Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Meeting Miroslav Volf

I'm embarrassed at times by what I don't know that I think I should. I'm not a theologian. By that I mean, not that I don't think about my faith and life in light of God and Scripture, but that I'm not trained in theology. My training has been in biblical studies. Mostly I learned one-liners about classical and contemporary theologians, associating them with their main contributions or ideas.

I have read a volume of Karl Barth's Dogmatics, and I've read a couple of volumes of Jurgen Moltmann, whom I like very much. But for the most part, contemporary philosophers and theologians have not been my main diet.

So regularly I discover a thinker that everyone else seems to know already. This week it was Miroslav Volf. I was visiting on the Emergent website, and noticed they have a podcast now. I've gotten into podcasts and audio books as a way of using some of my driving time. My iPod has become more than a nifty way of carrying music around with me. I'm a regular subscriber to a podcast of the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. The reader reads Scripture and some beautifully crafted prayers to me for about 20 minutes. But I digress.

The Emergent podcast started a few weeks ago and the first six episodes were taken from a conference held at Yale University in February. The conference was a conversation with Miroslav Volf, who teaches there in the divinity school. He is an evangelical theologian, and quite conservative, really. He was born in Croatia in 1956 and his life story is tangled up in the struggles of the former Yugoslavia.

Although he has written several books, he is best known for Exclusion and Embrace, which deals with the theology of reconciliation. He recently published Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, which the Archbishop of Canterbury named the 2006 Lenten study book. He writes a regular column for Christian Century. He used to teach at Fuller Seminary. And I have never paid attention to him.

This week I spent several hours listening, not to him lecturing, but to him engaging in conversation with pastors and practicioners of ministry at Yale, all of whom would consider themselves part of the emerging church. They were discussing ideas in his books and in his life. What impressed me most about him was his transparency about his life and thinking. I was impressed about his practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. I was impressed with his generosity in giving himself to these pastors for three days.

So, I've ordered the books and I will get on with exploring his thinking further. I wish I'd paid attention to him earlier. When amazon.com gets my books here, I'll post some of my thoughts about his thoughts.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Visiting Africa

So what does it take to get to Uganda? A passport. You have to have one of those. I think just about everyone ought to have one. It is a way of saying to God that you're available.

Then you have to have some medicine. Yellow fever is the only immunization required. But Hepatitis A&B, typhoid, tetanus, and polio boosters are good ideas. Rabies, if your going to be dangerously close to wildlife . No immunizations known will prevent mango fly infestation. And you'll need some pills to guard against malaria. Something for a mildly upset stomach is also advised.

Now you're going to need a visa--permission from the Ugandan government to visit their country. It isn't too expensive. You can obtain one at the airport in Uganda or through their embassy in Washington, D.C. before you leave. It's just a red stamp inside your passport.

You're going to need a ride since it is way too far to walk. So, passage on one of several major airlines that fly in and out of Entebbe will be necessary. We are flying on British Air again this year. Flying from Houston to Entebbe through London is $1545. But it includes meals.

Those are the externals. But you also need some things internally. You need to be somewhat adventurous. It is a long flight. You land in a place that feels more foreign than most places you have travelled. You stand out like a white thumb. Fortunately, the signs in Uganda are all in English. But it takes a while even to understand English spoken with a thick British/African accent. And the further you get from cities, the more likely English won't work for you any more.

You need to be ready to walk into a different world. The world in Uganda looks very different from Clear Lake City. It is not sterile and manicured. Life abounds on the streets--people in vibrant attire, women with babies strapped to their backs and packages balanced magically on their heads, busses, trucks (lorries), motorcyles (piki-pikis), vans, cars, bicycles, cows, dogs, chickens. The aroma of Africa is distinct and pleasant. Roadside markets display colorful stacks of tomatoes, mangos, pineapples, potatoes, and other fruits and veggies. The people of Uganda are beautiful, physically and spiritually. So many of them exude a joy even in difficult circumstances.

You need an openess to compassion. The visit will bring you into contact with poverty and disease like you may never have seen. The resources to deal with hunger, unemployment, filthy water supplies, lack of shelter, AIDS, orphaned children, and education are simply not at hand.

You will need a willingness to experiment with language, with food, and with culture. Some flexibility will be required to manage the way that Ugandans deal with time, planning, and schedules. It is a bit freer than the way that we do it.

You will need to give up your tourist mentality that needs a five star hotel to be comfortable. You'll stay in clean facilities, but not in elegant ones. You'll need to be ok if some of the meals are not home-cooked American but are matoke (a relatively flavorless steamed banana), posho (grits on steroids), bean sauce (or chicken or goat sauce) all eaten with the right hand. Sometimes you may be eating a piece of fried bread, like a pita, or a small meat pie called a samoa. It will all digest.

You will need a love for people, because Ugandan children, university students, and adults will soon be making their way into your life and heart. You'll want a love of worship because the singing and celebration in a Ugandan worship service are stirring. You'll want a love for your fellow missionaries because you spend a lot of time up close and personal.

Then there's all the stuff you need to pack. But travel light.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Our tickets arrived today – nine of them. One month from today we will be boarding a British Air flight to Entebbe, Uganda. A tenth member of our team will have left the day before and will be waiting on us. She’ll be returning later than us as well, so she was ticketed differently.

Seven of the ten of us traveled to Uganda about this same time last year. That may tell you something about the experience. Everyone wanted to return. And we picked up a couple of others. I wish you all could go.

So what are we going to do? We arrive on Monday, June 5 at 5:30 AM and make the four hour drive to Mbarara. After lunch Patrick Forrester and I will launch (that’s what you do with an astronaut) right into the pastors’ conference. We’ll be teaching the Gospel of Mark and helping about five dozen Ugandan pastors learn how to develop teaching and preaching outlines from the texts. That will be going on all day from Monday afternoon until Friday at noon.

Patrick will have some opportunities to speak at some local schools. Other team members will be involved in a variety of ministries and projects –

§ Teaching members of “Go Make Disciples,” an HIV+ group of believers, how to make some creative greeting cards that will be sold back in the states. This will develop as a cottage industry for them. Melinda will be leading this project and others will be helping.

§ Filming short dramatic skits on AIDS prevention done by members of the “Go Make Disciples” group, editing them, and reproducing them on VHS and DVD so that they can be shown in clinic waiting rooms and other places. Jenna will be leading the team who will work on this.

§ Daily visits to homes of AIDS patients through the Words of Hope ministry. We did this last year as well. Diana Forrester is leading this ministry. All of us will get to participate.

§ Prayer-walking the university campus and other places where ministry is underway or about to be developed. Andrea Stephens is coordinating this work that all of us will be involved with.

§ Leading a “Hot Topics” conference on purity and integrity issues for university students and young professionals. Pamm Muzslay is developing the curriculum for this and getting us organized.

§ Building high efficiency brick and mud cook stoves that will help women use 70% less wood or charcoal and that will also be vented so that they do not have to breath the smoke as they work. Most of us will get our hands dirty in this project.

Besides those I’ve mentioned, Andrew Forrester, a student at UT, will be returning with us. Last year he helped in so many ways, including leading a guitar seminar for university students and building benches for a village church. Kelli Hancock, a student at A&M, will be going along for the first time and will stay an extra couple of weeks to work with Larry. Courtney Johnson, a high school student and veteran missionary in Mexico, is making her first journey to Africa with us as well.

I’ll post a bit more about our preparation and plans in the next few days.