Monday, October 27, 2014

Yu b'long Israel?

So now that I'm back at blogging, I thought I'd throw in a little reflection. Today in town I was asked if I was an Israelite or Jewish by two different strangers at different times. This is not the first time this has happened. I am currently sporting a beard, and for some reason many people have developed the idea that all Jewish men have big beards. Not too many white guys with big beards wander around Madang searching the corners of used clothes stores for books, so if you do see one, hey, maybe he's Jewish. I find several things about this experience fascinating.

When people ask this question, they are often excited. I once had a man literally sprint after me to ask me whether I was from Israel or not. The disappointment can sometimes be palpable when I admit I'm an American Christian. I'm not entirely sure why exactly the thought of meeting a Jewish person creates such excitement...but maybe I understand a little bit.

Is there an appeal to relating to the "God of the Old Testament"? I recently read some reflections from a German priest who had worked in the highlands of PNG during the 60's and 70's, back when most people in his area were not yet baptized (remember first contact with highlanders only began in the 1930's). He said that for his new Catholics their God was a "God of the Old Testament". Of course I feel uncomfortable whenever we speak this way. As many Church historians will point out to us, to speak of a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament as if there are two Gods and not one, leads us towards Marcionism. Marcion lived in the second century, and he really did believe that the "God of the Old Testament" was different and somehow evil.

This is distinct, though. While it may be a problem to speak of a different God in each Testament, we are not dealing with a rejection of the Old Testament. Antisemitism rooted in Christian symbols has been a real and common problem in our history. It is of course comforting to realize that this does not seem to be an issue here. Is it also a "problem" to have a sort of unbalanced Israelophilism? If it is unbalanced, could it more easily flip into antagonism?  Of course many Papua New Guineans may make no distinction between being Jewish, being "from Israel" and living a life like that described in the Bible. I would expect that many are not aware that the Temple has not actually been functioning for near 2,000 years. Here in PNG, some people who write letters to the newspaper are very excited about signing some sort of "covenant" that PNG could or has signed with the modern state of Israel.

Could this be seen as  a replacement for the covenant sealed in Christ's blood? As a Christian, the concern comes in if people are attracted to the idea of there being a chosen people who God gave laws to, but are only tangentially interested in Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's hopes. Then something is being believed that is neither quite Christianity nor Judaism.

Another memory from several months ago came back to me today. Again I was in town and I saw a more advanced preaching operation set up in an open space. A microphone and loudspeaker were set up. The preacher had his obligatory black slacks, white shirt, and tie, together with Bible in hand. But behind him people had set up a large hand-painted poster of some sort that showed Levites with the Ark of the Covenant. It was the sort of illustration I associate with my experience of Sunday School as a first grader or so. The preacher was mainly talking about birds of paradise, though. He was speaking passionately, but his usage of Scripture was incredibly loose. He mentioned some "blue throne" in Scripture(I believe referring to a sapphire throne in Ezekiel 10), and then went on to talk about a blue bird of paradise, which somehow represented a specific region of Papua New Guinea. Specific characteristics of this bird correlated to God's plan for this particular region.

His message was receiving more applause than I had ever heard other street preachers receive. Why? At the time I remember thinking that perhaps there is a desire to be Jewish, because we all desperately want to have our own place mentioned in the Bible. How nice it would be to have the place names of our own villages and lakes mentioned in the inspired Scriptures? Americans are certainly guilty of this. Whether we think America is the light shining on the hill, the whore of Babylon, or the promised land many people are convinced that America must somehow have a clear place in the book.

I don't have a clear thesis for this post. Those are just some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head today.

Monday, October 20, 2014

And There It Goes

So even though I already claimed that finally having regular internet access led to a paradoxical decrease in blogging, it is also true that having no to minimal internet access over the past few months had the same result. Some time in July our internet system installed at the school stopped working. We were eventually told that it was our job to extend our antenna tower by three meters so that it could work again. This has still not happened. But in mid August I went up to the highlands. When I returned, my laptop refused to start and it has persisted in that refusal. I am now borrowing a usb modem that is usable on a desktop in our office.

"Detoxing" from the internet has its advantages. I have found ways to check email and figure out travel plans...and have also inevitably realized how little "essential" business I actually need the internet for. 

And now I'm facing a home stretch. Three weeks to the end of the school year here. Four weeks until I leave PNG. I feel a bit more ready to go than I had expected to be. While in many ways I actually feel quite comfortable and at home here, it is also true that I feel ready to go "home" (which now appears to be a Hawaiian island that I've never really been to before). I have lived with the small strains of living cross-culturally here far more than I did in expat dominated Ukarumpa. I'm ready for some debriefing. More than that I'm ready to see family. And it wouldn't hurt to eat some Mexican food. 

For the next couple weeks, though, my life will be dominated by purple pieces of paper smeared with white. The paper is purple because a frugal rector of St Fidelis bought a massive container of assorted paper at a rock bottom price some time in the last millennium. We are still using this paper, but as you can imagine the thin, purple paper wasn't the first to get used. Our students are also enthusiastic about correction fluid. In typical PNG fashion, white out pens are passed, shared, and borrowed with incredible frequency. I've even given up trying to stop the practice during tests. The fact that the paper is not white doesn't seem to deter anyone. In short, I will be giving and grading tests and papers. Most of them will be purple with irregularly placed spots of white spread across them. I will try my best to revel in it and enjoy it. Who knows when I may have such an opportunity again! 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Haus Sik

When I came here a year and a half ago, I did not expect to function as an ambulance driver, but many times I kind of have, running sick students to the local health centre and back.

From my perspective, there are three layers to our health care system. First, here at the seminary we have a small “clinic” by which we mean an air-conditioned closet with some bandages and medicines in it. Secondly, there is a nearby Catholic health station at Sek/Alexishafen. It is not quite a hospital, but is a fairly large operation by PNG standards. And then lastly, there is Modilon Hospital, the provincial hospital in Madang town. I have only occasionally filled in at our “clinic”, when staff with more medical savoir were away. I have spent a significant amount of time waiting in lines at the Sek haus sik and the provincial hospital.

I have many observations.

At proper medical facilities, medicines and treatment are heavily subsidized, but you are not guaranteed that there will be either medicine or medical personnel at any given health facility. Recently the main provincial hospital was out of Panadol (painkiller/fever reducer) for about a month. At Sek, it costs three kina (about a dollar) to have a nurse look at you. Pregnant mothers can come on Tuesday for check-ups that only cost one kina.

Many people here rely on health clinics for diagnosis of ailments that many Americans self-diagnose and medicate with over the counter drugs. It is still treated as some sort of medical consultation when someone has a basic painkiller prescribed for a headache.

People also want to take Amoxicillin (an antibiotic) for almost every conceivable ailment. I was once told that infection, and not malaria, is the biggest killer in PNG, and that sounds believable. The health center at Sek certainly hands out a lot of Amoxicillin, and I’m sure there are good reasons for that. People also sell extra pills of it in the market, though, and this is one medicine which many people gladly use to self-medicate. I was surprised once when a student who had had a boil on his hand came to me and said that he had gotten three Amoxicillin from another student, and had taken them all at once, but even that hadn’t been enough to get rid of the boil.

I have begun to suspect that for many people including some of my students, modern medicine is still little different from magic. When we had a student in the hospital for a more extended period of time (for a mysterious ailment related to seizures), I was shocked by how little information the medical staff gave us. If we didn’t ask, we wouldn’t be told anything. Most people have no real source of actual medical information, and in many cases they don’t walk out of the hospital any more informed or educated than when they walked in.

My point in describing that is to say that really people can’t be blamed for regarding medicine as magic. I haven’t thought about this too deeply, but wouldn’t the distinction be that for medicine we know how it works physically through means that are repeatable, testable, and observable, whereas magic relies on the supernatural and therefore is not necessarily observable, testable, and repeatable. But if one is altogether ignorant of how medicines work (and thinks that magic is also repeatable), then the difference becomes quite a subtle one. And in that case, if a sickness is not easily identifiable by the doctors, then it kind of makes sense to suggest that it is likely caused by sorcery or “poison.”

In the wards, people come through twice a day and assess how patients are doing. In the common way of speaking about it, there are three things they can do. They can give 1) marasin (medicine), 2) sut (injection), or 3) drip (intravenous injection). In explanations, there is no distinction made between different kinds of injections and medicine, other than their “strength”. I believe this is one reason why people will buy antibiotics from each other for malaria and take malaria medicine for an infection.

It can be astounding, too, to see medical advice passed around that is blatantly false. For example, I have heard at least one student claim with an air of authority that since this is a hot climate (the highlanders still aren’t used to how hot and humid it is down here on the coast), one should drink less water. If you drink less, you will sweat less. And I guess it is true enough, but from my knowledge, itself limited, I think this theory may also explain a fair amount of our headaches.

I sometimes don’t know what I should feel about all of this.

I believe there is something spiritual, though, about spending time in a hospital ward here, even if it is deeply discomforting. There is an expression in pidgin: bun nating (nothing but bones). It was rare for me to see people who are truly bun nating in the States, but in the hospital here one can see it all aronud you. And then to remember in the midst of all the emotions that come when one is confronted with human suffering and radical inequality: these are the people God loves. These are the little ones that the whole Bible says God loves most. This is who Jesus identifies with. This is the sickness and disease that Jesus took on Himself.

To end on a little bit of a positive note, one uplifting thing that one observes in the health centres here is the absolute reliance of sick people on their relatives. The health care workers are there to occasionally look at you and give you marasin, drip, or sut, and to respond if you seem to be dying. They are not there to take care of you. If you need to be fanned, bathed, or say…drink water or eat, then you need to have someone from outside come to take care of you. So the wards are full of all sorts of other people there watching their sick loved ones. It can be truly beautiful to realize that for most Papua New Guineans relationships are everything. Everyone has someone watching them, and none of the caretakers seem to begrudge the time that they’re giving just hanging out in a ward with their loved one and dozens of other sick people for days on end.

And I believe that that is an important part of what a pro-life culture looks like. The more we begin to see people as people whose lives are sacred and of intrinsic and not merely utilitarian value, the more we move towards a a culture of life.

Friday, June 20, 2014

On Evangelicals Who Become Catholic

Clearly Evangelicalism and Catholicism is a theme of this blog (and my life). I stumbled upon a new article this morning and couldn't help passing it on. In this article, "I hated the Idea of Becoming Catholic", a Southern Baptist seminarian describes why he suddenly decided to become Catholic. He did so about a year after I became Catholic. I never really operated fully within the Southern Baptist "world", but think I had and have some sense of it. (In my amateur attempt to understand and explain it, the various spheres within evangelicalism all flow into and intermesh with other spheres but not every sphere overlaps with every other one. I was sometimes in spheres that overlapped with various Southern Baptist spheres.)

I guess I want to comment on this guy's story because it showcases a trend that I would like to think I am part of. As I've noted before, Catholics in the USA are still more likely to become Evangelical Protestants than vice versa. But there is a paradigm in which serious and committed Evangelical Protestants become Catholic because they see this as a natural and necessary development or outflow of the commitments they have already made.

Related to this story is this open letter to evangelicals written by Brantley Millegan, who had just started blogging about becoming Catholic right around when I was deciding I also needed to move in that direction. You can read more about Brantley's conversion story here.  I couldn't agree with his letter more, and would encourage everyone to read it. In short, it says: "we need you!"

In my view, Catholics have moved between two extremes in how they interact with Protestants. One more traditional view might be termed "triumphalist". In it, the glories of the Catholic Church are showcased together with condescension or disdain for everything else. The other extreme might be termed "indifferentism".  This relativistic approach thrives most when Catholics no longer retain a living faith. In indifferentism the religious truth claims of all Christians, and all people, in general are treated as if their truth or falsehood did not matter at all under the presumption that this allows us to all get along together. There is certainly nothing wrong with getting along together, but it is hard to sincerely hold this position for long if you really believe that religious truths are...true.

Brantley's letter shows an approach that avoids both of these pitfalls. In it, he writes as a Catholic who can affirm our Church's teachings with complete sincerity. At the same time, the emphasis is on humility, and on what Evangelical Protestants have to contribute to the upbuilding of the Church. The nature of the Church did not change in the 16th century, but the Catholic Church has been missing something ever since then. A triumphalist never admits that division causes pain and insists that the Church is as strong as ever even after amputation. (I think of Monty Python and "tis only a flesh wound!"). Stretching that analogy, an indifferentist would politely smile and nod at the suggestion that perhaps the brain or heart of Christ's body could better function as a foot and vice versa.

The Spirit has allowed many charisms and gifts to find expression, even outside the full, visible unity of the Catholic Church. I sincerely believe, though, that all of these incredible gifts would function most efficaciously if they could all be expressed within the full, visible unity of the Catholic Church, with its Sacraments, its links back to the apostles, and its bonds of love, communion, and visible cooperation throughout the world. Perhaps more than anything, evangelicals may not realize how life-giving it can be to receive Jesus in the Eucharist.

Anyways, I encourage anyone interested to read the Open Letter to Evangelicals. Peace.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Update: Electricity, Internet, Kindles, etc.

Internet Paradox

Back before Easter we finally had an internet system installed here at St. Fidelis. One would think that that would result in more blog posts, but it clearly has not. Before I usually could only use the internet on Tuesdays when I went into town. I would therefore sometimes plan on posting something then and would feel pressured to finish writing something on Monday night. Now I can post anytime, so I can write anytime, so I don’t write.


One of my college friends, Taylor, came here shortly after Easter. It was great. We visited a nearby island that I had never been to, and I enjoyed showing him around some of the nearby places here in Madang. As I'm never too good about taking pictures, interested people can be directed to some of Taylor's pictures of the trip here


One bonus to Taylor’s visit was that he could carry over a kindle that I ordered on behalf of Fr. Marceliano, one of our Filipino priests. Right now Amazon basically owes me a commission as a salesman, because Fr. Marceliano is very enthusiastic about his kindle and refers to me as “the expert” when explaining it to others. Needless to say, there are few bookstores here, so it’s a big deal when serious readers discover that there is such a thing as an e-book and that they could theoretically start reading any one of tens of thousands (millions?) of books within a matter of minutes.

This isn’t to say that I don’t share everyone’s love of paper books. It is just sometimes incredibly nice to have an alternative to paying exorbitant international shipping rates to read something you’ve suddenly become interested in.


About five weeks ago there was a landslide in the highlands that cut this province off from the hydro-power dam that provides most of our electricity. It then became the norm to receive power for only about 4-6 hours a day. This did not mean that we were without power that whole time, because we do have our own backup generator. However, to conserve fuel, we do not leave it on all the time and there were significant gaps. For one week some other staff were gone and I was in charge of switching everything from grid power to the generator and back again.  I am now glad that we are back to the norm of having grid power for most of the day on most days.


It is probably fairly normal for college students to change rooms every year or so, and before coming here I had been a college student for about six years in a row. Despite this, it still somehow strikes me as significant that the last time I had lived in the same room, sleeping in the same bed, for this many months in a row was when I was in high school.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Intentional Disciples

Things have been relatively busy at St. Fidelis, but I’ve still found some time for reading. In the evenings, in particular, I try to have some “office hours” for students to drop by and ask questions and the waiting time in between students has become my personal reading time.

I recently borrowed a book from our bishop that he had referred to. The book is called “Forming Intentional Disciples.” I made reference to the author of the book, Sherry Weddell, in a previous post. I found her concerns, her tone, her language, and her insights all worthwhile. She, too, is from an evangelical protestant background, and I suspect that this helps explain why I feel more comfortable with the language she uses.

 I actually very much liked the book. I have been recommending it to people all around me. But I want to write about the parts of the book that made me uncomfortable, especially since these relate back to my evangelical background.

In the first chapter, Sherry talks about how “God has no grandchildren”. Using anecdotes and statistics from the Pew research center and CARA (which studies Catholicism in America), she forcibly articulated the point that most people who identify as Catholic in the United States do not claim that they have a personal relationship with God. This is the chapter which sets up “the problem.”

This makes me uncomfortable precisely because what sounds to some Catholics like an astonishing truth, I once considered to be painfully obvious. But now I realize that I feel defensive when I hear this, even when it comes from a Catholic author. I spent some time thinking about why I might feel defensive on this point.

I think one good reason is that I can clearly think of times in the past where I dismissed Catholics or other people in traditional churches as not having a relationship with Jesus only because their relationship with Jesus was not expressed in the same way as mine was. I can only speak for myself. I never went through an anti-Catholic streak like you can see quite prominently in some (relatively few) sectors of evangelicalism, but I think I still most definitely had a prejudice in my mind. I acknowledged that Catholics could be Christians, but I presumed that they were not “real Christians” until proven otherwise. Real Christians are people who have a quiet time with the Bible and a cup of coffee in the morning and sing emotional love songs to Jesus accompanied by electric guitars and drums. They are part of small groups called Bible studies and have varying levels of fluency in their own distinct dialect of English. If Catholics do all this, then they have a relationship with Jesus. If not, then they don’t.

I obviously identified this prejudice at some point and began to address it. This process began when I realized how these sort of observable phenomena did not correlate to a necessarily greater love of God or neighbor. It did correlate to how much time people had spent in the evangelical sub-culture, and to the extent to which they had been shaped by the material culture of books, cd’s, dvd’s, bracelets, and other consumable goods that help to create and perpetuate that sub-culture’s distinct dialect of English.

(I’m obviously speaking a little bit tongue-in-cheek here, but I guess I feel free to do so precisely because I haven’t completely dissociated myself from that quirky world. That distinct dialect of English is still my mother tongue, so to speak.)

I later realized that some people really did have a living relationship with Jesus that could be expressed in things like pilgrimages, praying the rosary, praying the Divine Mercy chaplet and so on. I have become more and more aware of how prejudice can affect perceptions of whether Catholics have a “real” relationship with God or not. Because of this, I feel defensive whenever I hear evangelical Protestants speak about how most Catholics just don’t have a relationship with God. I immediately think of my experience and therefore know that prejudice may play a significant role in their assessment.

But what I think I realized from reading this book, is that while such prejudice may still exist, if I’m honest with myself, it is also glaringly obvious that a great many Catholics really do not claim to have a relationship with Jesus. It pains me to admit this, but it’s true.  And when I admit it, I realize that I always recognized this in some way. I most certainly didn’t enter the Catholic Church with some sort of na├»ve idea that the Church was only comprised of living saints and pious Mass attenders. The general laxity of practice, ignorance, and spiritual mediocrity of Catholics was pointed out to me by Protestants and Catholics alike as I prepared to enter the Catholic Church (no offense meant to the Catholics reading this!)

Catholics, though, often speak of the need for catechesis (faith education) as the solution to these problems. Sherry Weddell I think rightly points out that the bigger need is for evangelization, because most Catholics have never made an intentional decision to respond to the love of Jesus and commit to following Him and living in Him.

It seems an odd reality, but I think it is a true reality: that Christ can be most closely followed and encountered in the Catholic Church, yet there are simultaneously millions and millions of people who have access to the Sacraments and the fullness of the Christian faith but have not had a transformative encounter with Jesus that renders that access meaningful to them. Jesus is there, but they have yet to encounter him in a decisive way.

Pope Francis has repeated the words of Pope Benedict XVI saying,

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus Caritas Est 1)

May God lead us to that decisive encounter again and again, and may He guide the Church so that she can reach out to the many baptized who have yet to choose to live out the new life already freely offered to them in their baptism.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Power and the Glory

I recently finished re-reading Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”. It is the third time I’ve read the book, but the first time I’ve read it as a Catholic. It is one of Greene’s “Catholic novels”, the first novel I ever read by him (for high school English class), and with the benefit of hindsight I believe it influenced me in my movement towards the Catholic Church. It is a beautiful book and has sparked many thoughts in me as I’ve re-read it.

Imagining Belief

I believe the book influenced me when I first read it because it allowed me to glimpse the beauty of faith and life as viewed from inside this foreign, bewildering, and vast system of Catholic faith. The moral drama of the book is made rich precisely because it mostly takes place within a character who is caught up in that moral universe.

Although Greene was a convert, the last thing the book does is proselytize. The one voice who raises some standard Protestant objections against Catholicism is a background figure (Mr. Lehr), and his objections are never directly addressed. The hero, a persecuted priest, is an anti-hero. His character would challenge few to directly question any prejudiced stereotype they may hold about Catholics, Catholic priests, or Mexican/Hispanic Catholic priests.

But there is such beauty! Years before I ever attended a Mass, I carried within me an imprint of the mental image that the description of the scene below made on my mind. It describes the scene in a crowded, dirty hut as an alcoholic priest with a bastard child hastily says Mass in a part of Mexico where the Catholic Church was outlawed:

“The Latin words ran into each other on his hasty tongue: he could feel impatience all round him. He began the consecration of the Host (he had finished the wafers long ago – it was a piece of bread from Maria’s oven); impatience abruptly died away: everything in time became a routine but this – ‘Who the day before he suffered took Bread into his holy and venerable hands…’ Whoever moved outside on the forest path, there was no movement here – ‘Hoc est enim Corpus Meum.’ He could hear the sigh of breaths released: God was here in the body for the first time in six years.” (Greene, 71)

I don’t think I even bothered consciously rejecting Catholic teaching when I first read the book. It never put me on the defensive as a non-Catholic. But I admitted that something in this scene in particular was beautiful. I could imagine in a small way what it would be like to believe—how comforting it would be to speak with such certainty about the presence of God.

The Scandal and Promise of Church History

Although it is historical fiction, I think the book reflects some of the persistent themes of real Church history.

It is not difficult to sympathize with those who balk at the idea of the Church’s divine origin after reading some sections of Church history. It is not difficult at all to understand why so many might have reason to smile a bit and relish the details of the intrigue, vice, sin, and corruption that have marked its history. I can understand the instinctive desire to reject the idea that this visible Church stretching back into the past carries the banner of the Church that Christ founded. I can even understand the desire to embrace fanciful notions of a separate, “hidden” Church that must have always existed made up only of pure saints, with no crusaders or hypocrites to mar its self-image.

But isn’t there something beautiful about this other image of the Church? One where saints and sinners are caught up together in Christ and in the communion of saints…and somehow God’s grace is working and sanctifying the whole body despite the continued falls of each individual? Isn’t there something beautiful about the plot of it all? For every Constantine there is a St. Antony moving out into the desert. There are moral dramas and triumphs intertwined with the intrigues.  And even in the sinners one can sometimes…or often, glimpse the movement of grace.