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The Spiritual Vacuum

This is the second posting in a series of reflections coming from my recent experience in China.

Chinese Religion and Culture

Historically, politically and religiously huge differences still exist between East and West, in general, and China and America, in particular. In contrast to less than 250 years of history as a nation, China has had 2100 years of emperors, beginning in 221 B.C. with the Qin (pronounced “Chin”) dynasty, finishing with the Qing (pronounced, Ching) dynasty in 1911, followed by not quite 100 years of two different forms of “republican” government. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been officially “communist” and ruled by a Central Committee. Mao Zedong sought to eliminate (or minimize) all traditional and foreign religions, and members of the Communist party are supposed to be atheists. However, for the masses, other religions are more or less tolerated and capitalism has been embraced to various degrees, as the country has increasingly opened up over the past 15-20 years.

Chinese religion and philosophy are rooted principally in Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism, with the three often co-existing side by side, sometimes even within one temple. The couple of guides that were willing to talk to me about how Buddhism is practiced helped confirm what I have read. In China, as well as in South East Asia, “Buddhism” as practiced is mixed with traditional religions, including beliefs in many gods and spirits in trees, stones and other inanimate objects, having been highly influenced by Taoism (emphasizing inner communion with nature) and undoubtedly other traditional religions. Ghosts and spirits are widely believed in as well.

A handful of animal figures represent key Chinese beliefs or values. The dragon is seen as both a dangerous and benevolent divine-like figure (in contrast to Western views of dragons), symbolizing power. The Phoenix represents the high value placed on longevity on life. Fierce mythological, winged creatures (guardians) are frequently depicted in sculptures and art.

As opposed to Theravada Buddhists (see “What the Buddhists Taught Me” under the category of “Inter-Faith Dialogue at https://spirit-ledleader.com/?p=24), Mahayana (major way) Buddhism is practiced in China. Mahayana Buddhists are likely to view Buddha as a spirit to whom they can pray and who can come to help them. Like Hindus, Chinese Buddhists are likely to believe “in all the gods” (as one Chinese Buddhist informed me). Perhaps the closest parallel to Christians’ belief in a loving, gracious God who sent his Son for the redemption of humanity may be found among those Mahayana Buddhists  who see Buddha as benevolent, helping those who pray to him and inspiring enlightened Buddhists, called, Bodhisattvas. Refusing to enter Nirvana, Bodhisattvas choose to return to human incarnation to serve humanity until all reach enlightenment.

The Communist government has been officially atheistic since 1949, and during the Cultural Revolution (1965-67, especially), the Red Guard attempted to sweep away belief in the gods, including the traditional religious beliefs held by the masses. Religion was even outlawed for awhile. Today many young people consider themselves atheists, but practically, syncretistic forms of religion (a mixing of religious beliefs and practices from various traditions) exist in many places. In the past ten years, the number of Chinese people saying they are religious has tripled, and now represents over 30% of the population.

These shifts are very promising for the future of China, in my opinion. Largely stripped of the cultural dependence on superstition and ancient religious practices, a spiritual vacuum has been created.

But who and what is going to fill this spiritual vacuum? Where will they turn for spiritual wisdom and guidance?

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China Today

This is the first of several weekly postings on my recent 18 day visit to China.

CHINA

Awe, Emptiness and Strange, Uneasy Feelings

I’ve struggled to find adequate words to describe my impressions and feelings that grow out of my 18 days in China, this great nation of 1.3 billion people whose philosophical and religious foundations are markedly different from my own. I was awed by the beauty of the mountains and intrigued by the history of the people, whose fierce national pride was evident everywhere. Yet, I often felt empty touring the country, led by guides that took great pride in China’s historic landmarks, but had so little to say about the meaning or vision of China today.

I became aware of many cultural differences from the West, though not as many as I had assumed. In fact, what surprised me the most—and even troubled me—was how at home I often felt.  I came away sad for the Chinese people, challenged to look more closely at the emptiness in my own life and culture, and resolved to let my light shine more brightly.

If all the Chinese people see when they see America is our materialism and economic prosperity (we were told repeatedly that everyone in China thinks of Americans as rich), then we have failed them. If all they see in me is a nice person with lots of money, then I have failed them. I came home asking myself, “How can I let Christ transform me more thoroughly, and shine through me more brightly?”

Impressions

In Beijing, home of the 2008 Olympics, I toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. A huge portrait of Mao hung from one building, repainted every year to keep it looking new. When asked about the June 4, 1989, our tour guide simply replied that she was too young to know anything about what happened there—leaving us with a curious and disturbing ellipsis in our introduction to China.

The “9999”  buildings/rooms of the Forbidden City, once the exclusive abode of emperors and their entourage, are now ghostly reminders of a bygone era, sparsely decorated, without vibrancy or much symbolic meaning for a modern China. I felt empty touring this great historical site, wondering what connection remained between the ancient dynasties and symbols and the modern communist culture. I was to feel empty often as we toured China, seeing and hearing about the great symbols from a bygone era alongside new skyscrapers and an improved standard of living for many, yet with no sense of purpose or meaning other than getting ahead for themselves and their nation.

The Temple for the God of Heaven excited me. I thought that perhaps here was evidence that the ancient Chinese had worshipped the Creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition under a different name. Apparently not. The Chinese God of Heaven was a fertility god, someone to whom the Emperor offered sacrifices in order to procure good crops. The worship of this god also provided a basis for a type of emperor cult, whereby the ruler was honored as the son of the God of Heaven.

When walking six miles on the Great Wall of China, a 4000 mile Wonder of the world, built to help protect China from northern invaders, I again felt a mixture of awe and emptiness. I was inspired by the beauty of the mountains, exhausted by the near vertical climbs and descents, and impressed by the massive accomplishment. I was also horrified thinking that an estimated 2-3 million people died building the wall. The wall played an important role in its day, but had little purpose for modern China. Why were we shown the wall, but given no reflection on what such choices meant for the Chinese people, especially all those who died?

In Xi’an (pronounced Shi-an), we got a chance to see the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, thousands of skillfully crafted, clay military figures buried under ground by the first emperor of China. Xin (pronounced Chin) unified the nation in 221 B.C., became ruler at age 13, and began creating these warriors then. The craftsmanship is amazing. Infantry, cavalry, archers, chariots, and horses were built and placed underground, because he thought that he would need an army in the afterlife. I could not get an answer as to how he thought this great terra cotta army would help, but he apparently he believed they would. He used 720,000 criminals and prisoners of war to build them and place them in position.

Meanwhile, he required local farmers to work half a year to provide food for himself and others in his court. One year after his premature death, and after one of his sons killed 17 of his brothers and other relatives to secure his succession, the peasants rose up in a violent revolt. The guide offered no commentary, but the peasants from the past did. They broke into his underground system and smashed almost all of the thousands of terra cotta figures, as evidence of their rage.

Shanghai was very impressive. The Bund—a riverside street lined with reconstructed buildings in the British style, first built after Great Britain forced its way into the city to set up commerce in the mid 19th century—was striking and beautiful. Across the river were huge, modern buildings, most of which have been built in the past decade or two. The largest is the Pearl TV tower, over 1500 feet high!

As China has become more prosperous over the past 10-15 years, many good things have been happening for the people. Many are still poor indeed, but I was told that the standard of living is improving markedly for many, fewer are going hungry, and more goods and services are becoming available for more people, even though the average person still doesn’t have a lot of money to spend.

Yet, buildings are going up at a breakneck pace and an increasing number of five star hotels are appearing in Shanghai and Beijing especially, and not just for foreigners. Market places are swarming with Chinese tourists, with only a smattering of Westerners to pay the marked up prices. Stores in tourist areas sell name brand clothing (or knockoffs) at American prices or higher. KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks are all there, too.

On the surface, Shanghai is becoming New York, with far more people. Modern China, especially in the urban areas we visited, looked very western in many ways. I was told that if I were to get out more into the country, especially into Tibet and other western regions I would see much more of the ancient Chinese culture, but where I was visiting, I saw the effects of globalization. In spite of great philosophical and religious differences between East and West, modern commercial China and America are starting to look more and more alike.

Is this a good thing?

Next week: Chinese Religion and Culture–Growing Spiritual Interest in a Religious Vacuum 

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Conversing in “Post-Modern”

Holding spiritual conversations in a post-modern culture can be quite difficult at times, especially for evangelical Christians and those who still approach religion from a “modern” point of view. Yet, there is a great need for pastors, leaders and other individual Christians to learn how to think, listen and talk in post-modern categories, and to upgrade their understanding of God—not to something other than it is, but to use language and ways of thinking that incorporate post-modern insights and values.

For some of us, this means learning to not freak out or dismiss someone who doesn’t believe in absolute truth, or who doesn’t believe the Bible is inerrant, or who thinks there may be multiple ways to God. Instead of reacting, we need to listen for ways God appears to be at work in someone’s life, and not be overly concerned about philosophical or theological “accuracy.”

I don’t pretend to be an expert on post-modern thinking, but I do know that many people today simply assume, as self-evident, that everything is relative—truth is not something that is universal, but varies from person to person: “I have my truth, you have yours.” This is markedly different from the “modernistic” thinking that grew out of the Enlightenment, which consistently looked for laws of the universe, correct theology, and absolute truths in every area possible.

Now, before I get too thick with all this, my main point is this: If you want post-modern oriented people to listen to you, you need to learn how to listen to with an open mind and post-modern ears. Meaningful spiritual conversation with post-modern thinking people will require more humility and flexibility. I’m not talking about relinquishing your own beliefs or renouncing what you believe God has taught you through the Bible and experience. I’m talking about being more willing to admit your limitations as a subjective human being. I mean acknowledging that when you make a statement about God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, you are making “faith statements,” not verifiable statements of fact.

Now, you may be 100% right about this or that, but the post-modern thinker will not be convinced no matter how much the Bible seems to agree with you, or how “certain” you feel. So, if this is what a post-modern environment means for many, traditional evangelicals need to find a way to talk about spirituality, to share their own faith and beliefs about God, to discuss spiritual experiences, and to read the Bible with others that is less dogmatic (that is, less insistent that you know the truth and anyone who disagrees with you must be wrong), and more open to God’s mysterious, loving ways of being at work in individual lives that may transcend our ability to fit into neat theological formulae.

In other words, Christians who want to have a meaningful conversation with someone who thinks “post-modern,” will listen first, and talk second. And when we talk, we will share our own story of real life experience—why we believe in God personally, why we have put our faith in Jesus, why we ask the Holy Spirit to fill us and lead us, and so forth. We may certainly share verses from Scripture, but not to tell others what they must think or believe, but to share wisdom from spiritual heroes and giants, and to explain how these verses have been helpful to us personally.

When talking to post-modern folks about the inspiration of the Bible, remember that they are not simply going to take your word for it, no matter what authority-figure you may appeal to. Instead, they want to know what is your story, how has your faith and your experience with God made a difference in your life, and why do you still believe in the midst of so many troubling questions. They not only want to not hear your word and ideas, they also want to “feel” from you that God is real in your life and in how you treat them. They want to experience “the real thing” in you as they are trying to figure out what the real thing is for themselves.

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Horror and Hope in Africa

(Warning: Some of the material in this posting is very graphic and disturbing.)

Our car tires kept crashing into huge pot holes every ten feet on the only “paved” road through Goma, Congo. We bounced along, veering to the right and left to avoid the worst of craters, and a steady stream of cars and motorcycles weaving in and out of our “lane.” The slow, torturous commute gave me a lot of time to see the row of lean-tos and shacks in each side of the road, and the many people hanging out, hawking items, walking here and there…

More disturbingly, I watched dirty children in tattered clothes playing in rusted out abandoned cars on top of hardened lava. For some of these kids, the cars were their homes. However, I was told, the situation out in the country was worse. Far worse.

I heard story after story of violent robbery, rape, killing, and corruption. Feelings of shock soon gave way to anger, dismay and despair. Mr. Kurtz’s final words, in Joseph Conrad’s disturbing novel, Heart of Darkness, kept coming to mind: “The horror. The horror.”

In the story, Kurtz had gone to what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, as an idealist. He left it a sick, degenerated, savage man, who had become captive to his evil impulses. The story explores the evil (the darkness) that lies within even the most noble human heart, and what can happen when it is left unchecked. The horror refers to what humans can degenerate to, and what they are capable of doing to one another and to themselves, given the right conditions and lack of safeguards. As he lay dying, heading home from Africa, the depth of the horror he had experienced and participated in was expressed in his now famous words.

In our recent trip to Rwanda and Congo, my wife, Jill, and I were exposed to some of the horrors still taking place in our world. We have just returned from visiting the Genocide War Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, where we saw and heard the story of how approximately 1,000,000 people were slaughtered in just over 100 days. We also spent a week leading a Pastors Leadership Conference in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 4,000,000 died in a five year civil war, which involved surrounding countries as well and the overthrow of a brutal dictator. The war officially ended in 2003, but senseless killing, maiming, and raping are still going on in the Kivu regions in eastern DRC. I hardly have the words to describe the revulsion and fury I feel, but I must try to express what I experienced. I also saw a few reasons for hope, and I want to share those with you, too.

The Horror
The horrors of the human capacity for evil exist in every culture, in every people group, in every nation, and in every person. Often, many of us are ignorant of the abuses taking place in our own community, let alone the rest of the world. Periodically, the scale of the atrocities becomes so great that they cannot be hidden—genocides against the Armenians in Turkey during the First World War; against the Jews during the Holocaust; the killing of millions by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after the Vietnam War; ethnic cleansings on every continent, the brutal killings of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda over decades, culminating in the great 100 day genocide in 1994; Darfur today. The list goes on and on.

I offer my experience and learning partly to inform others about what has happened and is happening in two African countries. Even more, I want to sound an alarm and call to action. There is human suffering all over the globe, including in our own country, cities, and some of our own families. We need to see what is happening, we need to see what part each of us plays in the suffering of others, and we need to do what we can to respond compassionately and thoughtfully. No easy answers here, but a recognition that we must pay better attention to the consequences of our actions, and inaction.

During the civil war, when four million people were killed in Congo, and since, unimaginable violence and atrocities have been committed. For example, I saw an independent film while I was there that included footage of two armed men abusing the bodies of two dead combatants, who looked to be just teenagers. One put his finger in a bullet hole in the dead boy’s head, and pulled back some of the skin as one would remove a mask, effectively peeling away part of his face. Another fighter stomped on head of a dead person. Another began to mutilate the dead body, before the camera turned elsewhere.

Today, in Congo, much of the country is gripped by great poverty, and the violence continues. In Goma, where I spent all of my time last week, most people are afraid to go out after dark lest they get attacked or shaken down by dishonest soldiers. Almost everyone is afraid to go into the countryside in many places, lest they might be robbed and killed, or worse, raped and mutilated by militias or rebels. On top of the political and social mayhem, a volcanic eruption in 2002 wiped out at least a third of Goma, ruined most of the roads, and further destroyed the infrastructure of the city. Most people are now living in simple wood shacks built on top of lava rock, waiting for the next eruption of the active volcano.

What’s perhaps most disturbing is the ongoing violence and the extent of brutality. The day before we left, for example, an alarmed foreign journalist ran up to me to tell me about an interview she had just completed with one of the women waiting for surgery at HEAL Africa’s hospital. The woman had been raped by six men out in the countryside. When they were done gratifying their lust, they took broken glass and cut off her labia. No wonder thousands of internally displaced people (IDP’s) have fled to various camps in the countryside to escape the violence and the threat of such terrifying violations and brutality.

I don’t have words to describe how sick some of these stories make me feel. What produces such cruelty, such viciousness, such brutality, such evil? No one seems to know. Hate perhaps, but why? If there are political purposes, no one can satisfactorily identify them. Terror, perhaps, but often the violation and violence seems purposeless, carried out by out-of-control teenagers with guns, who are filled with unimaginable hate and viciousness.

The better known genocide in Rwanda is another example of mind numbing violence in Africa. I had read a number of articles about what happened in 1994, but I didn’t realize how much more there was to the story. The Memorial states that over one million people were butchered, hacked with machetes, shot, burned, bludgeoned, and buried alive in a little over 100 days. Did you also know that the genocide against the Tutsi minority was pre-meditated, with lists of names prepared in advance of the onslaught? Within an hour of the assassination of the President in April 1994, roadblocks were set up all over Kigali, and gangs of armed people went out to systematically kill every Tutsi in the city. Over the coming months, as the United Nations and the rest of the world stood by doing nothing, these killers set out to exterminate the entire Tutsi population in the country. Did you also know that 350,000 orphans were left behind? Did you know that thousands of others still live with mutilations, trauma, and other physical and emotional scars? Did you know that killing is still going among Hutus and Tutsis, with Tutsis killing Hutus and Hutus killing Tutsis–only now the proxy war is being fought across the border, in the DRC, with thousands of Congolese getting caught in the middle?

I didn’t. To my embarrassment, I never thought about what it must be like for the survivors and for the country as a whole as the people try to heal and to promote peace and unity among all citizens. I tended to think of the genocide as a very unfortunate moment in history, now past. After visiting Rwanda and Congo, I now realize that the trauma goes on, even though Kigali has been sanitized and so much “guilt money” (as one aid worker described it) from foreign powers has poured in to help the country rebuild itself.

As we walked down the streets where thousands of dead and dying bodies had once been strewn, I tried to let in the magnitude of what had happened in a sudden surge of hate and savagery. As I drove by those convicted of genocidal crimes, now dressed in pink doing work for the community under armed guard, I tried to catch a glimpse of the faces of killers. Disturbingly, they looked like everyone else in society—normal human beings.

I met a number of survivors, such as Theoneste Kiki, who has been raising his three younger sisters since he was seven years old and his parents were murdered in front of his eyes. I realized that it is now almost 14 years that many orphans have been struggling to raise themselves and their siblings with very little help from others, many of whom are in similar situations. Healing and health are still a long way away for many.

Hope
Thank God, there is also some light and hope in these countries. Here and there, I see good signs. Rwanda is far ahead of Congo in most ways. Both countries are struggling, but Rwanda has many more visible signs of recovery, while Congo is still be torn apart in every imaginable way.

Mostly, I see hope in individual Africans who are rising up to try to address the suffering and to help their fellow Africans heal and create a better life. Non-Government Organizations (NGO’s) provide critical relief for many who are on the verge of death or disease. However, so much more is needed, and only the African people themselves can create a better society for themselves in the long run. Fortunately, some are trying to do just that. Let me give you just a few examples from what I saw in one week’s time.

HEAL Africa (http://www.healafrica.org) was created by a Congolese man, Joe Luci, and his wife, Lyn. Their vision is for Healing, Education, Action, and Leadership training. So far, most of their efforts have been focused on creating a hospital and clinic to serve the poor. HEAL Africa has also been creating Nehemiah groups to promote dialogue and cooperation in the villages to address pressing needs. These rural community-based programs work with local health centers, health and HIV education, economic recovery, legal initiatives and school scholarships.

At HEAL Africa, featured in a recent PBS special, “Lumo,” I also met a number of dedicated Congolese doctors, nurses, and other staff members who are seeking to bring healing, provide health education, and provide antiretroviral drugs for AIDS patients and children who are HIV positive. I was inspired by these people, as I was by Dr. Christina and other foreign doctors like her, who volunteer their time and resources on a short term basis. Visiting surgeons come to do fistular repair work on women who were brutally rapes or who sustained injuries incurred while giving birth at home at a very young age. Currently there are over 100 women waiting for operations.

Through the Pastors Leadership Conference, I met many pastors and others who are very committed to alleviating suffering, caring for traumatized rape victims and displaced persons, and to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I was particularly moved by hearing an Anglican bishop and HEAL Africa staff talk of their work with impoverished widows and shunned rape victims. In various ways they are supporting and helping these desperate women to learn skills and get material to start their own small businesses so that they can feed themselves and their children.

I was only in Rwanda for one day, but I had the chance to meet one particular woman whose tireless dedication helped understand better the plight of the orphans and what is needed to truly help. Beatrice Mukansinga, who founded a small outreach, “Speak. I’m Listening!” (See: http://www.mbwirandumva.org.) Beatrice, and her staff, has devoted much of the last fourteen years of her life to helping Rwandan orphans to grow up and survive the post-genocide years. They offer food, job skills, and post-trauma counseling.

A Response of Resolve
When I was at the Genocide War Memorial and read about the brutal slayings of over one million defenseless people, and when I hear about the atrocities being committed against women, children and men in the Congo countryside, and when I hear about abuse and neglect by individuals and governments all over the world, sometimes hate and rage wells up within me. But I realize that it is just such feeling that leads to violence and perpetuating suffering. Such rage is not going help anyone.

Instead, I am choosing a different, more constructive, response: resolve. I am resolved to pay better attention to the suffering I cause in others, and to find better ways to promote peaceful conflict resolution. I am resolved to not turn away from suffering, injustice, exploitation, and cruel acts of abuse and neglect when I see or hear of them. I am resolved to focus my attention, energies, and resources on standing up for those who need advocacy and on doing what I can to help. By God’s grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, I hope that my intentioned response will result in real changes in me and fruitful action for others.

I hope I can return to Africa to help in some way again this year. I also plan to travel again to various troubled spots in Asia to teach and encourage pastors and seminarians there as well. In the few small ways open to me, I am resolved to do what I can. I’m only one little light in a world of great darkness, but I am resolved to let my light shine as best I can.

The world needs your light, too. In the midst of all the horror, what hope can you offer to others somewhere, anywhere, within your reach?

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1-2, 13-16)

**Check out my wife’s website for pictures of the labyrinth she built for the Pastors Leadership Conference, and to read about the experiences of the participants who walked it: http://www.jillkhg.com/Congolabyrinth2007.html.

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Hopes and Dreams

All I got was a blank stare. I had asked the group what their hopes and dreams for the future were. At first, no one knew what to say.

One person hoped he didn’t run out of money before he died. Another was scared about getting dementia. Someone else said he’d be happy just to get enough business to make ends meet. On the other end of the spectrum, another person dreamt of winning the lottery and winning the Pulitzer Prize, even though she doesn’t buy lottery tickets and doesn’t write much anymore.

Finally, someone blurted out that he doesn’t think in those categories. Hopes? Dreams? He’s just trying to get through life!

I felt sad for the “quiet desperation” I was hearing. At the same time, I was perplexed and deeply troubled. I continually meet people who seem to have no vision for their life. I hear comments that suggest that hopes and dreams are only for the rich, the lucky, the privileged. One pastor of a large, growing church even told me realizing one’s dreams doesn’t apply to 98% of the world’s population.

What? If Christians cannot hope for a better life, to realize their God-given dreams, or to fulfill their purpose in life, what in the world is he preaching and teaching?

Now, to be fair, the people who tell me that that hopes and dreams are not for them often are thinking about all that they cannot do. They have reluctantly come to the point of accepting that some secret aspiration that they have had is beyond their reach—becoming President of the United States, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, being a world explorer, or something equally grand. Or they feel demoralized after looking at someone else who has more money, more talent, more education, or more opportunity. With a twinge of envy, resentment, or resignation, they conclude that pursuing one’s hopes and dreams is only for a lucky few.

But does realistic thinking mean that there are not hopes and dreams that we can pursue? Do the special privileges of a few mean that we should give up on hoping and dreaming for ourselves?

I don’t think so. The nature, size and scale of our hopes and dreams will vary widely among us, but cannot nearly everyone aspire to something that they desire but is not yet a reality?

Abraham Maslow argued that humans must first meet “lower” level of needs before they will be able to pursue higher ones. That is, we start with seeking to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and security. Only when these needs are met are we able to move to higher level needs, such as love, friendship, self esteem, and ultimately self-actualization. As a general rule, I think he’s right. Yet, how many people have let anxiety over lower level needs unnecessarily keep them from simultaneously pursuing higher level needs?

Here’s another problem. When we talk about hopes and dreams, so often people think in terms of wealth, status, power, comfort, or material gain. Thus, those who think that they aren’t the lucky ones, or as smart or talented as others, or who don’t have the same opportunities as others, sometimes falsely conclude that there is no point to hoping and dreaming for them.

But what about hoping and dreaming in different categories? What about a dream of closer relationships? What about building a stronger community? What about joy from serving others? What about knowing and loving God better? What about pursuing meaning and purpose in one’s life? What about simply finding peace in the midst of so many situations outside of our control? These things are not dependent on luck, financial resources, or special opportunity. In fact, some of the materially poorest people in the world are some of the most vibrant people I have ever met. Yes, they have some unfulfilled hopes and dreams, but many also have other blessings—joy, friendship, community, meaning, purpose, vitality and so forth. These qualities of life might very well be available to more of us as well—if we would learn to hope and dream in these categories.

The many people I’ve been meeting, interviewing, teaching, coaching and observing lately show me that hopes and dreams can fuel vision for almost anybody’s life—with very good results. To know what one most values and cherishes, to believe that God has planted dreams in our hearts to serve God’s purposes, and to pursue a vision for a more fulfilling and purposeful life, is powerful, motivating, and life-changing. No matter how hard the work, or how frustrating such a pursuit can be at times, I can’t imagine not living with hopes and dreams.

Next week I leave for the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over 4 million people have been killed in civil war in the past decade or so. I will be leading a Pastors Leadership Conference, teaching and speaking to people who have struggled with basic survival needs to an extent I have never known. Will I find people who still have hopes and dreams beyond survival there? Will suffering Christians still have a vision for a more vital spiritual life, for healthier churches, for caring for one another effectively, for love and friendship, and for other “higher” level needs and aspirations? I don’t know. My experience suggests, yes.

What do you think? Are hopes and dreams beyond survival and security just for the lucky few in our world?

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What about other religions?

So far, I’ve been able to identify three or four really good reasons to engage in inter-faith dialogue: to learn from more about other religions from real adherents, to promote peace and harmony among different peoples, and to work together to address common societal problems, such as poverty or hunger. Tony Jones suggested a fourth to me based on his experience: to seek a special experience of God in the midst of the interaction and dialogue.

Evangelism, then, is different from inter-faith dialogue. Each has its place, but it’s important to know what your goal is when talking to others. When I visited Thailand, for example, my goal was not evangelism, but learning and growth. Thus, I focused on listening rather than talking, except when asked a question. At times I had an opportunity to express my own faith in Jesus Christ and appreciation for my personal relationship with God. I also had a number of opportunities to express my deep appreciation for Jesus’ role as Savior, because, in contrast, Theravada Buddhists rely entirely on themselves for their hope of reaching Nirvana. Most of the time, though, I just listened and tried to let God speak to me through the encounter, since that is why I went. I hoped for more interaction, but few of those I interviewed seemed interested in what I believed or might say. Surprising and disappointing.

Interfaith dialogue also raises some very important questions that all Christians need to address. Just what is God’s involvement in the 4 billion plus people in the world who do not place their faith in Jesus Christ, and what is their ultimate fate? They’re not new questions, but they have taken on new urgency as our world has gotten so much smaller. (Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims living next door; internet connecting us nearly everywhere in the world, better information about the values and practices of other religions, etc.) We simply cannot ignore the question of how Christianity fits in with all the other world religions, unless we want to render ourselves irrelevant in an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

But there are no easy answers here. Along with points of connection, which are more numerous than many acknowledge, there clearly seem to be irreconcilable differences. For example, is God relevant or irrelevant in life? Do we need a savior or is our ultimate hope (liberation perhaps) entirely dependent on ourself? Is Jesus the only way to forgiveness and eternal life, or are other prophets/saviors/teachers equally reliable?

If you’re an “exclusivist” the answer is easy: Jesus/Christianity is the right way, and everyone else is wrong. If that position feels uncomfortable, since it leaves about 4 billion people in deep doo doo, you might posit that Christ is actually saving nonChristians in some mysterious, hidden way (the “inclusive” view). Or more popular still among some is assuming that somehow all religions are different paths to the same end (the “pluralistic” view).

The issue, of course, if those who conceive of Christianity in exclusive terms are right, is how could a loving God pass over two thirds of the world? Is God truly just and loving if so many are bound for eternal damnation, since they have so little hope of hearing the Gospel message in terms they can understand and receive? However, according to traditional scriptural interpretation, there are numerous passages to suggest just such a dismal scenario.

Pluralism, on the other extreme, seems to offer the best hope for promoting peace among religions/peoples and affirming the relative goodness (or lack thereof) in all human beings (including Christians). It also seems more plausible to many that God would be at work throughout the world and not just among one third of its population. But as attractive as it sounds, where is the basis for believing in pluralism, other than in our wishful thinking? There are verses that can be found to support the possibility of universal salvation in one form or another, but what do we make of all the other verses that suggest otherwise? Meanwhile, no other major religion suggests there is universal salvation/liberation outside of their own belief system either.

Philosopher-theologian John Hick (see particularly, A Christian Theology of Religions) has been working for decades to create a meta religious view to incorporate all religions under one big umbrella. Basically, he starts with his conclusion: there must be a way for all religions that promote true transformation and social concern to be authentic responses to God/Reality. He then sets out to show how there is indeed this common thread in all religions and to dispense with assertions about Christian uniqueness. Where exclusive teaching is found in any religion (which turns out to be nearly every religion), it is to be rejected in favor of Hick’s hypothesis, because he is committed to his conclusion from the onset. Now before you throw stones at his position, take up his challenge: find an alternative explanation for why 2/3 of the world pursues God/Reality more or less as urgently as Christians do and why they have more or less the same moral code and same level of morality! (His book is a must read for anyone who is seriously grappling with this issue. Countless books and articles have been written challenging him, and you can find many references to these in Hick’s footnotes.)

For me, I am in process on these issues. My main concerns are these: 1) If God is a God of love and grace revealed in Jesus Christ, what is the plan for the majority of the world who don’t know God this way? 2) Why do so many who hear the Gospel still prefer to stick with their own religion? There are obvious social, political, and cultural barriers, not to mention a lot of misinformation about Christianity, but why doesn’t the Holy Spirit seem to get through to more people? 3) Are Christians truly more spiritual, moral, or “transformed” than those of other religions? Most of the true believers from various Christian sects, so-called cults, and other religions, with whom I have discussed spirituality and morality, seem quite similar to people I’ve met in traditional Christian churches. Some are more devout, more moral, more generous, more kind–almost, more “Christ-like” than a good many Christians. There are reasonable answers to each of these questions, but my encounters with others is leading me to stay open to broader possibilities than I would once consider.

I have other issues, but too many to address here. My main point is that there are many valid questions for the exclusivist position that demand thoughtful answers. The inclusivist and pluralist positions are not panaceas, though. We are dealing with very challenging questions for those who both take Scripture seriously and who also are willing to face the truth about reality all around us. I don’t think our goal should be to try to come up with easy answers as much as it is to learn how to listen better to others and to talk about what is real in our lives, not just what we might believe in our heads.

So, please join me in seeking to be honest about what we’re experiencing and learning. Be authentic and open. Be loving, gracious, and kind. Seek to listen and learn. If the Christian God is all that we Christians claim our Lord to be, we have no need to fear genuine questions, meeting people who are different, and engaging in sincere conversations and dialogue with them–for all the reasons listed in the first paragraph.

Caveat: However, I do recommend engaging in inter-faith dialogue from a well grounded position. Or to put it in Jesus’ words, be sure to “abide” in him if you want your life to bear much fruit (John 15).

What I mean is this: Along the way of exploration, questioning and seeking answers, keep seeking to grow in your knowledge of and love for God. Do not lose sight of the main Christian goal of transformation: not just to become a better person, but to become more like Christ (Romans 8:29; 12:1-2). Keep seeking to be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. Staying grounded spiritually is safer for you, and will make you a far more effective dialogue partner! You’ll actually have more to share.

What about all the other religions? I don’t know what to think for sure, and probably never will in my lifetime. But I’m going to keep asking the questions, seeking answers, and engaging others who believe differently than I do, while staying close to the God I already know along the way. Let’s be humble enough to learn from others, acknowledging that we don’t know everything about God/Ultimate Reality. We stand on a solid Rock that moves with us. Let’s not be afraid of the quest or the encounter with “others”.

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What the Buddhists Taught Me

Buddhist monks in Bangkok with Tim

Buddhist monks in Bangkok with Tim

Southeast Asia was a great experience for me. I spent four weeks in Myanmar and Thailand interviewing Buddhist monks, Christian and Buddhist professors of religion, directors of inter-faith dialogue programs, and peace workers. I now have a much better understanding of Buddhism and realize that many Christians have underestimated or misunderstood its insights and contributions. In terms of actual religious practice, many of us could take a lesson or two from the barefoot men and women in shaved heads and simple robes.

-Toward a Better Understanding-
There is no historic connection between the origins of Christianity and Buddhism—neither one was influenced by the other as far as anyone can tell. Buddhism arose out of the soil of Hinduism in the sixth century B.C., in Nepal; and Christianity out of Judaism in the first century A.D., in Palestine. But in spite of the mutual independence of the two great traditions, there are many important parallel lines of thought. When there are differences, the contrasts are very interesting and worth contemplating.

Buddhist teaching (Dharma) and Christian teaching (New Testament) have much in common in several respects. For example, both more or less emphasize putting one’s faith into action, love and compassion, personal transformation, and seeking inner peace. Definitions, methods and priorities differ at times, but Buddhism and Christianity share similar core values, especially in the realm of ethics and personal morality.

Differences between the religions are trickier to identify. First, much ignorance and misunderstanding exists between practioners of Buddhism and Christianity. So, sometimes, apparent differences are exaggerated or invented by one group that truly doesn’t understand the other. For example, Buddhists often charge Christians with being satisfied with just belief without actions, while Christians counter that Buddhists are all about action without faith in God. While it is true that Buddhism emphasizes self-reliance and Christians rely on grace from God, Buddhists also have a type of faith in the truth and wisdom of the Reality behind their teaching, and Christians also emphasize the importance of good works as an outgrowth of grace and companion of faith. I’m not saying the two religions are essentially the same. In my opinion, they are not. I’m saying that they may be more alike and have more in common than many often realize.

Second, as is true among Christian theologians, clergy and parishioners, there is a big gap between what Buddhist monks and the average Buddhist believe and practice. This means that it may seem easy to identify differences between doctrines written in the Buddhist Scriptures (Dharma) and the New Testament. However, in real life, beliefs and practice widely vary. Official teaching is often quite different from what the man and woman on the street actually believe and do.

For example, many Theravada Buddhist monks (principally from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos) either do not believe in God or consider God irrelevant to Buddhist practice. However, at the same time, the vast majority of ordinary Buddhists from the same countries are very concerned about spirits, gods and angels. Both monks and laypeople believe in Karma (the good or evil you do now will come back to you in the next life in one form or another—i.e., “what goes around comes around”). However, the typical monk is eager to escape the cycle of reincarnation, while the average Buddhist is mostly concerned about enjoying this life and avoiding making the next one worse. The monks really want to achieve enlightenment and Nirvana, total liberation from human existence. The person on the street has been taught to be content with his or her life as is.

Thus, in dialoguing with Buddhism and Buddhists, we need to differentiate between official teaching and the life and practice of the millions of adherents. We also need to know what our goal is in dialogue. We can examine ideas with the educated; we can compare religious practices of the person in the pew to the person at the pagoda; or we can join with like-hearted fellow human beings of different religious backgrounds to work to solve common problems and promote world peace. Each goal has its place.

Definitively defining Buddhism remains challenging, because emphases, perspectives, teachings and application vary according to region, exposure to traditional religions, personal conviction of various monks, and other factors I have yet to learn or fully understand. But the bottom line seems pretty clear. In all its different forms, a major theme keeps emerging: Buddhism is a religion for the here and now. In spite of how Buddhist monks may hope to reach Nirvana one day, in practice, they are focused on how to train their mind in order to change their life. Many would also like to change the world, too.

-What I appreciate the most-
Beyond giving me a greater understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist practice, my experience in Asia has been inspiring. The teachings and practices are already helping me to become a better Christian. I say this not because Buddhists are teaching me about Christianity, but because their faith, convictions and way of being in the world are helping me to think through my own faith and life in a fresh way.

On the top of my list for most appreciated insights are the following:

  • Buddhists emphasize the tragic consequences of greed and the misguided nature of materialism—money not only does not buy happiness, the western obsession with it is causing grief and anxiety all over the globe.
  • Buddhists are often gentle, giving, friendly and respectful of all life, exposing dangerous ideologies that separate human beings from nature and other human beings.
  • Buddhist monks focus on daily meditation, living simply, and cultivating purity, wisdom and compassion—thinking and doing good is more important than anything else.
  • Buddhists live in the here and now, and highly value becoming better people.

The goal of devout Buddhists is to reach Nirvana. But Nirvana is not a place in space and time; it’s a state of mind that actually frees a person from all attachment to this world. They call it liberation—being free from all selfish drives, impulses, reactions, desires, consciousness, perceptions and feelings. In order to reach Nirvana, they practice meditation to eliminate ignorance, to train their minds, and to let go of their mental and emotional attachments. They want to be free from every aspect of what humans consider normal “life,” because these things lead to suffering. Their highest goals are purity, wisdom and compassion (selfless love for others). When they truly experience this right perspective and actions, they will be enlightened. Enlightenment eventually culminates in Nirvana—total happiness (bliss).

There is much in Buddhism that resonates with Jesus’ teaching and some that is at odds with it. Overall, though, the Buddhist monks have helped me to understand a very important principle of Christian spirituality in a clearer way: Those who truly believe in the teaching and ideals of a religion will show it by their level of devotion, faith, and practical actions.

-What this all means for my Christian faith-
As a Christian, I greatly appreciate another religious tradition that also prioritizes love, compassion, and personal transformation. Buddhism’s high ethical standards and values encourage me to continue to pursue inter-faith dialogue, and gives me hope that there may be millions of Buddhist allies in humankind’s pursuit of world peace.

On a more personal level, observing the beliefs and practices of Buddhist monks has challenged me to be more serious about my own religious practice. I feel inspired to become more intentional, dedicated and consistent in pursuing greater spiritual maturity and personal transformation. I have a new set of questions that I’m exploring: How can I learn to focus my mind better? How can I practice “letting go” of judgments, obsessions, concerns, and other emotionally charged distractions that keep me from focusing on Christ and serving Christ? How can I simplify my life to better utilize my time, energy and resources to fulfill my purpose in life? How can I more consistently and clearly communicate my values and devotion to Christ to others without words?

Surely progress is made in life when we put our minds, hearts and efforts into what we most value. The goal of Christian spirituality is to become more and more like Christ, in an ever deepening relationship with God; but this growth doesn’t just happen. Like it or not, change requires disciplined practice. And as far as I can tell, many Buddhist monks are way ahead of many Christians in walking (and sitting) their talk.

I also realized something else by reflecting on the Buddhists’ example: what I devote myself to now isn’t just for this life. Spiritual growth is also preparation for the next life. Buddhists practice and practice training their minds with the goal of reaching full enlightenment. What if we Christians were committed to practicing and practicing so that at death we were that much closer to the goal that God has in mind for us? I am not talking about trying to earn our salvation, but “working out our salvation” so that we may present ourselves to God as “pure and blameless” when Christ returns (Philippians 2:12-16).

Before anyone accuses me of promoting works-righteousness, let me assure you that I am talking about spiritual growth—positive changes in heart, mind and actions—that God produces by grace and the Holy Spirit. (See Philippians 1:6.) This is one of the most important differences between Christian faith and Buddhism—Buddhists look to themselves for the power to change, while Christians are taught to look to God for inner change. But paradoxically, this grace-based transformation also grows out of the believer’s response of obedience and effort.

In relational terms, serious devotion to spiritual growth means seeking to know Christ more and more, and to experience power and change through our relationship with him. The Apostle Paul described his intense commitment to his own spiritual growth this way:
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers [and Sisters], I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:9-14, NIV)

So much of what I learned and observed from my time with the Buddhists is already in my own scriptures or can be found in the history of Christian devotion and practice. The real contribution to me was not in discovering something new, but in seeing a faith in practice. The monks I met—those who focused on learning more, those who spent hours in meditation daily, those who were mostly concerned with helping HIV/AIDS victims, widows and orphans, along with those who devote themselves to alleviating human suffering—these individuals truly live what they believe.

I want to be that kind of Christian.

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Filed under Asia, Inter-Faith Dialogue, Spirit-Led Living/Spiritual Growth