Monday, July 28, 2014

Transforming an Ugly Character

Depending on the circles you are in, missionaries are viewed as either very good or very bad.  When I am in the US, I tend to be introduced as a "missionary" and I am listed as a "missionary" by the churches who support me.  However, when in Africa and I have to fill out "occupation" on the customs and immigration cards, I never say "missionary" nor do I identify myself as such in any introductions or conversations.   

Recently, I was given an article recently by my friend and brother in ministry, David Graf.  It was from Christianity Today, entitled "The World the Missionaries Made."  It addressed the stereotype of missionaries as closely connected to colonialism, with great cultural insensitivity, paternalism, racism, self-centeredness, and exploitation.  This is the description I hear the most of in Africa; it is the image portrayed in the well-known book, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  Instead of this stereotype, this article addressed research done by a dean at Fuller Theological Seminary, Robert Woodberry, who studied the statistical link between democracy and Protestantism.  Could it be that missionaries did some things right?

Robert Woodberry studied why some nations developed stable representative democracies in which citizens enjoy the rights to vote, speak, and assemble freely, while neighboring countries suffer authoritarian rulers and internal conflict.   He also looked at public health and economic growth in countries that had seemingly similar geography, cultural background, and natural resources and created a statistical model to test the connection between missionary work and the health of nations.  He looked very carefully to be sure not to confuse correlation with causation.  For example, what if missionaries went to places predisposed to democracy?  Or what if the colonizing country was actually the catalyst for the move toward democracy?

What he found was that the impact of missions on global democracy was huge. This became his claim:  "Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women) and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations."

He had proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor; they had promoted widespread printing of tens of thousands of religious texts; led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens; and mass education and mass literacy were very deliberate projects of missionaries as they wanted nationals to be able to read the Bible.   Literacy, of course, leads to democratic movements.

This research has since been picked up by the American Political Science movement and Woodberry has received awards for his work on the subject.  It is beginning to change the way scholars, aid workers, and economists think about democracy and development.

There is something here for the church to learn as well.  The ugly character of the missionary can be transformed and we can see a sign of God's greater purposes being worked out through the lives of imperfect but devoted people.

For me, it helps me not to cringe as much when I hear the word "missionary" ascribed to me.  It makes me feel affirmed in the work that I do in church based economic development, which I also hope leads to greater democracy, voice for the poor, and greater justice overall.

This past week we gave out a second round of loans, this time to four groups and four individuals, including several new church groups and including the city of Eldoret now.  Kitale started a new class with ten new churches in attendance again.  The three new associations formed through our work thus far are meeting and continuing to find their voice in their sector.  I always thought I was a different type of missionary, doing business development rather than church planting - but now I feel like I fit in more closely.  I still probably won't refer to myself as a missionary, but maybe I won't cringe as much when it happens.

For the full article from Christianity Today, go here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Want to Love your Job? The Church Can Help..."

Michael found this article from Christianity Today and even though I wasn't going to send out a blog this week, I thought this article is helpful in illustrating the work in which we are involved.  So here it is (website can be seen at here).  As the writer notes, the church has to emphasize faith-work intervention...and you have to show up.  I love that this is research based and US based.  The question I now struggle with as we move from pilot project to global implementation, how do help churches focus more on faith-work intervention?  Do we understand the benefits of Christians loving their job?

Want to Love Your Job? Church Can Help, Study Says

The catch: The church you attend has to emphasize faith-work integration—and you have to show up.
Want to Love Your Job? Church Can Help, Study Says

If they can be tempted away from their workplaces to worship, churches can make parishioners happier with their jobs, new research shows.

Regular attenders who frequent a church that teaches God is present at your workplace, work is a mission from God, or that faith can guide work decisions and practices is a good sign for your career, according to a recent study from Baylor University.

Those who often attend churches with that philosophy are more likely to be committed to their work, be satisfied with their work and look for ways to expand or grow the business.

The effect isn't huge, but it is statistically significant, said Baylor researcher Jerry Park. Park and his fellow researchers point out in the study that the small effect size might be meaningful in another way: As an indication that current survey questions and methods do a poor job of measuring the importance and influence of religion in respondents' lives.  (CT previously reported on the anomalous non-Christians who say they interpret the Bible literally, and The Atlantic pointed out the difficulty of asking survey respondents to decide if religion could answer all the world's problems or is old fashioned and out of date.)

"Being at a church identified as emphasizing faith-work integration was not sufficient to predict job satisfaction," Park said. "Similarly, just going to church, regardless of what is being taught, has little effect on job satisfaction. However, when one frequently attends a church that emphasizes faith-work integration, job satisfaction increases."

As Park points out, one challenge might be in getting to church in the first place: 24 percent of religiously affiliated Americans mention practical difficulties, including work conflicts, as a barrier to church attendance, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Of church attenders—not just those who identify with a religion—more than a quarter say their work schedules make it difficult for them to regularly participate in congregational events, according to a 2008 Faith Communities Today survey. Church distractions associated with this "secularization of Sunday" also come from children's sports programs and school-related activities, that survey found. A 2013 study published in the Review of Religious Research confirmed the attraction of sports.
Despite our busy schedules, reports of U.S. church attendance have held fairly steady over the last decade. Pew found that 37 percent of Americans in 2013 say they attend worship services at least weekly (vs. 39 percent in 2003), and 29 percent of Americans today say they seldom or never attend worship services (vs. 25 percent in 2003).

CT profiles workers who integrate faith in their jobs, including Harrison Higgins, a woodworker whose theology informs his furniture making. CT tells his story here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Perspective in Austria


Schonbrunn Castle with 1400 rooms.
Michael and I just returned from an eight day trip to Vienna, Austria.  Michael had to attend a conference there of the International Society of Biblical Literature, and I was able to tag along with him as a part vacation/part honeymoon/part writing-a-paper-for-my-Economics-class.  When Michael learned of this opportunity shortly after our engagement, he began to give plasma regularly to save up in order to buy my plane ticket.  It was a great gift of love he gave me in this trip.

Overview of Vienna
Vienna is an incredible city.  The architecture is beyond the ability to capture by camera.  The buildings are beautiful.  The landscaping is inviting, with benches everywhere beckoning people to relax and take in the sights.  The history and culture is rich and deep.  The food is very rich and the desserts are to die for.  Seriously.  A.MAZ.ING. I've never had desserts like this before.  We visited a church that is 1000 years old; we spent time in a castle and a museum the likes of which I've never seen before.

And this is where perspective begins to come in.  The week starts out with the conference, and Michael is introducing me to authors who are experts in their field as it relates to Biblical research, history, and worlds that are yet unknown to me.  When I talk about Business as Mission, there is some interest, but I'm reminded of how small a part of the world my passion fits in.  These people too are part of a very small crowd of people who deeply delve into aspects of the Bible that are unique and intense!

Inside St. Stephens Cathedral, built in 1100 AD.
Then as I tour this historically rich and ornate city, and visit museums with artifacts that date back to times before Christ, my perspective increased even more.  People were creating the most beautiful artifacts 2000-3000 years ago, with detail and talent that I could never muster.  Translations of the Bible or the Koran dating back hundreds and hundreds of years ago, captured on little scraps of papyrus, that require skills and dedication in both the translation and the preservation.  This world is so rich with creativity and talent; people made in the image of God over centuries, living out their purposes and their callings.  We often found ourselves shaking our heads as we walked through this city, having been reminded of an amazing perspective on this world and its people.
St. Stephen's Cathedral - damaged during WWII.

I admit that I struggled with being in such a rich place.  While I typically live amidst great poverty, I found myself both admiring these incredible works of art and rich cultural pieces, while knowing the financial cost that it takes for those to be made and preserved.  Additionally, I am acutely aware that most people I know and work with will never get to see such wealth and such beauty.  It raised up conflicting feelings during the course of the week. We wondered what things would be like in heaven - whether such great works of art and creativity would be replicated there as well.  We wondered what God's appreciation is for these types of pieces would be. 

It was a beautiful week, filled with learning about God's people.  Vienna boasts that it is home to Mozart, Freud, Johann Strauss, Einstein, Hayak, von Misis, and many, many others.  Praise God for His creation and His people!

Two things we noted about Vienna:  first, they love rich meat and desserts; they don't love vegetables.  Second, they walk and bike a lot, but they also smoke a lot - all ages, all the time!
The Parliament
City Hall, which also hosted a free film festival each night on the large screen pictured here.  We were able to watch a 1940 showing of a Romeo and Juliet ballet one night, under the stars, with hundreds of others.  It was beautiful.
Freud's apartment and office.
We were in the room where Mozart gave his first concert, at the age of 6, to the imperial family.
This beautiful cafe, Cafe Central, had the most amazing desserts. Yes, this beautiful building with intricate ceiling work is just a cafe.
The Museum of Art History - the building was as beautiful as its contents.  One could take a day just to explore the building, let alone the amazing artifacts found inside.
We were so thankful for this time and opportunity to see another piece of God's world, as well as to have this time with just the two of us!



Monday, June 30, 2014

Aggregate Happiness...in football (soccer)

When you follow a blog,you tend to hear what is mulling around in the brain of the writer.  So typically for me it is issues relating to the work in Kenya (development and church growth), family or faith.  Of late, it has been wedding and health.  And every now and then the economics classes that I am taking make an appearance.

The last couple of weeks have found much of the world focused on Brazil as the FIFA World Cup is in progress.  To my surprise, even the US seems to be paying a bit more attention to this series as well.  My living room had been the source of competing allegiances especially during the Ghana/USA game (you guessed it - my children and I rooted for Ghana!).  In my weekly staff meeting this past week with Kitale, Jeff Bloem pointed me to an article on how development economists have ascertained how to determine who to cheer for based on aggregate happiness.  The article at first made me smile as I thought, really?  Economists even have something to say about who to cheer for in FIFA?  But the answer makes sense.

The idea is taken from a utilitarian principle (making decisions based on usefulness), that we would choose a team (assuming our own country is not in or has been eliminated) that would bring the most amount of happiness. They did this by studying three variables:  population, passion for football (soccer), and poverty.  Population makes sense - the higher the population, the more happiness simply due to the sheer volume of people.  The passion for football also makes sense - the more passionate, the greater the amount of happiness as well.  In much of the world, football is the most important sport; in each country in Africa where we have lived, people (men in particular) following football leagues year round.  But why poverty?  Why include that variable?  The economist explains by saying, "First, happiness and wealth are correlated, and all else being equal, a utilitarian would prefer to help the person who is worst off. Second, the wealthy have more outlets for dealing with sports disappointments — such as going out to a nice meal — and can bounce back faster." (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/26/upshot/why-you-should-root-for-nigeria-or-brazil-mexico-or-ghana.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1)

I finished a paper this past week on the book Modern Economic Issues where the author concluded by reflecting on whether or not changing economic policies to allow for greater distribution of wealth can actually have a positive impact on people - will it make people happier.  Which then begs the question, what causes happiness?  Certainly the happiness in winning a FIFA title is temporary- so what brings long term happiness?  We know that money can't buy happiness, so raising income levels too will bring temporary happiness, until people settle into their new income range.   I love the fact that research (from both scientists and people of faith) tell us that true happiness is found when we find meaning in our lives outside of ourselves.  In fact the Dalai Lama says, “We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”  Finding happiness outside of ourselves - not the popular themes of finding happiness by "looking inside yourself" or navel gazing...but finding it outside of yourself by contributing.  For most of us, that happens in our place of work and this confirms the work that we do with Marketplace Ministry - helping people find their sense of calling within their work.  True joy and contentment comes when we discover what we were created to do, as sons and daughters made in the image of God, serving as He has designed.

Unfortunately, both Kenya and Nigeria, two countries who have high levels of poverty and high levels of passion for football, were told not to watch the football games in public places due to threats from Islamist militant groups performing terrorist acts in group settings.   In Kenya, groups watching the game were actually attacked and killed.  In most African countries where I live, people don't watch these games independently in their own living rooms; they watch in large groups settings, often with a very small TV.  The social aspect of this is so very important, which makes this all the more sad.

Unfortunately, Ghana is out but Nigeria, Mexico and Brazil are still in, so if you haven't picked a team yet, consider one of these!

And now a few more random wedding pictures...because...well, that's still where my brain is.  :)  This week's pictures are of family; next week, pictures of friends.

My daughter, Hannah, the maid of honor.
My son, Noah, walked me down the aisle...then negotiated the bride price. :)
The groomsmen...a little jump of joy! L to R, Noah, Michel, Michael, Benjamin, Jonathan


Noah...always loving his suit and ties!  Oh yeah...and his mom!
L to R, my Mom, Hannah, me, Michael's mom, Michael's sister Mary Ellen
The Kranenburg clan (L to R):  Janette and Dale VanderVeen, Liz and Rob Bronsveld, Mom, Renita and Michael, Brian and Yvonne Schenk, Henry and Marnie Kranenburg, Karin Kranenburg
 Oh, and by the way, in case you weren't at the reception: from the last picture, my one and only brother Henry, during the toast at the reception, gave the bride price that Noah had negotiated back to Michael, stating, "I know my sister well....let me give this back to you."  This, of course, brought a round of laughter from everyone.  Michael didn't miss a beat, said he knew the value of his bride, and gave the money back to Noah and this time added his credit cards and debit cards.  Noah then, didn't miss a beat, and turned right around to head out the door to do some shopping!  A bit of humor that added to the fun of the day.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Pictures from the Wedding

We just returned to Grand Rapids and have received a few pictures from our photographer that we thought we would share with you.  We are so thankful for all the family and friends who showed their support to us during our courtship and wedding!  We were amazed and humbled at how many people traveled great distances to celebrate with us - from Ghana, West Africa; from California, Boston, Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois; and from many places in Canada, such as Thunder Bay, Toronto, Niagara, Chatham, Hamilton, and Georgetown. [Some people said this was a Canadian wedding because there were so many Canadians present!]

Lighting the unity candle
The Happy Couple :)
(L to R) Noah, Hannah, Michael, Renita, Jonathan, Benjamin, Mary Ellen (Michael's sister), Michel (Michael's brother-in-law)

Our cake also had two chocolate computers on the top, one reading "Dear Michael" and the other reading "Dear Renita."

Ah yes.  Live long and prosper.  This is what you do when your new spouse and your children and the photographer are all Trekkies!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Proof texting

This week Saturday, June 7, I will marry Michael Thomson.  Family and friends will begin arriving on Wednesday.  Lots of busy plans.  Lots of activity.

Today, Monday June 2, Michael will go to the hospital for a heart catheterization test due to chest pains that have not gone away, have actually increased, and seem to be responding to nitroglycerin which may indicate a heart problem.  Not a fun thing to go through at any time, let alone five days before your wedding.  We are asking for your prayers that nothing major will be found and that the doctors may begin to look elsewhere for the root of his chest pain. 

In many, many ways, my world is changing.  In many, many ways, that is scary.  I was pretty down last week and have to admit that I spent a few days in self-pity mode, feeling overwhelmed.  Thanks to the prayers of some dear friends, I was able to snap out of it and find joy again despite the challenges and stresses.  There is great joy in our upcoming marriage, despite the stresses of the wedding, changing roles, and the health issues.  Keeping my eyes focused on the big picture as opposed to the little ways my world is changing is important. 

One specific way that my world has changed is that I am entering the world of publishing with a theological press.  As Michael is an acquisitions editor for Eerdmans, I am discovering a whole new language relating to biblical studies and theology.  Some of our social time is spent with authors.  Sometimes Michael and a given author will speak a language that is somewhat foreign to me. I recently accompanied Michael to a conference that focused Patristics (early Christian history and thought that pertain to early Christian writers often referred to as the "Church Fathers."  I also accompanied him to a conference in Medieval studies.  Some of the debates that take place among academics on these topics are interesting to me.  However, I have to admit that not all of them are.

One term that has come up in some of these conversations that especially caught my attention recently is "prooftexting."

Theopedia defines proof texting as follows:
Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing. At its worst, for example, "theologian A claims to have a more 'biblical' theology than theologian B, based upon counting up verse in parentheses (on a random page from each work) and claiming to have three times as many."
If you think about it, pretty much any position that you want to take on any issue can be supported by Biblical texts.  You find your "proof" and therefore you believe you have an answer.  You must be right because it is in the Bible.  The challenge comes in, of course, when people with opposing views are quoting Scripture to each other without any attempt to learn, meet, understand, grow, or discern from the Holy Spirit.  People who rely on proof texting their point of view often feel a need to live in a world that is black and white - where right and wrong are obvious.  Unfortunately, most of the world is not black and white. While it may feel more secure to believe in an absolute right and wrong on every issue, it quickly becomes more apparent that it is more comfortable to the person applying the text than to the person to whom the text is being applied.

I recently was on the receiving end of someone's proof texting, which is what piqued my curiosity into the concept.  Trying to explore the meaning of a Biblical passage with those who proof text seems to cause them to dig their heels in a bit deeper. It's as if my attempt to take a closer look at the meaning and context of a passage was perceived as an attempt to sweep the "plain meaning" aside, making me doubly guilty.  Not only was I sweeping the plain meaning of the Bible under the carpet, I was seen as rationalizing, using the Bible to "justify" my position.  They claimed the moral high ground by simply stating that "that is what the Bible says."

After facing this confrontation, I had the opportunity to listen to a sermon preached by Michael's brother-in-law, Michel Belzile at his church in Oakville, Ontario.  His church is going through a book called Prodigal Christianity (by David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw) and he was preaching that Sunday on Prodigal relationships, focusing on 1 Corinthians 5.  I have heard Christians use this verse as a reason to shun other Christians whom they have judged to be immoral.  Verse 9-10 says, "I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-- not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world."  Hmmm...there is the proof in that text that we are to shun those who are sexually immoral - not those who aren't brothers and sisters but those who are.  But wait...the text goes on... 11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler.  Don't even eat with such people.

Well, now.  That is a little more difficult.  I shouldn't associate with anyone who is greedy?  an idolater?  a slanderer?  Suddenly my world could get pretty small.  There would be few left in the Church that I might yet associate with (or truly, who might be able to associate with me).  How do I decided who is greedy?  Is owning two cars greedy?  Two TVs?  A winter home and a summer home?  And what is idolatry - the idolatry of comfort?  of self-righteousness?  of pride?  Suddenly what looked so black and white was no longer black and white.  Michel did a great job of looking at the cultural times of this text, who wrote it and to whom it was written, and how does this text line up with other texts written by the same author (Paul in this case) which apparently contradict this very text (like 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 where the offender must be forgiven and the love must be reaffirmed again) or the words of Jesus in Matthew 7 which tell us not to judge, lest we be judged. 

His message was a great example of how to wrestle with a text, how to struggle with it; how to not to rush to a conclusion to ease our own minds or hearts or less charitably to stand over others in judgement.  It was refreshing to hear a pastor struggle and wrestle with this, at a time when I was wrestling as well in terms of being a recipient of proof texting.  [Here is the link to his message if you wish to hear it, used with his permission:  http://www.cbcoakville.ca/sermons.]

And so part of my new world is acquiring a new language relating to theology, debating issues relating to Scripture, and recognizing how little I know.  New worlds are not always comfortable.  They don't always feel safe.  But when you believe that God has called you to them, there is no safer place to be.  And He promises to be there.

This week begins a number of new worlds for me.  I can't wait to marry Michael and to enter these new worlds, even if there is some fear and trembling.  I can't wait to see what God has for both of us as we learn from each other and from Him.  Next week, I will be Renita Reed-Thomson.  A whole new world.