Saturday, December 22, 2012

Review of "Early Churches in Nepal: An Indigenous Christian Movement Till 1990" by Rajendra K. Rongong

“I felt that a history of the churches in Nepal from a Nepali perspective would be worthwhile. This book is the outcome of that felt need.” So Dr. Rongong states in the introduction to his book. Dr. Rongong tells a story of an indigenous—or what some might call grassroots—Christian movement. While histories of foreign missions in Nepal, and the more prominent Nepali churches, have been written, Rongong focuses on the stories of smaller churches and how they independently conducted Gospel work in Nepal’s various towns and villages from 1951 to 1990 in the midst of persecution and Nepal’s first experiment with democracy, commonly known as the Panchayat years. Yet he also includes chapters on recent developments, such as Nepal emerging as a secular state and how this development has affected the relations between Nepali Christians and their country.

Dr. Rongong is well qualified to write such a history. A Nepali originally from Kalimpong, India, Dr. Rongong is a pastor at Nepal Isai Mandali (NIM), also commonly known as Gyaneshwar Church, one of the original churches in Nepal. He holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Southern Illinois University (which he received while on a Fulbright), and has had a distinguished teaching career within the country, including several posts at Tribhuvan University. As a result, while he is a well-known church leader, he is also respected in several civil and government sectors within Nepal. This work—171 pages in length—is published by Ekta Books, a large Nepali publishing house that primarily provides educational and curricular materials, and is currently priced at an affordable 250 rupees (approximately $3).  

Interestingly, Rongong does not dive immediately into the Church’s story in Nepal. He first gives an overview of the country of Nepal—geographic features, early history before Prithvinaryan Shah’s unification, and characteristics of Nepali culture and politics today—and a brief summary of the early history of Christianity, focusing on the Protestant Reformation. This beginning places the story of the Church in Nepal within both the larger context of Nepal’s history and culture, and the global history of the Christian Church. Rongong recounts these historical developments within Nepal: with Prithvinaryan Shah trying to unify Nepal into one country, the Capuchin missionaries present in Bhatgaon (now Bhaktapur) and Kathmandu—who worked there at the invitation of the (now overthrown) Malla kings—represented European policy more than Christian religion to this new ruler. Another religion in and of itself was threatening, since Prithvinaryan justified the existence of Nepal as a nation through the Hindu religion. When Rongong does begin the story of the Nepali Church specifically, he spends quite a bit of time on India—for like the democratic genesis of Nepal, the Nepali Church began in India in the late 19th century. Previous to Nepal opening its borders, Nepalis who converted in India attempted to go back to their towns and villages to share the Gospel, only to be escorted back to the country’s border. After the overthrow of the Rana regime and Nepal’s first experiment with democracy began in 1951, Nepali people who had encountered the Gospel abroad came back to Nepal to begin churches in their home towns and villages. The middle part of Rongong’s work is devoted to many of these individual church histories.

A large focus of Rongong’s work is on church persecution. While he weaves several individual instances into the specific histories of Nepali churches, and acknowledges that this persecution only made the faith of Nepali Christians more genuine, he does critique the oversight to persecution that Nepali government and civil officials have often given. While religious freedom has been a value since the inception of the democratic movement in Nepal—he mentions that one of the four stars on the Nepali Congress party’s flag stands for religious freedom (pg. 42)—it has been a long battle to obtain it. While he focuses on Christian persecution, Rongong more widely mentions the intolerance that Hindu Nepal has extended to any non-Hindu religion—including Muslims and Buddhists. Rongong expresses frustration that various Nepali officials with whom he as interacted (1) believe that all Nepali Christians are “rice Christians,” who have changed their religion because expatriates pay them money, despite evidence to the contrary, and (2) believe that there is full religious freedom in Nepal. Rongong recounts this particular instance: “It is difficult to believe that many educated and comparatively liberal people sincerely believe that there was full religious freedom in Nepal. The author confronted one of his colleagues who attended a United Nations Conference in New York and delivered a speech in which the person said, among other things, that there was full religious freedom in Nepal. Following the person’s return from the Conference the person was presented with statistics of Christians who were either in prison or on trial. The person was very surprised but refused to believe the evidence presented to him” (pg. 105).

Discussing the growth of the Nepali Church as attached to historical and political developments is a strong point of Rongong’s work. While the impact of Hindu nationalism on Nepali Church growth has been treated in other texts, Rongong provides more recent information on how the Church has fared since the second Jana Andolan (People’s Movement) in 2006, and especially since the dissolvement of the monarchy in 2008. These political reforms made Nepal into a secular federal republic. While peace, reconciliation and state rebuilding continue today, with Hinduism no longer an official marker of Nepal, the cultural and religious diversity of the country came out into the open. As a result, Christians and their religious practices have become more visible. For example, Christmas was made into an official holiday in 2008 (and the new Nepali President joined the Christmas Day service at Gyaneshwar Church!), and Christian leaders sent suggestions to the Constituent Assembly for the country’s new constitution. Among these suggestions were (1) honoring religious freedom, (2) providing a cemetery for Christian burial, and (3) declaring Good Friday and Easter Sunday as national holidays (!).

Rongong’s assessment of foreign mission work on church growth in Nepal is balanced. He points out that, because of the government restrictions on foreign missionaries, they were basically limited to providing medical, educational, and community development/infrastructural needs in the country, provided through INGOs like UMN and INF. While these foreign workers joined Nepali churches, and became active members, church leadership remained in Nepali hands. After the first Jana Andolan (People’s Movement) in 1990, some of that changed as Nepali churches made connections with denominations outside of Nepal, and Nepal became more available to traditional foreign mission work.

This book is not intended to be a scholarly work—Rongong says in his introduction that readers looking for such a work will be disappointed—but as a record of Church growth in Nepal from an insider’s point of view. I think second and third generation Nepali Christians will find this book a helpful reminder of their heritage and wider place in Nepali society and history—and because this book is written in English, it will most likely be widely read by the urban, educated, middle-class youth that are now integral to the Nepali Church. I would also highly recommend this work to foreign Christian workers new to Nepal, as a readable introduction to the Christian heritage that is present in this country. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Developing a Theology of Singleness in Relation to a Theology of Church

My dad expected to spend our first Christmas in Nepal as he always had: sleep in late, have a Christmas brunch, open presents, stay at home, relax with family. That expectation was shattered at 6AM when two of the deacons in our Nepali church knocked on our front door. They had come to collect our family and go to the annual bhan bhoj—forest feast, also commonly called a “picnic” by Nepalis. My family spent our first Christmas in Nepal on the top of some hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley with our Nepali church family of about 60 or 70 people at the time. We cooked two meals (pilau—rice cooked with ghee, or clarified butter, and sprinkle with whole spices and dried fruit—as well as curried meat and vegetables), sang Nepali Christmas carols to the beat of a madal (a two-headed folk drum) and tambourine, prayed, and explored the forest, chatted, ate lots of food, and fellowshipped. We piled back into the rented bus (and I mean piled—with people on the roof) only when it began to get dark around 5 or 6 PM.

After my family moved back to the States, Christmas fell on a Sunday one year (I don’t remember which year). Our Alabama church decided not to have a service on that day—rather, people were expected to celebrate with their own families. I was devastated. Not only would the day be boring (who stayed at home on Christmas?), but even more baffling to me, why would anyone not want to celebrate Christ’s birth with their church family? 

These are memories that came to mind as I listened recently to John Piper’s sermon “Single in Christ: A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters” (there is also a chapter by that name is his book “This Momentary Marriage”). Slowly, I’m coming to understand why my understanding of single people and the church, and single people in the church, seems to be at such odds with Western Christian assumptions (and lack of sound teaching) I’ve encountered on these subjects. So much of my perception of the church and singleness is wrapped up in my experience of the church as I grew up in Nepal—and my experience differed from what most people understand and experience as “church” in the United States.  

Here’s the complication: many people look at me—white American—and assume a certain cultural identity. Once people begin to interact with me though, the boundaries between cultures become apparently mixed up. I’ve found that nowhere is this more upsetting than within the Christian Church. My parents joke how I’m not of their same culture—rather, I’m a TCK (Third Culture Kid), or now an ATCK (Adult Third Culture Kid), thus have different cultural understandings or expectations. For example: for our first Christmas back in the US in 2001, my mother was planning a “traditional” Christmas dinner with all the fixings—turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, you name it. When she relayed this plan to me, I—then fifteen years old—stood with mouth open, aghast, and reacted with “that is NOT Christmas dinner!” and insisted that we have pilau and curried meat and vegetables instead. To her credit, she obliged. But I’ve come to realize that my understandings, and expectations, concerning the church and singleness are also wrapped up in my experience of being raised abroad. John Piper’s sermon nicely brings these two concepts together

The Church: Where Christ’s Blood is Thicker Than Biological Blood

When people become Christians in Nepal, their family, if not Christian, will often disown or reject them. The church then, in many literal ways, becomes a new believer’s family. Life as a church is life as a family. This is evident in celebrations like Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and Nepali national and religious holidays, which are observed together by breaking bread, prayer, fasting, fellowship, and teaching. It is also evident in meeting each other’s needs and sometimes financially helping one another. As I’ve come back to Nepal, my own Nepali church family has continued to act as my family—making sure I’m well fed, getting upset with me when I don’t tell them I’m sick/going out of town, and entirely flexible with letting me tag along to events, or hang out at their house when I’m bored.

My experience of my Nepali church as family led easily to a theological understanding of the church as a family, where Christ’s blood binds us together. I think this understanding was strengthened as I grew up with a lack of interactions with extended blood family—my grandparents were geographically distant people who called on Christmas or my birthday; I was not present for the birth or early years of any of my cousins, and I grew up just seeing my extended family maybe every three years. When my family moved back to the States, I was often at a loss as to why my mother insisted on visiting various extended family every year (didn’t we see them last year?), or several times a year (but we just saw grandma three months ago…) As a result, I’ve grown up with a different concept of who is family—and who I have responsibility toward.

Singleness as a viable, exchangable, and mature state

My family was a part of an international expat community in Nepal, where there were a significant number of single men and women who played integral roles in INGO administration of providing services to people in Nepal. Some eventually got married, many never married, and many became single again when their spouse died unexpectedly. I do not remember any married people complaining that these single people were extending adolescence, not seeking to mature in their relationship with Christ, or shirking responsibilities to the community. Many of them were in leadership positions and well respected within the community—some were newly out of university or medical school; others were middle-aged, or coming close to retirement.

When I moved to the US, I encountered the conception of singleness in US church culture as an extension of adolescence. There was an emphasis that young people need to get married, have children—be adults. While in many ways I understood these accusations as well founded when I saw my peers extending their adolescence and not seeking maturity, I was not expecting personal attacks as I moved through college and then past college to begin a graduate career as a single person. While I see myself as walking, though imperfectly, through the doors that God opened for me (and not always doors that I would have chosen to open, much less walk through!), I have been accused of being a lesbian (on more than one occasion!) not being in God’s will or immature because I’m not married with two-and-a-half kids, and when I do not visibly serve in three ministries at my local church, accused of selfishness with my time!

Developing a Theology of Singleness and the Church

Christians in Nepal currently face a cultural dilemma: they have been taught to bury their dead instead of cremate the deceased. Hindus cremate their dead, and have a philosophy concerning cremation that is central to the philosophy of Hinduism. Christians burying their dead has become a cultural marker of difference. However, this tradition has created untold division within “split” (Hindu and Christian) families, and tension within the wider Nepali community (where land is often denied for burial; if burial happens, the community will often exhume the body and cremate it, for fear that the deceased person’s ghost will linger). As a result, several church leaders in Nepal are calling for the Nepali Church to develop a theology of cremation that is appropriate and relevant to their cultural context—one that will serve the purpose of not unduly offending the wider culture (that’s the Gospel’s job), that will lead the Christian family through the grieving process, and be a witness to the wider culture (and where Christians will not assume that cremating their dead is a non-Christian act).

Likewise, developing a theology if singleness I think is imperative for the US Church—not just for those who have not yet been married. Inevitably, many people who are married will be single again—through divorce, or the death of a spouse. Yet, whether single, married, or single again, we remain part of Christ’s Bride and have integral roles to play. As John Piper points out, teaching on singleness also keeps married people from idolizing marriage. And as part of the church body, a theology of singleness will better serve the wider church body.

While imperfect, and certainly not a completely theology as I’m still thinking through many of these things, here is the gist of answers I have given people within the church who ask about my singleness:
·      As a Christian, I am a full inheritor of God’s grace and part of Christ’s Bride. I often have to remind myself that God has not withheld good from me by withholding marriage—he gave all of himself for me on the cross, and the untold riches of my inheritance in Christ are mine as a single person (Ephesians 1 to 3).  
·      As a single woman, I am fully feminine. First, my primary identity lies in Christ (Galatians 2:20), not in my gender. Yet gender is still an important aspect of my identity, and it can still be expressed as a single person. The book that has most transformed my thinking on this has been Carolyn McCulley’s book Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with Hope Deferred, which is structured around Proverbs 31.
·      As a Christian single, I too reflect aspects of God’s character and the nature of His Church. The following points are taken from John Piper’s book “This Momentary Marriage” (pg. 106):
o   The truth that the family of God grows not by propagation through sexual intercourse, but by regeneration through faith in Christ
o   The truth that relationships in Christ are more permanent, and more precious, than relationships in families (and, of course, it is wonderful when relationships in families are also relationships in Christ; but we know that is often not the case)
o   The truth that marriage is temporary and finally gives way to the relationship to which it was pointing all along: Christ and the church—the way a picture is no longer needed when you see face- to-face
o   The truth that faithfulness to Christ defines the value of life; all other relationships get their final significance from this. No family relationship is ultimate; relationship to Christ is
·      While I am a single person, I have limited time and resources. In other words, I don’t have to feel guilty about saying “no.” When I worked on my master’s degree, I took time to be on the nursery rotation, be a regular part of the sound team at church, and occasionally play piano preludes before services. However, during the year I worked toward ABD (all-but-dissertation) status for my PhD, I had to suspend this church ministry as I took some of the most grueling coursework I’ve ever encountered and juggled three part-time jobs. I did this with the understanding that this was only for a season; once I reached ABD (which some of my colleagues aptly dubbed “all-but-dead”) status, I could resume more regular ministry work. During this time of suspending ministry however, I made it a priority to stay involved with my care group. Here, I also discovered that small acts of praying with people, being honest about my own struggles or sharing what God was teaching me at the time, were also acts of “ministry.”
·      I am single for your benefit. Each of us has different gifts that are part of the collective inheritance of the saints. While I may not be single all my life, I am single today, and that is for your benefit as my brother or sister in Christ (Romans 12:3-8). While this may sound like a coy reply (which in several ways, it is), there is much truth in it.

Serving the Singles in Your Church

In most sermons I’ve encountered on singleness, the pastor usually ends with a list of ways singles can serve families in church. This makes it seem like a one-way relationship, where couples or families cannot bless singles. How often I have wished that the pastor had also included ways that families and couples can be a blessing to singles! I have been grateful to the families who have served me. Following is a list—not inexhaustible—of ways that I have been blessed by families in churches I have been a part of:
·      Treat us like men and women: I think this is especially important in discipleship—single people are not a lump of ungendered people; rather, we have specific challenges as men and women that we need to be held accountable for and walked through. There are several women that I am privileged to call “mothers” who have shared coffee with me, prayed with me, or taken the time to wake up early and skype with me when I was half way around the world in need of an listening ear!
·      Treat us like adults: in other words, encourage and allow for leadership opportunities and give responsibilities as appropriate within the church body. Do not assume that because we’re still single, we’re not mature enough or prepared enough for responsibilities. We each have our own gifts, personalities, and talents and resources to offer--we have much more to offer (and learn!) than just babysitting services (and I don’t mean to belittle serving in the nursery either)! Being the only woman on the sound team at my US church has allowed me to learn new skills that have complemented the skills I have as a performing musician and ethnomusicologist, and suited my personality as a behind-the-scenes and detail-and-task-oriented person. I have also enjoyed getting to know men and their families in church who I otherwise would not have known. I often wonder what roles people like Jesus Christ, or the Apostle Paul, would be relegated to within the church today on account of their singleness...
·      Include us in the greater church body: one of the things I am grateful for in my current US church family is the presence of intergenerational care groups. On a weekly basis, I have the opportunity to bless and be blessed by other singles, young families, “empty-nesters,” those who are single again, and those who are in retirement. Which leads to another point:
·      Understand that there are seasons of singleness: some of us have been married and are now single again—with or without children. Some of us have never been married, and are in the middle of a blossoming career. Some of us are fresh out of college and in an entry-level job. There is no one-size-fits-all-singleness. Be sensitive to this aspect of singleness, and seek to serve appropriately.
·      Pray for us: we know you’re praying for our spouse, but also pray that we will bring God glory in all areas of life, for struggles with temptation and sin we encounter today, and that we will enjoy continued fellowship with our Savior.
·      Allow for rest: as singles, we often have “the challenge of endless opportunity,” which can mean that we are often physically “eta-uta” (Nepali for “here-and-there”), which can be physically and emotionally draining. There is a couple in Virginia who I try and visit for a few days every time I’m on the East Coast. While they are off at work during the day, I sleep-in at their place (usually I see them when I’ve just come back from overseas, so battling jet-lag while in the middle of a busy travel schedule to see family and friends), and when I’m awake, enjoy the company of their dogs and the setting of their rural home. In the evenings, we cook together, go on a walk, and catch up. Opening their home as a place of rest has been one the best gifts!
·      Have a single person live with your family: this is something that needs to be prayed about and not entered into lightly, but allowing a single person who is between jobs, in graduate school, or in some stage of transition live with your family for a time can be a huge blessing to the single person—and to you. I’ve lived with several families for periods of two months to a year. In my own experience, this has provided not only immediate resources (like a bed to sleep in each night and at least one hot meal a day—things I can’t exactly pack into a suitcase!), but has also allowed me to observe marriage and family relationships (other than those within my own biological family) and see how different families manage roles as husband, wife, father, mother, son and daughter, and how God has used them to build His church and further His kingdom. It has kept me in community and accountable for my actions toward others. I have been able to serve the family by house sitting while they are away, preparing meals or cleaning when the wife/mother has had a hectic day, or my presence has helped in other transitions within the family (like when an older sister goes off to college, having me as an older-sister figure in the house has helped younger siblings).

End Note

This blog is much longer than I originally intended; a little more helter-skelter, and perhaps opened up more questions than it gave answers. Thanks for reading to the end!

Resource list:

  • “How to Serve “the Singles”—Ministry to Unmarried Adults in Your Local Church”
  • McCulley, Carolyn. Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with Hope Deferred
  • Piper, John. This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jesus and the Buddha: Different Concepts of Compassion, and Suffering

People like to draw comparisons. They like to find common ground and generalities (this is where I need the Nepali grammatical form “inchha”—which designates a generality, but not without exceptions. The above statements in English just seem like blanket statements that can be shot through with holes). One common ground that people have pointed out to me within Buddhism and Christianity are the concepts of compassion and suffering. Below, I imperfectly compare and contrast two stories, where both Jesus and the Buddha had moments of compassion, and encountered suffering people.

First, this story is told within Buddhism:

Kisa Gautami was a young woman from a wealthy family who was happily married to an important merchant. When her only son was one-year-old, he fell ill and died suddenly. Kisa Gautami was struck with grief, she could not bear the death of her only child. Weeping and groaning, she took her dead baby in her arms and went from house to house begging all the people in the town for news of a way to bring her son back to life.
Of course, nobody could help her but Kisa Gautami would not give up. Finally she came across a Buddhist who advised her to go and see the Buddha himself.
When she carried the dead child to the Buddha and told Him her sad story, He listened with patience and compassion, and then said to her, "Kisa Gautami, there is only one way to solve your problem. Go and find me four or five mustard seeds from any family in which there has never been a death."
Kisa Gautami was filled with hope, and set off straight away to find such a household. But very soon she discovered that every family she visited had experienced the death of one person or another. At last, she understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself — that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once Kisa Guatami accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She took the child's body away and later returned to the Buddha to become one of His followers.

Taken from

Now, compare and contrast that with this story of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke:

Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.

So what similarities do you see between the two stories? Both concern a mother who had lost her only child to death (albeit one was a baby and one was a grown man). In both, Jesus and the Buddha are catalysts to change within the story. Both Buddha and Jesus had “compassion,” but that’s where the similarities leave off.  

Every time the Bible records Jesus having compassion, he does something: he feeds the hungry, he teaches people, he raises people from the dead. Compassion leads to actions. When the Buddha has compassion, it about amounts to having nice thoughts about whoever is speaking to him.

Both Jesus and Buddha encountered people who had a problem, namely, an experience with death. In other versions of this story, Buddha is sitting under a tree in the woods starving himself to death trying to reach enlightenment when Gautami comes to him; yet in the story above, Jesus initiates interaction with the funeral procession. In other stories, Jesus enters into the suffering with people, goes into their houses and lives among them. And of course, Jesus entered into the greatest suffering by bearing sin on a cross. While the Buddha basically tells this distraught woman to “suck it up—its your lot in life to suffer and experience death,” Jesus returned the dead to the living (see also the records of Jairus’ daughter, and returning Lazarus to Mary and Martha) and ultimately, his death and resurrection allow us to experience eternal life, and not taste true death.

While each story deals with issues of compassion and suffering, the concepts are completely different. Within Christianity, compassion is demonstrated in action, rather than just nice thoughts, and suffering is not something to be “sucked up” but rather, eliminated through a savior.