Thinking Out Loud

February 20, 2017

Two Worlds: The Cuba Caste System

poverty-in-veradero

Perhaps it’s not a caste system the way we normally use the phrase, but there was something eerie about the way two worlds seem to coexist in Cuba: The tourists and those who work in tourism.

In one resort at Varadero, a tunnel is used to get workers from the street into the basement level of the hotel. There were no doubt staff entrances at all of the 40-or-so resorts on the peninsula, but it was the tunnel that caught our eye.

Workers arrive by bus, not the air-conditioned ones known to the tourists, or even the double-decker versions, but older, hotter, more crowded ones.

For the non-tourists, there is also a different currency. We paid for things in CUCs, the convertible, tourist version of the Cuban Peso. Residents pay in CUPs. One Cuban Convertible Peso equals 24.728383 Cuban Pesos. Some stores accept the one, some accept the other, some accept both.

So we find ourselves in a country where there are two sets of currencies, two sets of buses, two types of taxicabs, etc…

…Another lifetime ago, I worked for a musician who played a number of Jewish venues including the banquet halls of major hotels as well as synagogues. It was customary to unload and load equipment through a service elevator or even through a kitchen. I am personally acquainted with what it means to be part of the service staff in a place where, on the other side of the wall, wealthy people are enjoying unlimited food, drink and entertainment.

There was something about this trip however where it reflected differently. I was, for seven short days, one of the rich tourists. As noted in yesterday’s article, for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. As noted the day before, there is something unsettling at the fragility of the curtain which separated our tour guide from we tourists.

I say that not because I’m not wanting to associate with the waiters and chambermaids, but rather because I don’t want them to be invisible; don’t want them to have to be quietly ushered in through a tunnel…

…Last week in the Canadian parliament, a member stood up and mentioned in passing that before his government career he was a bus driver. And guess what reaction that got?

The members of the opposition party laughed at him.

I want to emulate the Nazarene who “humbled himself, taking on the role of a servant.” I want to be able to come alongside the waiter who is carrying too many plates, or grab the other corner of the bed-sheet while the maid makes up the room.

But the world doesn’t like it when those barriers are not firmly set in place.


Thanks for your indulgence during these 3 articles. There’s one more which will come a few days later, as I want to share our impressions in a tourist environment that is devoid of Americans and consider the potential of an influx of US tourists on Cuba.

February 19, 2017

Third World Exposure

havana-back-streetsI have been privileged to work in a variety of areas of ministry: For a local church, for a Christian book distributor, for a Christian music distributor, for a Christian book publisher, for two Christian camp ministries, for a Christian television ministry, for an international Bible distributor, as a teacher in a Christian school, for a local Christian newspaper, for two nationally distributed Christian magazines, for a Christian arts organization… well, you get the idea.

Always missing from my resumé was what I termed “third world missions exposure.” Essentially, I am a missions trip that never happened. I became aware of this at one of the camps I worked for:

The mission agency people knew very little about Christian camping or even youth ministry in general…but their third world exposure meant they had good organizational skills, an ability to adapt, and a variety of gifts. Overall, I think the kids who attended that year got their money’s worth from this diversity, even if things at the senior staff level were a constant tug of war…Parachuting people from other ministry disciplines into unfamiliar contexts is not always a great idea. I felt that within their own missions-and-development tribe, there were probably reasons to respect some of these people, not to mention their willingness to take on the camp challenge at the last minute.

As I mentioned yesterday, we finally had an opportunity to go to Cuba last week. Our first time on an airplane in 28 years. We debated whether as a nation, Cuba can be considered “third world.” My wife suggested “second world.” Political science is not my long-suit, but given Cuba’s ties to the former Soviet Union, it might fit the definition. These days however, the term describes economic status, not political alignment. Cuba is not undeveloped; their education system alone ought to be the envy of many western countries.

veradero-back-streets

Regardless, it was definitely my first direct exposure to poverty on a scale I never envisioned. Further, I never imagined how much it would affect me, seeing this now, at this stage of life. Would it have shaped my life differently to have this experience much younger? Perhaps, but in ways I will never know.

Posting a number of pictures to Facebook, my wife wrote:

When we got home, we calculated that for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. Even the tour he hosted would be a months’ work.

I think knowing that helps me to appreciate the experience and to enjoy it more, while recognizing my privileged place and being humbled by it.

We are forever changed.

havana-downtown

 

 

February 18, 2017

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:44 am

cardenas

It wasn’t exactly breaking the fourth wall as is usually defined, but it was a moment in our trip to Cuba where the wall between the lives of the villagers and the rich tourists on the air-conditioned bus was momentarily shattered.

Sitting on the bus weaving through a number of towns and villages was exactly what we wanted to see. “Today,” the tour guide intoned, “You will see the real Cuba.” It took me awhile to think about the implications of this: In other words, what you’re seeing in the tourist resorts is not the real Cuba. Actually both tour guides on both days used “the real Cuba” phrase.

Our guide the second day was more than willing to talk about every aspect of village life. What things costs. How the free university education system works. The age to vote. The parliamentary system. Asking us questions about how similar things transpire back home. Sitting at the front of the bus each time so that we had access to the tour guides was strategic on my part. It meant being able to engage in conversation and ask questions throughout the entire 9 hours (the village tour) or 11 hours (Havana).

In a very strange way, the tour guide was, in my mind at least, slowly becoming one of us. Speaking perfect English (in the first case) or both English and French (in the second case.) It was easy to forget that the well-dressed young man sitting one row in front of me holding a microphone was actually a member of the culture in one of the towns where stopped.

That is until…

I was looking around and not fully paying attention when he picked up the microphone and said, “My house is two blocks that way. You can all come for dinner; we’re having rice and eggs.”

It took a minute for that to sink in. I quietly whispered to my wife, “Did he just say…”

In that moment I was totally wrecked…

…When we got back to the hotel I told this story a few times to some other people we had met from Canada. But I couldn’t do it without breaking up.

It’s one thing to sit on a tour bus — the analogy we used a few times was of people traveling to Pennsylvania to look at the Amish — but it’s a whole other thing when you’ve spent several hours getting to know personally one of the people who is part of the tableau spreading out before you.

It wasn’t a particularly attractive neighborhood.* Not one you or I would choose. And for dinner that night, back at the resort, we would be eating far more than rice and eggs.

I’ll write more tomorrow about the impact the poverty had on me.


*We didn’t take a lot of pictures in that particular town. The one at the top is borrowed from a tourism site. It’s a contemporary image, not something out of a movie recreation. The image below is one we took in Havana. We’re 99% sure that’s someone’s home. She was talking on the phone up to a 30 seconds before we took the picture.

habana

March 19, 2016

Jesus For President (It’s better than some of the current options)

While I’ve re-run many articles over the course of the blog, book reviews have not been among them. Book mentions are usually unique to a particular time and place and only relevant while the book is new. The attention of reviewers and readers alike then moves on to whatever is next.

But I was drawn to this short review because the book is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in this an election year; not to mention the release of a 10th anniversary edition of the author’s first book The Irresistible Revolution. So grab some cooking grease to power the bus engine as we head out on the road once again…

“Growing up we were taught to sing the exciting songs of Noah and Abraham and little David and Goliath. But we were never taught songs about debt cancellation, land reforms, food redistribution and slave amnesty. We don’t know if it was just hard to come up with words that rhyme with “debt cancellation” or if folks were hesitant about venturing into the ancient (and sometimes boring) world of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy… Whatever the case, these books are where some of God’s most creative and exciting ideas come alive.”

Jesus for President pp 57-58

About fifty years ago elementary school students had something called ‘readers’ which contained base materials for a variety of subjects. Each page brought some new adventure, they were the equivalent of a variety show for students with poems, psalms, pictures, maps, science articles, biographical stories and fiction. Basically, everything in it but the kitchen sink.

I’ve just finished reading Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. Like Shane’s previous book, The Irresistible Revolution, this book has everything but the kitchen sink, too. 

This book begins with an overview of the early Jewish history as recorded in the Pentateuch. There is also a great deal of focus on Constantine’s influence on the Church in the 300s. Constantine, a hero to some for his legitimization of Christianity, isn’t doing well on review these days. (See Greg Boyd’s The Myth of an American Nation for more of this, or listen online to some of Bruxy Cavey’s teaching at The Meeting House in Oakville, ON www.themeetinghouse.ca or check the blogsphere for reviews of The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. etc.)

But kitchen sink style, Claiborne and Haw then move on to practical ways that the Church can make a difference especially in terms of the environment, the economy and creating equity. They don’t stop at stamping out poverty. They want to stamp out affluence, too. In some respects, they could have got two very different books out of this, but their understanding of Israel’s history, their interpretation of Christ’s teaching, their take on the first few hundred years of Christianity; all these provide context for where they see the church today. In other words, first you get their motivation, then you get their methodology.

Like the school readers of old, you’re left with a primer on social action, with every page yielding something new. (And the visual dynamics of each page help, too.) And not one paragraph, not even one sentence in the book is theoretical. It’s about living all this out on a daily basis. 


Keep up with Shane and partner-in-crime Tony Campolo at RedLetterChristians.org

A year after this was review was published, I later covered the Jesus for President DVD which is still widely available. You can read that review here.

 

 

February 15, 2016

The Changing Face of the Global Church

“The Meeting of the Waters” in Manaus, Brazil: Two visually distinct rivers converge to form the Amazon River

I am no doubt a better person for the various books I have reviewed here over the years., but honestly, I’ve probably forgotten some of them. There is however one title that I still find myself quoting in discussions, particularly on the subject of missions, but often about the global church in general. 

Two very different missionaries are presented, one the author calls “Mission Marm,” the other is “Apple Guy.” Two vastly different mindsets having to join together not unlike the branches of the river above referenced in the book’s title. Reading that analogy alone is worth the price of admission.

This was the second half of a two part review I did  — here’s a link to  the original first part — of a 2010 book by Fritz Kling, The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church (David C. Cook, still in print). The book is based on what the author calls “The Global Church Listening Tour;” one-hour interviews with 151 church leaders in nineteen countries.



As Canadians, we often find ourselves despairing over the USA-centric approach of many popular Christian books. So one expects a book with a ‘global’ perspective to transcend any particular nation. However, in some chapters more than others, Kling would relate his findings to the church in America. In this case that’s a good thing. If the book were just theoretical it would not accomplish much. Some of the real value here — although it’s never truly spelled out in ‘macro versus micro’ terms — is the application of what’s happening globally to the local church; the church you and I attend on weekends. But then again, this is a very, very ‘macro’ kind of book.

So what are the seven currents? There’s a great economy of language in Fritz Kling’s writing style, so I can’t do this adequately, but here’s a few things that stood out:

  1. Mercy — Kling uses an anecdotal approach in this social justice section: a young woman who gives up a promising law career to work with oppressed people in India; a young man who is a native of India who operates a technology firm guided by Sermon-on-the-Mount principles.
  2. Mutuality — It’s hard to function in the global church if you think you or the country you come from has all the answers; and that bias leads to further believing that you (or we) should be the ones in charge. He also suggests that people in other parts of the world don’t understand our various debates about practices or behaviors or doctrines, since they simply take the Bible at literal face value.
  3. Migration — There are three issues here: Worldwide migration patterns in general; the migration taking place from rural areas to cities at a time when churches are fleeing the urban core for the suburbs; and the ministry opportunities that exist when you have displaced, and therefore lonely people all around.
  4. Monoculture — This chapter looks at the dominance of the English language as a symptom of the much larger, accelerating spread of Western culture, and in particular, Western youth culture.
  5. Machines — Kling begins with a look at technology as a tool in disaster relief. (He mentions a 2008 cyclone that hit Burma. As the book was being published a major earthquake struck Haiti.) He moves on to discuss the role of technology in evangelism, and backtracks to show how that motive led to some other technological applications now enjoyed worldwide.
  6. Mediation — Kling delineates several areas where there is a need for reconciliation and mediation. He notes this will be a challenge for Westerners to function in a world that has become, in particular, very anti-American. He speaks in detail of the conflicts that exist, “not between Muslims and Christians, but between Muslims and other [more militant] Muslims.” Kling believes Christians should be leading the way toward reconciliation on all fronts.
  7. Memory — Knowing the past can be a blessing and a curse, but in many places, Kling sees more downside than upside, with entire cultures having a depreciated view of themselves. Still, Christians need to fully enter into, understand and even embrace the history of the place where they serve, and from there aim to bring hope and wholeness.

As I originally stated, I still hope this book finds the wider audience it is deserving of. This is a book for pastors and missiologists for sure, but I think it’s also a title that business leaders, church board members and people who simply care about the future of the church should want to study.

December 30, 2015

Wednesday Link List

The creator of Veggie Tales and What's In The Bible has a thing for Truck Stop shopping.

The creator of Veggie Tales and What’s In The Bible has a thing for Truck Stop shopping.

Normally we take a week off around this time, but there were a few things in the file; and then we found a few more. And then a few more.

The Unofficial Bible for Minecrafters

November 10, 2015

Realities of Urban Ministry

Filed under: ministry — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:51 am
Ruth was one of three women who started a weekly dinner in a rundown motel that many people called home. The organization later morphed into something a little different from their original focus, but continues to serve the same community, including some of the same people.

My wife was one of three women who started a weekly dinner in a rundown motel that many people called home. The organization later morphed into something a little different from their original focus, but continues to serve the same community, including some of the same people.

by Ruth Wilkinson (circa 2008)

We found out tonight at Dinner that [our project] had been “announced from the pulpit” at a local church. Which — once I’d clarified that it was announced and not denounced — is very cool. It’s created some interest in people who attend that church, which I’ve always pigeonholed as very conservative. So, with my stereotype in mind, I’m wondering what they’ll think of the whole thing.

One of the team is going to organize a meeting at her house for those church-folks who are interested so we can give them an idea of what ‘we do’.

I’m tempted to tell horror stories and see if it scares them off. But I won’t.

This motel unit was home to one of the many people we simply called "our friends." The front window is broken the door only locks from the outside (with a padlock) and whatever carpeting or tiles ever existed on the floor had long vanished leaving only plywood.

This motel unit was home to one of the many people we simply called “our friends.” The front window is broken, the door only locks from the outside (with a padlock) and whatever carpeting or tiles ever existed on the floor had long vanished leaving only plywood.

But I will say this:

• If you can’t sit down for dinner with 30 people, without having someone say the blessing,

• If you can’t share a meal with someone who may or not be drunk,

• Someone who may or may not be mentally ill,

• Someone who may or may not be lying to you,

• If you can’t have a conversation with someone who is smoking without making faces and waving the smoke away,

• If you can’t hear someone use the F word as a verb and an adjective and a noun and an adverb, possibly all in the same sentence, without cringing,

• If you can’t laugh at a genuinely funny crude joke, and good naturedly rebuff a truly offensive one,

• If you can’t hug someone who may or may not have Hepatitis C or AIDS,

This may not be the place for you.

(But I hope it is.)

September 21, 2015

Chuck Colson’s My Final Word is Serious Reading for ADD Readers

Chuck Colson - My Final WordYou consider yourself a deep reader and thinker, but you struggle with staying focused when you hold a book in your hands. You like to be challenged and engaged, but your ADD kicks in every time you look over there, I think that cat is chasing a squirrel– so you’ve probably already seen the advantage in reading story collections and anthologies.

It’s ironic then that in presenting this assembly of transcripts from the Breakpoint radio program with Charles Colson to you I should be proposing the writing of a man who was such a voracious reader to people who struggle with that same discipline.

Because of who Colson was, it should come as no surprise that many of the short articles in the book are related in some way to politics and political systems. That was his passion, and that is where he truly speaks with authority.

Other themes in My Final Word: Holding Tight to the Issues That Matter Most include Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics, public life, culture, crimal justice, contentment, homosexuality, and several other topics. Within each theme there are at least a dozen transcripts, some longer, and some that were edited, though at times the subject ends up being political- or economic-related. This of course creates a bit of a liability when you are an international reader because so much of this concerns the American political system and key figures in the U.S. government. Even so, in those articles there are principles to be extracted and some of the stories have ended up on the front pages of newspapers in Sydney, London or Toronto despite their origin.

Then there is the richness in terms of the quality and quantity of the writers Colson quotes. He was a huge fan of C. S. Lewis and G. K Chesterton, and to continue the list here would be to leave out others. If you want to know what makes people great, look at who they read and whose quotations they have memorized.

My Final Word clocks in at 240 pages total, released in August from Zondervan. In the foreword, longtime Colson associate Eric Metaxas suggests that there is sufficient material here to make the book suitable for small group discussions, and if all your group members are not always in touch with such issues, these radio transcripts will certainly raise awareness.

Full disclosure: Because of the nature of this anthology, I have not yet read every section, though I do prefer not to review a book before I’ve read every last word. I do intend to finish it however — it’s perfect nighttime reading for me — and I would encourage readers to keep a pen, pencil or highlighter handy to underline key sections and mark page numbers of passages to which you wish to return. I’m also reading the sections out-of-sequence, starting with ones which resonate more, and then, as I get more into the rhythm of the book, finding the others to be of equally interesting. In that sense, it’s a great reference resource on the topics listed above.

Chuck Colson was a very, very wise man.

Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing in Canada for a copy of My Final Word.

September 20, 2015

We See Trends and Stats; God Sees Individuals

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
-Matthew 6:26

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.
– Matthew 10:12

And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury…”
– Mark 12:41-42

The Star Trek mantra that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is very noble in context, but Christian ministry is all about the few. That’s hard to reconcile in at a time in history when people are preoccupied with stats and even in the church, pastors meet each other at conferences comparing notes as to average attendance and annual budget.

At the Breakpoint blog, Leah Hickman writes:

2,992.
51,112.
405,399.

Do these numbers mean anything to you?

They’re casualty numbers. 9/11. Gettysburg. American soldiers in World War II.

I don’t have much of a head for numbers, but I know enough to know that that’s a lot of people–a lot of individuals.

But when we see numbers like this, what do we do? We rationalize. In comparison to these massive numbers, the deaths of one or two individuals seem like nothing. A small fraction of humanity. A blip on the screen…

She then links to an article by Jim Tonkowich at The Stream,

Given a world with more than seven billion people, it may be only natural and reasonable for us to think of nameless, faceless masses. The crowds of Middle Eastern immigrants marching from Hungary to Austria seem to be just that: crowds, mobs, hordes, multitudes. But it’s merely a coping trick of the mind, not reality.

Where we see crowds, God sees individuals. Each has a name and a face, a history and a future, a family and a purpose. “There are no ordinary people,” C. S. Lewis declared in The Weight of Glory. “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

He continues,

You shall love your neighbor,” said Jesus, “as you love yourself (Mark 12:30a).” How do we love ourselves? With knowledge, respect, and sacrifice. The refusal to love our neighbors with knowledge, respect, and sacrifice results in a coarsening of our souls and a distortion of the image of God in us.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, “to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.”

We end today with another snapshot of Jesus separating an individual from the larger crowd (emphasis in text added):

Luke 8:40 Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him…

42b…As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. 43And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.

45Who touched me? Jesus asked.

When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”

46a But Jesus said, Someone touched me…”

scriptures: NIV

September 15, 2015

Imagine 100 Jets Crash Killing 26,000…and the Next Day it Happens Again

World Vision president Richard Stearns in the book, The Hole in Our Gospel: The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World (Thomas Nelson, ECPA Christian Book of the Year, 2009)

Whenever a major jetliner crashes anywhere in the world, it inevitably sets off a worldwide media frenzy covering every aspect of the tragedy.  I want you to imagine for a moment that you woke up this morning to the following headline:  “One Hundred Jetliners Crash, Killing 26,500.”  Think of the pandemonium this would create across the world as heads of state, parliaments and congresses convened to grapple with the nature and causes of this tragedy.  Think about the avalanche of media coverage that it would ignite around the globe as reporters shared the shocking news and tried to communicate its implications for the world.  Air travel would no doubt grind to a halt as governments shut down airlines and panicked air travelers cancelled their trips.  The National Transportation Safety Board and perhaps the FBI, CIA, and local law enforcement  agencies and their international equivalents would mobilize investigations and dedicate whatever manpower was required to understand what happened and to prevent it from happening again.

Now imagine that the very next day, one hundred more planes crashed – and one hundred more the next, and the next, and the next.  It is unimaginable that something this terrible could ever happen.

But it did – and it does.

It happened today, and it happened yesterday.  It will happen again tomorrow.  But there was no media coverage.  No heads of state, parliaments or congresses stopped what they were doing to address the crisis and no investigations were launched.  Yet more than 26,500 children died yesterday of preventable causes related to their poverty, and it will happen again today and tomorrow and the day after that.  Almost 10 million children will be dead in the course of a year.  So why does the crash of a single plane dominate the front pages of newspapers across the world while the equivalent of one hundred planes filled with children crashing daily never reaches our ears?  And even though we now have the awareness, the access,  and the ability to stop it, why have we chosen not to?  Perhaps one reason is that these kids who are dying are not our kid; they’re somebody else’s.

pp 106-107

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