and ministries
We are blessed to be a part of a church family where almost of our ministries are done through its partnership. “We are on our own with God supported by our church, friends and families,” is the best explanation we can give to the people who asked us who sent us. Most of the missionaries here have a platform; they work as Christian Non-government Organization (NGO) or as businessmen with their English Language Center. We can neither claim the same because we don’t have the resources to do so. My wife is a volunteer English teacher and I do the work of a pastor-evangelist and theological educator through the church that have a big vision to preach the gospel to the different people groups here.

4. Our new friends
This morning my wife and I went to the market and I believe we are really blessed with friends. We were happy that the vendors in the market consider us their friends because we look like we need one. We look like them but could not speak their language. They are the vegetable vendor, the meat vendor, the fish vendor, the fruit vendor, the banana vendor, clothes vendor and our lady barbers. Our neighbors: the kapun (vegetarian noodles) vendor, the siopao vendor, our handyman neighbor and his wife who are ready to do everything in the house not expecting any payment. My children's Thai tutor and his husband with whom we really learn to share our lives with. Our Canadian friend, who went to Korea to teach English, entrusted us her house, 12 cats and a dog. And more Christian friends… we are blessed to have many friends in our one year stay here in Thailand.

5. My blog and blogging friends
I started blogging last July simply because I unexpectedly have an internet connection and a laptop given to me by a dear friend. I could not afford an internet connection back home. Here the connection is cheaper. Moreover, I didn’t expect that this blog would attract readers. Somehow it did, I began receiving emails and was linked by fellow theology bloggers, I really appreciate this. Blogging friends gave me theological books that I will not get anywhere or anyhow. They even paid for the postage. This is indeed a blessing.
We welcome 2007 with open hands, praying that we will accomplish greater things for God’s glory. New Year will never be complete without resolutions. Although most of the times they are never kept, it is good to make them. So as a family we want to:
  1. Be used by God according to our gifts. My wife as a volunteer teacher and trainor, my children as they sing and play instruments in the church, and being friends to local children. Me? As Pastor-teacher-evangelist, and a servant to a local pastor.
  2. Be good learners. My children in their home-schooling. My wife and I as we learn more of the culture and language.
  3. Be more effective witness to Christ—telling them how he died and resurrected to reconcile the world to himself.
  4. Be friends to someone. It doesn't matter if they need a friend or not.
  5. Be focused in writing my dissertation. I am a postgraduate student and needs to finish my dissertation. I have a hard time finding the time to do so. I hope I could do it this year.
We need important tools as harvest field workers. Please help us pray for:
  1. A motorcycle. We are using an old motorcycle lent to us by a friend. She might need it this year and may take it anytime. A motorcycle here costs more than $1,000.
  2. A desktop Computer. The whole family is using the laptop. We all do our works here including teaching materials, church bulletins, emails, bloggings, etc. We are worried that this may breakdown anytime and we don’t have anything to use.
I should stop here, these notes are getting longer. In behalf of my family, I'm praying that 2007 will be a Christ-filled year for all of us.