Thursday, November 2, 2017

It Will Not End Well

I have just lost a friend.  I never met him.  I knew him because he somehow heard of me and sought me out and we started an off and on again correspondence that ended just before I returned to the US.  We had made plans to meet finally when I came to Tidewater later this month.  And now he’s gone.

Mark was still a young man, in his 40s, the father of two children.  He was a musician, much more accomplished than me, a composer whose works had been performed internationally.  He had gone through the excruciating demise of his marriage, which ended in divorce this past year.  I could relate.  We talked about it.  He was also a seeker after God.  When his Baptist faith no longer could sustain the gravity of his questions, he turned east and started attended the Orthodox Church.  Once again, I could relate.

In September, his femur snapped in the simple act of walking.  Since healthy bones don’t just snap, further investigation discovered cancer.  There was surgery, setbacks, infections.  And then, this morning, I learned that he died.

Random picture from the internet meant to serve as an illustration of the sort of thing Death does.

My American culture puts a brave face on death by choosing not to deal with it.  Christian America tries to paint death as a positive thing, where the deceased leaves this world of pain and suffering and goes to heaven to be with Jesus.  I have officiated scores of funerals where we cope with death by celebrating the life of the deceased.

But even a cursory survey of the New Testament and the witness of apostolic Christianity will reveal that this idea of escaping this world and going to heaven when we die has more in common with a platonized gnosticism than it does with anything Jesus and the Apostles ever taught. 

Jesus is doing something different, and it has to do with the coming of the Kingdom of God and the remaking, not just of humanity in His image, but all of creation, so that we become anew what God intended us to be.  And so the Gospel is doing something different, and it has not to do with providing ‘fire insurance’ so that we can be forgiven and thus ‘saved’, but with calling us to repentance and reconciliation with one another and with God, thus laying the existential foundation for the Church as the countercultural Kingdom of God, the beach-head of the transforming reign of Christ in this world.

But there is a major problem with this and every attempt to make sense of this world, and that problem is death.  Because as long as we die, it will not end well for any of us.  Whatever controversy exists about what sin is and who is a worse sinner than whom, the fact that every single one arguing the point will die means that rightness or wrongness on the question is actually a moot point - we are all in more trouble than we can imagine.

In spite of the denial, in spite of the way our health care and death industries try to sanitize what death does, none of us can escape the fact that death destroys us.  Already many of us are suffering the gradual breakdown of our bodies or our mental capacities, from which there is no climbing back out.  And it doesn’t stop with the cessation of of our hearts and brainwaves.  Death goes on to destroy our bodies.  That would be horrible enough, but death robs us of our most valuable possessions.  Some people might be thinking of the things that they are finally separated from at death - their clothes, their house, their bank accounts, their pleasures.  But I’m thinking of those intangible possessions that are even more precious to us - our relationships.  I will never again sit in my mother’s kitchen and have a conversation with her.  I will never get to witness my brother-in-law's joy and pride as he holds his grandchildren.  I will never know my own brother who died as an infant.  Death destroys our relationships.  And there is not only no more opportunity to enjoy the love we shared, there is also no more chance to fix the brokenness we might have inflicted that was left unmended.

It doesn’t end well.  For any of us.

I have been privileged to meet an octogenarian priest and his octogenarian wife this past week, both of them still active, both of them still sharp. They had five children who are now my age, and now their children’ children are having children.  It is a big, boisterous family, not without its share of drama, but about as close as I’ve seen to getting it right.  And even this godly man and this godly woman will have their long life cut short by death.  And the years will come and go, and then one day all that’s left are just names on someone’s genealogy, and then even they will be buried in the shifting sand of history yet to be, and forgotten.

As the Apostle Paul says, ‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied above all people.’ (1 Corinthians 15:19)

I grieve for my dead friend from a distance.  I see so much of myself in the mirror of his life.  And I am reminded how quickly it could all be gone.

Even this morning before I read the news, I wrote out my daughter’s name and phone number on the back of my business card and stuck it in the back pocket of my running shorts in case for some reason I didn’t make it back, a habit I started over 17 years of living in Africa.  It is that kind of world, and we are not guaranteed tomorrow, much less the next stride on my run.

So here are my takeaways. 
If my religion does not have an answer for my friend’s death, my spouse’s death, my child’s death, then it is not worth believing.

And if there is anything undone that I would regret leaving undone if I were to be called off the stage tomorrow, then get it done.  Have that conversation. Try yet again to be reconciled.  Do everything in my power to make it right.

Give thanks for the resurrection of Christ.  Our problem isn’t simply that we need forgiveness.  And I am grateful for the cross.  But forgiveness is useless unless we also have deliverance from what Paul calls ‘the final enemy’ - death.  The goal of our salvation is not some bodiless heaven.  Our goal is the New Jerusalem, for which we shall be raised from the dead and made anew like Christ himself, who is the New Adam.  

As the Apostle John says, ‘Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears.  But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.’ (1 John 3:2)

This is my hope and prayer for my friend who just died, whose broken body could no longer sustain his life.  The day is coming, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and will rise from their graves, however they may be scattered and lost and forgotten.  And we will hear our Lord call us by name.  And with new eyes we shall see him, and we shall stand and be like him, and we will live our new life forever in the new heavens and the new earth.

Death is terrible.  And we are all walking through the valley of its shadow.  But death will not have the last word.

Monday, October 16, 2017

When Someone Really Doesn't Like What I Am Doing

Sometimes the most painful opposition comes from people on the inside, from so-called friends who see themselves as self-appointed warriors rushing to the defense of the Church.  I usually don't allow personal attacks to stay, but I felt I needed to respond to this.  I think it is important to realize that 1) there are people who are saying things like this; and 2) there are people who think it is ok to say things in this way.   I personally believe it would be good to have an honest engagement with the issues that my unhappy correspondent raises, as well as the ones I raise.  But I also want to flag that personal attacks are never acceptable in any context, much less between people who consider themselves to be Christians.  Sadly, this person was not interested in engaging with me further, for reasons this person has kept to themselves.  But it it doesn’t mean I/we can’t learn something from the interactions. 

So this ‘friend’ wrote to complain that I was trying to raise money to send a bunch of books given to me to the libraries at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary and St. Paul’s University, the schools where I teach in Nairobi.  When I indicated with a ‘?’ that I didn’t understand why she was unhappy, this person wrote what follows below.  

Oh you want a comment? Okay, here ya go. So why are you soliciting Orthodox people to send you money to ship Protestant books to a Protestant school for Protestants? In fact whay [sic] are you teaching at a Protestant school? You can't have one foot in Orthodoxy and one back in your old religion. I have thought for some time that you are just some gung-ho Protestant missionary who for some obscure reason found it more convenient to do your own missionary thing under an Orthodox umbrella, And that you are still basically doing your own Protestant thing, still filled with and teaching all your old Protestant ideas and practices and using your old Protestant models and methods. I have thought of unfriending and blocking you before but thought no, I'll stick around and see what you are up to, Well I have heard enough. This soliciting money from Orthodox to ship Protestant books---and using a picture of Orthodox priests to get it-- is as sleezy [sic] as it comes. You are exactly the kind of person we do not need in missions in Africa. I would suggest you go back to America and join a traditional congregation there, as a layperson,  where you can learn instead of trying to teach--because all you are doing is sowing Protestant seeds in Orthodox Africa...."the blind leading the blind". So, I am sending this same message to you privately, so you can see it, and then I am blocking you. I want no contact with this kind of nonsense.

I tried to respond to the message, but had already been blocked.  This is what I wrote:

Dear ——-, 
I am willing to be wrong, but you sound like a person who has a lot of unresolved anger, and I just happen to be the latest recipient who has gotten in the way.  I have my own set of issues which I have owned and am trying to get the help I need.  I hope you can take the same steps.  As to your charges (and it does rather feel like you have taken the role of prosecuting attorney here), probably about half of the books are appropriate for and intended for the Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary library, for which I am administratively responsible as deputy dean under HE Makarios.  As to involvement with a Protestant school, I look at it as a strategic opportunity to introduce colleagues and students who would otherwise be ignorant of Orthodoxy to the treasures of Orthodox theology, history and spirituality. I know this kind of engagement is effective, because it is in this way that I became aware of Orthodoxy after 40 years of knowing nothing about it.  

As to me being influenced by Protestantism, well duh.  I became a Christian as a Charismatic Presbyterian, worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in campus ministry for 8 years, attended an Evangelical seminary, served as a Presbyterian minister for 21 years, was  a Protestant missionary for 11 years in East Africa and published a book on the man who wrote the most influential book on Protestant pastoral ministry.  So yes, I would agree with your insinuation that I have been influenced by Protestantism.  Unlike you, though, I think we Orthodox can learn a few things from our Roman Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters, not in a way that changes what we have received in terms of our written and apostolic tradition, but in terms of how we apply it.  Too many of our churches are bound by the chains of ethnic identity or self-centeredness which serves narrow ethnic and personal agendas rather than the kingdom of God.  We could learn a thing or two from our Protestant and Catholic friends who have been much more effective at reaching out in evangelism and charity than our own ethnic enclaves.  There are exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule.  Given that Jesus says that the tree is known by the fruit it bears (and not by being precisely correct in doctrine, by the way), while I would prefer to get both right, if I am going to err, I would much rather get the love and outreach part right than nail everything down perfectly on the doctrine side. 

Lastly, you talk as though you have inside knowledge of Orthodoxy as it exists in Kenya and the rest of Africa.  You sound like you know exactly what we need and how to make it work, how to solve our long time dysfunctions, how to get around the substantial conflicts, how to reach the hundreds of different cultures around us with the Gospel, how to order our priorities and how best to come up with the funds we desperately need, how to make bricks without straw.  Since you know what we need, and what we don't need (i.e. apparently me the former Protestant), please come and help us.  Come put your life on the line the way I and my colleagues have been willing to do, going into places that the rest of the world doesn't consider to be 'safe'.  Come pour your life into what so often feels like a lost cause.  Come leave your family, your home, your friends, your culture like I and my colleagues have done, and come instead to a place and culture that's strange and different and hard. Come give your talents and your abilities and your money like I and all of my colleagues there do on a daily basis to people who will never be able to pay us back.  It is so very easy to sit behind a screen and lob snark in someone's direction.  And you may be right in some of your critiques, or even all of your critiques.  But so what?  Unfortunately it reveals more about you than it does about those of us trying to serve our Lord in Kenya and other parts of the world.  If I had any sense that you actually cared for us, for the work there, for me, I might be willing to listen and hear you as a valuable counselor.  But unfortunately I don't see your motive as being trying to help, or to build up; but rather to hurt and tear down.  I end as I began - there is a lot of anger in your words, and I have lived long enough to realize it's probably not aimed at me.  I'm just in the way of whatever it is that spins your wheels.  Please get the help you need.  You probably have a lot to offer, but not like this.  And when you have dealt with the log in your own eye, please come over and help us.  We surely need it.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The End of 'Boys' and 'Girls'

'Emotion dolls' used in a gender-neutral Swedish preschool

Just when one might fervently hope we had arrived at peak idiocy in the so-called ‘social justice’ culture wars, I read this morning in a major news outlet that several Swedish primary schools have banned the use of the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ in an effort to abolish gender stereotypes from an early age. (  One might as well ban the words penis and vagina whilst one is at it.  This effort of culture cleansing is making the gigantic assumption that all culturally-ingrained sexual stereotypes are wrong and should be excised.  They are also making the assumption that banning words is a significant way to go about doing this.  They are making a further assumption that because a tiny percentage of the population is gender-confused, that the best way to deal with that is to make their confusion the new norm and to declare the vast majority of human beings to be abnormal in their experience and use of language.  The crazy thing is, these people are succeeding in redefining both language and the morality behind that language.

Sweden is an interesting choice for such a cultural experiment because genuine Christian morality was replaced long ago by a moral posture that has abolished absolutes and instead has thrown the anchor of morality overboard into the abyss of a bottomless sea of subjectivity and the power of human reason and human society to decide what is best for everybody but never hitting bottom, giving the appearance of moral certitude but driven across the sea by the contrary stormy winds of moral fashion and whim.  We have seen this happen before in every totalitarian society that has to create a new morality to sustain it’s ideology.  Like so many first century Roman galleys, it’s not a matter of if but when these out of control forces drive the ship into the rocks. 

Ironically, these self-proclaimed cultural elites decry the imposition of absolute Christian values on the basis that no such absolutes exist, only to replace them with their own set of values that turn out to be even more absolutist and totalitarian than those they are replacing.  This complete hypocrisy goes unnoticed by most in the press and government because they are, after all, playing the same game.

I have made the observation before and must make it again.  We are no longer in a majority Christian culture, and Christian values are no longer defining our society.  We are reverting to a point in the Church’s history where the dominant values, culture and language was pagan and where the politics and resulting society was controlled top-down and was essentially totalitarian.  Given that Christians, when we did control governments and cultures, made such an utter hash of things by our incompetence and corruption, I am not persuaded that the cultural revolt against Christian morality we are witnessing today is an altogether bad thing.  In too many instances we Christians have ended up hurting others and not helping others.  We are getting what we deserved for our terrible stewardship.  Whilst in a minority status in the Roman world, Christians were able to focus on those things that distinguished themselves from everybody around them - their love of God, their love of neighbor and their willingness to live and die for what they believed.  Their neighbors took notice, and some of them were drawn to the faith as a result.  Does anybody stand up and take notice of Christians today except for the unfriendly press that is constantly on the prowl to catch out Christians in their hypocrisy (which is all too easy to do, evidently)?  The reason is likely that Christians, who are supposed to be God’s counter-culture in this world have instead embodied the world by their lifestyle and their values, a lifestyle and values that too often give the lie to the faith that they profess.

So these Swedish educators undoubtedly feel noble, that they are on the cutting edge of where society is going and thus doing a good thing.  We Christians may feel that they are instead placidly paddling towards the Niagra Falls of cultural degradation.  But we need to ask ourselves, how have we contributed to all the negative stereotypes of men and women that are used to abuse both individuals and entire genders?  When have we not stepped up to stop the terrible treatment of women as made equally with men in the image of God?  When have we not defended the beauty, the reality and the necessity of gender differences as essential in God’s created paradise, whilst separating from them the ways these differences have been used to deny women equal rights and privileges in both law and culture from the richness these differences and diversities give us?  We Christians have enabled the further bad treatment of women (and minorities) by passively ignoring that bad treatment or actively participating in the prejudices of the surrounding culture.

But now we are adrift in an ocean of moral madness.  We’re already battered by the waves of so-called sexual freedom and the pornogrified culture it has been shaping for a generation.  The murder of unborn infants is now passe, as is state-sanctioned euthanasia in too many states and countries.  Christian morality has been curtly dismissed from the discussion and our own hypocrisy has sent us packing from the table.  So now yet another wave pushes us further into open water. Swedish schools are saying goodbye to ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.  This is crazy.  This is chilling.  But as with so much going on in our world (see below) I’m sad to say it’s not surprising.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

We Should Not Be Surprised

Appalled? Yes. Heartbroken? How could we not be?  Surprised at the mass murder of 58 country music concert goers in Las Vegas earlier this week?  No.  The fact that there are people in our society who have the desire to cause mayhem on a massive scale is not new news.  The fact that these people now have the means to do so is the changing variable.  And we, as Americans in the society that we have created, are enabling them.

Evidently no one pays any attention to a rich old white man who wishes to assemble enough firepower to arm a National Guard regiment.  He did it legally!  But as with so many things in our hyper-litigious society, just because something is legal does not mean that it is necessarily moral.  Nevertheless, we are the ones who set up the rules to make this possible.

The governing political party has gone to bed with a gun lobby whose strategy to promote the protection of what they perceive to be 2nd amendment gun ownership rights is to beat back furiously any and every attempt to proscribe those rights, however sane and common-sensical they may be.  Introduce a bill to outlaw nuclear-tipped assault rifle ammunition - Damn those commies to hell - they are trying to take our guns away!!!  Everything for these people is an onramp to the slippery slope of government agents showing up in the middle of the night to relieve you of your firearms.  And to forestall that apocalyptic event from ever happening, everything must be allowed. EVERYTHING!  You want a howitzer to round off your gun collection?  Just get Amazon to deliver one to you by drone.  You can already get pre-1986 machine guns if you have enough money.  The day is coming, if one follows the logic, when you can get your own patriot missile system as well.  And we will all want one.  To protect us from that nefarious government of ours.

The claim that the government is going to take away our guns is specious.  This will never happen.  But even though this will never happen, this is the stick that is used to beat us all senseless.  And we have become completely senseless on the issue of guns in this country.  Go to any gun lobby - sponsored rally and you will hear the same discredited cliches tarted up for a new generation of proud American gun owners who just want to enjoy their constitutional rights.  But dangerously, too many refuse to listen to any argument that does not line up with their presuppositions.  The moral contortions thus produced are worthy of a county fair freak show, if there was anyone left to care about morality.  It has become all about getting what I want, and protecting my right to get want I want at all costs.  The constitution is, among many things, a document that seeks to chart a course between the rights of the individual and the needs of the community.  But in this case the pendulum has swung itself into low earth orbit on the individual rights side, and today (and in fact every day when it comes to the unnecessary insanity of gun violence) the needs of the community are buried with every gun death funeral.

Americans, we have set up our society to be precisely like this.  And because we value abstract ‘rights’ more than real human lives, we will continue to witness people with guns taking more and more American lives.  We are the ones who are doing this, enabling this. And this - what happened in Las Vegas - is neither the last time this will happen, nor the worst it will be. This is appalling. This is insane.  This is heartbreaking.  But it should not surprise anybody.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Christianity in the Land of Litmus Tests

I’ve watch this happen slowly, surely, a landslide starting with a few skittering rocks, dragging loose more and more of the terrain until the whole mountainside seems to be sliding, burying everything in its path.  American society has become increasingly fractured, trivialized.  Historians will tell us that this has, to some extent, always been the case.  But never has the disintegration of the public square been so polarizing, so self-absorbed.  Suddenly, just this week, we have now to either support kneeling football players protesting police brutality towards people of color or we are all racists, or we have to stand up for our national anthem and respect our flag and risk becoming unAmerican, anti-military/anti-veterans and a disgrace to the country if we don’t.  We must - MUST! - allow biological boys to self select to be girls/young women and use that genders facilities (and visa versa) or we have become the cultural off-scouring of the planet, bigots who HATE transgender people.  And not only must we be tolerant of people who choose (or otherwise) to be sexually active with members of their own sex, we MUST also give our unreserved approval for the LGBT manifesto for the complete rewriting of Western civilization’s two millennia old code of sexual morality.  To disagree makes one guilty of HATE, reveals one to be HOMOPHOBIC.  To not sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because it violates one’s sense of morality makes one liable to a law suit, a lawsuit that one will lose.  The internet is itself a neutral tool.  But it is used today by many activist as a powerful magnifier of public shaming, and public shaming is one of the most effective methods ever devised to ensure public conformity.  Universities have for hundreds of years been a place that encourages the exploration of ideas without the fear of being quashed by cultural norms.  But today, universities have become the vanguard of that very quashing.  Ideas that are deemed not to measure up to the new hyper-liberal orthodoxy cause fragile psyches to flee into trigger-free zones.  To disagree with me is to HATE me, to become guilty of HATE-SPEECH.  An invitation to a known conservative to address a conservative audience is enough to cause a riot.  And the threat of violence is always effective in shutting down dissident events on grounds of ‘security’.

Are we serious?

The intellectual barbarians have succeeded in sacking Rome.  But just like the Visigothic king Alaric, whose army in 410 plundered Rome of its riches and then left (because establishing and maintaining a society is not as fun as ruining it), just like the little boy at the beach who is gifted at knocking down someone’s masterpiece of a sandcastle, both have nothing to replace what they have destroyed.  LGBT/liberal-driven 'morality' (what might be described as mirage morality) has ridden the wave of media-induced ‘popularity’ but driven by self-interest it has no staying power.  Having gotten rid of the reasons behind more traditional Christian-based morality, these people will discover too late that the foundations of their own sense of justice and outrage are Christian principles and that these have been engulfed and swept away by their same landslide that so altered the cultural scene.  There is no reason why what these people are telling us is true, or right.  True and right no longer exist.  These people are simply being reactionary, and their engine of outrage will take them only so far.  Once they dispense with right and wrong, they are only walking on hubris to judge me or you as being right or wrong, good or bad.  And once we arrive at this point - and we are there right now - morality is no longer tied to ideas or to revelation, but to power.  Nietzche's observation that morality does not exist, only power - or as the aphorism says 'might makes right' is unfolding right in front of us.  It is always this way when a society takes a turn towards totalitarianism.  That is where we are moving right now, and with shocking speed.  And history attests again and again that this is a train we really don’t want to be on.

Christianity was never intended to be a power religion.  It was a persecuted minority for much of its first three centuries.  Every time the Church has attempted to become a power within society, within the economy, within the governing powers, bad things have happened.  Church history provides full evidence to back up my claim.  So the reflex of so many American Christians to try to use the levers of government or law or the economy or the culture to wrest back control from the godless forces, the demonic Legion that has gripped our world today, will only end in compromise and failure, just like it has every other time Christians have attempted to force their views, their theology, their morality on the culture.

We Christians could learn a lot from the early Church.  Like, the Church and Christians will be persecuted, and we should expect it.  Like, Christians are always at their best when they are loving God with all their heart and loving their neighbor as themselves.  Like, Christians should separate themselves from their idols of materialism and success and ladder-climbing (we simply ape ‘the world’ with all of this) and focus instead on the things that Jesus is concerned about.

I have called other countries ‘home’ besides America for 21 years.  I have come back ‘home’ and found a different place, a different culture from what I left.  Unfortunately, the Church that I was a part of in the 70s, 80s and 90s has continued its slide into compromise and has lost all moral authority.  Is it any wonder that the surrounding culture has ceased to take Christians seriously?  This is nobody’s fault but our own.  The culture is simply doing what fallen cultures do.  But we have ceased, in large measure, doing what the Church is called to do.  We have lots of mega 'churches' and media 'ministries', but what do these have to do with the Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles?  Is there anybody else over here bothered by these things?  

These next years will not be easy.  But they will go a long way towards demonstrating whether American Christianity has any good news worth proclaiming, of if we will continue down the broad highway that presently stretches out for miles in front of us.