Friday, 24 March 2006

Afghans and Insider Movements?

For today's post, I refer to R-Liz and her salient comment and query from yesterday's post.

WOW! Thanks for this excellent question – Insider Movements is a terrific topic for on-going discussion, not just one post or a two-line answer to your comment (sorry!). There are several contextual levels with regards to ‘insider movements’. Which one are you referring to? This concept of missiology is quite complex.

Just Googling ‘Insider Movements’ can inundate you with a host of resources. One of the first to come up is a good, recent intro and pretty much gets to the heart of the matter – ‘Evaluating Insider Movements’, C5 (Messianic Muslims)’, St Francis Magazine Nr 4, 2006. Just
the footnotes alone are worth their weight in resource material.

Reading through the descriptions of the models of contextualisation as described by John Travis in this article, I have seen elements practiced from each of these models, depending upon the Muslim countries and communities I’ve been in (Pakistan, India, Thailand, Egypt). One could argue that some of these models are also operating in non-Muslim cultures where I have worked and now live. Look at how Christianity as a religion has splintered off in America, for instance with it’s many indigenous forms of denominationalism, which frankly do not have much relevancy in other parts of this great world God created.

As with any missiology method, the proof of the pudding will be in the rate of attrition. What state of affairs have missionaries left ‘their mission’ in when it was time for them to pack up and go back home? How effectively is the mission integrating the Gospel of Christ with those who live and breathe in the culture to which they are born? Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? We can get terrific glimpses of this through the very first models of ‘Insider Movement’ given to us by the Apostles Peter and Paul – their cultural differences offer plenty for us to learn from! Hmmm ... I wonder what they would think of all these paradigms and terminologies?

Sometimes I feel that our American approach to foreign missions has resembled a Marine Commando mission. In our patriotic passions, we have gone OTT to preach our American idealism more than the ideals of Christ. The conversion is incomplete if Americanism is not in evidence. It’s easy to do. Why? Because our American culture has become as much a part of our ‘religious fabric’ as an Afghan’s culture is a part of theirs (i.e., we think we are the only ones who know more than the Brits or other Western nations what freedom is all about.) Reverse the scenario. Have a Moslem from Afghanistan come into your hometown and begin his mission programme on you. How would you react? What parts of this mission programme would you react the most negatively/positively to?

My feeling is that until one has lived in another culture and tasted the bread of those who suffer or survive differently, the homework is incomplete. It helps tremendously for the Christ follower to get to know the people with Christ’s love first, without wearing ‘Christian’ or religion on one's shirtsleeves. Gaining a respect for their history and how it parallels the development of the universality of the Christian church goes hand in hand. The task is a bit presumptuous to decide from afar on some church board or missions committee as to which method would get Christ’s approval. When you are there, amongst the people in their world, Christ will lead you in the way he and the Holy Spirit deem best for the Kingdom.

Presently, my concern is that the international political community – and in particular the American government under the leadership of the Bush administration and stoked by America’s religious right interest groups – is going to try to reconcile religious dilemmas by using Marine Commando tactics, thereby endangering many lives – both Afghan and Allied – in the process. They will undoubtedly, through their rhetoric and reactionary hubris, politicise it all in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’ and by demanding that the ‘universal freedom of religion’ be adhered to – or else! And then when it all goes pear-shaped deem the losses as mere ‘collateral damage’.

A couple of points:

  • Afghans translate ‘freedom of religion’ as written in the Afghan Constitution (penned eons ago, not this latest UN attempt), as meaning foreigners in Afghanistan are free to practice their religious beliefs, quietly, and out of earshot of any Afghan. So this law exists, then, for the foreigner whose universal ways corrupt the spiritual path of the Afghan.
  • For the Christian, the unforgivable sin is to renounce faith and belief in God and by extension, the Triumvirate. The Christian is bound by this law (which we see as freedom) as intrinsically as the Afghans are bound by their belief in Allah (God), which they also perceive as freedom.
  • When Christians decide to turn away from their faith, they can be tolerated by others as backsliders, embraced by their world, and wait awhile before being renounced by God on the Day of Judgement.
  • When Afghans decide to turn away from their faith, they are immediately renounced by their world and Allah. They are considered dead and any association with them is unclean and corrupt.
  • When outsiders push the Afghans into a corner, they dig their heels in and fight back.

Ah, so much to discuss! Any other thoughts out there?

(Today's picture is of my father and baby brother, shortly after our arrival to the Kandahar landscape. Courtesy of our family photo album.)

Wednesday, 22 March 2006

Afghans for Jesus

I just want to clarify this report I read today on CNN’s website. The beginning of the report reads as follows:

Western nations outraged Muslims who convert can be put to death. In the days of the Taliban, those promoting Christianity in Afghanistan could be arrested and those converting from Islam could be tortured and publicly executed.

That was supposed to change after U.S.-led forces ousted the oppressive, fundamentalist regime, but the case of 41-year-old Abdul Rahman has many Western nations wondering if Afghanistan is regressing.

This is somewhat misleading. It implies that before the Taliban appeared on the Afghan landscape, it was an accepted practice for Afghans to convert to Christianity. It also arrogantly assumes that the centuries old religious fabric of an entire nation and culture can be wiped out overnight by foreign military forces. I can assure you this has never been the case. While my family lived in Kandahar (today’s Taliban stronghold) during the ‘60’s, converting to Christianity for an Afghan was strictly forbidden. And if you read the history books, the Afghans have never allowed any foreign military force to succeed in overthrowing their way of life. Ever.

Christian foreigners, such as ourselves, were allowed into the country with a stern warning against ‘proselytising’. This meant, of course, that we were never to openly discuss or profess our belief in Christ with Afghans present. One could risk Afghan prison or deportation. As a part of the foreign community, we were allowed to worship in the privacy of our own home. We were fortunate to be able to do this, although it meant our family had to resort to learning how to ‘do church’ in a completely different style that was not exactly orthodox to our traditions.

While in the US, we were a family in church every time the doors were opened. However, in Kandahar we could only worship privately in our home. It took us about six months to adjust to worshipping together as a family, with Mother and I performing some roles that were not considered ‘kosher’ for females in our American church tradition. This will be a topic for another post, though, because today I just want to draw attention to how difficult it is for Afghans to hear about Jesus, and how complex it is for foreign Christians who live there to openly share their faith.

First off, you all know that Friday is ‘the holy day’ of the week for Moslems. Actually, as they pray multiple times every day without fail, every day is considered holy. But Friday is Juma, the special day for attending mosque. Foreigners who work or go to school have this day off in place of Saturday or Sunday, depending on the work they are there to do. So in a way, the fact that any foreigners would skive off work or school on Sunday is an open occasion for the Afghan government to be suspicious and raise its eyebrows at any religious activity other than Islam.

My family would hold our worship service at home, and then afterwards, take a meal for a potluck luncheon with our other Christian friends from the Philippines and Viet Nam, all devout Catholics. We would enter one of their homes quietly, as the circuit priest from Kabul (a day’s drive) would be officiating mass. The circuit priest was always accompanied by a servant, who was placed in this position by the Afghan government to ensure that no other Afghans were present or within earshot of the mass. We kids called this priestly servant ‘The Spy’. As it was the custom for all of us to employ house servants (men only – houseboys, cooks, gardeners), we made sure they had this day off. We heard horror stories. And there was an American family working for an NGO in the community who was deported because of proselytising. We got the message.

Afghans who were then discovered, as now, to have converted to Christianity were horrendously tortured. Limb torture is popular and the preferred, prolonged method. The Afghan authorities would discover a Christian convert. They would hold the convert and throw the most senior member of the family in prison until the convert would either confess or deny their conversion to Christ. While under interrogation, the imprisoned family member, usually the most vulnerable member (like the grandfather or grandmother, aging aunt or uncle) would have a finger, toe, ear, etc., removed each day until the convert recanted. Of course, Afghan prisons are not abundantly stocked with health care services or food and water.

It is very important for Christians in the free world to understand what the inhumane consequences are for boldly flaunting the Christian faith in an Afghan bazaar – the consequences not only to themselves, but to the innocent and highly uneducated Afghans (which make up the majority of the population, even today).

Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself is Sunni, and a Pashtun. The fact that he is in the role of primary leadership in Kabul and the nearby provinces (not Pashtun) means that, in effect, he has been handed a poison chalice. The fact that Afghanistan now has a ‘constitution’ means nothing to most Afghans. Constitutions are concepts from Western democracies, and Afghans (most of whom are not even educated) are more concerned about daily survival than a piece of political paper drawn up by foreigners whose lifestyles go against their principles. Rep Tom Lantos (D), according to the CNN article, wrote a letter to President Karzai which could end up hurting a lot of people. When will our elected officials realise that everyone's idea of 'democracy' is drawn from a different well?

For the American government, with 23,000 troops in place, this incident of Abdul Rahman will become an even more sensitive and thorny issue for President Karzai. The Afghans, for centuries, have never had their religious beliefs forced to conform to more modern societal pressures, Western or other world religions.

As you pray about, read, and keep up with the developments of Abdul Rahman’s dire spiritual dilemma, please remember that this stems from centuries of devout teachings and strict religious practices, and is a largely dominant pattern interwoven into the beautiful Afghan culture. Please pray that our government and others will not cheapen this spiritual battle by politicising on the suffering of Abdul Rahman and his family.

Sadly, the Taliban understands the Afghan culture – it’s tribes, the Shiites, the Sunnis, the entire spiritual psyche – much better than our people or government as a whole ever tried to.

As for all the sudden outrage, why has it taken so long for our ‘Western nations’ to wake up?

(The picture is from our family album, of children who would always greet us on Bazaar day. Aren’t they gorgeous? If any of them have survived the Russians, the Taliban, or the American bombs, they would all be in their 40’s today.)

UPDATE: This insightful article by Pamela Constable in the Washington Post indicates Abdul Rahman may now not be 'tried or executed for the crime of rejecting Islam.' This is wonderful and an answer to many prayers! But we still need to pray for the Western politicians in our midst who still do not get the cultural divide. May God also soften the hearts and minds of the Afghan leaders so that one day soon they will allow the light of Christ to fill the precious lives of those Afghans who seek to follow him.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

The stone gathering

A group of six Believers, some of us meeting for the first time, gathered together around our small table to prepare for the Eucharist. In the centre of the table, a candle lit our small, sacred space, welcoming us to share in the light of Christ. On one side of the candle lay stones in the shape of a cross -- smooth and roughly textured. On the other side of the candlelight’s warmth was placed a bowl of clear, cool water.

As I contemplated the candle’s flame, I began to reflect on that innermost pain which bore my sins. The heat from the flame burned and as it grew, my heart confronted the transgressions that felt the most unforgivable, the most damning.

The stones, like each of us, were unique – in size, in shape – with subtle hues of different colours. All were conceived in a place of desolation. Like the stones set before us, we owned our own textures, as God chiselled away at each of us on the pathway towards our journey with him.

One by one, we each claimed a stone from the cross on our table. My stone was as misshapen as it was multi-textured. It felt gritty, as if it had just come from the ground. As I stroked and felt its imperfections, I thought, how does one caress the sinner? Tears flowed silently, warmed on my face by the candle’s heat. My eyes, closed to those in this small circle of sanctuary, sought to look inside the depths of my soul. Oh, that the Healer would find me there!

While I could not see, each member in our sacred circle of fellowship reached out to clasp my stone, and take it from me. No longer was it heavy, cumbersome. I in turn grasped their stones to my heart, petitioning the Healer to search out their depths, and carry them to the surface of light. Forgiveness is an act of partnership that renders us weightless, carefree, accepting of his touch, and marvelling at his grace.

We let go each other’s stones by releasing them into the cool, clear water. As I placed my stone into the water, the texture gently changed. All of the edges seemed to soften, and the grit sloughed off. With the washing of each stone, this water, once clean and clear, became cloudy with our diversity of imperfections.

All of us meet at the cross – alone, sometimes with timidity, other times with conviction, raw and exposed. The shape of the cross is defined by a field of stones, which Jesus gathers into the folds of his garment.

And the light from the candle seems to glow with a brightness that allows for a relationship with our Saviour, at once translucent with the joy and knowledge that we can continue the journey with him in flawless abandon.

Thursday, 2 March 2006

The Ashing

Ashes. Not cricket, not a music group, and not one of my favourite things to think about, usually. They are dirty, smelly, and leave an awful black stain on everything – from the ground where they lay to the clothes I am wearing -- if I am not successful in cleaning them up. And certainly not something I would want to parade around with on my person with pride for others to see – Jesus is pretty specific about that! (Matthew 6.1-18)

But as this newest season of Lent arrives, here are a few thoughts I have on some of the ashes in my life …

Ashes of JOY
Ashes can be evidence that joy happened in this place. Like the dust which draws new life, ashes evoke the power of creation as God gives us delight. Some of the pre-ash delights he has blessed me with?
A glowing campfire ...
... to bring warmth in the mountains,
… for Mother to cook fresh-caught rainbow trout,
… to sing songs and hymns by with friends and family,
… to roast marshmallows or S’mores
The flames on any number of birthday candles to celebrate a life;
A cosy fireplace on a snowy or rainy night, or just to read by.

Ashes of POVERTY I remember the images of beautiful Afghan children with huge sad eyes begging me for bahkshish when I was 12 years old. Many of those who came up to me had faces caked in dirt, with residue of ashes in their hair, on their elbows and knees, and on their cracked bare feet. From the open fire many of them slept near on those cold nights in Kandahar. They just wanted to touch my white skin and blonde hair, and feel the clean fabric of the clothes I got to wear every day. I would have given them the world if it could have solved their plight. But they were my first experience with the cold, hard facts of poverty. Such a painful feeling, the first time you feel too overwhelmed to help. Where to start? My allowance came in a chit book. Paper would only help keep them warm at night, and it was just a little bitty square of paper for them to add to the fire. It wouldn’t feed or clothe them, or help them get to have a school.

Poverty can be cruel to children on both sides of the line: those who have not, and those who have much but do not have the power to give all they would like to.

Ashes of GRIEF Watching the ashes of someone I love dearly fly into the wind is bitter in that they will no longer be here on Earth for me to hug. In faith, I believe – I must! – the open arms of our Lord will be on the other side of the clouds to capture their spirit and hold them close when I no longer can.

Ashes of REPENTANCE These ashes might be the hardest ones to accept. They are highly personal, and a symbolic reminder to me of the wrongs I have committed. They are not easy to admit, especially in the company of Christian brothers and sisters. But they are placed compassionately on my forehead. The compassion and love I receive within this safe sanctuary of fellowship encourage me to reflect upon God’s inner workings inside my heart. Then, before I step out into a world that offers no sanctuary and little understanding, I silently remove this black residue of a reminder to myself.

Ashes of RENEWAL and REJOICING! Repentance allows that most ultimate of God’s gift – grace! What a freeing feeling I get when I know He pours it over me, again and again.

I like what Father John Beddingfield writes (Angelus On Line Newsletter, St Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, New York):
While ashes may signify and remind, they also invite. They invite us to repentance. They invite us to turn again to God and to receive new life. Isaiah brings glad tidings to the people of Israel, “to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” Ashes are not the end but are just the beginning. They begin a season that moves us through silence and longing into a season of joy and resurrection.

Blessings as you prepare for the joy to come!

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