Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bible Translation - Getting the Word Around the World

The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God, but the Babel debacle threw a wrench into the process. Since that linguistic diaspora, believers worldwide have been left to figure out which translation of this Word to rely on.

As is the case with most American Christians, I have more than a few Bibles lying around the house. I bought a few for different translations, but most are simply the product of years of accumulation in a culture where more is better and a scriptural surplus exists. This is not the case in many other parts of the world. Even where the Word is widely published, translations are sometimes disseminated with faithful intentions but little cultural knowledge or concern. (A domestic case in point: warm-hearted, suit-clad Gideons who continue to distribute King James New Testaments on college campuses in America.)

I recently read an article about the World Bible Translation Center, a 34-year-old organization based in Arlington, Texas, that focuses on getting the scriptures out to literate but little-educated people around the world on a conversational and culturally appropriate level. According to the article, the center has translated the Word into more than two dozen languages - including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Yi - and has completed New Testament translations in 20 more. Such widespread production and distribution is an enviable achievement, considering the fact that the World Center's translations take almost seven years of painstaking study to complete. The Center puts in the effort for clarity on the front end so that those receiving the scriptures aren't forced to do all the work, i.e. making interpretations they aren't educated enough to make. "Responsible translation means communicating the meaning, the ideals, as opposed to the literal words," Ervin Bishop, the senior translator for the center, says in the article.

But some aren't so sure that this is the way to go. King James Only advocates believe that the Authorized King James Version is the closest approximation we have to the inerrant word of God. A translation that has been so well accepted for 400 years should never be put to shame, these critics say. No matter that scholars have shown the King James to emphasize the oratory aesthetic more than literal translation, and don't worry about the fact that it's hard to understand. God doesn't change, so why should the scriptures? they ask.

I see more than a few problems with such a view, almost to the point that I almost don't want to dignify this movement with a response. The first thing to notice is the xenophobia it fosters. One Web site says snidely that a team of scholars were assembled by God "to translate His word into the world's most popular language, English." This statement comes packed with all manner of insincerity, implying that English is the language of God and the Western world is privy to some degree of spiritual privilege. The author of the same article "debunks" the myth that we should go back to the original Greek and Hebrew to translate. One wonders about the lineage of the texts used by the King James translators. And by the way, although English might have been popular at the time, it's arguable as to whether or not it was the world's most popular language. Also, despite the fact that English has already started along the path to becoming the lingua franca of global trade, Mandarin Chinese boasts the most native speakers of any language in the world, and China has its own translation issues, as I point out in a recent post.

Another problem is one I think the World Center nails on the head. King James advocates, and anyone else who makes one translation their sole epistemological resource, value soliloquy more than the soul, the message behind the words, which are the skeleton upon which God adds the meat. Check this quote from the World Center's Web site, from Bishop again, "The Bible is the Word of God. 'Word' in this usage, however, is not the same as 'words.' The Word (logos) of God is His 'Message' conveyed to us, the people of the world using our 'words,' that is, whatever human language we use. This means it has to be expressed differently for different people."

The article cites an example that I think drives home the need for a reasonable degree of innovation in the field of biblical translation. The center's Arabic translation takes the word "Christian," which has a negative connotation in Islam, and makes it "Christ follower," capitalizing on the respect that Muslims have for Jesus while more accurately relating the true meaning of Christian discipleship. If such cultural concern can be replicated throughout the whole of scripture, why should we place unnecessary impediments to understanding in the way of those who could be seeking God?

In fairness to the King James folks, who I think are well-meaning but grossly misguided believers, the center of the debate is the extent to which we can become all things to all people (1. Cor. 9:20-23) without watering down or completely changing the essential message of the scriptures. With the wealth and prosperity message catching fire as yet another American Christian aberration, enough of that is going on already, and the issue is that more translations breeds less uniformity and more confusion. While I believe this may be a valid concern in a liturgical setting, it's hardly a problem in translation. Easier translations will give more people access to the message of Jesus, which at its core has to be received like a child anyway. And with more people reading, more people will discuss the Truth, and the every believer can be pleased with the end: God gets more glory.

Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets by loving the world. He reserved his sharpest critiques for those who were the most well-versed in the letter of the law, but had little regard for the spirit behind it. Although sometimes he spoke in parables to avoid being understood (in alignment with prophecies about him), he also used everyday illustrations so that common people - like fisherman, farmers and tax collectors - could understand the deep truths of God's kingdom. And many times, Jesus is cited as using Aramaic, the vernacular, rather than Greek, Latin or even Hebrew, which were all in use at the time.

The World Center distributed 2 million Bibles last year through missionaries and foreign outposts, but they don't only deal in languages other than English. The government of Uganda, the national language of which is English, is helping distribute 283,000 of the World Center's user-friendly translations to be used in elementary schools, the article said. As long as the Word is not compromised, I welcome the efforts of the World Center and pray that they will be used effectively for the spreading of the kingdom abroad and at home. I continue to collect Bibles from each country I visit to remind me that my language does not have a monopoly on the Word, and that (gasp!) Americans have no divine right to scriptural superiority.

To support the World Bible Translation Center, click here.

For recent posts on Pastor Bill Shorey's blog about the importance of using different English translations to hear the meaning behind the words, click here.

Photo: An Arabic New Testament given to me by a Jordanian believer who had been persecuted for his conversion from Islam to Christianity (left) and a Chinese Bible I bought at a rare Christian bookstore in China. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

Cow Tongue Tacos - Enjoying Georgia's Immigration Problem

A recent AJC article cited U.S. Census Bureau data showing that more than half of Georgia’s almost million-strong immigrant population is here illegally. Georgia has the third-highest ratio of any state in that category, posting a 53 percent mark trailing only Arizona at 65 percent and North Carolina at 58 percent.

With all the financial strain this puts on the taxpaying citizens of the state, it would be easy to get bogged down in debates over what can be done to stem the tide of immigrants to Georgia or allay its societal burden. While I do think this is a serious problem that needs fixing, I’ll leave you to the AJC article for more information. I want to look at something more tangible and less controversial—the opportunity for adventure these sub-legal enterprises and communities create.

A few friends visited us for Thanksgiving, and we drove toward Albany to visit my in-laws. One of them had a hankering for good Mexican food, but the road signs and billboards on that stretch of I-75 weren’t leading us to anything. Just when we thought we might have to go for some greasy American fast food, bold-red, backlit letters appeared on the western horizon: El Carneval. Certainly this was our promised land, flowing with cheese and salsa.

After a winding exit and a brief gas stop, we headed toward what we thought would be an authentic taco stand in that glorious strip mall just north of Crisp County. But as we approached, signs in the window and dim lights inside told another story. El Carneval was a grocery store, and it wasn’t even open this late in the evening.

Disheartened, we decided to drive down the road a ways to see if we could find a Wendy’s or something. A hulking building that at first glance looked like an abandoned shopping center loomed on our right. I was about to keep driving, but neon lights and palm tree murals in a window on the end of the shopping center caught someone’s eye. The sign read “La Playita Taqueria,” and the sunny seascapes on the window promised that the “Little Beach” taco shop would be an unlikely oasis.

A sign on the door welcomed costumers (not customers), and I jokingly scolded my friend for not bringing his clown suit. A Puerto Rican beauty pageant blared on the TV, and a lone Latino sat sleepy-eyed at a table. We seated ourselves and waited for the one-woman restaurant crew to greet us and take our orders. True to obnoxious gringo form, we requested chips and salsa, only to find that such American indulgences weren’t offered here. This place was Mexicano autentico, our waitress said.

If that’s the case, we resolved, then we might as well have a cultural experience. When she returned, my friend ordered beans and rice for an appetizer, a plate of steak and eggs and tacos for his wife and daughter. Katy, ever cautious, stuck to beef tacos and ordered a bottle of Jarritos fruit soda.

“Jou want strawberry, grapefruit or tooti frooti?” the waitress/cook asked. Katy smiled at the cute way the lady’s accent turned the y into a j and shaped the last word, which is a bit funny even without the accent. She eventually decided on the grapefruit flavor, a favorite of Mexican laborers at construction sites, I had learned during three summers as sprinkler pipe fabricator and installer.

I took the cultural experience a bit farther. If you’re adventurous with food, sometimes it comes back and bites you. Other times, your bites become surprisingly rewarding. Along with a set of two beef tacos, I asked for a taco featuring a dish that I saw as intriguing and befitting of this strange evening, a taco featuring grilled and chopped lengua de vaca, cow’s tongue.

As the Puerto Rican beauty queens cooed on TV and the waitress cooked, a few other Mexicans walked in and gave us the same kind of looks I’ve gotten in China as the only foreigner for miles around. With construction-stained jeans and disheveled hair, they looked pretty rough-and-tumble, so it’s unlikely that we scared them away. But either our strange presence or the slow service sent them packing after a few impatient minutes.

We were alone with our server, who promptly brought my cow tongue and a variety of fiery sauces to douse it in. I would need them, ironically, to dull my palate as I ate the little cubes of tongue, which still had the bumpy taste buds on them. Wrapped in a warm, homemade corn tortilla and blanketed with beans, rice and sauce, the tongue was actually pretty tasty. Although she knows I’ve eaten rat and dog meat before, Katy for some reason didn’t want to kiss me later that night. I think she said something about not wanting to French kiss a cow. My only consolation was that I had added another culinary trophy to the long-running list I’ve built over four different trips to China.

I have no clue whether La Playita is a legal business, but going by the studies, at least two of the four Mexicans that shared our time there were in the U.S. illegally. The interesting thing is that although they have come into the state I’ve lived in my whole life, in that community, I was the foreigner. Only in America. With all our problems in this country, we have loads of privilege and almost as many adventures for the taking.

Photo: the U.S. Capitol, Copyright Trevor Williams, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Word on the Chinese Bible

According to a recent article on Time.com, a publishing company specializing in printing Chinese Bibles has produced 41 million copies in the last 20 years, and the total is growing every year as the number of Christians grows in China.

Amity Printing, which prints at a factory outside of the old Chinese Nationalist Party capital of Nanjing, is set to produce 3 million Bibles in the coming year, and the company is planning to expand into a 515,000-square-foot facility, according to the report.

Austin Ramzy, the author of the article and a contributor to Time's China Blog, which I follow, asks a variety of experts to estimate the number of Christians in China, a task that's next to impossible given the government restrictions on churches.

One thing they did all agree on is that the numbers, however difficult to calculate accurately, are getting larger.

An interesting nugget that Ramzy doesn't mention is which translation of the Bible Amity is producing. The standard, government-approved version is called the Chinese Union Version, a rigid, high-brow translation published in 1909, which some say even most university students have a hard time understanding. Since Ramzy mentions that Amity's operations are entirely legal, meaning that they're distributed through government-sanctioned three-self churches, I have to assume that the Union Version (known as the he he ben) is what's being churned out.

Although there are other translations in the works that I've never heard about, I've come in contact with the New Chinese Version, the xin yi ben, on trips to China. I don't think it's quite as colloquial as "The Message," but university students have responded to much better to it than the CUV in my experience. Click here for a more extensive description of Chinese Bible translations.

As with everything else in China, a strange paradox is that the Chinese factory can produce and export Bibles (Amity has the sole license, according to some reports), but people can't bring more than just their own into the country. Word on the street is that a new rule is in place to combat Bible trafficking leading up to the Olympics. Tourists coming into China can only carry one Bible for personal use, not backpacks-full for "distribution or propaganda."

On the official site of the Olympics, the travel page "recommends" that foreigners bring no more than one Bible into the country, and officials galore have made comments expressing the idea that they won't be suppressing any foreigners' religious freedom during the games.

On the other side, Christian soldiers from all over the world are gearing up for what they see as a 16-day evangelical siege on the Chinese capital. Web sites touting plans to reach China during the Games are making missionaries all over the Middle Country cringe. If they struggle to reach their communities while living there, what good will haphazard Americans do on a two-week tract-bombing mission? Newcomers shouldn't think that the Chinese government won't be prepared. They read the Internet (Hello, Big Brother!) and they won't be playing nice. But then again, your biggest risk is probably a light beating or deportation, and if you're looking to make a splash, that's one way to do it.

In all this chaos, one thing is for sure: Next year, people will actually watch the Olympics for once. Let the games begin.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Do Ethiopians Have the Lost Ark?

I stumbled upon an interesting article today in Smithsonian Magazine about the possibility of the Ark of the Covenant residing in Ethiopia, hidden and guarded in a small church in an out-of-the-way city called Aksum.

I won't ruin the story for you, but it's interesting how the mystery of the Ark still intrigues so many people, even those who stake no claim to Judeo-Christian religious heritage. The mystique of the Ark still tantalizes investigators and historians, and I think the reporter in the article did a great job capturing the Ethiopian believers' reverence for it and balancing that aura against history.

Equally interesting are the comments at the bottom of the article, where armchair historians tout their arguments for or against the existence of the Ark and the merit of even investigating the claims of the Ethiopians. It's surprising how dogmatic some of the people get, clinging to their epistemology and debasing others. Although it would be absolutely astounding to find the Ark, I think the bickering at the bottom of the page is the electronic precursor to a much more overblown international conflict that would occur if the Ark were actually found. Besides, if faith is the evidence of things hoped for and the certainty of things unseen, then maybe the Ark is better left undiscovered.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Colombian

He didn’t want to talk about the specifics. All the Colombian would say--and that through implication-- is that his experience with rebel soldiers in his home country was traumatic enough to make him want to leave and never look back. A civil engineer by trade who sometimes worked with the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, the Colombian stopped in one day to ask America for political asylum. Just nine days later, he was dropped in Georgia.

Without any English skills, he wasn’t able to find an engineering job, so he settled for the next best thing for a refugee—using a local connection to land a job as a menial laborer, scrubbing dumpsters at an apartment complex near Atlanta. The work was hard but nothing to get upset about. This was just an obstacle, and he could endure a few setbacks if by them he could escape his past.

He began studying English, and after a few years the owner of the apartment complex recognized his work ethic and asked if he’d like to become a painter. It wallowing in trash all day, so he jumped at the chance, even though he had little-to-no experience with a brush and roller. A few more years gone and his English much improved, the same boss asked if the Colombian would like to sell apartments to Spanish-speaking families.

Two years removed from that promotion, the Colombian now sells apartments to everyday clientele. His Hispanic accent is evident but winsome, and he’s extremely courteous without coming off as fake. He vigorously holds onto this job, which he says has its pros and cons. Just the other day, he had to tell a rowdy tenant to turn his movie down so a pregnant woman could get some sleep, and he’s been refereeing a group of unruly students who treat the complex like it’s the dorm for the college they cross the street to attend.

The Colombian represents an odd twist on the American dream, having come here by an odd confluence of desire and necessity. After eight years in America, he loves his new life, and he says he never even thinks about returning to civil engineering. He could care less that “sales manager” doesn’t have particularly prestigious connotations. To be honest, he’s just too busy reading about Colombian politics or helping customers retrieve their packages that were too big to fit in their tiny mailboxes.

When I ask him what he thinks about Americans who were born here but continually complain about the government even as they rely on it for sustenance, he replies with a pointed but non-judgmental response: “I think that we have so much here and we are accustomed to so much, that if one thing gets taken away, we complain about it.” The flipside is implied in his polite and grateful tone: If you’ve gone from nothing to something, you’ll appreciate all opportunities and the turns of fate and time that afforded them to you.

Photo: The jungle of Panama, the closest I've ever been to Colombia. Copyright 2006, Trevor Williams


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Plastic Elvis - The Joy of Commercial Christmas

Let the fact that this product is actually manufactured and sold attest to the frivolity of the Christmas season in America.

At least in theory, the holiday celebrating the advent of Christ should be a time of reflection. Our hearts should be overflowing with joy for our abundant blessings, and we should be straining our minds to figure out how to share such abundance with those for whom we care.

Most of the time, this theory is put into action, but the reality it creates somewhat distorts the meaning of the season. Our blessings get quantified, and we’re thankful. But we often count them in dollars, not in the amount of determined steps we’ve made on our spiritual journey. Our joy overflows, and we share it. But we do so by racking our brains to find gifts for those who already have everything they could possibly need.

Although it’s good for our country’s economy, this pursuit of newness and the fact that it’s often impossible to find something our friends and family actually need is one of the gravest symptoms of prosperity. When we no longer need anything but feel like we deserve to get something, only a few different scenarios can occur, none of which are particularly edifying.

First, when our wants are the end, our needs are trivialized and we become more susceptible to materialism. A second possibility is that people buy presents out of obligation rather than appreciation. Such a gesture nullifies the sincerity of the gift and often results in a lot of wasted money. (Think of how many things you’ve re-gifted over the years.) The third, and I think only acceptable scenario, is when caring people come up with gift ideas that don’t qualify as necessities but are both creative and sincere enough to express sincere appreciation and justify their cost.

The latter is what happens in my family, and I’m grateful that gift-giving among my relatives is not just a mindless swapping of cash flow.

Sadly though, people desperate to placate their relatives will fall for any sort of gadget. The plastic, animatronic Elvis is the epitome of America’s Christmas waste. Another product high on my hit list is the digital photo frame. The standard-size frames were bad enough, but now they have digital frames squeezed onto Christmas ornaments and key chains. (The one pictured here costs $40 on clearance at Target!)

This Christmas, let us begin and end with the joy that comes with the thought that Christ is alive. No matter how real his hair looks or how he moves and sings, robotic Elvis ($150 on sale at Macy's. Regular price: $400) is not.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Remember the Volvo

Willa the Wagon had seen better days. My old, wrecked Volvo had survived almost an entire year with a no headlights, no a/c and a crinkled hood tethered to the front bumper with bungee cords. Engine sputtering, breaks squealing and grill snarling, Willa made the trek from Athens to Columbus numerous times (during daylight hours only), lasting me months after a wreck that I thought would end her life for good. It’s amazing how the lack of cash gives rise to resolve and innovation.

The burgundy behemoth was around just long enough to join the ranks of Allie the Alero and Addie the Audi, other family cars that had received cutesy, alliterative names from Katy. But with a new job providing ample income and with daylight savings time approaching, it seemed more reasonable to put a down payment on a new vehicle than to give Willa’s jacked-up face a makeover. With that decision, a Honda Civic—Cecelia is her current name, but it’s always subject to change—stepped in as Willa’s prettier, more dependable replacement.

In the days before we bought the new car, I told Katy that if we were going to be spending the money, I wanted to find a way to use the car for God. Something this expensive should be a tool, not just an object for our enjoyment.

The next day, I was talking to a Chinese friend on the Internet, and somehow the new car entered the conversation. When he acted impressed, I was quick to tell him about Willa and how my newfound blessing was the result of my perseverance with my previous junk heap. If I hadn’t been patient and willing to suffer for awhile, I probably wouldn’t have had the money to put up for the new car. There’s a spiritual lesson in that statement alone, but our conversation went deeper.

I then told him my strategy for the car, how I wanted to use it as a tool for God’s work. As if on cue, we struck up a conversation about the poisonous influence of money in our lives, especially as it relates to spiritual things. By telling him some of Jesus’ parables about money, I was able weave the Gospel into our conversation. As the discussion concluded, I realized that the car had started the entire thing. A tool indeed.

Throughout our wealth talk, I wondered what the Chinese word for “miser,” or “cheapskate” is. What my friend, who had also been my Chinese teacher, told me reiterated my love for the vivid imagery of Chinese words and really brought some of Jesus’ parables to mind. Here are two Chinese words to describe a person who hoards wealth:

小氣鬼-Xiao qi gui – literally, xiao means “small,” qi means “internal or life force/energy” and gui conjures the image of a “ghost, devil or spirit.” Put together, at least in my eyes, they paint the picture of a hollow shell or faint image of a person with little magnanimity; someone whose love for wealth has robbed them of the capacity for compassion and life.

守財奴 -Shou cai nu – Lit. keep, wealth, slave, respectively. Someone who is enslaved by their desire to keep wealth; a miser who, as my teacher puts it, is controlled by money.

Jesus recommended storing our treasures in heaven and not putting so much stock in what have here on earth. If we can use our talents as tools, maybe we won’t end up like the wicked servant thrown out into the darkness, or like the arrogant man whose life was demanded of him after he built bigger and bigger barns but was “not rich toward God.” Don’t become a ghost or a slave for a little cash, or even a car.

Remember the Volvo, Trevor. Always remember the Volvo.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Chris Tucker Is My Homeboy

It wasn't just another Monday at the office.

Early in the day, while sitting at my computer, I received notice that Delta Air Lines would be hosting a press conference to announce the launch of the first-ever nonstop flight from the U.S. to Nigeria.

Armed with a press pass and camera gear, another reporter and I made it through airport security without incident and traveled to Gate E12 to join the media fray. Surprisingly, though not too much so when you consider many Atlanta media outlets' refusal to focus on international issues, we were the only print media that covered the event (as far as we know).

Our persistence was rewarded. Chris Tucker, the actor/comedian who stars in the Rush Hour movies alongside Jackie Chan, had accompanied Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the U.N., to the press conference, and eventually they boarded the flight together.

For our colorful coverage of the significant event and photos of Chris Tucker, check out my article here. I had to resist putting quotes like "Don't you eva touch a black man's radio!" and "Do you understand the words that are comin' outta my mouth?!" in the article, but I did write about the fact that many of the Nigerians present shouted "Amen!" when the consul general talked about the flight.

Dallas Seminary Offers Online Theology Courses in Chinese


A few months ago, I wrote about why America couldn’t afford to boycott China, and in light of all the human rights incursions and trade disputes since that time, I offer an interesting article that lends a little more credence to my claim.

The AP reported today that Dallas Theological Seminary is responding to the growing number of Chinese Christians and the dearth of theological training in the Asian nation by offering government-approved online distance courses in Mandarin Chinese. The article, which appeared in Saturday’s AJC, began with an anecdote about a female Bible study leader living in Hong Kong, so I naturally assumed that the courses would be limited to that city, which operates under the “one government, two systems” policy.

As I kept reading, I was surprised to find that a group of students from Beijing—the Communist Party’s center of power—has enrolled in the courses. According to the article, it took years of talks with the Party to the go-ahead from the strict government.

With the launch of the program this fall, the 2,000-student, nondenominational seminary could only accommodate 30 students in the program, but capacity is expected to double in the spring, due to the high level of international interest it attracted.

The seminary received hundreds of applications, and Chinese-speaking students in Malaysia, Australia and the Ukraine are currently enrolled.

The online courses allow students to follow video lectures of normal class periods in Texas, conducted in English. Chinese subtitles scroll across the bottom, allowing students to follow along. Christians looking to learn both English and theology get the double benefit of being able simultaneously work on their language comprehension and study the Bible.

A quotation at the end of the article left me a little wary about the government’s intentions for letting this program penetrate the “Great Firewall of China.” Chinese laws guarantee religious freedom, but it’s a freedom tightly regulated by the government. Religious groups must be sanctioned by the government and, at least in the case of Christianity, must register churches with local officials meet at approved locations. House churches and other groups meeting in undisclosed locations, like Tibetan Buddhist groups, are banned.

Of course, every positive development in China must be taken with a shaker-full of salt. Amid concerns voiced by a China Aid Association representative that the government would try to exert its influence over the teachings of the program, a DTS spokesperson offered this answer:

Yarbrough [the spokesperson] added there have been no recruiting restrictions. "We asked that question, and the government representative made the phrase, 'As long as they can access the computer, what can stop them from taking the course?' And he said that in a positive light."

Having been to China a few times and studied the language, I know that the Chinese rarely say what they mean. For that reason, the above statement is dripping with irony, as the government goes all-out to censor dissent as the Olympic Games approach. I presume that the government will be watching DTS’ program, and if it doesn’t lead to exponential proliferation of believers, they’ll continue to allow it as an example that they are opening the doors to religious freedom and outside influences. It may be all for show, but I still stand by my belief that enough feet in the door will eventually pry it open. And maybe with theological training, the Chinese will begin to send missionaries to America.

On a related note, last week I did a video interview (now posted on YouTube) for GlobalAtlanta with a U.S. special envoy to China, Ambassador Alan Holmer, who was visiting Atlanta to spread the word about the economic issues that would be discussed during his upcoming trip to China. To read or watch the video, which addresses the trade imbalance, product safety issues, and the U.S. role in speeding China’s economic reforms, click here.

Photo by Brad Kinney, 2006

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Man's Bear

I just found this post on a friend's blog. He talks about one of my favorite television heroes, Bear Grylls, the survival guru featured on Discovery Channel's "Man vs. Wild." Not only is Bear an amazingly tough guy, he's also a hardcore believer. Check out his story at the link above.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Presidents and Paupers - Humility

This morning at church the pastor preached from Philippians 2, one of the greatest chapters on humility in the Bible. The apostle Paul reveals that the struggle to be humble and inclusive toward your brothers in Christ is to remember that Jesus, though in the very nature of God, emptied himself of the position that was rightfully his so that he could rescue us and draw us into fellowship with himself. Once we realize the indicative—that we have been captured by the experience of his humility—we can actualize the imperatives to go and do likewise, having the “same attitude of Christ Jesus” and “considering others better than ourselves.”

Tonight I was leafing through my journal, which I don’t keep up with very well. Inside the leather-bound volume, I have firsthand accounts of events spanning half a decade. The most recent entry came a few weeks ago, and the first was written before I even began dating Katy, who became my wife June 16 after more than five years of dating.

I can remember writing the entry by lamplight after an amazing day doing mission work in Washington. How we got there is a long an interesting story that will soon be published in Breakaway magazine, so I won’t reveal it now. But I remember that night, sitting at a desk in an apartment on the top floor of a barn in Damascus, Md., trying to process all that had gone on that day as we had toured the monuments downtown and scouted the area where we would do homeless ministry in the next few days. My whirling mind stopped on the intersection of two different human encounters and how God used them to show me that he was working on humility in my heart. So I began to write:

Feb. 22, 2002

Today was our fun day in the great city of Washington D.C…I had a few highlights during the day. First and foremost is that I saw the president taking his afternoon jog. They had shut down all direct views to the White House because the president was outside. We had to wait about 20 minutes in brisk cold for the North Vista to be reopened, but it was well worth it.

But, surprisingly enough, that was not the [biggest] highlight of my day. The pinnacle of the day’s activities was found in the filthy face and dirtier speech of a homeless man we came to know as Frank Nitty. He was a friendly and intelligent man, adorned in conventional homeless garb, engaging in the normal activity of begging for change. His sickly, sallow eyes told the story of a harsh life with little hope remaining.

It’s interesting how Christianity changes your views. Who, in the right (worldly) mind would value an encounter with a “nobody” more than a peek at the president? When Christ’s humility grabs a hold of you, whether pauper or executive, you consider all better than yourself. Only when you do this can you begin to implement his mercy, grace and love in life’s situations. I came across the two extremes of our country: the chief executive and the common pauper. The most important and the least important crossed my path, and I didn’t mind investing my time and wonder in the lesser.

I went on to talk about Mr. Nitty’s views on God and the church. He saw the world as a house of cards that would soon be blown to pieces. God was an supernatural agent worthy of respect because of his power, but not deserving of our love and worship. We parted ways cordially but without agreement. I think I ended up giving him a dollar. The lesson in humility he gave me was worth much more:

God has shown me that before my acceptance of his gift, I was just like everyone else. He has forced me to remember that the world is lost like I once was, but it doesn’t have to be.
Photo: The White House, Copyright Trevor Williams 2o07. This picture was taken this year during my bachelor party baseball trip.

Much Love for Osteen


I recently found this article in the Orlando Sentinel, which outlines the way that Joel Osteen steers clear of the type of negative publicity like the cloud currently surrounding some television ministers targeted by a Republican senator for their lavish lifestyles.

Although I won't retract the statements I've made condemning Osteen's low-density teaching style, I feel like the smiling pastor is deserving of a few compliments.

For one, while Osteen likes the expensive gadgets - like a giant globe, sweet light displays and other delights - for his huge auditorium, he does a great job of not mixing business with ministry. According to the article, he dropped his church salary two years ago, and he until recently he drove a nine-year-old, hand-me-down car. Among other key attributes that differentiate him from those under fire: He does not ask for money on his television broadcasts. With a ministry that already takes in $43 million per year, I'm sure that he could line his pockets nicely if he really wanted to, but the fact that he doesn't shows his dedication to his message, however light it may be.

I also think that Osteen does a great job at obeying the Biblical commands to shun "foolish and stupid arguments" and live by the mantra that says, "as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." True to his positive vibe, Osteen rarely, if ever, says anything negative about anyone in public. Part of the reason for this could be good marketing, and part could be a fear of public confrontation that might force his discussions to a deeper level. But nonetheless, he's doing his best to live at peace with those around him, even in the face of tight media scrutiny, and that's a quality I'll always commend.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Syncretism or Redemption?

I have a strong Christian friend who has reservations about celebrating Christmas and Easter because some of the traditions associated with these holidays have historical roots in pagan rituals. For him, the fact that they are now widely considered Christian holidays doesn’t matter. If the root is bad, he reasons, then the whole tree will wither.

But what he sees as syncretism, the dangerous blending of the profane and the sacred, some consider redemption, the metamorphosis of one to the other. Advocates on this side of the debate says that if God can turn sinners into saints and pagans into priests, it logically follows that he can take a days meant for ignoble purposes and use them for his glory.

He’s certainly done it before. The cross, an instrument of death comparable to the guillotine or the electric chair, is now seen as a symbol of hope, reminding us simultaneously of the wrath we deserve and the grace we’ve received.

I’ll concede if we take this premise to an extreme conclusion, we walk a perilous path that could lead is into a place where meaning becomes relative and good becomes indistinct from evil.

But I think we need to put faith in God’s ability to appreciate variant cultural contexts. When Peter exempted from the Gentiles from following the Law, he wasn’t condemning them to eternal unrighteousness. He was recognizing that God’s grace was going to reach them in a different cultural milieu, and that grace would have to be sufficient as God started to move in a new way.

With regard to this debate, I think we should take the Romans 14 approach and allow our individual consciences to decide. As with any activity we undertake, we should use this litmus test for holidays: In light of God’s word and my conscience as monitored by the Holy Spirit, is what I’m doing glorifying God? Anything is permissible as long as the answer to that question remains a firm “yes.”

Senator Challenges Pastors' Tax-Free Bling

A few weeks ago, Charles Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa and the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, sent letters to six Christian ministries requesting information by Dec. 6 about allegedly excessive spending in their massive non-profit organizations.

While Sen. Grassley was clear that he didn't want to jump to any conclusions, the Associated Press reported that his relatively intrusive inquiry was in response to news reports and rumors about the lavish lifestyles of these famous prosperity pastors.

At issue is whether these clergymen (and women) are using tax-exempt donations for ministry purposes or simply to fatten their own already padded salaries.

Creflo Dollar, pastor World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., quickly responded to Grassley's faxed letter by disclosing vague figures to the Atlanta Journal-Consitution that revealed that $69 million flowed into his ministry last year. He also quelled the rumor that his church bought him two Rolls-Royces. The only one he got was given as a surprise, and it's used mostly for special occasions.

While I initially would like to concede to Creflo that it's a slippery slope when Uncle Sam starts snooping around in churches' wallets, the flippant attitude he displays somehow makes me want to give Grassley a pat on the back and tell him to keep on probing.

Creflo and the five other ministries under investigation - including those of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Eddie Long and Joyce Meyer - represent all that's bad with the prosperity movement. They lure funds by promising wealth to church members who "sow a seed," and when the start livin' large off the harvest, they act as if they've done some actual work that entitles them to such luxury.

"Without a doubt, my life is not average,” Creflo said. “But I’d like to say, just because it is excessive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.”

But according to Grassley, and I think to the IRS, it is wrong - like, the "illegal" kind of wrong - if tax-exempt funds are not being used for tax-exempt purposes. Grassley is investigating Joyce Meyer's $23,000 toilet and $30,000 conference table, Benny Hinn's layover trips between crusades, Creflo's tax-free Rolls Royces, Paula White's Bentley and other rumored expenses that can hardly be classified as "ministry needs." Only in America can charitable organizations be manipulated into a get-rich-quick scheme, and I'm glad someone with power is doing something to rein in the excesses.

People, please don't give your money to these wolves in sheep's clothing. Jesus said that all his true disciples would be despised by the world. James said friendship with the world is enmity toward God. Paul, the man whose call to ministry was a call to suffering, said that persecution would follow all those who want to walk the path of Christ. We might not all be called to die for Him, but we certainly shouldn't expect our treasure to be found where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal. Unlike those under Grassley's microscope, store up your bling in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Exporting the Gospel

After an extensive Internet search, I've only been able to find a few statistics on missions, but I found enough to reach some conclusions on how targets and effectiveness global outreach efforts are impacted by today's economic and political boundaries.

Take China, for example. Although it's a pretty well-known fact that Christians survived and began flourishing house church movements after the Cultural Revolution subsided in the early 1970s, I wonder if the American church's involvement in missions there has ridden on the coattails of the "reform and opening" policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping. On a macro scale, missionaries are able to take advantage of the increasingly open markets by claiming business as their purpose for remaining in country. More indirectly, foreign ideology, at least in some places, slips subtly through the cracks along with imported goods.

According to a recent article in the Asia Times, the U.S. still sends out more missionaries than any other country. South Korea is second, with 17,000 proselytizers abroad, most of them in China. One of the pastors in the article satirized the way that American and other nations see China as having little value other than as a giant market for products and pool of cheap labor.

"There are one billion customers in China; there are also one billion lost souls in China too," he said. Ironically, it seems, at least in my view, that the drive for customers is fueling export of missionaries as well.

But the extent to which market reforms open doors for the Gospel still isn't clear to me. One could argue that the U.S., which has the most missionaries abroad, probably has most of its personnel stationed in nations that allow open proclamations of faith. But you could use that same argument to saw that raw numbers alone would catapult Americans to the top of the statistical list even in closed countries.

What is obvious is that in closed countries, platforms are necessary, and the more open a country is, the more likely it is that missionaries will go there. I guess the real question is whether there's any correlation between the U.S.' top export destinations and its high-ranking missions sending destinations, or whether a country's government or economic policies have any empirical impact on how many missionaries we send to that country. If anyone has any information or resources on the subject, please let me know, because I might like to do a more extensive article on it.

One statistic I read, which saddened me most throughout all this research, is that of the missionaries on the field, almost 3/4 of them are among nominal Christian groups, while only 2 percent are ministering to unreached people groups. That means that we're placing 75 percent of our emphasis on people who have already had a chance to receive the Gospel, while those who have never heard are slowly perishing.

Another statistic that will make you sick: The cost in total ministry expenditures for every one convert baptized in America is a whopping $1.5 million, according to numbers released by the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, Calif. In Asia, the ministry cost per convert is about $61,000, and it's even lower in Africa. Makes you wonder if we should do a bit more outsourcing of the gospel.

Find out here about Gospel for Asia's native missionary approach. GFA trains pastors (mostly in India) to do church-planting within their own cultural framework, eliminating the high overhead cost of transplanting a worker across the world and the need for cross-cultural training. Also, all donations go directly to the field, not to administrative costs. Adopting a GFA missionary is a budget-friendly way to impact God's kingdom and to get your church (or yourself) out of the mindset that Americans are the only Christian soldiers moving onward for the cause of Christ.

Photo: 'Exporting' to Xinjiang province, China.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Chuck Norris Hearts Huckabee

It might be a bit too early for me to endorse a candidate, but as a Republican, right now I'm liking Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor and Arkansas governor. He seems like a genuine social conservative, unlike many of the front-runners in the Republican field, and although inexperience in foreign policy may prove to be one of his weaknesses, he exudes humble confidence and likeability, two characteristics that are in very high demand in the coming presidential campaign.

Like other Republicans, I fear another, albeit estrogen-charged, Clinton administration, but I have a bit more faith in the democratic process than some conservatives. What I mean is that with Giuliani leading most Republican polls (and good ole Pat Robertson endorsing a pro-choice candidate), it seems that we're basing our decision on the candidate's likelihood of beating Hillary rather than their real stance on issues. For one, Hillary has not yet won the Dems' nomination, and also, I think that to cast a vote as a defensive measure is to misuse our freedoms and shortchange the dark horses in the upcoming primaries. It's obvious that a third-party will never win under the current system, but let's at least let non-celebrities compete if they have good ideas.

Huckabee, because he's a cellar-dweller with regard to fundraising, plays the underdog card well, and I think his recent success in the Iowa polls suggests that we really do live in a democracy and that it's not all about the Benjamins when it comes to politics. Campaign contributions drain money that could have been invested elsewhere, and if Huckabee had all the support in the world, he wouldn't have had to come up with the innovative Chuck Norris ad. With his shrewd use of currently limited resources, the pastor might earn trust in potential contributors and could eventually prove Jesus' words that he who is faithful with a little will be given more.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Three Weeks with My Brother - Review


It seems that the world has turned upside-down in the past few weeks. Two books were sitting on the coffee table, one authored by Nicholas Sparks, the famous fiction writer known for penning heart-jerking titles like The Notebook and The Wedding, the other book by C.S. Lewis. Anyone that knows Katy and I would walk into the apartment and bet money that I was taking in the Christian philosophy of Mr. Lewis while she was on the emotional roller coaster ride with Mr. Sparks. Sometimes things aren't as they seem.

If our visitor were to dig a little deeper, they wouldn't find it hard to justify our choices. Three Weeks with My Brother, the Nicholas Sparks book, was nonfiction, which is usually the only kind of book I'll lay my hands on. And the C.S. Lewis book was third the "Chronicles of Narnia" series. Fiction - just like Katy likes.

I recently discussed with a friend how the storytelling ability of fiction writers can be put to use in nonfiction works to make true stories take on the transient and entertaining aura of fiction. Peter Hessler, one of my favorite authors, does this in his writings about China, and I think Sparks employs the same technique in Three Weeks. As you could expect from his novels, the book was both depressing and poignant, but unlike his usual genre, this time Sparks was talking about his own life.

The original draw of the book for me was the premise implied by its title, that Sparks and his brother would be embarking on a whirlwind tour around the world, experiencing and processing new adventures with a level of understanding only available around family. While the trip narrative was not totally abandoned, it was somewhat underdeveloped, providing more skeleton than meat for the book. I was disappointed to find only a few pages in each chapter on Ayers Rock in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India, the statues on Easter Island and the killing fields of Cambodia, among the other places the guys visited. As someone who likes to think of himself as a traveler - at heart if not in reality - at first I wanted more allegory and less literalism and flashback. I wanted these places to speak to Sparks on a more profoundly personal level as they related to his current situation. Don't get me wrong; both Nicholas and Micah Sparks were portrayed as mesmerized by what they saw on the trip, but I wanted it to form the basis of more of the material.

If Sparks lacks drama in the story's foreground, he compensates for it with harrowing true-life narratives, and I found myself utterly engaged by the gritty and harsh reality of his family history. Using the trip experiences with his brother as springboards that had his family neurons firing, Sparks reaches back into childhood to develop the characters and events that profoundly shaped his life. As it flows, the book takes place on two levels: On the surface, Sparks slowly flees the busyness and workoholism that plagues his life in the present. Just below, he weaves a contemplative framework of the events that bring him to this point of the journey.

Tragedy after tragedy ensues, to the point that I wondered whether Sparks has forgotten that he's writing nonfiction. By the end, the book has morphed from travelogue into a sibling-focused autobiography that reminds us of our dire need for community and shows that hardship, when endured together with other human beings, forges bonds that would not have been possible in times of peace and contentment. Because of their struggle together, Nicholas and Micah have a relationship that transcends the normal sibling banter and rivalry. Their brotherly love can teach the Church a lesson: To stand firm together, walking in the faith that something better is on the horizon, brings peace in chaos and allows exuberant hope to supplant apprehension. Sparks' past may be dim, but his future, at least in his mind, is bright.

Guys need not emasculate themselves, as one of my friend's suggested, to enjoy a Nicholas Sparks book. In fact, if we take Three Weeks seriously, we may find a deeper level of masculinity within its pages, the kind that admits faults and cries on the shoulder of a brother. Call it sissy, softy or whatever, but we need that kind of humility among brothers in the Church. Sometimes, like Sparks, our brothers are all we have.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Another Sonny Day in Georgia

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's decision to hold a prayer service outside the state Capitol yesterday petitioning to God for relief from the state's record drought was met with mixed reviews.

Although Sonny followed the politically correct protocol by inviting members of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths to participate, his attempt at inclusiveness still wasn't good enough for some of Georgia's self-proclaimed "non-theistic" citizens.

Members of the ironically named Atlanta Free Thought Society believe that Sonny overstepped his Constitutional bounds as an elected official by endorsing religion in his official capacity.

Various organizations protested at the Capitol, carrying sarcastic signs that read, "Is it raining yet?" and "All hail Sonny Perdue!" press reports indicated.

I must admit that I probably wouldn't be too excited if Sonny organized some kind of animistic sacrifice on the Capitol steps, but what these Free Thoughters forget is that governors are citizens too, and that elected officials are not legally required to check their faith at the door to the gold-domed Capitol.

For those who haven't had civics class in awhile, here's the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. See if you can find here a reason to prohibit a state governor for practicing his faith in public:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Now, I realize that there is a very long and complex history of Supreme Court decisions that have brought legal interpretations to where they are today, but I can't help looking back at my free speech in wartime class from last year and second-guessing the Supreme Court's competency in handling complicated matters relating to free speech. (It's interesting how the same people that preach Supreme Court historical precedent on issues like Roe v. Wade would condemn the actions of the very same court during wartime repression of dissenting voices). And I also can't help but think that anti-religious zealots simply use events like this just to further their own antagonistic agendas.

The truth is, those who claim agnosticism hold to a worldview that brings its own premises of faith to the table. Every belief, whether scientific or not, is only as true as the epistemological source it comes from. Some get their beliefs from science textbooks, some from holy books. Some believe what their preacher says, others their professor, therapist or guru. I'm not preaching some postmodern mumbo-jumbo that everyone's truth is equally valid. Far from it. I'm saying that everyone's perception of the truth is influenced by some facts that are not empirically verifiable, meaning that everyone carries some degree of faith, whether it be in God or in their own logic.

So free-thoughters, lighten up. No one's interrupting your enlightened little thinking parties, and the same Bill of Rights that gives you the ability to stand on the steps with your inconsiderate signs gives Sonny the right to ask the One who gives rain to send it a-pourin'.

Note: I'm not debating the efficacy of prayer in this context, only trying to give credence to Sonny's right do it. Why God has allowed this drought to go on is unclear, but the faithful will certainly pray, and they will also certainly accept God's decision to bring rain or let us run dry.
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On a more personal note, I had to defend ole Sonny today in two different contexts.

At a conference on solar energy, a guy told me that he thought it was a bit ridiculous that the only thing the governor is doing about the drought is organizing a prayer vigil. For one, I said, that's not the only thing he's doing. Well, I wish he would've done something nine months ago, came the response.

But in the context of prayer, Sonny humbly admitted the government's inadequacy in the area of conservation, I answered. The man didn't really respond. It seems his desire to criticize was greater than his desire to think. And if Sonny, by some feat of divination, got a premonition about the drought before it happened and enacted measures to prevent it, I'm sure that these same sort of folks would be questioning his use of spiritual sources.

My second defense of Sonny was a bit less entertaining. Someone challenged his handling of the drought, and I simply pointed out that the governor is receiving the brunt of the criticism because the crisis is happening under his watch. Unpreparedness is a team effort where government is concerned.

To end, I just have one question and its candid answer:

Did you invite representatives from various faiths to petition the Lord for rain, and then receive a lot of crap about it?

Sonny did.

For one of my newest articles on the governor and a great picture of Sonny at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, go to www.globalatlanta.com.



Sunday, November 11, 2007

Astonishing

Some of you have really enjoyed the Osteen posts, so I thought I'd oblige you with a quick related thought I had while sitting through an incredible sermon at All Souls Fellowship in Decatur this morning.

The pastor was talking about the book of Genesis, when God came to Abraham and told him that Sarah would give birth to a son in her old age, long after it was physiologically possible for her to do so. Sarah, who heard this as she was sitting near the entrance to the tent, laughed to herself, as if God couldn't really make it come to pass. God responded: Why did you laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?

Using a bit of Hebrew translation, the pastor went on to explain that the word for "hard" in Hebrew doesn't necessarily just mean "difficult." It has a connotation of wonder and astonishment, like the feat in question is so unlikely to occur that utter surprise and amazement would be the only fitting response if it were accomplished. The pastor repeated the question in a different way: Is anything too wonderful or astonishing for the Lord?

Using the question as a springboard, he urged the congregation to raise its expectation of God's faithfulness and to look at our own salvation as a testimony to the God's miraculous power and his ability to break into normalcy and bend our reality to make implausible things become truth. As Paul put it, he uses the weak things of the world to shame the wise, and in doing so he displays astonishing power and control. The pastor said that if we are not taken aback by the absurdity of the work of God in bringing sinners like us unto himself and entrusting to us the keys of his Kingdom, then we think too highly of ourselves.

As I sat there, I thought about how diametrically opposed that line of reasoning is to Osteen's idea that since we are "children of the king," we're entitled to privileged treatment. Joel's image of the believer is that of a prince raised in a pristine household, never knowing the squalor outside the castle walls and never acknowledging how fortunate he is to be inside the gates. This is the image of the prodigal's brother, who sensed entitlement because he was faithful in duty, but whose heart in the end was farther away than the one who had just returned from squandering his inheritance and wallowing in the pig sty (Luke 15).

The image of a man in relationship with God in scripture is that of an adopted son, a beggar with no royal lineage and no strength to offer. Look at Israel, God's chosen people. He picked them not because they were the strongest, but because he would be shown strong through their weakness. Our adoption is the utmost privilege, one we should not belittle by using it as a means to gain petty, earthly advantages. Unlike the native son, the pompous prince, we are aliens looking for a grain of mercy. When allowed to feast, we know what it is to be spiritually hungry and thirsty. We have been saved, rescued, retrieved from the pound. And like a dog given a new home, we are eternally grateful. We deserve nothing, but through grace we've gained everything.

Osteen's image of our relationship with God is conducive to thinking too highly of ourselves. Of course we should not let humility become a stronghold of the enemy, who wants to tell us that we're not worth anything because we're so sinful. And I think Joel is strongest in his ability to get people thinking about the fact that God is on their side and has our good at heart. But we should not be so arrogant to think that we can claim interest on a loan we can't afford; we should be astonished and amazed each day he allows us to wake up with breath in our lungs, and even moreso on the days when he chooses to make use of us.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Killed by Committee

My heart was not made for C-Span. No offense to you raging politicos who love a good filibuster, but there's something that just bothers me about bureaucratic bodies, whether they represent national legislatures or just misguided Christian organizations (see last post). I think what unnerves me so much is the Committee. Not any one in particular, but the Committee as a concept, as a way to domesticate a world that is otherwise beautiful, poetic and downright disorganized.

Think about it. No kid ever grows up wanting to be the chairperson of a committee, but as we grow older, it seems that involvement in them is unavoidable if we want to advance. And we all fall into their trap. Eventually, though we may despise them, we come to see committees as a necessary part of life. And as we've accepted them, they've begun to take over. They're rampant in the church, and as I've learned in my life as an international business reporter, they pretty much make the world go 'round.

This is strange because committees, with all their rigid structure and pompous groundedness, really don't actually do anything. They might talk for awhile, and individuals might raise their hands to vote, but the rubber usually meets the road outside the boardroom where the decision is made. For instance, a missions committee might decide which trip to support financially, but the committee members themselves aren't doing the sharing. Congress can vote to declare war, but they won't be the ones dodging enemy bullets.

And so we see that the mission of a committee is to organize the world, to avoid the chaos that comes with indecision or disagreement, to keep the gears turning. In essence, to be totally useful. But that cold, detached utility is just the thing that makes committees so hard to stomach. With a vote to cast, everything becomes black and white, and its hard to get above the crowd to see the human implications of a boardroom decision.

I may be overdramatizing my hatred for committees. In fact, I think that you could call them something else and I wouldn't mind them at all. But I think there's something in every heart that can condemn them as an assault on spontaneity and passion even as we realize their necessity in making a broken world function properly.

So as you sit through that board meeting, don't be afraid to look out the window and daydream a bit. A committee without dreamers is disconnected from its constituency: people who have spirits, who are substance, not just form, who have hopes and fears and dreams and who will feel the impact of the committee's decisions. Through all your endeavors to become a mover and a shaker, don't forget to stay human.

Loving the System

Individual trustees must refrain from public criticism of Board approved actions . . . trustees are to speak in positive and supportive terms as they interpret and report on actions by the Board, regardless of whether they personally support the action.
While this might look like it came straight from the National People's Congress in China or some other Communist organization, it ironically came straight from the top of one of the most well-funded and influential Christian missions councils in the world.

While I don't have the time, willpower or desire to give a full account of these events, the Pasty Quail, an Athens-based blog, recently cited the censuring of a Southern Baptist crusader who, however gracefully and tactfully, violated the above guidelines in blog posts that "reflected poorly" on his fellow trustees.

Wade Burleson, a pastor in Oklahoma who himself is a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Mission Board, has become known throughout Southern Baptist circles for his "Robinhood" style of blogging: With delicate words, he takes esoteric knowledge from the rich, the Board of Trustees, and he passes it on to the poor, the common Southern Baptist who attends church every Sunday but knows nothing of the highly bureaucratic entity that oversees his denomination's overseas ministry.

Basically, the story goes that Mr. Burleson was censured at a recent convention for failing to retract comments that he made on his blog. Instead of focusing on positives--like the fact that the IMB budgeted $305 million this year to reach the lost abroad--issues surrounding Mr. Burleson were put on display at the convention. What's more, the censure (which I'm pretty sure is like a rhetorical slap on the wrist) was done in private, behind closed doors, after Mr. Burleson was under the impression that an agreement had been reached.

You can read the full story (at least Mr. Burleson's side) on his blog if you want, but it will suffice to say that this type of mess is what keeps the Church from reaching its full potential as an institution, and it brings up the question: Why has the church become so institutionalized? For me, someone who grew up giving to Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, the Christmas and Easter missions campaigns of the Southern Baptist Convention such news is particularly disheartening. And the worst part about it is the negative press coverage it brings. While Jesus said that we'll be known for our love, it seems that Christians in America attract attention for too many other reasons.

Just as a bad tree bears bad fruit, sinful people, though washed in the blood, can never make a perfect institution. Though I'm sure many are motivated by their desire to see God's renown increase in this world, it seems that form has replaced substance and reverence for certain rules or traditions has supplanted the desire for relevance in a changing and lost world.

The key to keep from going insane as a Christian in this context, as a Baptist pastor once told me, is to recognize the flaws in the system without becoming blind to its potential. We must identify those who believe in the system and are working to please God in it. Concentrate our energies there, and we can see spiritual returns on our investments.

I still have many friends who are serving as missionaries in the System. Like Americans who are patriotic despite their distrust of the government, these warriors continue to fight for the cause of Christ though their leadership betrays them with petty and sometimes unbiblical regulations. Let's pray that the SBC, despite its flaws, can be used miraculously for the glory of God. When bickering ceases and the trumpet sounds, he'll be the one issuing the censures.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Bear Hollow's Poor Cousin


video

When I lived in Athens, Katy and I enjoyed going to a small zoo called Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail. Tucked away on a small street called Gran Ellen drive in a residential area behind Milledge Avenue Baptist Church, Bear Hollow shares acreage with two other great Athens pit stops: Memorial Park and the Birchmore Trail, a winding, two-mile jaunt I hiked throughout college when I started to feel the indoors closing in on me.

Bear Hollow, a family-friendly attraction, was built to provide homes for all types of creatures native to Georgia that could no longer take care of themselves in the wild. It is a place where the outcasts of Georgia's animal world become ambassadors, preaching the merits of conservation with their cuteness and proximity. Just by lazing around, they capture the imagination of the zoo's visitors. Although these animals are native to Georgia, most people will never see them in the wild: owls, otters, hawks, golden eagles, bald eagles, bobcats, deer, turkeys, groundhogs, alligators and the signature black bears that gave the zoo its name.

While hiking around on Arabia Mountain the other day, Evan and I discovered a similar wildlife rescue effort, although on a smaller scale. As we followed the trail, it emptied into a parking lot that led up to what looked like a small log house. A circular sign told us that this was home base for A.W.A.R.E., the Atlanta Wildlife Awareness Rescue Effort. Unlike Bear Hollow, its older, flashier cousin, the AWARE center was nowhere near ready for a full-scale visitor assault. AWARE has been in the fund-raising stages since 2005 and needs lots of work to catch up with Bear Hollow.

As you'll see in the above video, cages forged of various types of wire led up a hill and back behind the house. Curious, we advanced into the labyrinth of fence, wire and strewn lumber, not knowing what we would find. Workers eyed us indifferently from inside the house. As we climbed farther into the maze, the creatures became more exotic. I'll let you watch the video to figure out what happened...


Dekalbi Arabia

A state park that defies stereotypes about Dekalb as one of metro Atlanta's most heavily populated and urban counties.

Today was the epitome of fall in Georgia--blazing colors in the trees and weather cool enough to wear a jacket but warm enough to take it off after you've hiked a few miles, which is what I spent a few hours doing on Sunday. My best friend Evan had a few minutes in Atlanta on the way back to Augusta, and he decided to stop by. I had planned on sitting in front of the computer for a few hours before I got his call. I had the door open and a soft wind rustled through the trees behind our terrace level apartment. With Evan on his way, Katy at work and nothing else to do, I decided it was the perfect time to get outdoors.

We had planned for Stone Mountain, but as I searched the Internet for the park's hours and fees, I noticed how frilly its Web site had become. Attractions filled up the whole homepage, and colorful, gimmicky ads promised visitors the time of their lives. I was already beginning to have my doubts when the clincher came: $8 per car to get into the park. I assume this is to cover the added amenities Stone Mountain offers, stuff like light shows and huge granite reliefs of confederate soldiers. You know, touristy luxuries for families to enjoy, the things that lonely hikers like to avoid.

When Evan arrived, we searched the Internet for a better trail, limiting the parameters to Dekalb County. Georgiatrails.com turned up another trail that, like Stone Mountain, travels over a granite outcropping rising above the Georgia forests. No one knows where Arabia Mountain got its name. Even the moderators of the area's Web site are looking for information. But what's for sure is that the place offers a great hike: a great workout (I think we did about 3.5 miles over varying elevations), good views of the sunset, interesting geological structures and low crowds even on the weekend. Also, Arabia Mountain is free and has a name that is hands-down way more interesting and exotic than Stone Mountain. Nobody's scratching their heads about that one.

As is the case with most trips Evan and I undertake, there was adventure by the bucketload. During one of our off-trail ventures, we found a chicken farm, and we trespassed on some people's driveways as we thrashed through the trees, trying to find our way back to the road through the encroaching darkness. Although we could see the tips of skyscrapers peeking over the distant trees to the West and Delta planes swooped into the airport like red-tailed hawks, this was Southeast Dekalb, and Atlanta's cityscape was the farthest thing from our minds. (One of our most exciting discoveries was an animal rescue facility, which I'll post about later.)

After almost two hours of breathing afresh, we dodged a brake-slamming, tire-squealing near-collision on the interstate and made it back to civilization in time to pick Katy up from work. Although it's more than 20 minutes away, Dekalbi Arabia is my new place to roam.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Osteen's a-comin'

When it rains, it pours. I've spent the last week refereeing (and leveling) criticisms at Osteen on my blog, and now all my Google ads on the right side of the screen are trying to sell his books--an ironic testament to why computers lack the basic reasoning skills needed to take over the world. Also, while I was searching the Businesswire for stories for GlobalAtlanta, I found one announcing that Osteen will be at a Books-A-Million in Peachtree City this week. I thought about going and talking to him, since I've been somewhat talking behind his back on this blog, but I somehow don't feel like a book signing would be the right place for confrontation. And I really don't think he'd want to have a heart-to-heart right there in the store. But, if you're in Georgia and you'd like to meet the smiling preacher, here's your chance:

ATLANTA--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Books-A-Million, Inc. (NASDAQ:BAMM):
Who: Joel Osteen is the Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston and


the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Your Best Life


Now. His weekly sermon is viewed by seven million Americans


each week and is seen in almost 100 nations around the world.


In Become a Better You, Joel Osteen reveals seven simple yet


profound principles that when taken to heart will help you


become all that God has created you to be.
What:
Pastor Osteen signs his newest book, "Become a Better You"
When:
Monday, November 5th from Noon-1:30pm Eastern
Where:
Books-A-Million


The Avenue of Peachtree City


Peachtree City, GA 30269


(770) 632-1296
Why:
Customers will have the opportunity to personally meet Pastor


Osteen and get copies of Become a Better You signed.