Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Latin American grace sightings

Being a cross-cultural God-spy opens up new possibilities for grace sightings. Grace abounds in Latin America. Here are some selected moments from our current trek through Brazil and Bolivia.
--People, maybe God’s greatest vehicle of grace: One of the best parts of my job in PRODOLA is the people we come to know, both students and faculty. I especially enjoyed working with Rafael Vallejo on his dissertation proposal. Rafael is an immigrant from the Philippines to Canada where he now works with Hispanic immigrants in Toronto. He is doing his research project on the involvement of evangelicals in Toronto with immigrants and legal immigration issues. He pastors a Presbyterian church in the city, advocates for social justice, and works in a ministry for the homeless. On the side, he is a registered chef. I am blessed and challenged by his passion for justice, his commitment to following Jesus, and his great sense of humor.
--Latin hospitality: We spent a day and night in Sao Paulo with Jorge and Elisabeth Giron, one of our PRODOLA couples. Their apartment is tiny, but they made room for us. Jorge is Guatemalan and Elisabeth comes from Chile. They are missionaries working with the Church of God in southern Brazil. We spent most of our time together talking and, of course, eating. We worshiped together Brazilian Pentecostal style in one of the local churches Jorge oversees. Their love and welcome are typical of the hospitality that I think is part of the Latin American DNA. Grace abounds.
--The rising sun lighting up the city in La Paz: The hotel where we are currently staying serves breakfast from an 8th floor restaurant with a spectacular view of the city.
--Fresh orange juice and café con leche every morning.
--History seminar: We spent two intensive days with the leadership team of a five-year project for writing the history of the Bolivian Friends Church (INELA). There was a spirit of humility in facing the huge task before us, but also the sense that God was calling us to this work. We sense the need of the church to see how God has been blessing down through the years, to know the story of how his servants have been working with God, and also to recognize the errors and problems, confess our sins and face our future with faith and commitment. We concluded the two day retreat with a time of brokenness, prayer and gratitude.
--Surprise anniversary party: In the afternoon of the second day of the retreat, the team surprised us with a party to celebrate our 45th anniversary. I’m grateful for the grace of a long-lived marriage and for friends who celebrate it with us.
--Good novels on my Kindle: Good books are especially helpful while waiting in airport terminals, and in the evenings after a long day’s work. Among the books I loaded up on the Kindle for this trip, I’ve enjoyed Ralph Beebe’s Cousins at War: A Civil War Novel, and two about Afghanistan: The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Murari and And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.
--Good long-distance contact with my grandkids: This includes an email invitation I received from my 10-year-old grandson, Reilly. He told me that if I wanted to correspond with any of his pets, I could use his email address and he would respond from the point of view of the animal. So I had a little exchange with Diggory, Reilly’s dog. Smart mutt. Most things that make me laugh are full of grace.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Dysfunctional families in mission

On Saturday we flew from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and today, Monday, we fly to La Paz for three weeks. Our two weeks in Brazil were intense and full. On our last day in Londrina I moderated the oral comprehensive exam of a Brazilian doctoral candidate I’ve been mentoring. Luis is a gifted theologian and psychologist and has served the last few years as president of a large interdenominational seminary in Londrina.
It’s no wonder progress in his doctoral work has been slow. This is the case with so many of our students, all leaders in their own spheres of influence, with little spare time. In addition, they have families they are committed to. Luis and his wife have two young boys who demand more time with their daddy.
Luis wants to focus his research in the area of family, bringing together his background in theology and psychology to investigate the role of the family in fulfilling God’s mission in the world (what we call the missio Dei). In his original proposal he planned to do field research among Christian families in Londrina, showing how the dysfunctionality of his case studies hindered their participation in the missio Dei. This carries a presupposition that God uses healthy families for mission. We’re been working for some time on refining this proposal, bringing it up to Ph.D. level. (Proposal development is extremely difficult.)
What Luis presented on Friday has evolved considerably from the original proposal with its focus on dysfunctionality; it is more objective, open to let the research make discoveries. But something very interesting came out in the actual defense.  One aspect of Luis’ research will be a hermeneutical case study of two biblical families, the intergenerational family of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob/Joseph and that of David/his parents/his many wives and children. One examining professor noted that the Bible is full of dysfunctional families. Yet these are the very people and families that God uses in the missio Dei.
This turns Luis’ original proposal on its head. Instead of exploring how God uses healthy functional families in mission, it seems we need to investigate God’s use of dysfunctional families and flawed people to carry out his purposes in the world.
A closer look at the Bible reveals very few “normal,” “healthy” (as defined by cultural norms) families, or even people, for that matter. Yet God took Abraham, David and a host of others and co-labored with them in moving history forward on paths of justice, righteousness, and salvation in its fullest sense. The story continues through the pages of the New Testament, and today dysfunctional families and flawed people (like me and you) work together with God in kingdom purposes. Maybe we’re all God has to work with.
Sometimes I wonder is there exists such a wonder as a “functional family” or even a “normal person.” Maybe we’re all on a continuum, gradually being transformed into the image of Christ, as Paul writes in 2 Cor. 3:18. And this image possibly has little to do with either functionality or normality. In the meantime (that slowly, by grace, is becoming kindtime), I’m glad God can use me. Just as I am. And as I am becoming.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Spirituality and coffee

Spirituality and coffee go together. Really. I’m one of those detestable early morning persons. If I’ve had a decent night’s sleep, I wake up at 5:30, happy and looking forward to a new day. (Please don’t hate me. Please keep reading.) After brief morning ablutions, I grind the coffee beans (fresh, organic), put water in the machine, flip the switch, and let the aroma begin to waft like incense. This is part of my morning worship sequence. In the fullness of time, I choose a certain mug (the one I bought in Russia), fill it up, taking my coffee black, and go to my special chair in the living room.
This is one of the best parts of the day. All I need is a stretch of silence, my Bible, my place…and a cup of coffee.
I’m writing this from Londrina, Brazil, where we’ve been involved in an intense week of doctoral seminars with men and women from different parts of Latin America. Yesterday, Saturday, we took the day off to play and visited a 1000 hectare coffee plantation in the middle of the southern Brazilian countryside. The owner and manager of Fazenda Palmeira, Cornelia Gamerschlag, personally spent the day with us, escorting us around the plantation, explaining the different processes, even letting us spend time picking coffee beans.
During her lecture we learned that Fazenda Palmeira is a member of a Fair Trade cooperative. This means that the 50 workers are treated well and paid a decent wage, that care is taken of the environment, and that the quality and integrity of the product is not compromised. It also means that the large plantations, like Fazenda Palmeira, respect the rights of the small plantations which make up the majority of the other members of the cooperative. At least 51% of the coffee in any Fair Trade sale must be supplied by the small plantations. To me, this is an important connection between social justice, spirituality and coffee.
Our Brazilian colleagues later told us that this is the exception in Brazil, that exploitation of workers is the norm. They even expressed doubts as to the claims made about Fazenda Palmeira, but, for the moment, I choose to be a believer.
Here are some other coffee factoids we learned:
--The best coffee, made from mature red beans and processed correctly, is more sweet than bitter. No sugar needs to be added.
--Three cups of good coffee each day postpones the effects of aging.
--For young people, a daily cup of coffee with milk sharpens mental processes.
--The best and most expensive coffee in the world is found only on the island of Sumatra in
Indonesia and, more recently, in the state of Espírito Santo in Brazil. It is made with the help of a type of rat, known locally as a luqui. This rat eats coffee beans by night, than poops them out before morning. Workers gather the rat poop the next day, remove the beans, and begin the processes that result in coffee. A liter of these special beans costs $1500.00 and a cup of the coffee, $100.00. The flavor is said to be like a combination of coffee, chocolate and grapes. This is not a joke.

We had breakfast at the plantation. The coffee was delicious. We were assured that it was not Holy Spirit Rat Poop Coffee. (They couldn’t afford to serve it.)
While I’m at it, I must share a quote the tour guide supplied, from a French history of coffee. The author, one Jules Michelet, informs that, “The consumption of coffee is sublime. It is powerful nourishment for the brain, and differs from alcoholic beverages in that it augments the purity and lucidity of one’s breakfast. It eliminates clouds that would obscure imagination, frees from the weight of darkness and illumines the reality of all things with the brilliance of truth.” (This is my English translation from the Spanish version we were given which was translated from a Portuguese translation of the original French. Its precision is not guaranteed. Sorry, Jules.)
I will long remember this day. And yes, I am serious about the link between spirituality and coffee. Coffee is one of the many graces of life. It helps me to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Picking the beans

"Tossing" the beans

Drying the beans

Cornelia explains the different qualities and stages of maturity.

Back "home" in Londrina

Friday, August 2, 2013

Flannery O'Connor on stifling writers

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
 Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose  (1969, Garrar, Straus and Giroux, 84-84)