The Glass Darkly

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Pontius Puddle

I enjoy Pontius Puddle, though it is not because he is a frog. In fact, it took me years till I realized that (my apologies to the artist)! Now that I have figured out the problem with loading pictures onto my blog, I will share this one with you as it kind of relates to my last couple posts. Please laugh -- I am not posting this to send a serious message of condemnation!
If you can't read his 4 points:
  1. Don't invite people in.
  2. Ignore visitors who show up anyhow.
  3. Ostracize those who insist on coming back. Or burn them out by assigning them to as many committees as possible.
  4. Grudgingly integrate over a period of many years those you can't shake.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What about Monocultural Worship?

I often catch myself talking out both sides of my mouth when I am mentally forming opposing arguments on an issue I am pondering. In the past couple years I have asked myself many times, “What is the Global Church and what should it look like in terms of diversity and worship?” When we talk about diversity; when we push for diversity, are we thinking that our openness to diversity and practice of diversity pleases God? Is God more pleased when we worship as economically, socially or ethnically diverse groups or if we worship together within groups of like-minded individuals with similar experiences? Or is the issue more our openness and invitational spirit toward “others.”

I think we catch ourselves between conflicting visions. The reality is that we worship monoculturally. The human default setting is to worship in the language and culture where we were born, were raised or are living. BUT yet I hear the call to worshipping multiculturally or as a diverse group of people. I struggle to know which is better and which is more realistic. My husband always points out that Sunday mornings are one of the most racist hours of the American week. That makes me feel guilty.

One argument for monocultural worship is that of language. I feel that worship is a way we express ourselves to God and reveals our concepts of God. We come to God from the cultural and linguist vantage point He has placed us at. I have pondered the idea that human beings function and think best in their mother tongue and in relation to their own culture. Is this not true? Our most intimate expressions of worship are most fluent and heart-felt when we express them in our mother tongue. True???

Another argument centers around potential power-pulls. I have seen people strive for multicultural settings where diverse views, languages, traditions and styles are espoused and revered. Though I think the revered part is essential, I have had a hard time believing that the espousal part is really possible or maybe even best. I think a push for diversity can shroud the heart of each culture or diminish the worship experience to a tug-of-war in which the stronger or host culture will ultimately dominate. I think it takes a lot of humility to transcend those obstacles and truly benefit from and celebrate the blending of backgrounds. Power issues are inevitable.

Even in the international church I attended for several years, we had to choose one language, deciding to use English, and we tried to use varied, but chose basically mainline, Western, Protestant practices within worship. The congregation was made up of people from all over the world, yet we decided that we would set our cultures and worship traditions aside to join together in one worship service. It was a blessing to find that unity, but is that an ideal to expect in most places? And what happened to celebrating the cultures represented? I wonder how I would have felt had they chosen Chinese for the language of worship?

Deciding to open up to various groups of people with varied needs, experiences, backgrounds, etc. is a brave but tremendously difficult endeavor. And some, I suppose, would say, that is the point – that we be stretched beyond our comfort zone to a point where we are identifying with and becoming the Church, more global looking. I guess what I fear is that I would hate to see the striving toward global-ness or diversity be the center of our worship, for then we are vulnerable to pride. The focus is on us and what we can do and not on the God of the Church who deserves our attention and adoration.

So I can’t help but wonder, do we want diverse congregations because of a hidden guilt . . . a desired accomplishment . . . or is it really because we think that is what is on the heart of God for His people? Is it wrong to worship in our culturally segregated congregations Sunday morning?

And . . . Multicultural Worship?

Again, which is better, to desire a multicultural gathering of Believers every Sunday which we believe will show our willingness to worship in unity despite diversity, or, to look at the Church as a combination of congregations whose individual cultures are allowed to “fly their colors” as one part of the Church’s banner, Christ’s global bride? Doesn’t Christ look at the Church as global already? He sees His bride as parts from every tribe and nation. Do we think we need to create a global looking Church within every congregation?

My biggest argument for multicultural worship is that if we only associate with people who are like us, do we ever grow beyond where we are today? Can we ever fully internalize a new language, both linguistically and affectively speaking? Can we minister in love and understanding to those whose life situation we have never experienced or known existed? Can we ever really identify with the poor and needy? As soon as I turn to this side of the table, I feel this is a better place to be – to more fully realize the global Church and the human needs therein. I need to be stretched and learn to love the unlovely or the needy. I need to learn how different groups view each other and how they view me within my social context so that I can stand in humility and reach out without judgment. I need the chance to practice unconditional love and the extension of grace and mercy. This is the way of Jesus.

Even though I think pushing for multicultural worship may be good, we need to monitor our pride and desire for benefits. I have heard people argue that we can “benefit from” the blending of backgrounds. Is that the attitude of many church-goers? Do we look at a worship experience in terms of how we benefit, be it physically, spiritually, socially or maybe just experientially? (I’m trying to find a word to explain a more academic reason for how one would benefit from the mixing of cultures). People speculate that it can be enriching and my response would be, “absolutely!” But I think we need to be careful with our language, that our worship experience as the Church is not necessarily so that we benefit but that God is glorified.

I do strongly believe that worship is a choice we must make no matter how difficult it is or no matter what we must overcome in our human circumstances to focus on God. One of the hardest circumstances we face each day is the fact that no one person is like the other. Even beyond our “macro-cultures,” there are the “micro-cultures” which separate us, be it denominational affiliation, economic status, personality, family background, abilities or lack thereof. We often allow these differences to become barriers in our relationships and worship. Ultimately, I believe that unity in the Body of Christ is more important than what our congregations look like. But, I suppose an important aspect of our worship is the love we extend to ALL God's people.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Power of Words

I read an article by Peter Chopelas on the Biblical interpetation of "Heaven" and "Hell." It is a rather lengthy and detailed analysis of the Greek and English translations which, he concludes, misrepresent the original concept and understanding of what we now refer to as heaven and hell. I found it very powerful and provocative in the sense that, if his analysis is true, it can really change our view of life after death and whether or not heaven is something we can experience on Earth or is a place somewhere out there with a big gate and pearly streets reserved for the righteous, after they die. Likewise, is hell a place where bad people go after death or is it a state of being, a consequence of our choosing to not follow God's light? Anyway, the article goes on and on. I am neither a theologian nor an expert on Greek/Hebrew language or culture, so I admit I am not the best person to join in the analysis. But it reminded me of the years I sat listening to church leaders in Cambodia debate and argue over the Khmer translations of the Bible.

The first Khmer Bible was translated from the KJV. The second translation was a combination of the Greek, Hebrew and English versions. Both Khmer and English/Khmer speakers from the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities who had lived in Cambodia for decades helped in the translations. There were debates over the correct words to use for the community of faith, spirits, ghosts, demons, Satan, heaven, hell, etc. In the beginning, my attention and patience waned as I wondered, for example, what difference does it make if we use the word for ghost or spirit? Aren't they basically the same? But after I lived in the culture longer, I realized that Cambodians, like Chopelas says the Hebrews thought, view the soul and the spirit as living and moving in two distinctly different realities. I could better understand their arguments. In the end, I decided that my limited knowledge of the Hebrew/Greek manuscripts and that of the subtle distinctions in the Khmer language warrented my silence in the discussions. Instead I set out to discover how culture does impact how we interpret and translate what we hear into the words of another language.

Language carries with it the concepts of a culture. I have heard translators argue whether it is best to use concepts available in the second language to make the translation fluent and fit what its own culture would understand. Or should you maintain the integrity of the original cultural/world views by adding explanations, if needed, so that the readers/listeners can comprehend and correctly interpret what might sound strange?

Based on Chopelas' review, I think that when the Hebrew OT was translated into the Greek Septuagint, it was done by Greeks or maybe with the help of Hebrews, who had lived in the Greek culture for so long, their sense of articulating long-held world/God views was overshadowed by their desire to make the Greek understood. Hebrews did not have a concept of "down in Hell" nor "up in Heaven." That came fromGreek mythology. It’s amazing how this changed the Christian theology of the Greco-Roman world! I wonder if the Greek translation (had it been translated back into the Hebrew) would have made sense to Hebrews who had never been exposed to Greek thought and culture. I think it is easy to lose clear focus on our mother culture and world view when we eat, live and breathe a new culture for so long. We learn to think in it and sympathize with even the parts our mother culture may have rejected. What makes this example powerful is that it is an example where the power of words changed the theology of the entire Western Christian world!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

English Accents and Celtic Music

I was talking with a friend this morning whose sister lives in Scotland. It reminded me how I have been missing the kinds of English accents found in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. I have so many friends from those places and would love a chance to sit and chat with them, not only to catch up with life, but to hear their beautiful accents!

A few months ago I bought a tape of Celtic folk songs. Several of the songs are not in English, but the combination of stringed and woodwind instruments with voice is captivating. It seems both reflective and energizing at the same time . . . is that possible??? I love the lilt of Irish and Scottish accents (though I confess I sometimes have a hard time following a fast Scottish accent). Plus, the ancient history of Celtic culture intrigues me. My husband got me the CD, Isle of Tides, for my birthday. Some of the songs are a bit more contemporary, but I do really like the drums along with the, almost airiness, found in Celtic music. Anyway, for those of you who enjoy trying out new genres of music and are not opposed to English accents, Celtic music is definitely a rich one to try!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Messiness of Working Cross-culturally

Even though I tend to remember the "good despite the bad" when it comes to things that happened to myself in the past, I can dig up endless regrets about things I did or didn’t do which I feel affected others in a negative way. I would say most all were unintentional, rather were due to my immaturity, inexperience, and unawareness at the time. I suppose we can’t easily get around these realities as we go through life. But every once in a while a memory is stirred and feelings of remorse flood back to mind.

Three aspects of my cross-cultural work in Cambodia were brought to my attention lately, causing me to reflect on how I impacted the lives of others. The drama, Torba, shown at LMS in January, did a great job of expressing many of the same emotions I have carried for a long time, but was unable to analyze completely until now. Like the MCC worker in the drama, I now question what I did that was of any value. And even further, I feel regret for what didn’t happen and maybe could have, had I been more aware, more mature, more experienced. What did I really accomplish there? Did I say the right things? How did I portray the gospel to both Christians and non-Christians there? Was there more I could have done?

As I look back on some of my experiences, I think I was either oblivious, or worse, chose to ignore my gut feelings when I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. Was it because I was too tired of playing my cultural role to figure out what the right thing was? Was it because I was intimidated by those I felt had more experience? Was it because I felt that when and if I took a stand to state what I felt was not appropriate, I would not have support? The answers are probably, yes, yes, and yes. But are they good enough excuses when I consider the long-term effects of imposing Western thought and practices on an Eastern culture?

I think we fool ourselves when we think we can change the world by taking our experiences and practices into a new culture. If we consider the fact that America was built by immigrants and yet hundreds of years later, we still struggle with racism and accepting those characteristics we label as “non-American.” How much more would a country that is mostly homogeneous, ethnically-wise, struggle to accept the ways we live? Sure, American ways export more easily since our values and practices are usually gift-wrapped in financial benefits. Thus, the message, “accept our ways, get our money!” But I believe that deep down inside, the people into whose land we enter do not fully embrace our values and practices. How foolish of me to ever think that my few years in another culture could help change minds and hearts!

So what about my work in organizational development, cultural study and youth ministry? I have no idea what worth it held. It enforces in my mind, however, that I need to trust that God was revealed despite me . . . that His love and call to a life of discipleship was spoken despite my ability to articulate it . . . that in God’s mercy, He will raise up a Holy Church in Cambodia, despite the mis-understood Western influences I helped to spread. I think that working cross-culturally requires a lot of time spent in reflection on the ways God is already at work in the culture rather than problem solving using our experience as the basis for change. I wonder if I made enough time for that when I was there.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Engaging Culture or Creating Subcultures

Yesterday someone gave me the address to this website and I have enjoyed reading lots about "culture" in reference to both "youth culture" and the everyday world we all live in. I was impressed with the number of articles including a section devoted to "faith and culture," which was of particular interest to me. Many of the articles seemed to come back to the questions, "how do we relate to culture as Christians?" "Do we integrate or separate ourselves from our culture?" "How did Jesus' relate to culture?" While these questions are not necessarily new to my community of faith, I found them helpful to reflect upon again in light of my recent consideration of "youth culture." If anyone has anything to add to these questions or ideas, I would enjoy hearing other comments.

The articles are from
Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. Here are excerpts from two I read last night.

Why I Don't Live in the Bunker -
Reflections on the Youth Worker's Place in Culture
by Walt Mueller

"The extent to which we influence or don't influence our students and their culture depends on how, as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we choose to approach culture. The approach we choose must be based not on personal preference, but primarily on its faithfulness to the Scriptures and secondarily on its helpfulness in engaging and reaching emerging generations. That's why I encourage youth workers to live the will of the Father that Jesus prayed (John 17) the night before his death—that we are to be in but not of the world. We are to go where our students are, living among them and learning about them as we interact with them while observing and processing everything that's part of their world—even to the point of reading what they read, listening to what they listen to, and watching what they watch. That's also why I encourage youth workers to avoid the dangerous and disobedient path of living life in the bunker."

The Spirituality of Everyday Life
by Kary Oberbrunner

"Is this our mission? Is our goal reached when we participate in every aspect of the market by providing a Christian alternative? It seems to me that all these alternatives collectively produce one common outcome. It seems they create a subculture that separates us further from the very people we are trying to reach. I don't recall God giving us the option to create an alternative subculture that retreats and hides out from the world."

Saturday, March 11, 2006

"What are Geckos?"

This post is for those of you who have asked me what geckos are (and why I chose the pen name Gecko Girl). Actually, I was asked to pick a pen name by my husband and without much thought, I just chose something that was part of my Asian culture. Geckos were something I very much came to enjoy as you may have noticed in my post, "I love my kitchen!"

Here are some pictures of the various little reptiles we had slithering around our home.

Tokay - we only had a few of these:

Little green ones (Khmer: ching-chah). We had endless numbers of these everywhere and would find their little eggs hiding behind books on our book shelves.

And, this is the gecko picture I wish I could use for my profile (if only I could figure out how to put a picture in there again. I tried it once but this one wouldn't fit right into the little box they give and now I can't remember how I did it!):

They might be a bit annoying at times, but these little creatures sure can grow on yah and be quite helpful! Maybe that's why the name suits me well enough :-)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Joy in the Journey

I fell into bed the other night, exhausted and perhaps half delirious from fever or an oncoming flu. Unlike most nights where it takes me many hours to fall into a deep enough sleep to dream, I immediately felt transported to another world, a dream so real I woke up a short while later and asked my husband, who was still reading beside me, if he knew where I just had been. Amazingly within a few guesses, he figured it out!

I fell back to sleep and retraced my steps in the dream. I was dressed to attend a wedding reception for a colleague of mine at the university where I used to teach English. I remember I finished up my afternoon class around 5 pm, packed up my bag and headed down the six flights of stairs to the English office where the other teachers, including my husband, were regrouping to check their mailboxes and drop off equipment. Most were heading off to the same reception. The air was hot and sticky and dark clouds hung in the distant East. Everyone hurriedly closed up the office and ran down the last flight of stairs to the parking area where we mounted our motorbikes and took off into the crazy traffic of Phnom Penh, heading East toward the city's center.

As we zipped in and around the veering cars and motorbikes, we realized that the dark clouds were speeding just as quickly toward us. We only got about halfway down the stretch of the Russian Boulevard before we hit the storm head on. Since the monsoon season had not yet beset us full force, my husband and I were not prepared with our rain parkas. Furthermore, unlike most other streets in the city, this boulevard was wide with no place to pull off and take refuge from the deluge. We had no alternative but to continue with the flow of traffic which had slowed to a crawl. Our 15 min. jaunt became a 45 min. trek and by the time we arrived, the rains had stopped. We were soaked to the bone and had lost track of the rest of the teachers who had been traveling near us.

And this was the point where I first began my dream. I stood across from the Mekong restaurant where there was a roped-off lot for our motorbikes. I was standing in water up above my knees clad in my traditional Khmer clothes, specially hand-made for attending weddings. I could not tell if I was standing in the street or on the side and I was deathly afraid of stepping out and inadvertently falling into any one of the open sewage holes along the street. After parking the motorbike, my husband joined me, our enthusiasm for joining the wedding having pretty much washed away. The water churned from the traffic still trying to pass by as trash and raw sewage floated around us. I really needed reassurance at that point. All I wanted was to see the familiar face of one of my friends.

And then we did. One of the other foreigners arrived with one of our Cambodian teacher-friends. It was like the horror of the most surreal moment melted into the best comedy of the week. We took one look at each other and couldn't stop laughing. What a great time we had wading across the street and exchanging stories of what had happened during the last hour. We entered the reception hall and sat at a table where the rest of our staff were seated. We all nearly froze as reception halls are known for being overly-air-conditioned, but the spirit of friendship and the camaraderie of survival made the evening one to remember.

Why, in my exhaustion, did my mind jump to that episode, one of many like it which we had experienced in Cambodia? I have no idea, but interestingly enough, my husband and I both closed the recollection with, "I miss Cambodia!"

How funny it is that we humans can look back on our experiences and smile at the good despite the bad. Being able to separate ourselves from our circumstances and see the grace of God which has been consistent in our lives even when everything around us is churning is truly a gift the Lord offers us. It's not only a gift which helps us survive, but I also think it's what adds richness to the stories of our lives which we pass along. What a joy to know we can rest in God's grace through every circumstance!

Monday, March 06, 2006

"Youth Culture"

I think I must thrive on learning curves. I love learning about new things and being exposed to new experiences. Last weekend my husband and I ventured into a local night club where a friend of ours was debuting with his band. Though I have been to many "rock concerts" in my life time, I was never in this kind of setting. The "over 21" group stood around rather quietly upstairs and the "under 21" jumped, pushed and wrestled around downstairs. The thunder of the drums, bass and electric guitars reverberated from each corner; it was funny to see the staff wore earplugs. The air was thick with cigarette smoke mingled with whiffs of alcohol. But the focus was on the stage. The young people knew how to dress for such an occasion as the rooms were also stuffy from the heat of the crowd clambering to get a view of the bands, or a touch of one of the band members or even a chance to be dragged onto the stage to sing along with the group. What energy!

I know it has been pointed out that the concept of a "youth culture" is a social construct. There is something so different about that point in our human development, that adults don't know what to do with it. So in order to "manage" it, it meaning both the behavior of that age group and adult reactions to it, we construct a term to put what makes us feel uncomfortable into a box. We then proceed to create the walls for that box, usually lists defining what that term means. For "youth culture," we construct lists of expected behavior, typical emotions and struggles, physical changes and development, parental reactions, appropriate boundaries, etc. Why? perhaps it is a coping mechanism for schools, parents and society in general.

But in the end it distorts the fact that being a "youth" is part of all of us and is a valuable part of our development, not some anomaly to be managed. It is a time when we have lots of energy, are willing to take risks, are beginning to own our self-esteem and identify the role-models who will lead us into adulthood. Youth are not trapped between childhood and adulthood, but rather, I like to say that the seeds which have been planted in them throughout childhood are starting to bloom. Blooms just take a while to open to their fullness.

Social constructs can be dangerous. They tend to separate certain groups of people from others inevitably affecting the way people treat one another as human beings. That treatment can be both bad and good, but in the end reinforces a subconscious notion that "I am different." While it can be healthy to celebrate our uniqueness, we should never allow a social construct to validate inappropriate behavior or excuse irresponsible actions by any member of society, no matter what age or status.

Thus, I use the term "youth culture" loosely, since I am very interested in cultures. I have enjoyed learning more about the things which American young people value and invest their time and energies in these days. The truth is, all those things are really part of my culture too. I just choose to value them more or less. Despite what the media purports, the youth do not have the monopoly on certain areas and parents must take a laissez-faire approach! Adults need to take the time to tune in and pay attention in order to see what is attractive to young people. If we look at society as "we are all in this life together and need to develop values together" it might go along way in breaking down the social construct which pushes youth to the side to "sow their wild oats" until they become manageable adults. Values are what we integrate into our being and we allow to form our lives. The values which attract youth today should not be secrets or separate from those the rest of the family or community embraces. Healthy families and communities need to be built upon shared values and respect of all age groups.