Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best books of 2009

I love making lists. And I love reading. This list includes the books that most impacted me in 2009, in no particular order.

The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton Wright (2005): The sub-title, “Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” helps explain why I love this book. It successfully links three of my favorite things. (Can you picture Julie Andrews singing that last sentence?) This book has encouraged me as a writer to draw water more deeply from my own well and to trust the creative process.

Carta a los Efesios: Comentario para exegesis y traducción by Mariano Ávila Arteaga (2008): It isn’t often that I’d put a Bible commentary in a list of favorite books, but my friend Mariano has done a splendid job of uniting academic integrity with love and worship around Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, all from the perspective of a Latin American theologian. I’ve actually been reading it devotionally.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880): This re-reading of the Russian classic is impacting me, not only with the brilliance of the author’s insights into human nature, but the with book’s similarities to Latin American telenovelas (the continent’s version of soap operas). Talk about dysfunctional families and melodrama—it’s all there and more!

Maud: The Life of L. M. Montgomery by Harry Bruce (1994): The publicity blurb for this book says that it’s for adolescents age 12 and over, but I sometimes find books for young people worth reading. (And it did give me a mental break after Dostoevsky!) At any rate, I love reading biographies and memoirs of writers, and this account of the creator of the Anne of Green Gables books fascinated me. I was especially interested in Montgomery’s struggles overcoming prejudices against women in higher education and as professional writers. Her life is a case study in persistence and discipline.

These Tunes, This Circle (2008) and Searching for a White Crow (2009), both by Quaker poet William Jolliff: Bill and I both read poetry at a gathering during North West Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions in August. I loved his poem, “The Second Million Miles,” about parenting, coming of age, and life transitions. After the reading I asked Bill where I could buy his books, and he graciously gave me the two copies he had brought. I’ve been savoring them ever since.

The River Between by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (1965): The Kenyan novelist paints a discordant picture of life during the early days of white settlement, including a scathing description of the negative effects of Christian mission on the Kikuyu tribe. This was a painful book to read and it certainly underscores the need for a wise contextualization of the gospel among the people groups of the world. Near the end of the novel, the protagonist (who has resisted Christian conversion) reflects: “He knew that not all the ways of the white man were bad. Even his religion was not essentially bad. Some good, some truth shone through it. But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal. And that eternal that was the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people. A people’s traditions could not be swept away overnight…. A religion that took no count of a people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless.” While painful reading, this is good missiology.

Libro de la passion by José Miguel Ibáñez Langlois (1986): Ibáñez Langlois, a Catholic priest serving in Santiago, Chile, is one of the best Latin American Christian poets, but this work was actually my introduction to him. A gift from one of my doctoral students, a Chilean and a poet himself, the book chronicles the Passion Week of Christ in short narrative poems from the perspective of the different participants. Some of the scenes seem to take place, not in Jerusalem, but in Santiago. I’m impacted by the poet’s own passion, and am made able to enter into the story through the power of his insights and the beauty of the words. This is a gift.

Songs from the Slums by Toyohiko Kagawa (English translation, 1935): Like Thomas Kelley’s A Testament of Devotion, this is a book I read once a year. These poems from Kagawa’s years of living among the poor of Kobe move me every time I read them. This year I read the poems alongside a biography of Kagawa written by Cyril Davey in 1960, shortly after Kagawa’s death. Kagawa models for me an integration of academic discipline, poetic sensitivity, a passion for social justice, and a missionary heart.

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher J. H. Wright (2006): In this very scholarly but readable book, Wright traces the theme of the missio Dei, God’s missional purposes in the world, through the whole of Scripture. I found it strongly motivating me to go deeper into Scripture and then be present more authentically in the world.

A series of three books by Northwest novelist Jane Kirkpatrick: A Name of Her Own, Every Fixed Star, and Hold Tight the Thread: Hal and I are reading these aloud in the evenings. Based on historical characters, the narrative traces the intertwined lives of native Indians and the French and American pioneers and trappers who settled the Northwest in the early 19th century. The central protagonist, an Ioway Indian named Marie, gives the books their principal point of view. We see history unfold from Marie’s perspective. Kirkpatrick is a good story teller. She came to Newberg this spring, and we enjoyed hearing about her life and art.

I read many other books this year, including several I’ve already blogged about. I’m thankful that part of the goodness of life includes reading, that I can share in the experiences and glean from the wisdom of people as diverse as Toyohiko Kagawa, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Jane Kirkpatrick.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Light on!

Hal and I spent Christmas with our daughter, son-in-law and three young grandchildren. It was especially fun to share the holiday with Peter, the youngest at 21 months old.

Those who have read my previous blogs ( will remember Peter as the baby who last year was diagnosed with blindness and various other potential developmental disorders. It shocked our whole family, and Hal, I and others covenanted to intercede for Peter, asking God for mercy and healing. I’ve had the sense that my prayer assignment for this child will be a long-term commitment involving persistence and faith.

So far it’s been a journey of hope, despair and changing diagnoses. The last word names his condition as ocular albinism, which is better news than earlier diagnoses. He obviously can see something. He recognizes people by sight as well as sound, reaches for objects, and walks around without bumping into walls and furniture. While probably “legally blind,” he sees more than we had been told he would. How much of this is answered prayer, we don’t know. The not-knowing keeps us humble, while the obvious progress encourages us to keep praying.

Peter’s development in other areas, especially language, has been a concern. We were worried that at 19 months he hadn’t begun saying any words or responding to signs—doing things like clapping, waving bye-bye, playing peek-a-boo—baby stuff that normally comes with the territory. That plus some obsessive repetitive behaviors prompted the pediatrician to set up an appointment with a specialist in autism. “We don’t need this, too,” I thought.

Two weeks before the appointment, language kicked in. By the day Kristin took Peter to the doctor, he had a vocabulary of some 20 words and was adding to it daily.

The official diagnosis was “pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise diagnosed” (PDDNOS). This sounds horrendous but basically means he’s too young for a more specific diagnosis. The doctor told us he may have a mild form of autism which he could eventually outgrow. I’ll accept that for now and keep praying.

What delights me is that one of Peter’s first words—and probably the most repeated—is “light.” He is drawn to light. He points to windows and lamps, repeating with enthusiasm, “Light! Light! Light!” I was holding him when I first recognized him say a sentence. We were playing off-and-on with the light switch when Peter pointed to the ceiling lamp and said, “Light on.” Yes.

Maybe I’m silly in finding symbolic significance in this, but, hey!, I’ll take my encouragement in whatever form it presents. That IS what I’m praying for—that all the lights turn on in Peter’s mind. I pray for the gifts of sight and language. I pray that all the developmental tasks proceed in the order God intended. And I pray that Peter’s spirit will always respond to the Light.

Light on!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The hope of glory

Last week I drove from Newberg to Springfield in the early hours of the morning. Starting in the pre-dawn darkness, I watched the sky slowly grow light. It was a clear Oregon morning, cold enough for the traffic on I-5 to be slower than usual. I had the radio tuned to my favorite classical station.

At one point, a Beethoven piano piece filled the car. As I drove through the dawning day, the mountains etched against the sunrise, I worshiped. But after a while I unconsciously slipped from worship into a day dream. When I came to, I realized that in my mind, I was playing that piano concerto to an admiring audience. Not only was my music incredibly beautiful, I myself was gorgeous, but humbly unmindful of my great charm. It gets worse. The printed program informed people that, when not giving award-winning concerts, I made my living as a brain surgeon and donated six months of every year to medical missions in Afghanistan.

As I said, “when I came to” I hope I blushed. I don’t remember that part. I don’t often go into these adolescent reveries, but when I discover myself caught up in one, the only remedy is to laugh. That and the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”).

But after an appropriate time of repentance, an insight came to me there in the car. I realized that my day dream reflected a longing for glory and that it was not entirely negative. Glory, not so much in the sense of fame and recognition, but rather deep desire to be an active participant in something significant, excellent, beautiful and—well—glorious. Is not this part of our inherited nature as persons created in the image of God?

The next thought that swam through my mind as I continued driving down the freeway was a phrase from the New Testament—“Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Yes. Beethoven, the sunrise colors, the Holy Spirit there in the dawn of the day all whispered and my spirit responded, “Yes! That’s it. It’s Jesus.”

The theme of glory runs through the Christmas story: the star, the angels proclaiming in music that would probably put Beethoven to shame, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will to all people.” And at Christmas, it certainly all comes down to Jesus. One of my favorite Christmas passages, John’s description of the incarnation, tells us, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Christ with us. Christ in us. Christ in me—in you—the hope of glory. That’s my Christmas gift this year.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

When helping hurts

American Christians are generous, no doubt about it. And not only in terms of money. According to recent research (Priest, 2008), over 1.6 million Americans participate yearly in some form of short-term mission, whether as young people from a local church, university/seminary students in a studies abroad program, or professionals wanting to serve overseas for a summer. This is in addition to the many cross-cultural mission ventures that take place within the US. My own faith community, the people called Quakers, is especially generous in this sense.

This practice has a biblical base, given the justice thread that runs throughout Scripture, that emphasizes caring for the poor and marginalized. And no doubt short-term mission has benefited both those on the going/giving end and those who receive. But this generosity has a shadow side.

Last month Hal and I, along with our friend, Fred Gregory, were privileged to lead in the annual Seminar by the Sea, sponsored by Twin Rocks Friends Camp. Our topic seemed a bit daunting, impossible to cover in a weekend: “American Christians—Understanding and Engaging with the World’s New Realities.” We certainly don’t consider ourselves experts, but we do represent three life-times of walking this path. Coming from different perspectives—Hal and I with experience in traditional mission work, Fred with extensive experience in relief and development work through NGOs—we have all come to similar conclusions and grown into similar values.

So we decided to take a narrative approach. We told our stories (or selected pieces), invited the participants to do the same, then facilitated conversation around the issues that surfaced. A good bibliography was part of the process, and many came having read one of the suggested books. Effective—and ineffective—short-term mission experience was one of the themes addressed, since most of those present had participated in an over-seas adventure.

Two books proved especially helpful to this discussion: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (Moody, 2009) and Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! edited by Robert J. Priest (William Carey Library, 2008). Both books face the shadow side of Americans serving abroad (“when helping hurts”), but also offer guidance for effective service among the poor, recognizing that the short-term missions movement is probably here to stay.

The potential, and certainly unintentional, damage done through short-term mission has to do with creating dependency and reinforcing the sense of deficiency that most of the world’s poor experience. In part this comes from what Corbett and Fikkert identify as a mistaken view of poverty that limits it to material lack. This in turn encourages ministry in the form of unexamined generosity that does not address root causes and unwittingly reinforces the sense of inadequacy on the part of the receptors.

The authors give their own definition of poverty as “the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” They see poverty alleviation in terms of a ministry of reconciliation, which I find refreshingly holistic and biblical. They describe this ministry of reconciliation as “moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.”

Another part of the equation comes from what Corbett and Fikkert term the “God-complexes of the materially non-poor.” That would be us: generous North-American (or European) Christians who, with good intentions, go as experts, ready to share what we have (money, knowledge, skill, materials, etc.) with those who lack these very things. The “God-complex” is largely unconscious. Corbett and Fikkert give the equation for harm as follows: “material definition of poverty + God/complexes of the materially non/poor + feelings of inferiority of materially poor = harm to both materially poor and non-poor.” This may take a bit of pondering, but it merits our serious consideration.

So, how can North American Christians help and not hurt as they travel abroad in mission? Is there some kind of Hippocratic Oath (where new doctors pledge, in part, to do no harm to their patients) we can adapt for short—or long-term mission activists? Following is a partial list, gleaned from experience, reading, and reflection in community. I invite comment and additions to the list.

--Go in humility. We who go out must recognize that we ourselves are broken people with much to learn. And recognizing that there’s not a whole lot we can accomplish in one or two weeks is only common sense.

--Go as learners. While we may have things to share, we are essentially learners, with much to gain from people in the places we travel to.

--Go appreciatively. Regardless of economic or technological challenges, every culture has its richness. Expect to be surprised and delighted. If possible, prepare by acquiring tools of observation.

--Focus on the assets of the poor, not on their lacks. Or at least begin by considering assets. There’s even a term for this in the literature: “asset-based community development” (ABCD, conveniently).

--Let any ministry be participatory, with the receptors calling the shots. That means the people name their needs and assets, help make any plan of action, and work alongside expatriate Christians. These last two points actually refer to projects that are longer in range.

--Focus more on relationships than on products or efficiency (how much can we accomplish in how short a time). These North American values inevitably clash with local culture.

--Recognize that the greatest beneficiaries of short-term mission adventures are those who go. If we can also bless and encourage the local Christians, that’s good. It’s also possible. But we need to first re-align our attitudes.

This list is partial. I hope it encourages more conversation.