My Story

Have you ever given your whole life to a cause, invested years in it, only to realize that you’d been missing the whole point?

I had left school at a young age to answer the call of missions and keep from going into debt. I spent five years in Norway discipling youth and never wanted to leave. When I read “Let the Nations be Glad” I was transformed and re-oriented toward the unreached. I was going to be a hero and save the world, or at least one people group.

I was moved with compassion and developed a love for the Shan people who were persecuted in Burma. I needed to go tell them about Christ’s love for them! So I did. I got some additional training and after moving to Thailand, learned a second and third foreign language in three years. I was sent to work with one of the only Shan churches in Thailand.  I was lonely and struggled with many things, but I loved the people around me and the village I was in.

After three years, I was burned out. I couldn’t figure out how to take care of my own needs and still be appropriate in the culture. I needed quiet time by myself occasionally, but that was not possible. I served the people in the church until I had nothing left. Their lives were full of pain and trouble and injustice, and I did all I could to ease it. I shared the gospel with as many as I could, though I always had a funny feeling inside as if I was “using” these people as a project. But there were always more people to help, more people to evangelize. It was never enough. As I watched children die and lives are torn apart, I began to question how much I really could do.

Then I went to a Strategy Coordinator Training Course led by the IMB (Southern Baptists) in Singapore. That was 2004. The teacher loved to say provocative things to get people thinking. I felt uncomfortable as he challenged my status quo. I wrote Acts 29 for the Shan and drew up a “master plan” for reaching them. The teacher drilled little catch phrases into our heads. One of them was:

If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting.

Doh. That was it! That was the reason there the majority of Thai and Shan were still in darkness. There were many implications. We weren’t doing it right! How to do it differently? I couldn’t do it by myself, something had to take root in the Shan soil and grow exponentially. And I wasn’t the hero after all.

I went to a new location in Thailand to start a new ministry among the Shan. This time things looked very different. The focus was less on me, and more on the local people. They shared the gospel with each other, in their own way. I did not control it. I spent more time with Buddhists and less time with “Christians”. I helped new believers discover truth in the Bible rather than telling them what to do. I saw beautiful aspects of their culture and traditions that were in line with scripture, instead of condemning everything Buddhist as “bad”.

And so began a decade-long exploration of what needed to change. How could we prepare the ground for a movement of God to take place? This is a very different question than asking what we can do to see results. I committed to asking the hard questions and being willing to make changes (even in myself) and ways of doing things, take risks, and try new approaches. Things started to change.

I still long for movements as much if not more than I did before. But it’s less about me, and more about God. Instead of having to “force it” I have learned to slow down and observe, to build relationships, to use natural spiritual momentum, and to become who I’m meant to be. I’ve learned how to ask questions that draw out what God has put in a person, in a culture. I’ve learned how to be a coach. And my desire is to coach people like myself in pioneer situations who long for breakthrough yet realize they are not the hero.  If my story speaks to you, contact me at moeykham@gmail.com.

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The Role of Rituals in the Buddhist Worldview   

A theoretical framework for rituals within the context of Buddhist-Christian relations

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Abstract 

In this paper I will investigate roots and motives in our thinking about rituals. Why are Buddhist rituals even important for Christians to study? How will our conclusions effect the relationship between Buddhists and Christians and the understanding of the Good News?

I will introduce an alternative way of looking at Buddhist rituals that will answer underlying worldview questions. The two approaches, Christian and Buddhist, will then be compared and a theoretical framework will appear that helps to track the underlying ideas and motives regarding rituals.

The paper aims at a paradigm shift by showing that it is preferable to engage Buddhists with Jesus by avoiding to contextualize rituals and instead letting them follow Jesus as Buddhists. Then as Jesus followers they can interpret their Buddhist rituals through a Jesus perspective.

How motives regarding rituals help or hinder the message of Christ

Why are Buddhists rituals important in the first place for Christians?

One underlying reason is about conversion: 

“We want to bring Buddhists to Christ, which inevitably means that those who believe become Christians, they cease to be Buddhists and convert to Christianity. Once they stop being Buddhist, they can not follow the Buddhist religion.” 

Another reason is about contextualization: 

“Do all rituals have to be abandoned? Many rituals that get contextualized can still be used and incorporated into the new believer’s Christian life. If the new believer would not be allowed to use any of the Buddhist rituals while also not following the Buddhist religion, this new believer would feel a void that often does not find a valid substitute within the Christian community. In order to avoid this empty feeling, why not infuse some biblical meaning into rituals they have practiced before? Doing so will help them to connect to God in a more meaningful way.”

Another one is about evangelism:

“In order to evangelise, we have to avoid coming across as being against everything Buddhist as if every Buddhist ritual or ceremony is wrong and compromising our faith. We also want to find some entry points within their rituals to convey the truth of Christ. Some rituals are neutral, others could be contextualized, meaning they could be infused with new meaning. If we do this, Christians could potentially participate in all kinds of rituals with their Buddhist friends and by doing so giving an example that whenever friends or relatives come to Christ and join the Christianity, they could still do the same without feeling they are compromising their new faith.”

The goal is to show that for a Buddhist background believer there is no reason to think they have to abandon everything Buddhist just because they are now following Christ. The motive is to win them over to Christ. The unspoken but still well communicated command behind all this is that they have to stay away from anything that has to do with the religious Buddhist side, while the cultural side of their background can be fully embraced. And it is here where the difficulty starts. This neat, clean cut between religion and culture however is first based on the enlightenment idea that there is a thing called religion and a thing called culture, and that both can be separated from each other. Second, it assumes that religious or philosophical Buddhism does not hold any potential for guiding people towards Jesus.

The first one got refuted in H. L. Richard’s papers “New paradigms for religion, multiple religious belonging and insider movements” and “World Religions: Paradigm in Cross-Cultural Encounter”. The second one will be examined in this paper.

The underlying motive is often to win Buddhists over to Christianity, based on the erroneous idea that it is impossible to follow Christ outside of Christianity. The role of rituals in the problem of conversion is examined from four perspectives. The following table will give an overview of how those perspectives (A-D) fit into the bigger picture.

A. Buddhist rituals for Buddhists and how they interpret the rituals

Most Buddhists rituals have to do with merit making either for oneself, for other persons alive or for the ancestors. There is a huge amount of social obligation involved in these merit making rituals. Without enough merit, life after death would be worse than it could be with merit making. There is this general fear of what happens after death. In order to show love and respect and honour towards family members and ancestors, a Buddhist has to participate in those rituals.

In this paper I am categorising rituals according their goals and purposes. There are four major goals and purposes: 

  1. merit making 
  2. facilitating meditation and experiencing progress towards enlightenment
  3. power balance and appeasing
  4. bonding, saving and giving face and good relationships. This include showing respect to Buddha in various ways.

Here are a few examples. 

Merit making rituals are mostly giving alms to monks and receiving merit predominantly  for oneself but also for others, dead or alive. Most interactions with monks result in acquiring more merit, this can be in the street or in a temple. 

Meditation session rituals involve a lotus flower and three incense sticks, sitting and walking meditation, seeking the abbott or a meditation master for meditation advice. All those are helping with a person’s progress towards enlightenment.

Power balance and appeasing rituals are maintaining a spirit house and a home altar. The goal is that spirits will not bother the living.

Most of all other rituals fall under bonding, saving and giving face and good relationships with people, like participating in festivals, and ceremonies as well as various ways of showing compassion and coolness of heart.

In the remainder of the paper I focus on merit making rituals and philosophical Buddhist rituals. The way of philosophical Buddhism is to practice meditation on the basis of a correct understanding of Buddha’s dhamma with the goal of attaining nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit). Merit making on the other hand has nothing to do with Buddhism per se but more with a better life or next life. Merit making almost takes for granted that it is impossible to attain nibbana. And because it seems impossible, the next best option, especially for lay people, is to secure a better next life.

An interesting observation is that all of those rituals are not purely symbolic. They are actually changing realities or are at the very least being perceived as changing realities because there is a community consensus in those perceptions.

All of those rituals function as community identity markers, meaning if someone is a Buddhist or a Christian is determined by him participating or not in those rituals. Not all Buddhists participate in all of those rituals. But likely all Buddhists participate in enough Buddhist rituals to be perceived as Buddhists by their neighbors and family and they avoid participating in Christian rituals if they are conscious about being perceived as Buddhists.

B. Contextualization: Christians participating in Buddhist ritual

Can Christian believers perform or participate in Buddhist rituals?

There are different ways of analysing different roles of rituals. For this paper the most important role is the community identity marker role. Buddhist rituals belong to Buddhists, not to Christians. This is relevant when it comes to contextualization. There are two ways Christians can use contextualization: Either they simply participate in a ritual lead by Buddhists or they use a Buddhist ritual, infused with some related but new meaning, within their Christian community. 

It is up to the Christian to decide how and how much she wants to participate in Buddhist rituals. It is unlikely a Buddhist will object. The deciding factor is the conscience of the Christian and the Christina community.

C. Contextualization: Christians using Buddhist rituals in Christian context and and contextualize their meaning

As long as Christians only use a few Buddhist elements of rituals and they are comfortable with it, not many will object. It starts getting interesting when Christians publicly perform Buddhist rituals and insert their own meaning into it. This gives the message that Buddhist rituals are up for grabs. When this contextualization effort incorporates using Buddhist terminology and reinterpreting those terms according to Christina doctrine and when such action is performed with the goal of evangelising and pulling Buddhists into Christianity, then Buddhists do not like that. These kind of efforts, mainly from the Catholic Church, have met serious repercussions.

Buddhist monks interpreted Catholic contextualization activities, especially in the 1980s, as a “plot, in which Buddhist teachings have been distorted”

Conclusion: This kind of advanced contextualization does not work. It is too Buddhist for Christian leaders and too Christian for the Buddhist community. 

D. Buddhists who follow Christ performing Buddhist rituals

The meaning of rituals for Buddhist followers of Christ

Buddhists who are dependent on Christ trust Christ as he has freed them from karma. There is no merit making involved, they do not need to make merit because Christ has transferred all merit to them. 

The work of Christ for these Buddhist Christ followers is that he overcame the power of karma. As death had no power to keep Christ dead, the cycle of life and death got broken, the cycle of cause and effect got broken. The wrong attachment that Buddha preached against got broken for all. This has not happened in Buddha’s time (as Buddha lived some 500 years before Christ), hence Buddha could not have preached something non-existent. Therefore Buddha talked the only truth that was available to him, that everyone has to attain and experience this detachment from karma.

The common Buddhist belief is that we all need merit, more than we have. We all need good works more than we have. The interesting observation of merit making (tam boon) is that the person who makes merit for another person does not lose some merit. It is not perceived as the more merit I make for someone else, the less I have. The principle behind it is the one of selfless giving: The receiver is blessed by the gift received and the giver is blessed through the act of selflessness. Such selfless giving is  translated as dana (Pali). And dana is exactly the act of merit making when giving alms to monks. Besides,  dana is a nirvanic term and shows the pureness with which Jesus has given his life to liberate us from karma and unwholesome deeds (akusala, Pali)

Based on this foundation, Buddhist followers of Jesus practice alms giving to monks. The ritual looks the same but the meaning changed, it changed away from merit making to a more philosophical side, starting with what Buddha taught and ending with Jesus giving himself.

Buddhist followers of Jesus can meditate on the goodness of God, on the permanence of God, his metta (Pali for agape love) overcoming karma and attachments to anything non-nirvanic, and many things more. This kind of meditation is not to attain or achieve something but to be mindful of all nirvanic aspects that come from God and let Him transform us. With practice, this kind of meditation spills over into everyday life and meditation rituals involved are transformed into acts of metta towards fellow humans.

Contextualization vs. Buddhist followers of Christ performing rituals

The common opinion is that ‘if we do not separate culture from religion, religion creeps in and compromises the faith over the long run. And if some Buddhist religious thinking or worldview will be kept, karmic thinking will prevent believers from finding a breakthrough in their faith and gain the true freedom of Christ, because that kind of freedom and peace is not found in Buddha, otherwise there would not be much reason for them to embrace Jesus in the first place. And proper discipleship can only happen if there is a clear cut from  Buddhist philosophy and religion. Yet they do not have to abandon their culture. They actually should keep their beautiful Thai culture. So once we have figured out which culture elements they can keep from their Buddhist rituals when following Christ, we are all set.’

The above strategy may be fine for Christians, it will not however encourage Buddhists to become Christians. Why should they? Because all of a sudden they could participate in Buddhists rituals? They can do this as Buddhists just fine. It doesn’t matter in how many Buddhist rituals a Christian is allowed to participate, what matters is if a person has switched religions. And the identity markers for switching from being Buddhist to being a Christians, according to our interviews, are going to the temple, giving alms to monks and not going to church and not mix and mingle with Christians, participating in a Buddhist way in Buddhist funerals and respecting the Buddha. That makes a Buddhist a Buddhist. If a person is socialising on purpose among Christians, goes to church, does not go to the temple and does not give alms to monks, and does not act like other Buddhists do during a funeral, then she is a Christians.

There is another identity marker which is more like an undercurrent: How a person speaks about Buddha. In general, Buddhists feel that Christians do not speak well about Buddha, that they lack respect, that they do not appreciate Buddha. Neither do Christians appear knowledgable about Buddhism or Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. Even Buddhists who think of themselves as not very knowledgeable about Buddhist doctrines still think that Christians know even less.

So why do Christians then want to use Buddhists rituals within their own community? Especially when the meaning of the ritual is not exactly the same but different, contextualized. Is there an expectation that Buddhists can still do their rituals within the Christian community and therefore it might be easier to win them for Christ? One reason might be that if Buddhists who became Christians are not allowed to use any of their rituals, then it creates a vacuum within their worldview and this vacuum will be filled with something non-Christian. So if they would be allowed to use some of their rituals but infused with new meaning, then they not only do not feel that vacuum but also get practically discipled as overtime when they do the rituals they are reminded of the new meaning. 

Examples: 

When they use incense, they are reminded that their prayers are a fragrance to God and as sure as the incense fragrance is filling the room God has heard their prayers.

Tying a white string could symbolise Christ power over evil and reminds the one who wears it that he is under the Lord’s protection.

Christian objection to this kind of contextualisation is twofold:

  1. Why is it necessary? Why using a walker when you can walk just fine without it?
  2. The contextualized meaning might get lost over time and what remains is an empty ritual. But that ritual is filled with Buddhist meaning within the Buddhist community, so what might happen is that the person who uses this ritual will revert to the Buddhist meaning and thus compromise Christ.

Some advocate for a temporal use but like to wean a new believer off it over time. The idea is that it is not something bad but it is not something beneficial either, especially not in the long run. It is more seen as a compromise for new believers until they are mature enough to not need those helps.

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Why deal with philosophical Buddhism

First, philosophical Buddhism is not as neatly separated from Folk Buddhism as Western scholars like to portray it. It’s more like two colors nicely mixed, together with another color for Brahminism and another for traditions.

Second, the idea to contextualize towards rituals finds some roots in the idea that Buddhism has to be rejected as a wrong religion. This goes all the way back to early missionaries. Because Buddhism is completely rejected, the only other thing left to contextualize is culture and some safe rituals.

Third, if as an alternative option, the adoption of rituals is deemed as not recommendable, looking deeper in Buddhist philosophies and worldviews can open up some amazing opportunities.

Fourth, philosophical Buddhism vs animism. Paul DeNeui wrote “Pure Theravada Buddhism and its practices deal primarily with death. The making of merit in Buddhism is not primarily for those living today but for the future – either for the benefit of future reincarnations of the living or to benefit those already dead. Animistic practices, on the other hand, address the issues of the here and now. For the majority of both urban and rural Thai people, a clear distinction would not be relevant to them. It is the practice of animism within their Buddhist context that provides a sense of security for the present, something that science and traditional western religious practices tend to ignore. Animism is the means of dealing with what is important for living life today”. And James Gustafson also stresses the importance to deal with animism: “If animism represents the basic content of the religion of the Thai peasant (and a great many who are not peasants) then it is on animism that the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be focused in an informed way if the Church is to grow”. 

This is, however, to contrast philosophical Buddhism with animism. The question they are dealing with is one of practical belief. But when it comes to identity, Thais do not claim to be animists but Buddhists, i.e. the animistic beliefs are not shaping the conscious identity of people, their animistic practices are perceived as Buddhist even if they have nothing to do with any Buddhist doctrines. 

So one approach is to let Jesus deal with all animistic fear and then pose the option that a Thai (or Cambodian or Burmese, etc.) can become Christian and stay Thai. This however is not resonating with them because “To be Thai is to be Buddhist”. So even Thai Buddhists do not know their correct Buddhist doctrines, it will be in the end those doctrines they are convinced are superior to anything Christian. They are comfortable with letting a monk explain to anyone who wants to know why Buddhist doctrines are superior. So their identity is de facto Buddhist.

By now it has gotten well understood that Christians should focus on Jesus being victorious over people’s animistic fears, still lots of Buddhists do not wish to make the switch to the Christian religion. They do actually like Jesus and some dare to wish it would be possible to have a Buddhist identity and follow Jesus. But it is the Christians who view this as syncretism, hence they do not accommodate this thought nor do they offer this a a possibility. And the reason for viewing this as syncretism is the idea that Buddhist doctrines and biblical doctrines are opposites or at least are somehow not compatible.

But there is an alternative to this thinking.

Given that any truth is from God, any truth is truth regardless who said so. So when Buddha said we live in a world of dissatisfactoriness (dukkha), that our human ego-cravings are to be blamed for it, that there is an end to those ego-cravings, and that there is a way out of this dissatisfactoriness, he speaks truth. Obviously Buddha could not have told people they have to rely on Jesus, as there was no Jesus 500 years before Jesus. So suppose, just as a thought experiment for now, God wanted to give Buddha some revelation, how would it look like? Buddha pointed out that people do not have an immortal essence (atman), in straight contrast to common Braministic thinking. This can be affirmed biblically. Adam and Eve died, they were not immortal. Any kind of immortality would be a gift from God, and in the NT it is the Holy Spirit that indwells people that changes them and ultimately makes them immortal (although we still physically die). Interestingly, it is the spirit from God who is God who does so. In the same way as the Brahmins thought: The atman, the indwelling immortal godly essence, is the connection to the paramatman who is the same as Brahman. The simple reason why the Brahmins in Buddha’s time were wrong was because the atman, the Holy Spirit, was not given to people yet because Jesus did not live yet, nor did he die, nor did he rise from the dead. Therefore Buddha was correct in pointing out that no one had such atman immortality and therefore no atman. No atman is the same as anatta. In other words, Buddha pointed out that no one had the Spirit of God and therefore no one was immortal. Immortality is not possible without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, neither spiritual nor physical immortality. So there was no ‘realisation of immortality’ going to happen. Atman could not get realised. In order to get anywhere, according to Buddha, people had to realise that there was no permanent essence upholding them, they are utterly and completely stuck in karma, nothing within them would get them out of karma.

Now the obvious question is how someone who is that stuck can rely on oneself to get out of karma and attain nirvana. The answer is rather simple: 

  1. Because there is no one else to rely on. Jesus was not born yet. There was no one who was able to save others as everyone had to deal with their own karma.
  2. Although Buddha attained nirvana, he was not the liberator that could liberate others. Interestingly Buddha never claimed to be the liberator, which begs the question why he is consistently compared to Christ who did claim the be the savior. 
  3. Everyone is responsible for their own life. Karma places the responsibility for the misery of this world, biblically correct, on people.

In the absence of a savior who was able to get people out of this misery, this dukkha, this sin-life, Buddha pointed to the Noble Eightfold Path. A path to nirvana, a path so pure no one would dare to claim it would be easy to walk on. Then Jesus came and declared “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (Jn 14:6) 

The point of comparison can not be simply their doctrines. Buddhist doctrines can be read from the perspective of Christ. Buddha pointed to Christ, in a similar way as Isaiah pointed to Christ. Isaiah’s writings were for Jews though and therefore written to people in different circumstances, history and background. Buddha pointed to Christ in a different way, his doctrines were in contrast to brahministic beliefs which also explains why Buddha stated his anatta doctrines as the crucial dividing line in direct contrast to atman which constituted Brahman in humans. In other words Buddha said ‘You are not gods. You can not rely on the atman essence within you, thinking you will attain moksha because of it. There is no inherent immortality within any humans, and believing there is, is the obstacle to enlightenment’. 

The question ‘Is there a God?’ was not Buddha’s focus. His focus was guiding people towards liberation. And to be fair, at that point in history we do not see God acting directly with non-Jews in a way that had revealed any kind of savior. So Buddha could not proclaim a message that a savior will come, who that savior would be and how all this might be happening. So a God who saves humans was a unknown concept. So the brahministic gods were personal gods but they were all under karma, except Brahman and paramatman (and Brahman is not understood as a personal God), which means a concept of a supreme deity that is personal and actively pursuing the goal to get humans saved was nowhere to be found. What was found are ideas of gods that either lacked the will or the power to get humans out of dukkha. To reject such gods as a reliable source for getting oneself from karma to nirvana does not take much as no one even propagated such a god. But rejecting such non-existing gods does not mean that Buddha rejected the one and only God about whom Buddha did not have much revelation, beside the little revelation that is mentioned in Romans 1:19-20. But God’s eternal power and his divine nature in and of itself were no qualities that saved people, especially not 500 years before Christ. Therefore Buddha did not reject God but false atman notions and the saving/ liberating abilities of atman.

For Buddhists who follow Jesus Christ, Buddha’s Four Noble Truths complement a belief in Jesus once Jesus is understood as the permanent truth, the dhamma, and as the Noble Eightfold Path, the path to nirvana. Nirvana can be understood as the absence of karma, dukkha, evil, sin, etc., something that the Bible calls heaven or the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. In other words nirvana can be understood as the sphere of God. Buddhists who believe this, can follow Jesus as Buddhists. Such beliefs are compatible with Buddhist doctrine as well as faith in Jesus. But now this savior is a nirvanic savior. And God is a nirvanic God. And not a karmic savior coming from a karmic god. Such thing would not make any sense to Buddhists, which begs the question why Christians keep insisting on the karmic nature of God and Jesus, especially since such karmic nature of God and Jesus is the complete opposite of the NT tells us about Jesus and God.

A Framework

I have presented a different view of the role of rituals, based on a worldview that is both Buddhist based and Jesus based. In such a worldview rituals change interpretation and the new interpretations coming from a new perspective are based on a Buddhist theology of Jesus. The enhanced difficulty is that such a theology is based on Buddhist terms which also have to be understood from a perspective that has Jesus as the center. 

The table below provides an overview of the framework. A, B, C and D correspond to the paragraphs above.

issue faith religious identity belief in original meaning of ritual participating in some rituals contextualizing the meaning of rituals partly or fully enlightened perspective
religion not Jesus followers Christian ——— possible ——— ———
religion not Jesus followers Buddhist A.  possible ——— meditating and philosophical
religion Jesus-follower Christian no B. no and yes C. yes no
Jesus Jesus-follower Buddhist no yes no D. yes

While the table should by now be self-explanatory, the “no” in the column “contextualizing the meaning of rituals” needs some further explanation. Buddhist Jesus followers do not need to contextualize because they live within the context. Jesus is not interpreted into their context, the meaning of the rituals change themselves because the rituals are now understood from what Jesus has done: He has done all merit for all people, he has overcome karma, the path to full liberation is attainable. Neither is Jesus getting contextualized, meaning Jesus does not get placed into the Buddhist context because Jesus is the one who changes the realities for his Buddhist followers from within.

The roles of Christian followers of Christ are those of loving and accepting brothers and sisters who enjoy being with Buddhists and getting to know how they live their faith. The role is not to manipulate them into the Christian community. Therefore only mature enough Christians should interact with Buddhists followers of Christ. Those mature ones need to embrace a quite steep learning curve as learning can only happen when previously held beliefs can be questioned whether they are based on a certain interpretation colored by culture, theological stream or misconceptions or based on truth that can be understood within another philosophical thinking system. 

Christians who do not yet understand how a Buddhist can follow Christ, can start by investigating how the Christian words have misrepresented Christ and his work and how such misrepresenting has hindered lots of Buddhists finding freedom in Jesus. Without deeply understanding those misrepresentations one is doomed to draw people into a religion instead of drawing them to Jesus.

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Buddhist identity and rituals

The role of rituals has now shifted from making merit for a better next life or gaining enlightenment or trying to restore a power balance or appeasing spirits or from aiming at keeping good relationships to express some truths that go beyond anything dukkha. Previously all the rituals were done to compensate the negative effects of dukkha. Now that dissatisfactoriness found an end in Jesus the savior, the liberator, those same rituals are getting interpreted from a new perspective. Before Jesus, people were stuck in karma, after Jesus, people can be free from karma. Hence, rituals can now be interpreted as a celebration, a commemoration or a visual symbol of a experienced reality. Any ritual was only existent because of the common experience of dukkha. The ritual’s goal was to make the best out of humanities’ shared experience. Now that Jesus dealt with dukkha and karma, the ritual’s goal is to acknowledge this new reality. It is not a “striving for” but a “finding peace in” experience. Jesus can be seen as the one who accomplished the unaccomplishable that had to get accomplished. Now the new reality can be celebrated through the ritual.

Buddhists who follow Jesus according to the outlines above, are keeping their Buddhist identity. Other Buddhists they are see them as Buddhists. They meet together, think and meditate on how Jesus saved them from karma and spread this good news to their friends and family. Miracles and physical healings happen and Jesus is praised. Neighbors sometimes witness major character changes, like one person who was previously always grumpy, swearing and mean who became joyful, friendly and ready to help others. They listen or read stories of Jesus and practise follow him in his way of compassion towards others. Now from within their Buddhist identity they can deal with their rituals. As Buddhists they can decide which rituals they want to practice and which ones they do not want to practice, how they want to practice which ritual and what the rituals mean to them. And if they reject a certain ritual, they reject that ritual as a Buddhist. They do not reject the ritual because they have switched to the Christian religion. Religion is not anymore the issue. Christianity is not anymore in the way of them following Jesus.

But if a Christian is rejecting a ritual, it is because of being a Christian, because of belonging to Christianity, at least from the Buddhist point of view. For a Buddhist it is not the belief in Jesus that is the issue but the simple belonging to Christianity and therefore to the Christian community. Jesus is sidelined, a non-issue, irrelevant. 

But not so if a Buddhist chooses to interpret a ritual in a different way. Such interpretation of a ritual has not its root in a religious community identity. If prompted, such a Buddhist follower of Jesus can provide an answer that is actually based on Jesus and he can provide a theologically correct answer that not only makes sense to a fellow Buddhist but at the same time gives an example how Buddha has prepared a foundation on which a Buddhist can ground his or her faith in Jesus. She sees God at work in giving revelation to Buddha. To her Jesus is the dhamma, the Noble Eightfold Path, the liberation. She puts her full trust in Jesus and experiences how she can depend on him. From that foundation all rituals are interpreted.

References:

Bauer, Chris The Fingerprints of God in Buddhism: Could a New Approach to the Way We Look at Buddhism be a Key to Breakthrough?, Mission Frontiers Nov/ Dec 2014, http:// http://www.missionfrontiers. org/issue/article/the-fingerprints-of-god-in-buddhism-article.

Bernhard, Jens Mission Narratives That Prevent Buddhists from Finding Christ Within Their Oikos, 2017, IJFM 34-09

DeNeui, Paul, Contextualizing with Thai Folk Buddhist, 2002.  

Flaming, Kenneth, Buddhist-Christian Relations in Thailand An Overview, in Schmidt-Leukel, Perry ed., Buddhist-Christian Relations in Asia 

Gustafson, James W., Syncretistic Thai Religion and Church Growth, 1971, M.A. Thesis; 

http://www.thaicrc.com/collect/MIS/index/assoc/D1743.dir/1743.pdf p. 11

Hiebert, Paul “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle”, Missiology 10:1 (January 1982, pp. 35-47)

Sobhon Ganabhorn, 1984. A Plot to Undermine Buddhism. Bangkok: Siva Phorn

Richard, H.L., New paradigms for religion, multiple religious belonging and insider movements, 2015.

Religious Syncretism as a Syncretistic Concept: The Inadequacy of the “World ReligionsParadigm in Cross-Cultural Encounter, 2014.

Young , R.F. & Somaratna, G.P.V. Vain Debates: The Buddhist-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon De Nobili Research Library 1996.

Mission Narratives that Prevent Buddhists from finding Christ within their Oikos

Editor’s Note: This article was presented to the Asia Society for Frontier Mission, Bangkok, Thailand, October 2017.

Why Tackle Mission Narratives?

The purpose of this brief paper is to illuminate the counterproductive impact of some mission narratives among Buddhists. I want to address how they function, how they prevent the good news from being understood, and to make some suggestions about how they might be changed. Specifically, I want to show how these narratives are diametrically opposed to the early church’s concept of oikos (household, family). Oikos starts with the extended family in mind, yet so often today the gospel is presented as a decision an individual has to make between Christianity and their extended family and community. To be regarded as a follower of Christ, a Buddhist has to join the religion of Christianity. She does so against her family, her community, her oikos, and quite contrary to numerous examples in the New Testament.1 So, I want to take a very complicated topic and reduce it to a simple set of axioms so that we can see just how our narratives are opposed to the Buddhist oikos.

My assumption is that new missionaries and people interested in mission base most of their actions on a few underlying narratives. It is these narratives that determine their strategy, the people they work with, and how they filter missiological papers. Very often the underlying power of those narratives does not get much attention, while their correctness and usefulness is widely assumed, and almost never questioned. Some of these narratives are, without a doubt, wonderful (“show God’s love wherever you can”); others seem to be useful and doctrinally correct, but a deeper analysis would show that they are very dysfunctional. In fact, they prevent outright a Buddhist from considering Christ as an option.

This is not to say that those in mission work don’t try to tackle these embedded narratives. After the first few years on the mission field, many in mission work will critically reflect on their work and try hard to improve. They go to conferences and learn what they can—some even making time to read missiological papers and books. Yet often there is this nagging sense that a lot of missiological research is not very applicable to a specific situation; and, even if it is, it does not spell out specific action steps that might be considered useful. While missiological research can be tremendously helpful, most often the real action is influenced by underlying mission narratives. It’s usually because these narratives are straightforward, logical, perceived as doctrinally correct, and perpetuated by the vast majority of mission-interested evangelicals.

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Some Important Narratives and How They Form a Cohesive Unit

It is not possible to tackle all of the narratives that may have built the foundational worldview of an evangelical missionary, so I have selected a few that have had a negative impact on bringing Buddhists to Christ, and that have disregarded the fundamental place of oikos in the Buddhist world.

  1. “Buddhism is a false religion (because it is incoherent, God- opposing and life-denying2) and therefore …”
  2. “Buddhists must become ‘Christians’ and join a Christian church if they truly want to follow Christ.”
  3. “It is always better to work together with local Christians; they know the culture and the language better than any outsider can hope to learn in a reasonable amount of time” and therefore …
  4. “Because local believers don’t bother to learn Buddhist beliefs, and because some individual Buddhists do come to Christ anyway, it is a waste of time to study Buddhism or what Buddhists really believe.”

While studying Buddhism may remain quite an anathema, missionaries increasingly want to avoid presenting an overly Western gospel, so new and more sensitive narratives are starting to gain some traction: “Just communicate the gospel in love. God’s word will make sense in and of itself ” and therefore …

“Just give them the Bible in their language, or at least the New Testament. The church will explain it and the Holy Spirit will bring it to life.”

“Let’s contextualize to their local culture, as Jesus is not against their culture per se. If we do not reject their culture, we can demonstrate that it is possible to be Thai (or Burmese or…) and also Christian.”

Muslims to follow Christ and maintain a Muslim identity (because they at least are still in the Abrahamic tradition); or it might even be possible for Hindus to choose Yeshu as their only God; but it is not possible for Buddhists, because Buddha rejected the notion of one supreme Godhead. Hence, Buddhists cannot remain within their Buddhist world if they want to follow Christ.

The task of outsiders is, therefore, perceived as helping the local Christians in their efforts. The narrative continues:

If the scriptures were to be available in local languages and if pastors were to be able to explain them properly so that Buddhists could understand what Christianity is all about, they would believe in Jesus and join the church. As long as the church is not Western, but rather Thai or Burmese, etc., all will be fine. Contextualization can be really helpful.

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What’s Wrong with These Narratives?

These narratives are internally cohesive, widely accepted, and unfortunately, do not result in much fruit. And where there is any fruit, it is more often an assault on the oikos (household), with individual converts extracted and grafted into a foreign religious world. Yet, this reality simply reinforces the correctness of this narrative in the minds of Chris- tians. Buddhists must be so blinded that they cannot really see the truth nor the goodness of God being made visible in the form of the church. This myth simply perpetuates itself.

The problem, as I see it, is that these narratives do not have their roots
in the Bible (but in tradition) and prevent Buddhists from considering Christ within their oikos. This raises a couple of questions.

First, is God not able to reveal truth to non-Christians? It’s apparent that he was able to communicate certain truths to the Stoics.5 Their turning to Christ is remarkable, especially in comparison to the Jews, the majority

of whom did not recognize Christ as the Messiah even though they had had a more specific revelation from God than any other people group on earth.

 

And it’s interesting to note in the biblical account just how often the apostle Paul communicated the good news of Christ on the basis of some Stoic beliefs. 6 He basically uses certain Stoic beliefs because those beliefs are true and he builds on that truth. All truth comes from God and God reveals his truth to whomever, and however, he wants to. So, if Paul was able to find and communicate truths within Stoic philosophy, why would we not look within Buddhist traditions? If truth comes ultimately from God, why are we open to God speaking in a familiar way to Stoics but not to Buddhists?7 By rejecting Buddhism categorically as a false religion, are we either accidentally or willfully rejecting those parts of Buddhist traditions or worldview that might just be God’s work of preparation for the good news of Christ? Is it the role of missionaries to unilaterally disregard this work of God?

Secondly, must Buddhists become Christians? Do they have to join the existing Christian community or do they simply have to follow Christ?
If the goal is to make them Christian, then the Christian tradition has become more important than Christ himself. Is Christ not bigger than human traditions? Is it the task of missionaries to propagate the Christian religion over Christ? If Christ is not the obstacle for a Buddhist, then whatever the obstacle actually is, shouldn’t that obstacle be removed? Otherwise, Christians and missionaries are not being faithful to Christ. Might not the real obstacle be that we are presenting Christ in such a way that if a Buddhist wants to follow Christ he can only imagine doing
so if he were to convert to a foreign religion—Christianity?

What we see nowadays is that local believers in a Buddhist context do not want to engage with Buddhists about their Buddhist beliefs, partly because they don’t know much about Buddhist beliefs; but, it’s also partly because of the example missionaries have presented them. Buddhist converts were extracted from their own oikos and enculturated into Christianity and now they simply follow the example given them by missionaries. And where missionaries, like Daniel Gogerly in Sri Lanka, did engage with Buddhists and their tradition, they did so in a more polemic, colonialist style, and only with the intention of showing them how wrong they were to believe what Buddha had taught them.8

 

We can see this in Daniel John Gogerly’s work from 1885:

We are therefore compelled to assert that Buddhism is not the true religion: for he who was mistaken in three instances may have been mistaken in three hundred… and it necessarily follows that Buddhism is not the true religion and ought to be rejected.9

Even nowadays, the same line of thinking is common among evangelicals. In The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus talks with Buddha, Ravi Zacharias states in his introduction in 2010:

Jesus and Buddha cannot both be right. The lotus is the symbol of Buddhism; the cross, the symbol of the Christian faith. Behind the two symbols stand two diametrically opposed beliefs.10

It’s possible that this approach created so much hurt and pushback that generations of missionaries “threw out the baby with the bathwater.”They no longer engage with Buddhists at all. By this lack of engagement, they affirm the dogma, “Buddhism is not the true religion.” How was creating religious antagonism beneficial? Again, the apostle Paul, in Athens on Mars Hill speaking of an unknown God, in a society far more idolatrous than Buddhist societies, sought out what God had prepared in their own literature, poetry, and religious belief system.11 Yet, today’s missionaries too often think that practicing the opposite is advantageous for mission among Buddhists.

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Terms of Translation

With respect to local Christians, do they really know better how to engage with Buddhists or are they struggling at least as much as the ignorant outsider? If Gogerly learned Pali in order to refute Buddhists, why don’t local or outside believers learn Pali in order to search more positively for God’s points of revelation within the Tipitaka?12

This lack of engagement is reflected in Bible translation. The underlying evangelical narrative of translation is based, first of all, on dispensing with all Buddhist words and concepts.13

The narrative encourages the invention and use of new terms and concepts that are so patently wrong that they are immediately unbiblical. A shallow, misguided understanding of Buddhism, embedded in the narrative, leads to distorted meanings.

One example would be the correspondence of the concept of a “karmic heaven” with that of the kingdom of God, the implication being that God is conditioned by karma. Suffice it to say, if God were karmic, he would be (at the very least) under the condition of “dissatisfactoriness” (dukkha)and subject to death in the Buddhist mind. Because such an idea does not portray the God of the Bible, it would be recommended to stay as far away as possible from terms that suggest that God could be karmic—even if it is only to give Buddhists a more accurate picture of the biblical idea of God.

 

If Buddhists, who do not know Christ already, reject this faulty translation of a karmic god, how more likely would they embrace the truth of Christ if it finally were to be communicated properly? Right now, the Buddhist understanding of God is closer to Satan than it is biblical.14 Cleaning up some fundamental misunderstanding should not be an impossible task, but with the underlying narrative being “Buddhism is a false religion,” hardly anyone seems to be bothered to do so.

The distorted understanding Buddhists get when reading something like John 3:16 (Thai translation), which casts God in the most unfavorable (and unbiblical!) light possible, should expose the dysfunction of this overarching narrative.15 Practically speaking, how then can the Bible speak for itself? This may sound extreme, but I am not aware of even a single New Testament translation into a heart language that leaves the Buddhists who read it on their own with a correct understanding of this pivotal evangelical proposition. Why then would self-theologizing even work? And if Buddhist-context self-theologizing has been rendered impossible by incorrect Bible translations, it consequently becomes impossible to avoid Western involvement and to cast off the shadows of a dominant colonial past.

All this leaves new missionaries in the quicksand of misunderstanding. Since they are unfamiliar with the depth of Buddhist philosophy, they reduce the good news to “God is love” and “Jesus loves you.” Therefore, their narrative becomes “I simply have to love my Buddhist neighbor and he will find Christ and experience the love of the Christian community.”Their expectation is that new believers will start

to follow Christ and become Chris- tians. Yet, even this love-approach
is still based on the idea that, in the end, the Christian religion is superior and Christ can only be found within Christianity. Buddhists want to find Christ, but not the Christ that can only be embraced when the Christian religion is embraced first, but the Christ whom they experience, start- ing with a Buddhist perspective. This Christ is biblical, but not Christian; he is biblical and Buddhist.16

 

Again, Christianity and the love of Christ-followers is perceived as polarized against the natural oikos (household) of the Buddhist communities. How can Christians avoid Buddhists getting the idea that while Christians talk about love and act lovingly, it is all to deceive17 Buddhists and drive a wedge between them and their families and communities? Why not instead foster a narrative that values and strengthens their oikos? Can we not show some fundamental respect for the way their religious civilization has helped to maintain the identity of the oikos?

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Underlying Our Contextualization

One of the most recently developed mission narratives deserves some extended attention:

Let’s contextualize the church to their local culture, as Jesus is not against their culture per se. If we do not reject their culture, we can demonstrate that it is possible to be Thai (or Burmese or . . .) and Christian.

This narrative seems at first to finally get rid of all colonialism and Western dominance. It does not need to ridicule Buddhist traditions as it safely ignores anything religiously Buddhist. It tries to completely separate religion from culture. It proclaims that there is good culture and good traditions, especially if some elements are reinterpreted— like the use of incense symbolizing prayers to God. The idea is,

If you become a Christian, you can still act like your Buddhist family and friends (to a certain degree that is18) because we are not against your Thai or Burmese or . . . culture. Jesus loves your culture. So, you can now worship Christ from within your culture. You can be a good Thai citizen and a Christian. Just be Thai in all your Christian expressions.

The intention behind this narrative is to directly refute the notion that being Thai means being Buddhist.19 The underlying paradigm is that Buddhism is bad, but culture is neutral. To its credit, the narrative does not impose Western culture anymore, for Christianity can be adaptable; it can find expressions in any culture of the world (because culture is neutral). Although this perspective does not intend to establish Christianity as a religion at home within any culture and nation, it certainly appears to be the goal. The evangelical narrative contains the hope that everyone finds Christ as his or her savior, but it’s possible only by transplanting the Christian religious tradition. This ignores what Paul meant when he said, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles, too? Yes, of Gentiles, too” (Rom. 3:29). He was able to take the Jewish rabbi known as Jesus out of the Jewish religion and give him to everybody, regardless of his religion. No religion of Christianity appears within the first two hundred years after Christ; and, if Greeks, Romans, Stoics and others did not have to convert to another religion, why are Buddhists required to convert to another religion today?

On top of this, there is another apparent problem with this practice of contextualization: when Christians take elements of Buddhist traditions and use them in their services, Buddhists regard this as theft. They see the exchange, the superficial correspondence. There is considerable anti- Christian sentiment among Buddhists when Catholics call their churches a wat (temple). Therefore, the idea cannot simply be to take Buddhist concepts like nirvana, dukkha, etc. and reinterpret them as Christian concepts, or take Buddhist ceremonies and label them Christian by using them with just slight adaptation. Yet, if followers of Christ cannot use Buddhist concepts, they are stuck with the problems mentioned above—a God stuck in a karmic heaven and a Jesus being under the power of karma, which presents anything but a savior in Buddhist eyes. But what if a Buddhist can freely use his Buddhist concepts, in the same way as Stoics used their Stoic concepts and started following Christ? That would require a change of narrative.

 

What Can Be Done Better?

Instead of extracting Buddhists from their oikos, it is time to demonstrate how Jesus can manifest himself within an existing oikos without any religious conversion (displacement). We are seeing today that Hindus and Muslims can follow Christ, each within their religious tradition, but Buddhists cannot? In the spirit of Paul, who insisted that no one had to become a Jew to follow Christ, the same Christ has to be extracted from a traditional Christian religion and be given freely to all people regardless of their religious, ethnic, community or national context.20

Let’s apply the “oikos litmus test” to our narratives: Are whole families following Christ? If not, then most likely individuals have been separated from their families and a foreign religious community has taken on the role of
a substitute oikos. If Christ is not manifested within an already existing household, then we can legitimately suspect that people have been converted to the Christian religion first

When Christians take elements of Buddhist traditions and use them in their services, Buddhists regard this as theft.

and foremost and not singularly to Christ. This could, unfortunately, signal that Christ is being misrepresented.
Is Christ proclaimed or is Christianity proclaimed? If Buddhists are not allowed to follow Christ as Buddhists outside the Christian hegemony, Christianity can become the obstacle to the good news.

The narrative that will move us forward out of all these intertwined problems is one that encourages us to sit down and learn about Buddhist traditions, to dig deeply into Buddhist philosophy, and understand the underlying ideas with an open heart and mind. But the foundational axiom must be that God has revealed truth to Buddha somehow. On that truth, it is possible to build truth revealed
by Christ. The temptation of comparing religions must be withstood as it leads to wrong results which are not helpful at all. No one would get away with a Jewish/Christian comparison that constantly juxtaposed the prophet Isaiah with Jesus in order to show that Isaiah is inferior to Jesus and therefore that Jews cannot follow Christ. Yet, that is precisely what is being done
to Buddhists. Isaiah had a tremendous revelation about Christ even though he did not have the full knowledge of God. Both Isaiah and Buddha21 lived hundreds of years before Christ, and, to be fair, no one living before Jesus could have known and understood that Jesus’ death and resurrection would render death powerless.22 No narrative should be expected to compare Buddha to Christ. The question is one of preparation, not of comparison to prove superiority.23

When a Buddhist who legitimately owns his Buddhist concepts applies them to the truth revealed through Christ, he will find many ways in

which the Buddha has prepared the way for Christ. But this will be the Christ of Buddhists, not of Chris- tians.24 The crucial question, of course, is whether Christ followers will see this as a legitimate way to engage
with Buddhists. Or will they simply maintain a narrative that uses a Bible translated for Christians and leaves Buddhists to figure everything out for themselves? What are the chances that even the best learned Buddhist scholars can make sense of Christ when our best educated Christian scholars present Jesus as being under karma?

The Buddhist scholar who comes to mind and who has made significant progress in this regard is Buddhadasa Bhikku.25 He had to read between the lines and navigate many Christian misinterpretations in order to retrieve some truth from the New Testament translations. But who worked constructively together with him? Hardly anyone. Even without help, his insights can be regarded as the most progressive understanding of biblical truth from a Buddhist perspective; but, in a few areas of interpretation, he still fell short of capturing the essence of Christ. If thirty years ago Christ followers had understood both biblical truth and as much about the Buddhist dhamma as Bhikku himself, they could have dialogued with him and a lot of obstacles would have been removed from his path. This is simply to illustrate that Buddhists will not develop a full and accurate understanding of God and Christ if theological scholars shy away from engaging with Buddhist scholars.

Changing the Narrative

My critique of this common evangelical narrative among Buddhists indicates the absolute necessity of scholarly engagement from the outset. The essence and complexity of topics for constructing a new bridge are far too complicated for non-scholars to grasp. Missionaries are eager to point out that the average Buddhist can’t recall the Five Precepts or the Four Noble Truths—that Buddhist doctrines are completely irrelevant for a Christian witness that would save Buddhists. I would say they are correct if the goal behind their narrative is to convert Buddhists to Christianity; but if our narrative has the intention of portraying God and Christ faithfully and accurately to Buddhists, then we must engage with the conceptual world of the Buddhist. This alternate narrative will encourage us to find a way for high-identity Buddhists to remain in their oikos while embracing their new identity in Christ.

I believe that answers exist for the questions I have raised, yet these have not been discussed in academic publications. There is a constructive way forward, but first and foremost it requires we expose these counterproductive mission narratives.

Endnotes

1 No one joined the Christian religion because there was no Christian religion at that time.

2 Which it isn’t. It is not helpful to misunderstand the essence of Buddhism in its various traditions and then attack the straw man in order to show the superiority of Christianity.

3 Christ is the truth = the dhamma. This is important, hence the wording. It’s not the truth “of ” Christ that hides them, which is why I avoided the word “that.”

4 See R. F. Young and G. P. V. Somaratna, Vain Debates: The Buddhist-Christian Controversies in Nineteenth-Century Ceylon, 83ff (Vienna: Institut für Indologie, 1996).

5 The Stoic worldview and philosophy was very influential in ancient Greece.

6 All of the following Bible verses are consistent with Stoic beliefs: 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12; Acts 17:24–29; Acts 17:24;
Acts 17:25; Acts 17:26–28a; Acts 17:28b; Acts 17:29; Gal. 5:23b; 1 Cor. 9:24a; Rom. 7:22–23; Phil. 3:19; Rom. 8:5; 2 Cor 4:4; Phil, 1:21; 2 Tim. 4:6; 1 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Cor. 9:16; Acts 14:15; 2 Cor. 7:2;

Rom. 12:4; Eph. 1:22–23; 1 Cor. 12:14–17; 1 Cor. 12:25. See biblethingsinbibleways.wordpress.com, accessed July 14, 2017.

7 Paul builds on the Greeks’ understanding of their philosophers while nowadays it is popular to ignore the philosophical writings of Buddha and Buddhists.

8 For further references, please see Perry Schmidt-Leukel, ed., Buddhist- Christian Relations in Asia, (EOS, Editions of Sankt Ottilien, 2017). This book gives an excellent overview of what happened in Asia among Buddhists.

9 Daniel John Gogerly, The Kristiyani Prajnapt, (1885), public domain reprint.

10 What one Buddhist scholar wrote about the book can be read here: http://un- knowingmind.pbworks.com/f/Dissent_Lo- tus_and_Cross_Final.pdf.

11 Acts 17:16–34.

12 Accessed July 18, 2017, http://www. tipitaka.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tripiṭaka.

13 Terms like nibbana, metta, anatta, dukkha, etc., are examples, and highlighted in the article by Chris Bauer, “The Fingerprints of God in Buddhism: Could a New Approach to the Way We Look at Buddhism be a Key to Breakthrough?” Mission Frontiers Nov/Dec (2014), http://www. missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/the-fingerprints-of-god-in-buddhism-article.

14 Why that is and how this kind of understanding developed can easily be figured out once a few Pali terms are understood.

15 Accessed July 18, 2017, https:// projectthailand.net/2011/01/04/john- 316-from-a-thai-buddhist-worldview- total-opposite/.

16 What this specifically can look like depends on the context, but for a general idea, see Bauer, “The Fingerprints of God.”

17 This is felt like a deception by Buddhists. See Buddhist-Christian Relations in Asia, ed. Schmidt-Leukel, Kenneth Flaming in his article “Buddhist-Christian Relations in Thailand An Overview” cited Sobhon Ganabhorn 1984, in A Plot to Undermine Buddhism. Bangkok: Siva Phorn, p. 12. The accusation was the Catholic Church is “distorting and subverting Buddhism” and claiming a “plot, in which Buddhist teachings have been distorted and according to the plan to absorb it into Catholicism.”

18 To what degree is obviously determined by the Christians in charge.

19 This idea is not limited to Thais but is applicable to Sri Lankans, Laotians, Bur- mese, Shan, Khmer, Vietnamese etc.

 

20 Rom. 3:29 “Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles, too? Yes, of the Gentiles, too.” (NIV )

21 In the same way as Isaiah was preparatory for the Jews for Christ, so in the same way is Buddha preparatory for the Buddhists for Christ.

22 The prophets wrote about it, obviously, but neither was it common knowledge nor a common expectation and it was likely not even conceptualized by Jesus’ contemporaries.

23 The question of superiority is a tricky one. First, Buddhists feel that Buddha and Buddhism are as superior as Christians feel Christ and Christianity are superior. Second, what is at stake is a classification which, according to Perry Schmidt-Leukel, goes like this: “The religious claims of teaching a path of salvation are either all false (naturalism) or they are not all false. If they are not all false, then only one of them is true (exclusivism) or more than one is true. If more than one is true, then there
is either one singular maximum of that truth (inclusivism) or there is no singular maximum so that at least some are equally true” in Religious Pluralism & Interreligious Theology, p. 4 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017). While this seems completely water-tight, it is not because it assumes a comparability beyond time and (God-given) revelation. Taking this into account, it is possible to arrive at a statement that goes beyond Schmidt-Leukel’s classification: Given the revelation God gave to Buddha, Buddha spoke into his context words of (God’s) truth that framed the discussion
(of the ultimate essence of atman) in a way that can be understood as preparatory for Christ. But this (biblical) truth of Christ is understood by a Buddhist in light of the truth God revealed to Buddha, not in light of the truth God revealed to the Jews.

24 It is the same Christ. It is Christ who is the way to nirvana, he is the dhamma, the Noble Eightfold Path. It is for this freedom that Christ has set the Buddhist free. Free from karma, free from delusion, anger and greed. And obviously, this “Buddhist” Christ is also found in the scriptures of the NT. To find him, the NT has to be read with Buddhist eyes.

25 Accessed July 18, 2017, https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhadasa.

References

Bassham, Philip 2011 “John 3:16 from a Thai Buddhist Worldview—Total Opposite!” January 4, 2011. Project Thailand. Accessed July 18, 2017. https://projectthailand.net/2011/01/04/ john-316-f rom-a-thai-buddhist- worldview-total-opposite/.

 

Bauer, Chris 2014 “The Fingerprints of God in Buddhism: Could a New Approach to the Way We Look at Buddhism be a Key to Breakthrough?” Mission Frontiers Nov/Dec (2014). http://www.missionf rontiers.org/issue/article/the-fingerprints-of- god-in-buddhism-article.

Boon-Itt, Bantoon 2007 “A Study of the Dialogue between Christianity and Theravada Buddhism in Thailand.” PhD dissertation, Department of Religious Studies, The Open University, St. John’s College, Nottingham, United Kingdom.

“Buddhadasa” 2017 Wikipedia. Last modified July 6, 2017. Accessed July 18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhadasa.

Gogerly, Daniel John 1885 “The Kristiyani Prajnapti. (public domain reprint).

Schmidt-Leukel, Perry, editor 2017 Buddhist-Christian Relations in Asia.EOS, Editions of Sankt Ottilien.

Schmidt-Leukel, Perry 2017 Religious Pluralism & Interreligious Theology. Maryknoll, NY: “Tripiṭaka” Orbis books.

“Tripiṭaka”

2017 Wikipedia. Last modified July 11, 2017. Accessed July 18.

 

1996 Vain Debates: The Buddhist-Christian Controversies in Nineteenth- Century Ceylon. Vienna: Institut für Indologie.

Zacharias, Ravi
2010 The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus talks with Buddha. New York: Waterbrook Multnomah.

 

The hidden gifts (and pitfalls) of jet lag

It’s 3 am. My stomach is growling, I have a headache, and I can’t sleep. Jet lag. All of us who’ve traveled internationally across time zones have experienced this in some way or another. I just came back from a trip that had me away from home for 6 weeks, in a time zone 9 hours difference. 

Over the years I’ve noticed something very unique about returning from these trips. Everything feels fresh, the possibilities and opportunities feel open and unspoiled. It’s like starting over, a reboot, a new perspective. 

Yes, there are projects I left unfinished before I left (can anyone say, ‘moving into a new apartment?’), and my to-do list is a mile long. But before I dive in, sitting on the couch in the middle of the night, I am able to step back, look at it all, and see things from a unique perspective that I don’t have any other time. This enables me to start new habits, new routines, and re-focus my priorities. That exercise routine that seemed to flop before I left? Now’s the time to get it going again. Being more strict with keeping track of my grocery budget? This is the easiest time to set up a better system and use it. That ministry project I’d been putting off? I have new passion and vision to tackle it. 

This “magic” tends to wear off in a couple of weeks, and usually lessens with the jet lag. Yet when taken advantage of, I can establish enough of a new pattern to get some momentum that will continue to carry me when the effect wears off.

There is a downside. Sometimes coming back is a bit like experiencing a crash after a high. The weeks away were filled with wonderful people, activities, and a sense of fulfillment. Coming home to an empty quiet house in a place where I only know a handful of people can feel like a let-down. I remember experiencing something similar after a youth conference as a teenager, or after a missions trip. This is the place where God meets me, and the place where I turn to him for help. I need him more than ever during these times, and I am keenly aware of my limitations. Yet he also gives me that new perspective as a gift. I can lean on him to be the helper and sustainer in the changes I’m making during this unique time.

In what ways have you experienced something like this when returning from an international trip? How has it helped give you an extra boost?

What Happens when Buddhists follow Jesus: A peek into the transformed lives of southeast Asian Women

By Marie Bauer

Recently, I went on a journey to discover some of the ways God works in people’s lives and how they respond to Him in dependence within the Buddhist world of SE Asia. Intentionally, I sought to meet people who were following Christ outside any identification with Christianity, and who were remaining within their socio-religious contexts. I offer this glimpse of what I observed as a means of broadening our perspective on what following Christ can look like in a context very different from our own. I have been blessed with the privilege of having my view of God marvelously expanded. I now see him everywhere, in places many have labeled as “dark”. He peers around the edges of people’s lives; he is present in the workings of their communities, whispering his name to those who are looking. (The purpose of my study is to answer the question, what is the place of Jesus in the personal, relational, and physical processes of Buddhists who follow Jesus?). My research is still fresh and unprocessed, so what I am presenting here are more of my impressions and stories than any kind of scholarly analysis. I present three examples in different ways that illustrate what I found.

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1. She wore a white blouse with a traditional tube skirt. She made her way to the temple grounds, carrying the curry and vegetables she had prepared, along with a stack of low denomination bank notes, just as she had done almost every year of her life. When she arrived at the temple, you could hear the loudspeaker blaring out a welcome. The temple was already full of people, mostly sitting, some walking around and attending to various functions. It was hot and flies were buzzing around. People were chatting and catching up. Children played on the edges. The atmosphere was relaxed and ordered. At the front, was a large Buddha statue, around it had been placed flowers and incense. She left her food with a friend, then went to the front, lit incense, sat with her legs folded to the side, and thanked Jesus for being with her and that she could rely on him for everything as she pressed her palms together with the lit incense between them. She felt peace as she put the incense in a pot of sand. Then she took the food and walked to the side where tables were set up, and added her food to the already abundant food there. Then she took a pot of rice, and went to the back of the temple where a long table was set up with many silver bowls and small glass boxes in a row. She scooped a spoon of rice into each bowl, and with each one thanked Jesus for taking care of her ancestors. She put one bank note into each box. Shortly, one in a group of elder men sitting near the front started to recite, and the others turned toward him, stopped talking, and placed their palms together. Occasionally they would join in repeating a few words. Then there was some chanting from the monks, and a blessing was given by the head monk by tossing drops of water over the people. Afterwards large low round tables were carried in, loaded with all the homemade food everyone had brought. Everyone sat around in groups and ate together.

Her husband had died when she was young, leaving her with four small boys to care for. She worked hard as a midwife, but the unusual hours meant she often left her children in the care of a relative. One of her sons grew to greatly resent the absence of his mother, treating her with disdain. One of them eventually turned to drugs to cope with the pain. When she came to know Jesus, she placed her family in His hands, and found them to be reliable. In addition to feeling more peace, which allowed her to respond to her boys in love, she found that the money went farther and there was enough when she needed it. As she continued to rely on Jesus for all her needs and those of her family, her son was able to overcome his addiction, and started showing love and respect to her, which he had not done for many years. Jesus changed her family. There was now peace and contentment where before there had been none.

People often come to her house because they want to know how this change happened in her family. She tells them simply, “I depend on Jesus for everything. He has given me peace in my heart and in my family, he is taking care of us every day. I think of him first in everything I do. Some said ‘I thought Jesus was only for Christians, but I see that you as a Jesus person are still one of us, part of our community. You go to the temple with us. Jesus has come into our midst. Jesus must be for us too. Can I too rely on Jesus without turning against my community and traditions?’” She tells them, “Yes! You can rely on Jesus without changing religions.” This is an open door to the hearts of Buddhists where the “religion” divide puts up a wall. It gets to the heart of the issue for many Buddhists. They long to follow Christ genuinely, as he made them to be. Is this what we long for too?

2. Another woman I interviewed had at first become a Christian, and then later returned to being Buddhist. “When I was a Christian I felt guilty and didn’t go to the temple. I was told that’s not what Christians should do. My parents were upset when I became a Christian and said I was throwing away my culture and customs. It was because I would not light incense at ceremonies for offerings. I went physically but I didn’t participate with the others. This created a barrier between me and my family. Then I moved to the city three years ago. Someone told me that depending on Jesus and being part of the Christian religion are not the same thing. This was really good news to me. Now I have freedom to be part of Cambodian traditions and culture and to depend on Jesus with all my heart. Now I depend on Jesus, but I am in Buddhism. This is such good news to my family. When Buddhists pray to Buddha they are not expecting an answer from him. But Jesus answers our prayers, and he helps us with our problems. Since depending on him I have much more peace in my heart, and since I re-embraced my Cambodian traditions, I have freedom too.”

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3. We sat around Jiraphon’s kitchen table and introduced ourselves to each other in the traditional way with palms placed together. The three ladies, Jiraphon and I sat at the table with some Thai sweets in front of us. I had arrived earlier and finished up a cup of coffee. The women had traveled from two hours away in order to meet me at my request. Jiraphon had selected the ladies, and she was the gatekeeper for my contact to them. I felt so humbled that they would come and talk to me, a foreigner and a stranger. These women refer to themselves as Children of God and as Buddhists. All three of them had a radiance of joy about them. I asked them what most signified their being a child of God, and they said they have peace in their hearts, that God has provided for them in many ways through their businesses, and that their family life has become much better, and that they have escaped from the cycle of karma (sin and death). They came to Jesus at different times, and in different ways.

Here are some words from Pba’s testimony.

M: I want to hear about the first time that you heard about Jesus, and what is your experience?

“In the past, someone invited me to meditate and pray to Jesus. However, I refused because I thought I had to change my religion. Then I learned more so I know that I don’t need to. Both religions are different but good. Like in Buddhism, when you pray, you have to light up candles and scent in order to worship the Buddha, and you bow down to the Buddha Image. But for God, you don’t need anything. You can just pray and ask Him to help. He doesn’t need any gift or bribe. When you pray in Buddhism, you’d promise to give some offering in return, if your wish is granted, for example, you may give a pig’s head, alcohol or eggs. With God, you don’t need to offer anything at all. I learned that with God, my wish is granted. I used to spend a lot of money for bribery many times, but my wish had never been granted. But with God, I asked and I received. I don’t have to spend any money. God has been helping. My business is so good that my rival cannot compete with me. My finances are also better. I used to struggle with money, but now I have enough. Whenever money has been lacking, I have prayed and I have received. I am selling grilled pork and my business is getting better. My family life is also better. We don’t argue anymore like we used to. I used to be very hot-tempered and never give in. But God has calmed me, and I have become more patient.

M: How did you come to understand that you don’t have to change your religion?

“I learned that Jesus is not a religion when I pray for His leading me everyday. When there’s something I am not sure about, I pray that He will lead me to do the right thing. That He will tell me what to do. I’m a leader and have to make decisions everyday. Jesus leads me and I have become successful as I follow Him. This is how I believe that Jesus does help me, and I don’t need to change my religion.

I am on the village committee, and a leader for a volunteer group which is like a community doctor. People come to us when they feel sick, then we will give some advice or take them to the doctor. I have been trained and have meetings often. I also set up a club called “The Savior Club” because I want more people to believe in God. But I cannot start by using the name Jesus Christ because it will come across as needing to change religion. This team, “The Savior Club,” will go help when there’s an event like at the temple. So far, there are about 18 people registered in this club, but actually, there are more people who help. I tell them that after they know God, they should continue to tell others about God. People ask what it takes to believe in God; if you have to change religion or not, and I would say no, you don’t need to. Everybody asks this question. Then I give them a book, and encourage them to test it themselves by praying for God’s blessings. They can test it and there’s nothing wrong or embarrassing, as they can pray when they’re alone. After that, they can notice if anything good happens, then they can make their own decision. They can come and accept God later, or spread the news further.”

The women I interviewed have never heard the word “evangelical” before, and it has no meaning to them. They have however heard the word “Christian”. I asked them what makes them different from Christians. They said that “Christians don’t light incense at funerals or for their ancestors, don’t donate money to help with the Kathin ceremony at the end of Lent, and they don’t place their palms together during monks teaching and chanting, and that these things are a sign of disrespecting the Buddhist religion.” What makes a Buddhist a Buddhist? I asked. “It’s not like you do something that makes you Buddhist, you are Cambodian (or Thai), therefore you are Buddhist, it’s who you are.” In other words, Christians communicate that Christianity is superior, and that in order to know Jesus, you have to disown your culture, community, and convert to a western culture and community. The bad news we have been sharing all along is that Jesus is not for Buddhists. The good news these women have so clearly experienced is that Jesus is for them too, and for their families and communities. Jesus has their skin on.

I consider the lives of these women to be good examples of what can happen when Jesus is freed from the confines of the Christian religion. (See “Christian Barriers to Jesus” by Paul Pennington, William Carey Library). I won’t go into details here, but even the concept of world religions is an invention of the Enlightenment and foreign in many Asian countries. (See Nongbri, Brent “Before Religion: The History of a Modern Concept”, Yale University Press, 2013; and Richard, H.L. “Religious Syncretism as a Syncretistic Concept: The Inadequacy of the ‘World Religions’ Paradigm in Cross-Cultural Encounter” IJFM 31:4 Winter 2014). Out of this came, the idea that in order to be a follower of Jesus you have to join the Christian religion, discarding any other religious affiliation. So where does all this leave us as evangelicals today?

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I can see God’s presence in the way these women express themselves in community. Everyone has a role to play, and it functions together as ekklesia. Sometimes I wonder what makes Christians think that they have to re-create something that already exists so beautifully. Why throw away the beautiful community that exists already to join another one (the Christian one) where we have to remanufacture it out of broken pieces? I wonder if what Jesus meant by ekklesia was more just about adding his presence and transformation into the already existing community and functions? The ekklesia is there, it just needs Jesus. When I think from a Christian perspective what the functions of ekklesia are, I saw them all there that day in the temple in a Cambodian village.

Many things that evangelicals may consider to be paramount to their identity are not actually dictated (or in many cases even present) in the Bible. If we put the best of evangelicalism in a distiller, what would disappear and what would remain? If being evangelical means following Jesus in community, depending on him, growing in obedience to him, his power transforming your life, and lovingly sharing about Him with others, then these women have got it nailed. Yet we must not push our labels or categories on them, giving them the honor of defining themselves in their own way. Our job is to step out from behind our own categories and embrace new ones as God reveals them to us.

“My scholarly studies confirmed my spiritual instincts. The Buddha was different. Official Christian dogma teaches that Jesus was divine, a part of the Trinity, three gods in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Buddhist teachings dogmatize a different understanding of the Buddha—that he was human through and through. The Buddha, as a fellow human, teaches us the way to live life so that our problems can be overcome. Jesus taught us a way to live life that bears witness to the fact that Jesus, as God, has saved us from our sins. The Buddha shows us the way, Jesus is the Way.” 1

“And Christ is the way to God, the way to deathlessness, the way to nibbana. This Noble Eightfold Path is personified in Jesus Christ. This path, which is Christ himself, leads to the end of suffering, to the end of death.”2

Endnotes

1 Terry Muck in “Images of the Buddha”, a chapter in the book “Buddhists Talk about Jesus, Christians Talk about the Buddha”: Edited by Rita M. Gross and Terry C. Muck. Continuum London, New York, 2000, pg. 97

2 Bauer, Chris. “The Fingerprints of God in Buddhism: Could a new approach to the way we look at Buddhism be a key to breakthrough?” Mission Frontiers, Vol.36, No.6 / Nov/Dec 2014 issn 0889-9436

This article was published in Resonance: A Theological Journal, Spring 2018 issue, Vol. 4.1 entitled “What is Evangelical?”. https://theologicalresonance.com

New country, new bonding

IMG_2890Previous times I went to live in a new country, I had connections with the Christians there before I moved there. When I arrived I was greeted by them and housed by them. They were lovely people. I started out in the Christian bubble and the world outside seemed so separate and hard to ‘break into’. I struggled to reach out to the lost and build meaningful relationships with them. In comparison to my cozy Christian corner, it didn’t seem we had anything in common or any way to truly connect. I thought that’s just how it was. I had no idea I was the one making it that way.

This time I decided to do it differently. A new country and new relationships. I decided to not be connected with the institutional church. (Okay, I do occasionally attend services but I have not built any friendships there or been involved in any church activities.) I’m opening myself up to build relationships in the way many people do. I decided to focus only on the community outside the institutional church, as an experiment to see what would happen. I have also decided not to look at people here as targets for sharing the gospel, but to just be myself, a fellow human needing friendships with day to day things in common. To follow God’s leading, rather than always pushing for a “gospel” opportunity.

Here is some of what has happened. I joined a language class. Many refugees there. I love getting to know them. They are such wonderful people. Each person, even though from the same country, is really different from the others. One is a body builder. One a political scientist. One was studying engineering but war interrupted his studies. We have a lot of fun. I feel so privileged to know them and be connected with them, to struggle alongside them to make sense of the language and culture in our adopted country.

On the bus the other day I met an American mother with two small children. We talked and felt an instant connection. We agreed to meet at the park with our kids. I quickly felt like I had found a friend. Since then we have been texting back and forth and are planning a playdate. My son keeps asking to meet them.

I took my son to the craft store. Two ladies were having a workshop making felt eggs. Spontaneously we ended up staying for four hours. We made many things. But best of all they were so wonderful to us. One is a primary school teacher and I ended up telling her much of the difficulty we are having with my son’s teacher. She was so sympathetic and encouraging. She simply loved my son and showed so much interest in him. The other lady was equally kind. She knows all about the city we live in and shared all kinds of helpful knowledge about museums and cultural events. My son and I were really blessed by the two ladies. They gave us their phone numbers and said we can contact them for advice on how to handle things at school and about museums and cultural events.  Two days later we ran into one of them on the street and had a nice chat.

We have also made friends with several of our neighbors. One of them works in a protestant church but religion or God has not been a theme of conversation. My son goes to their house once a week to play video games. They help us with small things. Last weekend we ran into them at the park. Other neighbors spent time in our living room to talk about their upcoming trip to SE Asia. We were able to give them lots of helpful information. Another lady neighbor has fallen in love with our cat. They invite us to their parties.

There is a Thai lady who runs a grocery down the street. We love talking together. She introduced me to another Thai lady who runs a massage shop nearby. One day I went into the courtyard of our building and there she was with ten other Thai people having a picnic! I met them and talked to them. Of course, they invited me to eat with them. I was so blessed. It made my day and I feel thankful to God.

We’ve been here only a couple months. These are just a couple of examples of what has happened in my life when I ‘cleared’ space. Meaning not filling my schedule with church activities. I also have been seeking and am open for new relationships.

So far I am really excited about what has happened as a result. God has provided friends and encouragement and help. Some of the people are Christians but the connection has not been through religion, not one manufactured through a church institution. I am on a journey. This is an experiment. God is there outside the church walls and outside church relationships.

What could happen if you started over and simply allowed God to guide you through the relationships that come through everyday life?

These things could still have happened even if I was involved in an institutional church.  But my point is that I am more open to them, more open for friendships, and more thankful because my needs are not already met through the church. This makes me, I think, more approachable and available. It also opens the door for building these relationships. I am learning to experience fellowship with people outside the church structure and to see God at work around me. Maybe this is part of what it really means to share Christ and grow in faith?

Being spiritual vs. being religious: why knowing the difference is so important (and it’s not what you think)

Religions are systems, they are traditions, they are institutions. Islam. Christianity. Hinduism. Buddhism. Most of us were born inside of one religious system or another. From my perspective, this is a completely irrelevant point when it comes to trusting in and walking with God, Allah, Yahweh, etc. Knowing the one true, personal God is a relationship, a walk of faith, not a religious system or institution. Many are religious. But they are not spiritual. Many are spiritual, but they are not religious. Spirituality is communion between the Divine and one’s own soul. An online dictionary defines it as “relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. And having a relationship based on a profound level of mental or emotional communion.”

Throughout the ages, people have sought to duplicate and pass this on through religious practices. How effective has that really been?  In many cases, the practices, systems, rituals, and institutions drown out and leave little room for true spiritual expression.

When you show up as a missionary in your country of choice, you go representing a religion, and institution, a culture. Those things get in the way of spiritual communion with God. I would hope that the latter is held as more important. How to find out if it is?

How do the local people (not Christians) think of you? Are you a religious person, passing down projects, institutions, and traditions, or are you a spiritual person who can connect them to the living God? The difference between these two is vast. Someone who walks out their faith among their neighbors outside the confines of a religious institution or structure is far more valuable than anything else. Do your neighbors see you worship God and care about them in a way that connects them to God? Or do they see you inviting them to “church”, an institution and a culture that gets you off the hook from having to be a truly spiritual person?

My friend Mr. G. has helped many Buddhists discover Jesus and walk with him. He has never invited any of them to any kind of church gathering. He prays prayers of blessings over them, with them, and sees God show up. He worships God with them in their temples using incense and chanting. If we don’t free God from the confines of religion, we will continue to be ineffective in passing on a living, spiritual walk with him among those of other backgrounds.

Think about what it would take for your neighbor to say to a friend “He/she is a very spiritual person”. What would it take for them to say that, as opposed to “he/she is very religious”? When we are identified with a religion, we want to pass it on–the institutions, programs, traditions, etc. We are very lucky indeed if people are truly able to find Christ in that. Likely your livelihood comes from it too, which undermines our true spirituality and makes our religion our “business”. Your livelihood will not come from a religious institution if you want to be spiritual in your community. But when we are identified as a spiritual person, the whole world opens up to us.

We can express our walk with God through local forms. Remember, it’s not the form that matters, but the meaning we give it. We can go to the temple and worship God and pray to him alongside our friends of all faiths. Show them what it means to you to be a spiritual person who walks with God in their context. See all the things they can teach you about being spiritual. Start by learning what true spirituality means to them, and how they express it. If there are empty motions they go through, that is religion, and  you have the opportunity, sensitively, to fill it with spiritual meaning. If you were stripped of all religious expression, what would your faith look like?

Christianity is completely hollow without the spirituality of individuals and communities. Don’t make the mistake of starting with a Christian institution and try to make it spiritual. Your friends will probably not get it. Instead, fill their lives, contexts, and forms with spiritual meanings that are not tied to Christianity. Jesus said, “come follow me”. He did not say, “convert to Judaism or to Christianity so that you can discover what it means to follow me”. Be spiritual. not religious.