Friday, August 7, 2015

Sin & Freedom

Sin is real. Part of human freedom includes the ability to make decisions. Some of the decisions are good, and some are bad. Sinfulness is the state of human freedom when individuals make decisions that separate the individual decision-maker from God. Each person makes decisions that separate us from God. We make those kinds of decisions every day. We are sinful when we are selfish, impatient, unkind, inconsiderate, or any of the myriad forms of human behavior. 

Poverty exists in many forms. The greatest poverty is missing out on God's grace. Systemic poverty creates situations in which people are born without opportunity, without adequate food or shelter. Material poverty is real but can be vanquished. I do not pretend to fully understand poverty, its causes, or even the possible solutions. However, I do see people who embrace their own desires and live into their sinfulness. 

Writing about sin is not intended to be a launchpad for a diatribe on social ills. Lists of dos and don'ts lead to Pharisee-ism. The rules become God. Sinfulness is that state of fallenness and the continuing need to be transformed by God. Being transformed by God does not lift a person out of material poverty; it cannot break the chains of systemic poverty. However, it can lead to a more fulfilling life. 

Voodoo worship about to begin. 

As I write this blog entry, I am sitting in a guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and there is a Voodoo worship service about to begin nearby. I am here with a group of 14 people from my church. We are trying to bring God's love into the lives of 34 children who live at the Source de Lumiere orphanage. Many of the children lost one or both of their parents in the 2010 earthquake. 

The 2010 Haitian earthquake is part of that nebulous category of natural evils. The world quakes, floods, rains, or burns, and people suffer. Many learned people associate natural disasters with God's condemnation of creation. In the Noah story in Genesis, God makes an explicit promise to never take out divine frustration on creation through massive destruction. Therefore, there must be another explanation for natural disasters. Human disaster, on the other hand, does have a divine relationship. That is, God gives humankind the gift of freedom. People use their freedom to act selflessly or selfishly. 

In a recent conversation with some Haitian pastors, they told me about Voodoo. They said that many Haitian Christians practice syncretism between Voodoo and Christianity. For everyday matters, e.g. Lord, give me a good day, they turn to the Christian God. For serious matters, e.g. God, cure my illness, they return to Voodoo. This is the freedom to act and make decisions. It is the freedom to put one's faith in God or in something else. For Christians, God is capable of handling both great and small problems. 

Transformation in Christ means becoming a new being. Instead of discontinuing sinful behavior, per se, being transformed means thirsting for God in a deep way. I have been in Haiti since last Tuesday. Because I have been dehydrated before, I have made it a practice to habitually drink water since arriving on this beautiful island. I keep refilling my water bottle and keep drinking it. I am well hydrated, but since I have had the experience of being dehydrated, I cannot help but keep drinking water. Being transformed in Christ is similar. Even after praying and becoming synchronized with God's will, the transformed Christian keeps thirsting for God, keeps growing, keeps reading about God, and keeps turning away from things that serve to separate one from God. 

For the Christian, Voodoo is like so many other distractions, like selfishness, greed, consumerism, materialism, or objectivism. They take Christians away from focusing on Christ. For me, I want to focus on being transformed by God. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Helpful Words

What can I say that is most helpful to you?

I am a white, male, North American. Those identifying characteristics put me in a unique category. Whatever I say, I say from a position of privilege. I might not have as much as some celebrity-wanna-be-politician, but my words come from a lifetime of getting sufficient food and ample education

What can I say about theodicy (questions of evil) to someone who lives in a less developed country? What can I say that is useful to a person in Haiti? I can talk about my struggles as a pastor in North America. I can talk about the controversy over what color to paint a Sunday School classroom or the dilemma of painting parking space stripes on the newly repaved parking lot. However, will my Haitian brothers and sisters identify? No. 

Tonight, a prominent pastor in Port-au-Prince invited me to give a lecture on theodicy. I decided to talk about my upcoming journal article "Being and Nothingness: revisiting Berdyaev's interpretation of the Ungrund." It is riveting stuff! When it is published, I am sure the journal will go in to several editions of reprints (read sarcastically). How is Berdyaev helpful to Haitian pastors? This is a significant question. Berdyaev is no more or less significant to Haitian pastors than he is to North American pastors. His thoughts on the nature of God and God's relationship with freedom, evil, and the eschaton are relevant, but deciphering his thought requires wading through some fairly dens and somewhat dated material. This is a tall order for North American pastors, many of whom do not pick up books as dense as Berdyaev after seminary. For Haitian pastors who have never heard of Berdyaev and do not have his works readily available, this is an almost impossible task. 

Instead of launching into a lecture to which attendees would politely listen and then never consider again, I began by asking what is the greatest challenge facing Haitian churches. One pastor spoke up, "Syncretism!" Others agreed. I quickly changed tack. I could introduce Berdyaev, meonic and oukonic nothingness, and freedom, but I could not simply present a paper with the assumption that they would all leave and procure Slavery and Freedom in order to better understand what some blan was on about. 

I began by giving a background on syncretism and then explained how we would relate theodicy to syncretism. Then, I asked, "What is the greatest evil you face?" "Murder." "Lying." Voodoo." No one, except me, mentioned the 2010 earthquake. Thus, I did not focus attention on it. We talked about how to respond to murder (a theology of transformation; thank you Oliver Davies). We explored lying in relation to a covenant faith.

From reading their faces, I think the lecture went well. Maybe it did not. Either way, my approach shifted, and I feel good about that. Who knows? Maybe it was helpful. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Haiti, can I serve you?


On Tuesday, I traveled with thirteen people from the church where I serve as pastor to Haiti. This is my sixth trip, and I have learned much on each one. Some trips have been better than others, and this trip will be no exception. We are at the close of the second day, so it is too early to say how it will turn out. Will this be the best? Worst? Or, different in its own unique way? In some ways, the answer will always be 'yes' to all three questions. 

One big difference about this trip is our approach. We have done short term mission projects poorly in the past. I can look at one trip with a particularly critical eye. We perpetuated a cycle of dependency and poverty of self-sufficiency by flying down and doing physical work that a local person could have done better. The latter approach would have cost us less and provided work for a Haitian. 

Each time I take a group on a mission trip, I have the group read a book and discuss it as part of our preparation for the trip. My favorite has always been Lingenfelter's Ministering Cross-Culturally. This book is effective at teaching people who have not traveled very much about what it will be like when they are in a different culture, and it helps readers understand why different is not necessary bad. 

This trip, I decided to use a different book. I chose the conservative-evangelical When Helping Hurts. Several people who are very close to me have recommended it. It was an eye-opening experience. The group was quite convicted that we probably should not have spent the $15k+ on the trip, but instead invested the money in the orphanage. The group was also conflicted. Eight of the fourteen had been the previous year and were very excited to be going back. They love the children and could not wait to see them. Their Facebook pages celebrated the homecoming-of-sorts when we reached the orphanage. 

Conflict comes from knowing the truth, yet holding fast to old ways of thinking and acting. I come to Haiti with a new vision, one of listening, one of openness, one of looking to find out how I can serve. I come praying to be able to help and not hurt.