Thoughts on drought in a very dry year. Is this drought a call for justice?

Saskatchewan is in the middle of a drought. A drought in its simplest form is when there isn’t enough rain to make the crops grow. The lack of snow and rain over the past year, coupled with record-high temperatures, have succeeded in drying out the soil to the point where crops are not growing. It isn’t the first drought to hit Saskatchewan and probably won’t be the last. Some say that drought is a direct result of climate change, which some say is caused by human activity.

The plight of the Saskatchewan farmer has more meaning for me this year since my wife and I have been spending a lot of time on the farm. It makes me want to find ways to help.

The Bible says that drought can at times be a sign of God’s judgment against structural evil. It got me thinking. Is it possible that the current drought is connected with recent revelations about Canada’s founding principles? For those unaware, headlines in Canada have been dominated by stories of the Indian Residential School System, an official policy by the Government of Canada and church groups to “remove the Indian” from First Nations children — basically the government of Canada had a policy of cultural genocide against First Nations peoples in an effort to both make them better citizens and to convert them to Christianity. North American society has also been rocked over the past several years with calls for justice for the systemic mistreatment of women, for systemic racism, for legacies of slavery, and for other historical injustices. I have written about some of these things here, here, and here.

At this point I need to offer some clarification lest I be misunderstood: As I have written elsewhere, structural and natural evils are different from personal evil. Structural evil is a system or pattern of beliefs or activities in an organization or culture that hinders or opposes the advance of God’s kingdom in this world. Natural evil includes things like famine, drought, disease, wild animals, floods, storms, and disease. So any judgment on structural or natural evil is not on individual farmers for their sins but on society as a whole for its sins.

But even though the reasons may be systemic, the impact is indeed personal. There are mental stresses associated with farming and drought. Farmers are extremely resilient. I recall a conversation I had with someone in the Ag industry in Saskatchewan a few years ago. He said he respects how farmers are able to do everything that they can to grow good crops but the fact remains that a major part of farming is out of their control — namely the weather — and that they continue to do it year in and year out regardless of how the previous year went.

In times like this, Christians like to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 which reads, “However, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, pray, search for me, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear ⌞their prayer⌟ from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their country” (God’s Word).

Of course Canada has never claimed to be Christian nation so I am genuinely not sure how this verse can be applied today, but the Bible gives many examples of God’s interest in the nations including both blessings and curses.

The very first mention of natural evil in the Bible is in the context of farming. Adam was told by God in Genesis 3:17-19:

”The ground is cursed because of you. Through hard work you will eat ⌞food that comes⌟ from it every day of your life. The ground will grow thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat wild plants. By the sweat of your brow, you will produce food to eat until you return to the ground, because you were taken from it. You are dust, and you will return to dust” (God’s Word).

So it’s not completely crazy to assume that the land responds to structural sin, meaning that even if the 2 Chronicles 7:14 quote isn’t entirely apropos for today’s world, it might be apropos for drought situations since the immediate context of the verse is drought brought upon by society’s sins.

In any case, what would “humble themselves and seek my face” mean in light of the new call for social justice?

One aspect would have to include repentance. Repentance is hard to do because it involves not only humility but admitting that we are wrong. I don’t know about you but I don’t like doing that. So just at that level repentance is problematic. How much more public repentance?

Another aspect would have to be renovation. Repentance also includes making sure the future is better. It means changing the way I think and act. It means rectifying the past — rectification means rebuilding or renovating those past actions that I want to repent from. Renovation is hard because it starts with tearing things down. Some use the word “deconstruction” for this — a rather complex term that we don’t have time to go into today. I will say this, though. While deconstruction may include the use of a sledgehammer, it also has a level of control. It’s not mere demolition but needs to have some order to it, it needs to be systematic, and it needs to be useful.

The Bible does speak of a generational aspect to sin, which connects us to the sins of the past even if we weren’t present during those times. The lives we live today may have been directly impacted by decisions made by our progenitors and that means that we may still benefit from their sins.

Reconciliation also has to be a part of it. To be reconciled is to have a restored relationship. It is what happens when people humble themselves, repent, and renovate.

So then, how can we help farmers? We need to make some decisions. What does our nation need to repent from? What do we need to tear down? What do we need to renovate? How can I participate in building a new nation?

Maybe we can start here:

  • Revisit “truth.” Is what I think to be true actually the Truth?
  • Repent & Ask Forgiveness.
  • Practice Reconciliation.

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Maud Correa on Unsplash.

“I wonder who planted these trees?” Understanding our own defaults, biases, & assumptions.

Each one of us has defaults, biases, and assumptions. That is a reality. These defaults shape the way we see and understand the world. I remember a SEATS class I held on a small island in the east side of the Philippines. We were discussing Jesus’ famous illustration of the lily of the fields. The students were reporting after some group work on what they thought the illustration meant and I was struck by one thing: Interpretation depends not only on linguistic context but also on cultural context. A “lily” in the Philippines grows in the water. You may call them them lily pads or water lilies. The lily Jesus was talking about is different because it grows in the fields. There was a lot of discussion about this.

What is my default? My mind defaults to Saskatchewan. I wasn’t born here, I don’t live here (other than temporarily because of COVID-19) but I did spend my formative years here. I guess that’s what makes it my default. So how does this default manifest? In maps. When I look at a map my mind automatically assumes that the topography around the various map points is similar to Saskatchewan. If you have never been you need to visit sometime. Saskatchewan is an incredibly beautiful place, with vast boreal forests, rushing rivers, magnificent valleys, and living skies. But in spite of all of these things, Saskatchewan is known for being like one thing — a billiard table. It’s flat. There are few trees, at least in the south. When you arrive at in intersection on the highway you can expect to see nothing beyond two roads converging. When we were kids we spent some time planting trees for use as shelterbelts to keep the winds from blowing crops away.

Sometimes we don’t realise our biases. I didn’t realise my bias about geography until I moved to British Columbia in the early 1990s. Eva and I were moving from Saskatchewan to BC and I remember driving down Highway 1 into Langley, BC. The Highway is lined with beautiful, large trees — forests actually. I remember thinking to myself, “Somebody must have spent a lot of time planting these trees.”

It was odd that I assumed they were planted because I had driven through the bush before in several provinces (and even in other countries). I even dreamed of living in the bush at one time. But for some reason this was different. In my mind, these trees were planted. I didn’t realise those were my thoughts until a few months passed and it all of a sudden hit me — these trees were natural! No one planted them. In fact people spent lots of time and effort to cut them down!

It got me thinking about other assumptions that I have about life. Growing up in Saskatchewan told me that the noon meal is called “dinner” and the evening meal is called “supper.” I must admit that years of living in other places has me saying “lunch” and “dinner” but that’s not the way I grew up.

Of course the only way to figure out what your assumptions and biases are is to interact with others or travel to new places but this process is essential for ensuring that we can accurately and fairly present Jesus’ truths to the world.

Do you have any idea what your assumptions and biases are?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Emic vs Etic: Understanding how insider & outsider perspectives interact when doing theology. An example from the Philippines.

Cross-cultural interactions are a part of my everyday life. Is there a theology of cross-cultural interaction? There have been many. Unfortunately they don’t always have good results. Take for example the whole residential school debacle in Canada that started from faulty theology codified in the doctrine of discovery but stemming from long-seated ideas of cultural superiority.

Churches quite often have deep seated assumptions about “the world” that aren’t in fact true. Case in point. When I was in Grade 5 our class received a Gideons New Testament (is that still a thing). Afterward we were all talking in the boot room about the NT and I said to one of my classmates, “What are you going to do? Rip it up?” He looked at me like I was crazy. What possessed me to say that? I had been told my whole life in Sunday school that the world was opposed to Christians. Guess what? That wasn’t true after all. It seems that I as a Christian had assumptions that were untested.

So how can we move away from assumptions towards actual empirical data about the world around us? Last week I wrote about how the church can partner with the world in things like this. Some commented that the post was short on the “How” so I thought that I might give a more concrete example. We need to develop ways to better understand the world to make sure that we are asking and answering the right questions – to make sure that the message we exegete from the Bible is presented in a relevant way to those who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ. Anthropology can help us understand that. 

The following comes from planning some conversations I had with Filipino men about their masculinity and religiosity. I had heard that men are less religious than women but wanted to find out for myself if that was true. I decided to plan some research that tried to discover what is called the insider viewpoint.

Because many religious systems in the Philippines are from external sources, and because male participation in those systems is universally identified as being lesser than that of women, it is important to discover how Filipino males have constructed their understandings of pagbabalik-loob, pagkalalaki, and maka-Diyos. This calls for an emic approach to the problem rather than an etic one. Oxford defines emic as “studying or describing a particular language or culture in terms of its internal elements and their functioning rather than in terms of any existing external scheme.” Etic is defined as “studying or describing a particular language or culture in a way that is general, non-structural, and objective in its perspective.” Thus, an etic approach looks at the problem from outside, while the emic approach looks at the problem from inside. 

Origins of the Emic/Etic concept. Pike (1967) defined the terms etic and emic as “etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system,” while the “emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system” (p.37). Pike wanted to move from etics to emics.

There is a debate about the validity of using an emic approach in seeking to understand a culture on its own terms. In fact, this debate is behind the development of ethnoscience worldwide.  What is often missed in the debate is the reality that all forms of science are emic in that whatever frameworks or structures are developed are developed from the emic perspectives of a specific culture. They merely become etic once applied to another culture.  

Bennagen (1980) discusses the “Asianization” of anthropology “to help strengthen Asia’s rightful claim to its heritage as well as to its visions of man, society and culture” (p. 1; see also Mendoza, 2016).  

Geertz (Geertz 1973b) championed what some have called an “actor-centered view is central to Geertz’s work, however, it was never developed into an actual theory or model” (Hudson et al, 2009). 

Harris (1976) adapted Pike’s terms. For him, emic was the focus on a single culture while etic was the “comparison of two or more cultures as a means of identifying common characteristics” (Olive, 2014). Harris saw emics and etics as equally valid – there was no advantage to be gained from an etic approach and thus no need to try to discover the emic.

He has an example the difference between an emic and an etic understanding of male to female cattle ratios in India. Approaching the issue from an emic perspective, Harris says that locals identify the causes of higher mortality of male calves is due to a variety of naturally-occurring causes. Approaching the issue from an etic perspective, however, causes Harris to ascertain that higher male calf mortality is due to the locals’ manipulation of naturally-occurring events that are economically determined. Harris’ conclusion is that by relying solely on an emic approach, the researcher misses the etic realities of what he calls “bovicide.”  

I suggest that another factor may be at play here. Harris’ emic reasons for the ratio include “that males ate less than the females…. because they were not permitted to stay at the other’s teats for more than a few seconds” (p. 33). I find the words “not permitted” to be telling because here we have the locals themselves giving the reasons for why the male calves die. It seems that Harris didn’t follow up on this clue to discover what else the locals might want to tell him about this process.  

An indigenous approach here might be helpful. Enriquez (1994) discusses pakikipagkapwa, or Filipino interpersonal relations, as divided into two categories — Ibang-Tao [“outsider”] and Hindi-Ibang-Tao [“literally “not-‘other’-person” and therefore an insider”] each in turn divided into several other stages (see also Pe-Pua et al, 2000; Lapiz, 2010, refers to these as Tagalabas [“From the outside”] and Tagaloob [“From the inside”], respectively). Information passed from one person to another varies based upon the relationship between the two parties. If the two parties are in the Ibang-Tao category the informant will seek to pass on information that they perceive to be what the researcher wants to hear. If the two parties are Hindi-Ibang-Tao, then the information passed on more accurately reflects the reality. Pe-Pua et al recommend that “the first level under Hindi-Ibang-Tao, which is pakikipagpalalgayan-loob (level of mutual trust, understanding, rapport) should be reached, at the minimum, in order to be assured of good quality data” (Pe-Pua et al, 2000, p. 59).  

Another hallmark of Filipino communication is pahiwatig [“hint”], or indirect communication. According to Maggay (2002)ang pahiwatig marahil ang pinakalaganap at maaaring masabing pinakabuod ng ating kulturang pangkomunikasyon” [“the hint is perhaps the most widespread and possibly the best summary of our culture of communication”] (p. 24). It is also defined as “hindi tuwirang pagpapahayag sa isang bagay, idea, o saloobin” [“a thing, idea, or thought is not revealed in a direct manner”] (UPDF) or as “di tuwirang pagpapaabot ng mga mensahe” [“messages are not delivered in a straight way”] (Maggay, 2002, p. 24). Information is revealed over a period of time and is not given all at once. The pahiwatig is an invitation for the researcher to dig deeper to find out the truth that is not yet fully revealed. Jocano (1999) speaks of a multilevel process of communication starting with pahiwatig [“hinted at”], moving through pabatid [“informed about”], and finally into pahayag [“revealed”]. Thus discovering truth in the Philippine context is an extended affair as layer after layer of truth is slowly revealed as the relationship between the researcher and the researched draw ever closer together. 

Now granted, Harris’ example is from India that may have different cultural norms from the Philippines, but that doesn’t belie the fact that there was “truth” in the emic investigation that Harris perhaps didn’t explore fully. Harris’ own example shows that the locals did reveal the cause of the ratio (i.e. “males …. not permitted” to eat) but there is no evidence that Harris pursued the conversation to it’s fullest extent.  

Thus in Harris’ example above, the farmers themselves are revealing the reality behind the ratio differences in an indirect way and inviting him to discover more through further communication.  

I argue that an indigenous approach to the issue would have led to Harris’ realization that the locals were in-fact telling him the reasons for cattle ratios but that his framework was unable to adequately aid him in this discovery. Thus his use of an etic framework allowed him to see a disconnect between the ideology (killing cattle is prohibited) and economy (cows are more economically advantageous than bulls) of his subjects in India. Imagine the study Harris could have had in discovering in partnership with the locals their strategies for dealing with the needs of both their ideological system and their economic system!  

The emic approach and Philippine studies of masculinity. The emic approach is common in Philippine studies.  

Pingol (2001), in her study of Ilocano men, states that she want to focus “more on emic rather than etic – the men’s understanding of themselves, how they construct themselves, how they remain men in their own eyes, or as viewed by their relatives and their community” (p. 16). 

Zialcita (2005) also takes an emic approach because it “looks at the data from the point of view of the actor; it seeks to understand in their own terms the reasons advanced by the actor for his thinking and acting” (Kindle location 1924).  

Mojares (2006), in his discussion of trying to recreate the way early Filipinos thought, struggled with the pull of emic and etic. He talked of trying to find a middle ground between “a facile universalizing and the exoticizing of difference; between the location out of which we are speaking and that ‘nation’ we are moving towards; between the need for political constructions and the awareness of their fictive character; between the claim to moral ascendancy and the practical requirements of power; and between the importance of the ‘native’s point of view’ and the dangers of turning it into a fetish” (p. 7)  

Moving into our present study, Houtman offers insights into understanding religiosity without using the frameworks developed by organized religions.  

Emic, Etic and our Problem. Houtman (2014) suggests that the study of religion can benefit from an emic approach. Rather than focusing on general definitions researchers should instead “let those under study decide whether and how religion is ‘real’ or ‘unreal’. It is they who can tell researchers in what sense they consider themselves ‘religious’ and/or ‘spiritual’, what exactly this means for them, and whether and how all this drives their behavior beyond the strictly private realm” (p. 20).  

There are in existence in the Philippines a variety of sets of preconceived notions of what it means to be a man or to even be a godly man. These have been formulated in the various world religions that have taken hold in the Philippines, especially Christianity and Islam. Christianity can be further subdivided into two sometimes-opposing conceptualizations that need to be understood on their own. A look at the intersections between maka-Diyos, and pagkalalaki would benefit from an emic approach. However, this study’s desire for an emic approach to the issue of Filipino male spirituality[1] is not so much a desire to ignore external structures and definitions and to favor indigenous structures and systems. Rather it is based on a desire to discover what, in fact, these indigenous emic structures and systems are. To date there has been very little work done to develop a philosophy or a theology connected with Filipino male spirituality. 

Criticisms of Emic-Etic approaches. There are no pure cultures and thus no pure emic-etic divide. All cultures use their own frameworks to evaluate the things they experience and sometimes these frameworks are in an etic form and sometimes in an emic form.

As Guillermo (2003) said, having too much focus on the emic removes any reason for interpretation to begin with. “The complete unification of the consciousness of the social scientist with an increasingly transparent object of analysis would be none other than the end of hermeneutics itself.” Which raises the question of for whom is the interpretation? It implies a cross-cultural facet that is essential to the process. Certainly someone within the culture is in no need of a hermeneutical framework but also someone who is completely outside of a culture can use no other framework than the one she brings with her. Of course, this is beside the point that no culture is pure or unsullied from outside influences. The key is finding a balance between the two that allows each side to see the other’s perspective and perhaps gain some understanding on their own. Thus, there must be a dialogic aspect to research. 

But the fact that there is cultural relativity (ala Franz Boas) implies that some level of hermeneutics is needed in understanding what one sees. For example, the sight of two men walking down the street hand-in-hand has different meanings in different parts of the world. Growing up in Canada two males holding hands was undeniable evidence that the two were in a homosexual relationship. However in the Philippines best friends not only hold hands but walk unashamedly down the street with their arms around one another shoulders. It is only through dialogue between etic and emic actors that one can determine the hermeneutical key. The goal of balancing the emic with the etic guides this research into a specific series of frameworks. 

I propose that seeking the insider view is a key part of church ministry. Only by having conversations with others can we discover our own blind spots and find ways to connect in meaningful ways with others.

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.


1. The history of term Filipino is long and storied and beyond the scope of this paper. Coupled with this is the terms’ grammatical gender: Filipino refers to males and Filipina refers to females. Thus the term “Filipino male spirituality” is technically redundant. However since this redundancy is not necessarily seen nor understood outside of the Philippine context, for clarity this paper will use the term Filipino to denote people from the Philippines, regardless of their gender. 


References:

Bennagen, P. L. (1980). The Asianization of AnthropologyAsian Studies, 18, 1-26.

Enriquez, V. G. (1994). Pagbabangong-dangal: Indigenous psychology and cultural empowerment. Quezon City: Akademya ng Kultura at Sikolohiyang Pilipino.

Geertz, C. (1973). Religion as a cultural system. In C. Geertz, The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London: Fontana Press.

Guillermo, R. (2003). Exposition, Critique and New Directions for Pantayong PananawKyoto Review of Southeast Asia, 3.

Harris, M. (1976). History and Significance of the emic-etic distinctionAnnual Review of Anthropology, 5, 329-350. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.05.100176.001553

Houtman, D. (2014, September). Pure religion and real sacrality: Authenticating Religion beyond Institutions and Traditions. Paper prepared for the summer seminar: Religion and Culture in a Globalized World, Questioning our Research Frames, University Centre Saint Ignatius Antwerp (UCSIA) University of Antwerp.

Hudson, S., Smith, C., Loughlin, M., and Hammerstedt, S. (2009). Symbolic and interpretive anthropologies. In Anthropological Theories, Department of Anthropology, The University of Alabama. 

Jocano, F. L. 1. (1999). Working with Filipinos: A cross-cultural encounter. Quezon City: PUNLAD Research House. 

Lapiz, E. (2010). Pagpapahiyang: Redeeming culture and indigenizing Christianity. [Manila: Christ Strengthening Ministries.]

Maggay, M. (2002). Pahiwatig: Kagawiang Pangkomunikasyon ng Filipino. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University.

Mendoza, S. L. (2016). Doing “indigenous” ethnography as a cultural outsider: Lessons from the Four SeasonsJournal of International and Intercultural Communication. doi:10.1080/17513057.2016.1154181

Mojares, R. B. (2006a). Reconstituting the mental life of sixteenth-and seventeenth century Philippines. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, 34(1), 1-10.

Olive, James L. (2014). Reflecting on the Tensions Between Emic and Etic Perspectives in Life History Research: Lessons Learned [35 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 15(2), Art. 6.

Pe‐Pua, R., & Protacio‐Marcelino, E. A. (2000). Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology): A legacy of Virgilio G. Enriquez. Asian Journal of Social Psychology3(1), 49-71. doi: 10.1111/1467-839X.00054

Pike, K. L. (1967). Etic and emic standpoints for the description of behavior. In K. L. Pike, (Ed.), Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Nature. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 37-72. doi: 10.1515/9783111657158.37

Pingol, A. T. (2001). Remaking masculinities: identity, power, and gender dynamics in families with migrant wives and househusbands. Quezon City: UP Center for Women’s Studies.

Zialcita, F. N. (2005). Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University. Kindle version.

How can the church partner with the world while maintaining its identity? By imitating Jesus’ Changing Water into Wine. Lessons from Thomas Aquinas.

“All truth is God’s truth.”

I can’t tell you how many times I heard this while I was in seminary. And that was a good thing because I needed to hear it. I had spent the years leading up to seminary developing my understanding of truth that was pretty much limited to what the Bible (or at least my interpretation of the Bible) had to say. Any claims to truth outside of the Bible were suspect for me.

I even remember a time in a class I took at USask on Religious Perspectives on Death and Dying when I had to comment (in a test) on the validity of the fictional Death of Ivan Illich to my understanding of death and dying. My reply was that since it was fiction it wasn’t true! Wise Professor Robert Kennedy pointed out that truth can be found in a variety of areas of life including fictional accounts.

And it appears this debate isn’t all that new. The other day I took a look at Mitchell Atencio’s interview Why Nathan Cartagena Teaches Critical Race Theory to Evangelicals with Nathan Cartagena on Sojourners and saw a great idea from Thomas Aquinas.

In 1261, a few years before I went to seminary, Thomas Aquinas wrote a commentary on Boethius’ On The Trinity. Apparently some agreed with my early ideas — that blending God’s Truth with rational truths somehow muddies the mixture. Article 3 of Super Boethium De Trinitate by Thomas Aquinas answers this question in a very interesting way:

“5. It may be said: No conclusive argument can be drawn from figurative speech, as the Master (Peter Lombard) says. Dionysius also says in his letter to Titus that symbolic theology has no weight of proof, especially when such interprets no authority. Nevertheless it can be said that When one of two things passes into the nature of another, the product is not considered a mixture except when the nature of both is altered. Wherefore those who use philosophical doctrines in sacred Scripture in such a way as to subject them to the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but change water into wine.”

Part of the problem that I faced in the early years of my theological formation was that I somehow believed that the world was divided into two parts: Sacred and Secular. As as young Christian I was warned about the dangers of the world — the danger that I would become worldly. This came out in many areas, including concepts like Christian music, Christian schools and colleges, and Christian bookstores. There was also the idea that people needed to leave the world and join the church. Interestingly there was never an idea that through my influence the world would become holy.

How can we apply Aquinas’ concepts of changing water to wine to the whole sacred-secular debate? The sacred-secular debate keeps the two worlds apart because of fear of contamination — but a contamination that always goes from good to bad. Aquinas says that in order for two ideas to mix that they both need to change. When it comes to God’s truth however, the end result is not a mixture of good and bad but a transformation of the bad into good, much in the same way that Jesus changed water into wine.

So, that brings us to current issues where this can be applied. I can think of three examples. When I was younger the bad guy was psychotherapy. Psychotherapy was bad for reasons that I can’t remember. Fortunately today I have personally benefitted from people who have been successful in blending the truths of God that can be found in psychotherapy with the truths of God found in scripture and have applied those truths into my life.

Christians have also had a love-hate relationship with science throughout the years. Some have suggested that vaccine hesitancy among some Christians is a direct result of the religion-science debate. The argument seems to go along the lines of, “Science promotes evolution that directly goes against the creation accounts of the Bible. If then scientists tell us that vaccines are ok that must mean that they aren’t ok.” What we as Christians often forget, though, is that the early scientists were in fact men and women of faith who desired to know more about God’s creation and started an in-depth study of it.

There has been a lot of talk of late in the church about Critical Race Theory. And that is in fact with the Nathan Cartagena interview is about. The main objection appears to be something like, “CRT is bad because it is Marxism.” Once again the fear of the world influencing the church rather than the church influencing the world rears its ugly head. What we often forget is that justice is one of the key aspects of the Kingdom of God but since it has been neglected so much by the church we need the expertise of those who have thought about justice issues in depth.

Of course I am not advocating an uncritical approach to these issues. As Aquinas himself tells us to “subject [rational philosophies] to the service of faith.” But what I am advocating is that Christians tap every resource available as we seek to turn the water of the world into the wine of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, establishing the values of the kingdom of God, serving God and neighbour, and testifying to God’s truth.

After all, Jesus promises that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the church. Why should we act as if it already has?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash.

The church post-pandemic will need to pivot, but sometimes pivots don’t work.

That all plants need water is something I have known my whole life but haven’t really experienced until this past few months. Saskatchewan is currently experiencing drought-like conditions and since we are staying at a farm we can see the effects first-hand.

Fortunately the farm has a pivot. A pivot is a large, elevated irrigation system designed to provide water to crops. A pivot is huge! It consists of a large 6-inch pipe about 6 metres off the ground. A series of wheels slowly move the pipe across the field, each rolling at a slightly different pace as it follows an arc across the field. It’s called a pivot because on end of the pipe is fixed to the ground and acts as the point around which the whole thing pivots. A large, elaborate pump supplies water to the pivot from a nearby lake. In the above picture, the white line extending across the field is the pivot. The darker curved lines are the tracks the wheels leave in the field.

Unfortunately the pivot hasn’t been working all that well for the past few years. It has a tendency to shut down automatically for mysterious reasons. After checking everything out multiple times the likely culprit is a problem in the electrical system. So while the pivot is a great idea, especially during times of drought, sometimes it doesn’t work all that well.

Pivot is a word we have seen a lot lately in the realm of ecclesiology. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of churches to evaluate how they deal with crises. Many say that churches need to learn how to pivot during times like this in order to survive. Churches that have a hard time with the pivot have a harder time adjusting to the changes.

Just as an irrigation pivot makes sure water gets to the whole field, so also a church that pivots makes sure the gospel gets to all of society. But sometimes adjustments need to be made. Which raises an issue when it comes to pivoting. Sometimes we need to change a part for it to work. What parts do I need to change or to switch out for something better?

I attended church for the first time last Sunday where there were no more restrictions. The government of Saskatchewan has decided that they will combat COVID-19 exclusively through vaccination. While there, I noticed a couple of pivots:

  • The pivot towards a paperless church that began with the pandemic has been maintained.
  • The pivot towards those little pre-packaged communion wafer and juice sets has now been pivoted away from back to real bread and those little plastic cups.

But I will say one thing. In spite of all my advocacy over the past months for embracing the virtual church, there are some things that are better done together. Specifically, not once while I was singing in the privacy of my own home, sitting in my comfortable easy chair, did I feel the urge to raise my hands but I certainly felt that while singing with the congregation on Sunday.

What things have you changed over the course of this pivot?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image from Google Maps.

Shepherds, work, and the interruption of burning bushes.

I have it on good authority that farmers work hard and I’m sure shepherds are no different, which is what makes Moses’ story all the more interesting. Some say bushes that spontaneously burn aren’t all that rare in the Sinai area, although that appears to be debunked here. Regardless, the fact that another bush was burning was perhaps more of a distraction than an attraction for Moses.

I have limited experience with sheep. The farm where Eva and I are currently living has three sheep and last week, while the family was away on vacation, we had to take care of said sheep. It isn’t all that hard — we had to take them out to the pasture in the morning, move them around during the day, and return them to their pen at night. It sounds simple but it was a little more involved than that. We had to make sure the sheep made it to their mobile pen in the pasture, a process that involves dragging them past much more appealing foliage to the foliage that we had chosen for them. It also sometimes involves chasing and catching said sheep to make sure they go where we wanted them to go. We also had to carry a 5 gallon bucket of water out to them and make sure that they stayed watered. When the grass in their moveable pen was consumed we needed to move them to a new location, sometimes ensuring that they had some shade. Daniel usually brought them in at night and his technique was running as fast as possible beside them so that they remained focussed on the destination rather than all the sweet grasses along the way.

I also recently watched Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime. In the show, Jeremy Clarkson takes over his farm when his previous manager retired. The show follows him along as he learns the ropes on what it takes to run a farm in Britain. One aspect to Clarkson’s farm is sheep and there are several episodes devoted to what it means to farm sheep, including being up at all hours to birth them, making sure that the mothers and lambs are all caring for each other while in the pasture, and moving them to a new pasture without them getting into the neighbour’s fields.

It is a lot of work for those of us caring for just a few sheep. How much more a traditional shepherd with a full-size herd that she needs to keep track of? [Just as an aside, did you know that Rachel is one of the few named shepherds in the Bible? Check out her story in Genesis 29]

Which leads us to the question, “Why would a busy guy like Moses take the time to go see the burning bush?” What made him realise that it wasn’t merely a distraction and was something work making him take time out of his busy schedule? The Bible doesn’t say a lot about Moses’ thought process other than to say, “I must go over there and see this strange sight.” There was something strange that attracted his attention.

Moses’ situation reminds me to ask myself if I pay attention to “strange sights” in my day-to-day life that may be God’s attempts to get my attention. [Note that God will always eventually get my attention, as I have written about here.] In what ways does my busyness keep me from opportunities to encounter God? How do I distinguish distraction from a God-encounter? Are distractions in fact invitations from God?

I guess one type of distraction is internet use. But while some of the things that we encounter on the internet may be strange, this type of distraction can’t be labelled a “strange sight” in the way Moses labelled the burning bush. The burning bush got Moses’ attention while he was doing other things that he normally did. It pulled him away from the usual into the unusual. So sorry, we can’t use Moses as an excuse for always being on the internet.

Another type of distraction is escapist fiction. Who doesn’t love a great story that takes you away from your present life and allows you to live in a virtual world of adventure, excitement, and love? I am currently enjoying Burrough’s John Carter series. But yet again, this is a type of distraction that we bring upon ourselves and is not the type of distraction that God introduces into our loves for his purposes.

I suspect the kinds of distractions that God tries are things that distract us from our distractions. Some distractions are actually a call back to the real world. They interrupt our escapes and bring us back to reality. That’s what the burning bush did for Moses after all.

Once, many years ago, while I was talking to a friend, my daughter came up to me because she wanted to show me her new dress. Did I look at her new dress? No. I saw what she was doing as a distraction from what I was doing. If I had it to do over again I would say, Excuse me, to my friend and take a look at Emily’s new dress. Perhaps God was saying, “Pay attention to your family.”

What I my response when someone talks to me while I am watching a TV show? Do I see it as an interruption or a call to engage with someone in real life? What is my response when I and deeply thinking about the solution to a problem and my wife approaches me with a solution? Am I reminded that we are a team and can work things out together, or do I feel interrupted? What about when someone offers me constructive criticism? Do I see it as a change to improve or as a challenge to my abilities? I must confess that I often get these kinds of things wrong.

So what types of distractions have turned into God encounters for you?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image Sandeep Kr Yadev on Unsplash.

What is the life lesson I taught my kids every day?

As a Father, I wanted to teach my kids a valuable lesson that would help them later in life. A lesson that would help them through good times and hard times. A lesson that they would remember forever.

Of course, I taught them about Jesus and the Bible and tried to instil in them a love for God. But there was one phrase that I said to them as much as possible — so many times in fact that they remember it today. It’s actually a little bit of a family joke — as families often joke about their fathers. But every time they joke about it I am secretly pleased because I know that they have learned the lesson!

What was the lesson that I chose to repeat over and over again while they were growing up? “Life is rough.”

I wanted to contrast the popular fairy tale ending of “And they lived happily ever after,” because sometimes that isn’t true. Life isn’t always happy and orderly — it’s sometimes messy. Hence, “Life is rough.”

One question my family sometimes asks is, “Why is that the life lesson you wanted us to learn?” Let me begin by saying what the statement isn’t.

“Life is rough” isn’t “suck it up.” Suck it up means to suppress emotions while undergoing hardship. Something I have learned over the years (and after years of suppressing them) is that emotions are good. The only emotion that I allowed myself to express in the past was anger, and it took me a long time to get that under some semblance of control. Anger isn’t bad in and of itself but the way I expressed it was. I suspect that that kind of anger is what sucking it up eventually leads to. I don’t want that for my kids.

“Life is rough” isn’t “Life’s rough and then you die.” This was a popular phrase when I was growing up and it speaks directly to the hopelessness that we often feel in life. But it provides no motivation to change; no motivation to make things better. In fact one could argue that it expresses mere fatalism, as in, “Don’t bother doing anything more because you are only going to die in the end anyways.” That isn’t a value I wanted my kids to have.

“Life is rough” isn’t “Man up.” One of the most basic reasons why I didn’t choose this as my go to advice is simply because my eldest is a girl. But beyond that, the call to Man up implies that there is a standardised masculine norm that kids somehow have to figure out in order to succeed in life. This is in fact not true. Raewyn Connell’s groundbreaking book Masculinities teaches us that there are a variety of masculinities that each of us can choose from as we shape our own masculinities (and femininities I suppose). Quite often there is one masculinity that takes over — called hegemonic masculinity — but this one dominant form is my no means the only valid masculinity. While Man up is a call to act like a man, it also represents a hegemonic masculinity where men must fit into a specific mold. I don’t want my kids to fit into a mold.

So if Life is Rough isn’t one of these things then what is it?

Life is rough is a call to live a life that rolls with the punches. A life that sees hardship not as something unique and rare but something that helps a person grow into a someone stronger. It’s a call to a life lived solving problems creatively. It’s a call to struggle for something bigger and better than onesself. Life is Rough is an acknowledgment that even though things may not always go your way, you can learn to navigate through it and come out the other end. Life is Rough is a life lived with meaning. That’s the kind of life I want my kids to live. And finally life is rough is a realisation that life isn’t always rough so enjoy those times when they come too!

What life lessons have you taught your kids?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Of Governments and Hope: Where should I look for hope?

The Bible doesn’t really have all that great a view of governments. Certainly we are to obey governments but that’s not what i mean. The bible’s best option for human governance is always presented as being God.

We see this throughout the story of Israel in the Old Testament. Israel is freed from Egypt because Egypt’s government had enslaved them. God then led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

We see this in the story of Israel’s first king — Saul — a move that God saw as being a rejection of his rule, and even the most cursory of reads of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles shows us the failure of this system.

We also see this in the choice of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to use the term “gospel” when identifying their story type; gospel or good news being the term Roman Emperors used to describe their own ascension to the throne. The four are in essence saying, “Jesus is a better emperor than Rome’s!”

That’s why government in the Bible is often referred to as an animal (most translations maintain the archaic expression “beast,” but as I’ve said here and here that that leads to strange interpretations). What this means is that we shouldn’t be surprised when the government tears us to pieces. The example in Canada at the moment is the whole Indian Residential School system (which I have written about here, here, and here) but I am sure we can come up with countless other ways governments around the world mess things up. Some organisations —such as Transparency International, Amnesty International, and Wikileaks — exist merely to evaluate the level of mess that governments make. Of course in the Biblical examples we also see some animals that have fatal wounds but don’t die, perhaps indicating domesticated governments who aren’t as powerfully bestial.

This is of course the danger of identifying any human political theory or system with God’s way. One recent Facebook conversation I had highlighted this. My friend pointed out the abuses that more leftist firms of government were guilty of, including the top echelons becoming rich while the rest remained poor. Of course the same could be said for rightist governments and their billionaires. Apart from this there are the similarities between parties on a vast range of issues — their differences are often highlighted but their end policies often end up being the same.

Regardless of the level of wildness in government, it is clear that something else is needed. So what’s the solution? I see at least two:

Lamb of God. The Bible describes Jesus as being more like a lamb than an animal. Certainly He is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, but in the context of the animal or beast language used in some parts of the Bible, Jesus as lamb is contrasted. No one in the created world — animals included — is found worthy to get God’s plan rolling: “” Eventually it is the lamb who was slain who is able to open the seals.

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will rule as king forever and ever.” It’s the phrase “has become” that I would like to focus on. How does this process happen? There are some that view eschatology as something God does at the end of time. Our only tole as humans is to be the cause of the end because of our unbridled wickedness.

But I wonder if that is indeed the way things are meant to happen? If our wickedness brings about the end, is it possible for us to work together with God in the transformation of the kingdom?

Certainly God has included humans in his plans. Jesus did after all commission his human disciples (including us) to make disciples of all nations. Whose disciples are these to be? Jesus’ disciples of course. What will these disciples do?

Disciples are filled with the spirit, whether that means being empowered to do the work of God, to a way to cope with the troubles of the world without using addictions.

Disciples reconcile people to God and to each other. Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation that we have on earth. This reconcilition imitates what God through Jesus began. He then says that “has given us this ministry of restoring relationships” as well.

Disciples bear fruit. We often interpret this to mean make disciples but fruit in the Bible more often than not refers to a personal transformation. This is best exemplified in lists of comparisons, most famously enumerated in Galatians 5, but also found elsewhere.

Disciples continue Jesus’ Isaiah 61/Luke 4 tasks of proclaiming Good News, forgiving others, giving sight to the blind, and freeing the captives.

Unfortunately the church hasn’t always been successful at fulfilling these tasks. What’s also unfortunate is that I have not always been successful at fulfilling these tasks. We have a lot to work on, both corporately and as individuals, in the process of working together with God for the transformation of our societies.

I wonder what we should work on first?

Feedback is always appreciated.

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Blending “real” with “virtual:” What significant virtual interactions are already real and what does that mean for the church?

The telephone is an embedded virtual interaction in society.

COVID-19 has introduced a whole new level of virtual interaction into our society. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t virtual interactions already embedded in our society.

I read a great article the other day by John Paul J. Arceno. While it focusses on the issue of virtual baptism, it also provides a good analysis of how the term “virtual” can be connected with church and church-related activities.

Arceno says, “It should be noted that there is a misconception that ‘virtual reality’ is not ‘real’. This terminology is misleading. For example, we can have “real meetings” with “real people” in ‘real-time’ — and just because the medium is Google Meet in cyberspace — does not make the meeting, people, or experience any less ‘real’ than one conducted in a physical room. It is a real meeting. This analogy can be applied to ‘Virtual Church’, ‘Virtual Baptism’, and ‘Virtual Communion’.”

This blending of the virtual and the real can be confusing at times and I do wonder if we resist virtual methods that are new. After all, it does seem to me that there are certain virtual activities that are considered real. I wonder if there was resistance to these activities when they first came on the scene.

Here is a list of normal activities that are also virtual activities (Some of these examples may show my vintage):

When you call on the telephone a girl to ask her on a date, that’s virtual. I remember talking for hours on our technologically-advanced phone — it had an extremely long curly cord that allowed me to find someplace private to talk. Likewise, when you talk for hours on the phone with your significant other, that’s virtual — but it’s also real.

When you read a book and get drawn into the story or into a conversation with the author, that’s virtual. When we read good books we experience the whole realm of emotions and we get drawn into the story. The story may be fictional but the emotions we experience as we read them are very real.

Love letters are virtual and have gone through changes over the years. Where it used to be a physical letter, written on paper, using special inks and scents, it can now be electronic — emails, FB messages, chat boxes, or texts. I spent many hours both writing and reading love letters while treeplanting in Northwestern Ontario and it was those letters that helped me maintain my relationship with my (future) wife. Of course I made some mistakes: Can you believe that I actually corrected her grammar using red ink? Good thing that she saw past that and agreed to marry me anyway.

Virtual has taken on new significance during the pandemic. Which brings me to a question asked by Arnold Cubos, one of my students at SEATS. He asked, “Is there a qualitative difference between the gospel presented online vs face-to-face?” I posted the question on Facebook and was intrigued by Mike’s and Robert’s responses

Robert Brown answered: “Only if you limit the work of the Holy Spirit or you limit the efficacy of God’s Word.”

Mike Swalm answered: “The qualitative difference in my mind is the relative inability to inhabit and embody the gospel online (truly embody). While i recognize and understand the hybridization of life (and rebel against it, truthfully), there is an embodied aspect to the gospel (think “bearing witness”) that I think cannot truly obtain online. I recognize various arguments insisting on the burgeoning online “space” as a place of true vulnerability, but without true embodiment, I see a lack. Can the gospel be “presented” online? Certainly. Can it truly be embodied? To a lesser degree, in my view.”

I think the answer lies in a combination of the two. Mike’s “embodiment” reminds me of the incarnation, which is the embodiment of the Word of God. John writes that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But it’s the word “Word” that connected with me in this context. Is there a connection between the living Word and the written word and is that embodiment? Jesus was only physically present on earth for just over 30 years so today we don’t have any physical connection with him. We may have a spiritual connection with him. We may have an emotional connection with him. We may trust him as our saviour. We read his words and recorded by the Gospel writers but we only hear his words as read and expounded through others. I guess that’s what we mean when we say the church is Christ’s body.

But how is that embodiment governed today? Here is where Robert’s answer comes into play: The Holy Spirit is our guide today. The gospel is embodied in us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I guess I should admit here that for me as a Baptist, this dependence upon the Holy Spirit rather than a clearly thought out statement of faith or theological system is scary. But it appears to be what the Bible teaches.

So what does all this mean in today’s world of virtual church activities? Is embodiment possible through the binary code that runs the internet? Is there something to be learned about Jesus and the Holy Spirit through the networked nature of online? Can social media truly provide the social connections that we as humans crave? More importantly, how can Jesus be experienced through what we are doing today? How is Jesus present?

I guess a harder question to answer is was what we were doing before an effective way of embodying Jesus? Was Jesus present or did we merely present him then? How? In what ways? Or were we merely interested in informing people about Jesus? Does virtual + church help us or hinder us in this task?

What is your favourite real activity that just happens to be virtual?

Feedback is always welcome!

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Oh no, Canada: Reflections on Canada on Canada Day

Reflection is good for the soul because it causes us to look back on events that we normally view on default and look at them with new eyes. Canada Day is one of these things, especially in light of a recent push to reconcile history with the past. Even using the term “default” is actually problematic because what may be default thinking for me is different for someone else. The history that I read may be different from the history someone else reads. My understanding of the past is also almost certainly different from the actual past.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the residential school system as a form of cultural genocide. What we are beginning to realise is that some form of physical genocide may also have been happening. Certainly the past was a lot more dangerous than the present, with diseases like TB and the influenza pandemic of 1918 taking many lives, but there are also documented cases of abuse and death at the very hands of those entrusted with the care of these young First Nations children. What makes things worse is that it doesn’t seem to be merely a government issue (and governments do tend to be animal-like), but also a church issue. This is because churches were an integral part of the Residential School system.

Because of these issues there have been calls to rethink Canada Day. After all, why celebrate the country when the country is built on such shameful actions that has made some many mistakes? Some communities are cancelling Canada Day celebrations, while others are planning alternative events to help incorporate victims of Residential Schools into Canada’s story.

So what is the answer? I think it lies in the concepts of Truth, reconciliation, and repentance.

Truth. This is the debate between history and the past (that I have discussed elsewhere). In a nutshell, history is “texts” about the past from a certain perspective. Texts can include writing of course but can also include any aspect of society (citation) including statues, memorials, and events like Canada Day. The past is the actual events that have happened and are being interpreted when doing history. History changes all the time as new perspectives create new interpretations but the past remains the same.

Reconciliation, or restoring relationships, is supposed to be a major part of the church. After all, God has given the church the “ministry of reconciliation.” Relationships need to be restored people and God but relationships between people and other people also need restoration. The church has emphasised the first aspect throughout the years — and in many ways this emphasis may have led to the residential school disaster by ignoring God’s command to love our neighbour as we love ourselves — but hasn’t worked as hard on the restoration of interpersonal relationships. We haven’t been as good at this part as we could have been.

“What about forgiveness?” some may ask. Forgiveness does need to happen, as Matt Stovall, writing from a First Nations’ perspective, points out in his great FB post on this. However, forgiveness works best when it is coupled with repentance, which means the church, as the offending party, needs to repent and ask forgiveness.

So what needs to be reflected upon this Canada Day? Where does reconciliation need to happen? Where does truth need to be reevaluated? How can I ask forgiveness?

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Canada and repent of our sins. Our eyes are finally opening to the our ugly past. How will we make a better future? Listen to someone’s stories of their residential experience. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Read Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1907 Report on the Indian schools of Manitoba and the North-West Territories. Read about residential schools, reconciliation and the experience of Indigenous peoples.

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on the church and repent of our sins. It’s quite simple. For church insiders there is a wide range of church types and theologies, that are unknown and even meaningless to church outsiders. The specific churches involved in the Residential School System cannot be separated in people’s minds from the idea of “church.” As I have said elsewhere, “even if we weren’t physically present during these atrocities, we are still complicit in them because people bearing Jesus’ name did these things. Don’t we also bear Jesus name?” So as churches we need to seek ways to ask forgiveness. We need to reflect on the theologies that we hold that led to the whole Residential School system. We need to find ways to connect with First Nations People. We need to reflect on what repentance looks like for you and me.

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Truth and repent of the untruths and half-truths we have believed instead. I have written elsewhere on truth. Suffice it to say, none of us has a complete understanding of absolute truth. Don’t get me wrong— I do believe in absolute truth but at best I can say we are approaching absolute truth. That means that part of the way forward includes reflecting on the truths that I know and how those truths coincide with the truths that others know and changing our truths so the future is better than the past.

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by Derek Thomson on Unsplash.