Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Through Their Eyes by F. Dean Lueking

One of the joys of teaching theology at Valparaiso University is getting to know people from around the world, both Christians and non-Christians. Over the years I have been blessed to have taught many students from every continent except one. (I'm still waiting for someone from Antarctica.) This semester I'm once again teaching the basic Christian theology course that nearly all VU students have to take to graduate. Among the participants are students from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Kuwait, and Guinea. While some of these international students come from non-Christian backgrounds, a few are Christian. Each provides an informative, non-western perspective on the theological topics we discuss. Of late these international students have helped us to distinguish between "America" and "Christianity" even as they have helped to enrich our understandings of "global Christianity" and the current conflicts between Christians and non-Christians in other parts of the world. The conversation continues.

I am also grateful for how these non-western students have encouraged the American, mostly Christian students to take the subject matter of the course more seriously than might otherwise have been the case. Some weeks ago one of my American students told me that she felt compelled to learn more about the history of Christianity, her religious background, because she had met a Muslim student here who knew the history of her tradition better than she did. She told me that she felt embarrassed by her ignorance and thus wanted to overcome it. She has come to see that "the Christian tradition," the actual title of the course, is far more complicated and complex than she initially thought. Not only is "the tradition" much older and deeper than she had heretofore been led to believe (hence, we might be better to speak realistically of "traditions"), but it is also more ethnically and culturally diverse than her exposure to it, via the Sunday-morning services at her local congregation, has indicated.

Pr. and Mrs. Lueking
To help students to see the complex texture of the global Christian church more fully and to help these students connect with Christian people who are separated from them by both space and time, I am having them read Dr. Dean Lueking's new book, Through Their Eyes: A People's View of the Global Church, Foreword by Martin Marty (Chicago: Tyra Books, 2011; $25.00).

In the interest of full disclosure: Dean is a friend who has been a great support to me personally, both when I was a graduate student at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, and when I have come under ecclesiastical pressure for my theological investigations and publications. He has been a role model for me in so many ways...)

I can easily envision this 472-page book as the centerpiece of a multi-week adult forum, especially within a Lutheran congregation. One would be hard-pressed to find more engaging, flesh-and-blood stories about contemporary Lutheran Christians throughout the world than those conveyed here. As Marty notes in his Foreword, "Most of Lueking's featured people are…pastors, teachers, ministers, catechists, nurses, and the like. I'd like to meet more of them personally and cannot forget most of them, even if I've greeted them on only a half-dozen pages here" (xiv). While most of these are Lutheran, which is what one would expect, given that the Luekings are Lutheran, there are also a few non-Lutheran Christians who crop up as well. Perhaps the model of this book will inspire others to write similar accounts for folks in the rest of the 35,000+ Christian church groups in the world today.

The book is divided into nine geographical parts that take the reader from Palestine (Bethlehem) through Africa (eastern only), eastern and western Europe, central and south America, northern Asia and India, Southeast Asia, and finally to New Guinea and Australia. Along the way, the reader encounters stories of hope, courage, struggle against hardship (especially against economic poverty and the poverty of spirit), new and renewed conversions to Christian faith, joy in the midst of suffering and persecution, stories of Christ-living-in-community (to paraphrase Bonhoeffer). The book seeks to provide a global picture of the church "through the lens of the individuals who gather regularly in congregations, who know the ups and downs of Christian discipleship in their daily lives in the world" (xix). Yes, Dean and his wife, Beverly, appear as important characters in these stories, too. After all, they were blessed to receive them first-hand as a result of their missionary experiences. But their presence is not intrusive: their words and actions give way to those of the central characters. Photos of the latter help to connect faces with the stories.

One other thing is clear from reading this book: Dean and Beverly Lueking are missionaries. The heart of their mission is sharing the gospel of Christ's love and mercy with all who will receive it, and doing so in gentle, humble, creative and patient ways. While Dean thought that he might be called after seminary (he graduated in the same class as my uncle Bob, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, 1954) to serve as a Lutheran missionary in Japan, he was instead called to serve as an associate pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, a position that then allowed him to complete a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. (His research focused in part on the Christian mission in the global church.) Dean would remain at Grace as pastor until his retirement several years ago. During this long pastorate he and his wife were also able to engage in further missionary work abroad. Grace granted them two sabbaticals: one in '83 to study churches in Africa and Asia and the other in '91 to study churches in the Southwest Pacific. Throughout their ministries, Dean and Beverly have been bridge-builders and care-givers. Near the end of his pastoral ministry Dean was encouraged by foreword writer Marty to write this book in which he would recount visits and revisits with Christians from around the world that he had met or had come into contact with during his various travels.

(A story in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune is a further example of how the Luekings are "bridge-builders." They recently reconnected with a long lost foster son after reading about how he had reconnected with a family member of his own that had been thought to have been murdered by John Wayne Gacy. See the online article, "One Reunion in Gacy Saga Fosters Another,",0,7458310.story)

The stories that the Luekings relate in Through Their Eyes are too numerous to recount here. Let me identify three that have stayed with me since first reading the book a few months ago:

After a description of the military occupation of Bethlehem and what that has concretely meant for many hundreds of Palestinians, including Palestinian Lutherans, Lueking asks, "How does one continue to live under such conditions of injustice and humiliation?" The responses to this question by two Palestinian Lutheran clergymen, Rev. Mitri Raheb and Bishop Munib Younan, stick in the mind. Hope for the future for them is anchored in Jesus Christ, "who has made his home with us, especially among the outcast and suffering." According to Lueking, Younan's "prophetic ministry, sealed by the Holy Spirit's calling" is to be "a servant shepherd in a church largely composed of people who need a future governed by hope rather than the pain of what they have lost" (17).

When Pr. Lueking wrote his book, Itaffa Gobena was the president of the Ethiopia Evangelical Church Mekane Yesu (EECMY). In Lueking's book he recounts the struggles of Christians during the Marxist regime in that country in the 1970s and 80s. He himself was arrested, beaten, threatened with execution, "but was spared death by the sudden action by the jail warden who, without explaining why, arranged his release--an experience that to this day Gobena attributes to the intervention of angels" (46). After studying theology at Wartburg Seminary in Iowa, he returned to Ethiopia. His burdens? "Insufficient inward growth in soundness of faith as the church rapidly expands outwardly, conflicts in the church which come from imitating the spurious teachings of sects and self-made prophets, and the difficulty of engaging the Orthodox Church in meaningful dialog." And his joys? "The joy of living as God's child and servant, free in Christ's grace to believe the good news and share it openly… We of my generation have experienced so much blessing that others before us could only foresee by faith--doors opened and believers formed by Christ's Spirit in astonishing ways and numbers. Fifty years ago our parents were tortured, chained, humiliated, and in some cases murdered for the sake of the Gospel. Now we see the fruits of their faith and that is our greatest joy" (ibid.).

Irene Ponce, Adita Torres, Ofelia Davila, and Alicia Cuyotti are among the first women ordained as pastors in the Lutheran Church of Peru. They have served congregations among the poorest of the poor, for example in the slums of Lima and Cusco, in lands that have been affected by Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and indigenous religions. In this trying context these pastors have reached out to troubled youth, have struggled to assist abused women, drug addicts, and the unemployed, and have tried to meet peoples' acute needs of body and soul. The dedication of these female pastors to the poor, as revealed in Lueking's vignette, makes a lasting impression.

I know of no other book quite like this one. We get an "on-the-ground" portrait of central characters in the Lutheran church's mission in and to these various locales. The stories are ultimately encouraging, since the cross and resurrection of Christ are at the center of what is confessed and told. In the midst of death and suffering, there is also life and salvation. The Luekings demonstrate that a little Christian compassion and ingenuity go a long way, that faith, hope, and love really do make a difference, perhaps especially under the most difficult of circumstances. Seeing the church through the eyes of Christians in other parts of the world does amazing things for one's own vision.

So my students are reading the book. As an added bonus, the author has graciously agreed to visit my class next week to discuss his book with them. So they are also busying formulating some questions for the conversation.

[Purchase info: In order to keep the book price at $25, Dean is doing much of the marketing of Through Their Eyes himself. The quickest way to get a copy is to send him a check for $30 ($5 extra covers postage and handling) to Dean Lueking, 829 Lathrop Ave, River Forest, IL 60305 with your name and address. You will have your own copy pronto. In addition, Dean is making a special offer for book discussion groups: Order a box of 12 copies at $15.00 each (40% discount) and receive free shipping as well. Several pastoral friends have found such groups beneficial for broadening a global church awareness. For this offer, please send a check for $180 (12 x $15.00) to the above address.]

1 comment:

  1. FWIW, Rev. Iteffa Gobena, a man I've had the privilege to meet and work with briefly, has not been the president of the EECMY since 2009.