Reflections on “It’s a Wonderful Life”

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We attended the live-radio play “It’s a Wonderful Life” hosted by our church. It’s a classic Christmas movie (1946) about “an angel who helped a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he never existed.” (For those who do not know the storyline, please refer to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038650/) The story held our attention and the performance was very good, but I left with mixed feelings about the plot.

On the one hand, I like the theme “No man is a failure who has friends. Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole. All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” Not many of us are wise according to human standards, not many mighty, not many noble (1 Co 1:26), but all of us have friends. What we have given away have left a mark, great or small, on their lives. Had we never existed, our friends’ lives would have been different by virtue of the fact that our impact would have been absent.

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I thought back over the last few decades. A lot of the things I did would not amount to much. Whatever trophies or awards I earned in school or university had long been forgotten, as soon as the next school year came along and there were new students competing for those top spots. What achievements I had with my employers were a thing of the past too, as everyone’s attention quickly refocused on the latest quarterly and annual results. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. (Eccle 1:2; 12:8)

However, if I had never been born, for sure I would not have any children or grandchildren! And they are important! Even though I had not done anything great according to the world’s standards, I shared the gospel with quite a few, and by God’s grace some did trust and follow the Lord. Many I did not have the opportunity to meet again, but I expect to see them again the other side of heaven. Had I not existed, I guess the Lord would have used others to lead them to Himself, but I’m glad I was there at the right time and place and obedient in carrying the message. To me that’s significant! So I’m thankful for the play’s reminder to reflect on what matters in life.

On the other hand, I am bothered by the play’s utilitarian value system. What if, unlike the story’s hero, I had not saved anyone life? Or contributed to society’s well-being by stopping evil oppressors in their tracks? What if I am just an ordinary citizen trying hard to make ends meet? Or perhaps I was born physically or mentally challenged? Does that mean my life has little value because I had not influenced others for the better? I don’t think so. Even with all the disadvantages and looked down by the world, I would still be fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14). I would still be made in God’s image, a child of God and precious in His sight.

So I have mixed feelings about the play. But I suppose that’s the best I can expect from humanitarian philosophy – good from today’s moral decline perspective, but far short of God’s ideal. That’s why we need to share the gospel to as many as we can as best as we can. Other things pale in comparison.

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Challenges facing Panama’s Chinese Churches

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Every church has her challenges, some more than others. For the Chinese churches in Panama, their ministerial fellowship have identified the top 3 as follows:

1. Getting Believers to Worship. Unlike most Chinese in N. America who work in white or blue-collar jobs and get their weekends off, most Chinese in Central & S. America work in small businesses which are open 7 days a week. This creates a problem for C&SA churches in that while it is not difficult to share the gospel and get a confession of faith, it is very hard for the new convert to go to church to be discipled. This challenge is unique to that culture, and N. American programs based on inviting people to come to church to participate do not work.

What’s more, without disciples, there could be no leaders. Which leader would entrust the work of the ministry to immature believers who have not learned the basics of worship, instruction, fellowship and evangelism? So the missionary or pastor end up doing most of the work himself, perpetually feeding spiritual infants with milk. What’s the solution?

At the core, this is a problem of priorities and values. New converts steeped in materialism simply do not see the value of setting aside time to worship God, for to them time is money. To rectify this, the value system needs to be restructured from the physical to spiritual. Now the word can help the spiritual babies grow:
1 Pet 2:2 like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation,

But how do you feed them if they don’t come? There are two alternatives. The first is to find another time for gathering together for worship and training other than Sunday morning. This is the method adopted by restaurant workers fellowship in N. America. Since Sunday is the busiest day for those in food services, they meet on Monday nights instead. Services start at midnight after the restaurants have closed, and run till 2 or 3 am including Sunday school. This is a group method and more efficient.

The other option is to go to the convert’s business to disciple him/her. Most have a slow period during the day with few customers. Instead of the convert watching TV programs streamed from China, the missionary can do bible study with them, slowly shaping their values via God’s word. This is an individual method and takes more time, but probably more effective as the mentor shapes the mentee’s life by example.

2. Reaching the Second Generation. As in N. America, the first generation consists of immigrants, legal or illegal, from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or elsewhere. They speak Chinese, whether Putonghua (Mandarin), Cantonese or other dialects. Some subsequently obtain permanent resident status. The second generation consists of their children, born locally, and speak English in N. America, or Spanish in C&SA. Generally they are better educated than their parents, but unlike them integrate into mainstream society. If the church does not reach them, she loses her future and dies after the first generation. What do you do to reach the second generation?

God had been gracious to our host Panama Chinese Baptist Church (PCBC). Three years ago, before our friends’ arrival, the second generation was still young, being teens bored with church. Some spoke Chinese at home, but not well enough to understand the biblical vocabulary. The adults’ command of Spanish is sufficient for day-to-day transactions, but not enough to read the Spanish Bible. What to do? Just as N. American Chinese churches develop English ministry for their teenagers, C&SA Chinese churches develop Spanish ministry. The hard way is to develop such capabilities internally. The easier way is to enlist external help.

PCBC solicited the aid of a nearby Spanish Baptist church. They sent four youth workers weekly, and two children’s worker biweekly. With their assistance the Spanish-speaking congregation was built up from scratch to 25-30 youth, many of whom are beyond the children of the first generation, but their friends and classmates. It appears that this approach – working in partnership with Spanish churches – can be gainfully employed by other Chinese churches.

3. Sufficient Offering to Support Pastor. Generally churches worldwide do not pay their pastors enough, compared to jobs requiring equivalent education, experience, and working hours. But this is particularly a challenge for Panama Chinese churches. I don’t know the current salary scale, but a couple of years ago it was US$600 a month. Panama has minimum wage scales for different occupations. For example, for a construction worker working 48 hours/week, the minimum salary is:
$2.72/hour X 48 hours/week X 4.33 weeks/month = US$565.32/month

You can see that the pastor’s salary is barely above minimum wage. No wonder some locally trained pastors quit after a few years, because they can’t earn enough to support their family. A couple running a small convenience store can earn about US$2,000 a month, after costs of goods sold and rent. That’s 3.5 times that of a pastor! The pastor’s salary may have risen by now, and there might be certain expense subsidies such as gas, cell phone etc. But that hardly close the gap. Church members respect their pastors, but somehow this is not reflected in the remuneration. The offering is not sufficient to pay the pastor a decent salary, after rents and utility bills are taken care of.

I believe this is again related to the members’ value system:
1 Tim 5:18 For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”
Once the members’ values are aligned with biblical norms, they will learn not to rob God in tithes and offerings (Mal 3:8). So the solution is in discipling the new believers right from conversion, and over time this problem should resolve itself.

I do not have C&SA pastoral experience, so I may not understand the culture enough to propose solutions. But for now that’s how I see things. Hopefully I’m not too far off the mark.

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Our missionary friend helping us to purchase sim card and data plan. He claims he has no language gift, but before he left for the field he enrolled in Spanish classes in four different schools to acquire survival language skills. He continued after arrival and forced himself to communicate with the local people. Now he has a working knowledge of Spanish for daily living. Our hats off to his persistence.

Temperatures are high in Panama throughout the year, ranging from a low of mid 20s Celsius in early morning to low 30s in the afternoon. Humidity is high between 80-90%. There are only two seasons, dry and rainy (Apr to Dec), and when it rains, it pours. Streets are flooded within minutes but the water also subsides fast due to extra-large drains.

One of the challenges for Chinese churches here is to get Christians to attend worship. The culture is such that people value earning money above worshipping God. It’s not hard to invite people to receive Jesus as Savior, but following them up to become disciples present major difficulties. Here the STM team is teaching the local Christians a new song in their weekly fellowship.