The Glass Darkly

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Love of Creation...Sacramental Ecology

There is nothing that touches me deeper than to have the chance just to sit and observe Creation. I marvel and wonder at so many things: the interaction of people, the behavior of animals, the ebb and flow of water, the breeze in trees, the beauty in flowers, the vastness of fields and what grows there, the production of fruit and vegetables ... I could go on and on.

My love of Creation probably stems mostly from my childhood. I grew up in the middle of fields and forests where I spent many hours exploring with my brothers and sitting alone, watching nature breath and change with the seasons, learning to love all that grows and lives, seeing God in the twinkle of every star, the glide of majestic red-tailed hawks and the helplessness of every fragile plant and animal that struggled for existance in the wild. I loved sitting at nights in the middle of our pasture on my overturned water bucket listening to the crickets and frogs in the summer and the howl of the wind through the trees in the winter while the goats and steers I had just fed for the evening slowly made their way from the barn to join me. I would listen to their gentle breathing as they laid down around me and I had the most wonderful conversations with God. I called that place my cathedral under the stars, the place where God spoke to me as my Father and I poured out my thoughts, frustrations and desires to Him. As I looked over the pasture to my house, I often thought how much I wished my time in my cathedral would last forever, that I wouldn't have to leave it and re-enter the chaos or stress that was often present in my home as a child.

When I was in Youth Group, my youth leader and pastor at the time, encouraged and taught us the discipline of quiet meditation. I remember youth retreats at a cabin along the Little Pine Creek where he would send us out to find an alone-spot and meditate on a particular verse or chapter of the Bible. I loved those times, for they gave me an excuse to just sit, observe and marvel at Creation. God always seemed to reveal Himself in new ways to me in those times and nurtured my love of all that He so lovingly made.

As I got older and entered studies of biology and became aware of environmental issues, my heart broke as I saw so much apathy toward distructive human behavior, even among Christians. It has been a burden on my heart for many years and my studies in biology were probably, in part, a result of that interest. As a science teacher I was intentional to provide a lot of outdoor discovery time for my students, chances to care for plants and animals in my classroom and projects involving recycling or clean-up along roads. My first question to MMA when they introduced their "stewardship wheel" (which I do like as it broadens our stewardship responsibility beyond just finances) for the church was why was the environment not part of it? They said they would count that under the "relationships" section, even though there were no pictures of the environment there, just people.

Perhaps I am feeling sentimental at this time because I came across a blog by a man involved in inner-city missions in Winnipeg, Canada, whom I don't really know, but who so beautifully explained his love for the environment and Creation. He critiques the Church as having a lax view of Creation and our stewardship of it. What I love about his critique is he advocates for what he calls ""sacramental ecology", as the motivation to fight the abuses ... directly connected to the level in which we paricipate with and relate to Creation as God intended." Anyway, I found it interesting and refreshing to hear a Christian voice speak to this issue and call of stewardship.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What really makes a chicken "halal"? by Julia Suryakusuma

Jakarta - When I returned from one of my frequent trips to Australia to visit Tim, my husband, I brought some smoked cheese back for my mother. She liked it very much, so I asked him to bring some more for her when it was his turn to visit me in Indonesia. Tim said he'd also bring his favourite smoked chicken, as he thought my mother would like it too.

A day or two after we had delivered the chicken to her, I called to ask if she liked it. She said she hadn't eaten it yet, as a very religious neighbour had questioned whether the foreign chicken was halal (considered clean to eat according to Muslim faith) or not.

Before I could help myself, I blurted out, "Of course Mamih, Tim eats it, of course it's halal", in a tone that implied how dare she question my husband's Islamic credentials? Tim had been Muslim for years, long before he married me, is deputy director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary Islam at Melbourne University (where he's a professor), and is currently finalising a book on shari'a in Indonesia.

He's pretty laid back about Islamic rituals like praying and fasting, but in terms of knowledge of Islam, I would say he knows as much, if not more than, many Muslims, whose knowledge of their own religion is often little more than bits and pieces they have picked up from friends or family -- and neighbours.

I've always wanted to have better knowledge of my own religion, especially in the context of present day Indonesia, and was extremely pleased when I married someone who studies the subject. It's ironic that I would be learning from a Westerner, but as far as knowledge and truth are concerned, even if it comes from an enemy, we should welcome it...not that my husband is my enemy!

I respect the religious beliefs of mother's neighbour, because they are what make him a good person, but sometimes I think a little flexibility would not be entirely out of place. I conveyed this to my mother. She said, "Well, he's is just trying to safeguard the family purity." I said, "Mamih, our purity is measured more by our thoughts, emotions and feelings than how a chicken died.

Why don't you just say Bismillah-irrahman-irrahim and leave the matter to God?" I left it at that, and didn't push my mum further -- I didn't even say to her, please Mum, have a bit of consideration also for Tim who lugged the (by now) jet-lagged chicken in his suitcase all the way from Melbourne to Jakarta, then from Cinere where we live, to Bekasi, where she lives, not to mention appreciating his effort to please his mother-in-law. I know she would have eaten the well-travelled chicken had her neighbour not questioned how it met its end, but she tends to defer to him on these matters, perhaps because he's a haji (someone who has made the proscribed pilgrimage to Mecca).

Formalistic adherence to Islam, or any religion for that matter, is something that bothers me, disturbs me, vexes me, pains me -- in varying degrees. And yet, this is the norm, in Indonesia, as in most parts of the world. Religious formalism often overrides common sense, empathy, compassion, tolerance, respect for others, truth, integrity, solidarity and, not least, faith in and oneness with God, which is, in the end, the essence of religion.

I was once interviewed on radio by Ulil Abrar-Abdalla, an Islamic scholar who had a fatwa issued against him by the Forum Ulema Umat Islam (Forum of Religious Scholars of the Islamic Community) for writing an article about a renewal of Islamic thought. Asked about my spiritual beliefs, I answered that I believe a lot in God but not much in religion. Religion is merely a vehicle, but in too many instances, it's the vehicle that's being worshipped.

This is akin to embarking on a journey from, say, Jakarta to Bandung, but just staying in the car, pretending you're in Bandung and arguing about the technicalities of driving, or the features of the car. It means missing the whole point of the journey -- to be closer to God and to develop Godly traits in yourself. Simply put, that's what spirituality is about for me.

Bismillah-irrahman-irrahim, which Muslims utter to seek blessings for any undertaking (eating, travelling, working, etc.) means "in the name of God the Merciful and Compassionate", not "in the name of God, the angry, intolerant, unforgiving one".

In connection with the halal issue and the unforgiven chicken, I decided to consult a close friend of mine who has a degree in comparative religion from the State Islamic University. "Just say bismillah (in the name of God) and surrender the issue of the slaughtering of the animal to Allah", she said, just as I had said to my mum.

I mean, what do you do if you live in a non-Muslim country? Turning vegetarian is one option (which is probably the best option anyway), and the doctrine of necessity says you should eat what's available, rather than starve, but many Muslims would prefer to take the option of driving all the way to the other side of town to get their meat from a halal butcher, as do some Muslims who live in Melbourne, my husband says.

Historically, the practice of halal reflects the Prophet Muhammad's concern for cleanliness, and echoes Jewish kosher practices. In the 7th century, when modern concepts of hygiene were unknown, the strict Islamic rules of cleanliness made obvious sense. The way people live has changed a bit since then, however.

It is true that Islam is a religion that concerns itself with all aspects of life, both mundane and sacred, but it is contextual in many of its precepts and rules, and can also be very open and non-rigid. Even on the issue of religious freedom and belief in God, it is amazingly flexible. A vast array of Qur'anic verses specify that the question of faith and belief is a matter between the individual and God.

Rather than determining a worldly punishment for converting from Islam, many Qur’’anic verses assert that all human beings are free to believe or not to believe in God or any particular religion: "Let him who wills believe in it (Islam), and let him who wills, reject it".

So, what happened to the heretical chicken? I don't know -- I was too scared to ask my mother about it. I suppose it just got thrown out, but I'd prefer to think the foul fowl made a quick get-away and took the next plane back to Melbourne, where people didn't care if it was halal or not!

Julia Suryakusuma is the author of Sex, Power and Nation.
This article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Jakarta Post, May 3, 2006
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Monday, August 28, 2006

The Maasai Creed

I came across this creed in some reading I've been doing - I'm always interested in the spirituality, particularly the contextualization and interpretation of Christian faith, in different cultures. I especially appreciate the link to Creation that many tribal groups acknowledge.

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He was buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from that grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love, and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Lancaster County Culture

This past week I attended a forum hosted by a group of Mennonite young people who have been traveling around the country asking questions about the Church, its current state and where people see it going in the future. One activity asked those in attendance to depict their personal experience of "church" in some way, a revealing exercise. Then in smaller groups we were asked to "create or re-create" a church setting, its structures and community, based on ideals we would like to see the Church adopt. That was also an interesting exercise. My group discussed the concept of intentional communities where people choose to connect firmly to common values while reaching out with a common mission to those around them. A large part of our discussion focused how we determine what values are core to all cultures and what values are culturally constructed. We agreed that there are times when the Church needs to encourage communities to transcend differences in values when those values are culturally based.

The focus question presented to the large group at the end was "what is it like to be a Mennonite in Lancaster County, considering its unique population, size and history in the Mennonite church?" A couple initial answers stated how we are surrounded by the goodness and generosity of a Mennonite culture that has invested much in the outreach of the Church and has much to offer. A couple people described how it is easy to live in a "Mennonite bubble" of schools, banks, churches, friends, family, insurance companies, etc. Intentional choices of living are often necessary if one wants to break out of that bubble. Throughout the comments, an African-American Mennonite sister kept interjecting that access to this culture in Lancaster is primarily set up for "white Mennonites."

I couldn't help but share what I have been hearing over the last year from a number of Mennonites "transplanted" to Lancaster from other areas of the United States. I related how they have experience the wonderful generosity and kindness of this culture, but they have never fully felt acceptance, constantly reminded that they are "new" or "outsiders" from comments like "oh, that's right, you're not from around here" or constant episodes of the "Mennonite game" in which their names may or may not ever qualify. My critique was that if you weren't "born and bred" here, somehow you never totally fit in. One man, who said he was "born and bred" here, noted the challenges he experienced in returning to Lancaster County culture after living abroad for many years.

I went on to question whether diversity, a value that seems come up often in Mennonite conversations these days, is really a value that many church communities in Lancaster County would know what to do with or really want when it came down to it. True diversity means the community fully embraces and/or attempts to address the differences in values and potential contributions of ALL, not just the dominant culture.

In a follow-up conversation, someone offered another critique of why Lancaster County culture (as well as many across the US) may not be as open to diversity as we may like to think. He suggested that North Americans are very self-sufficient and are too used to being the generous-hand, consequently, we have a hard time receiving from "others." To stretch it further, and perhaps more uncomfortably, I would add that the unspoken undercurrent is that we really don't NEED "others," be it those of lower socio-economic status, "inferior" or underdeveloped cultures/countries, minorities, etc. We are happy to help them, but we don't need their money; we don't need their ideas; we don't need their input on how we should run our churches. We would like their presence in our congregations or conferences to proudly display our generosity and diverse population stats, but when it comes down to politics, we would like to continue to run our churches based on the desires of the dominant culture. It's easier that way. But the truth is that as long as the dominant culture remains the dominant power, diversity it is just a fasade. Minorities are not fooled.

I am not trying to step on toes or criticize the North American Church without also admitting that I am just as susceptible as everyone else in my dominant culture. At the heart of diversity are issues of power and power is at the heart of just about every human conflict that exists in human history. Power is like money, it can be utilized for good and bad. We need to learn to manage it just like we learn to manage our money. But the hardest discipline is knowing when to lay it down so that we can more humbly and incarnationally enter into the life of our communities and culture. We still need to be Church for all the Zimmermans and Martins in Lancaster County, but how can we also be Church for the Santiago's, Bukowski's and Manickam's who also live in Lancaster County?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Little Things in Life

Does God care about the "little things" in our lives? Is it silly to pray for a sick pet or a lost ear ring or a car when it is sputtering. I've come to see that "little things" are potential "faith-boosters." When sincere trust in our God's ability to perform miracles is applied, the selfish side of a prayer request instead becomes an issue of faith, a simple trust in a God who loves us and knows our need, deeper than the surface circumstance.

I can't help but remember how much of a faith-booster I experienced through a "little thing" in my life when I was nearing middle school age. I raised dairy goats for milk and showing. One of my first little white baby ones got sick when I tried to wean it off milk. It was so sick it could not stand up anymore, the point at which most of my neighbor farmers said I should just let the animal for dead. I began to wonder if I should take their advice and give up caring for it. I was getting up every couple hours throughout the nights to feed her electrolytes and water, clean up her soiled bedding and get her up on her feet using a sling my father constructed for that purpose.

I remember a conversation I had with my mother about praying for the baby goat. I thought maybe it was useless to try since it seemed to me that the Bible passage where Jesus talked about separating the sheep from the goats indicated that God preferred sheep over goats ... I wondered if I should take the passage literally and not bother asking God to heal my baby goat. My mother advised me to still pray and that I should not take that passage literally.

So I embarked on an earnest prayer journey. At first I was half scared to really trust that God would care about this "little thing" in my life. I wanted to be prepared in my heart, in case the goat would die, that it would still be OK ... I wouldn't blame God, but trust that there was a lesson for me somewhere in it. And yet, I kept telling God, "If you heal my little goat, it would be 100% clear that it was a miracle! Wouldn't that be great, God? Everyone is convinced the animal will die ... this is a perfect time to show your glory!!! If she lives and gets better, everyone will know it was only because of You! Wouldn't that be a great testimony to your love and power???"

Days turned into a week and then two weeks. It got to the point where she started eating again and crawling around on her knees. I was happpy with her progress, but was still wondering if she would every fully recover. Then one day as I walked back our long lane from the bus, I looked up into our yard and saw my little white goat walking and even trotting a bit toward me down the hill. Such a silly little thing, as I write about it, but it tuly was one of the biggest faith-boosters for me in my life!

Today I pray for opportune "little things," not so much because we can't live without the little things we pray for, but because I believe that it is often through little things that we learn to trust God in the big things. And how special to feel God's love and care for us! I especially pray when "little things" come up in the lives of other young people so that their experience can be a faith-boosting one where they learn to pray, trust and then give God the glory when He performs the "little miracles" that bring joy in life. Of course, ultimately the hope is that as young people journey through life, their faith, seasoned with experience and a deep trust in a caring God, will stand the tests and storms which inevitably will come.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Nationality vs. Ethnicity

Why do people not get the difference between nationality and ethnicity. I have noticed that in both America and Cambodia, there seems to be some subconscious notion that nationality denotes only certain ethnicities and not others.

I can somewhat understand that in a country like Cambodia where more than 85% of the population is ethnically Khmer, that most people equate being Cambodian with being Khmer ... this despite the reality that there are many Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham (Muslim) and tribal groups in the country. In fact, in the Khmer language, most Cambodians literally call their country, "the Khmer country." The sad part to this is that most Khmer and even the Cambodian constitution pretty much deny that other ethnicities, even those whose families have lived in Cambodia for generations, are considered Cambodian citizens with the same rights as the ethnic Khmer. I could ask, "why do they discriminate so much?"

But, before I misjudge and say how accepting we Americans are, raised with the mentality of the melting pot or salad bowl mix of ethnicities, I must say that just the other day I heard someone ask if Condoleeza Rice was an American!!!! WHAT!!??!! Is she not the Secretary of State for the United States of America???

So as I reflect on a photo of friends, I wonder how many Americans would ask if those pictured here are American??? In fact, every single one is an American, just not ethnically European, in case that is what people are really meaning. I see ethnic mixes of Khmer, Chinese, Indian (I mean from India, in case you are thinking Native Americans which many Americans call Indian), Spanish, African and two whose mother is from Belize (not sure of the ethnicity).

I am glad when I see our country affirming the rights of all these immigrants just as it did for ALL of our own immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents in generations past. For better or for worse, the politcal country of America has been built on the shoulders of immigrants. It's a shame how we immigrant families consciously or subconsciously seem to develop our pecking orders ... we can be pretty discriminatory.

For the unfortunate honest truth is that, as the early immigrants proceeded to build the American nation state, the only true non-immigrant Americans, ethnically native to this land, were forced to get out of the way.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Human Side of Life

too often we underestimate
the power of a touch, a smile,
a kind word, a listening ear,
an honest compliment,
or the smallest act of caring,
all of which have the potential
to turn a life around.

-- leo buscaglia