Friday, May 27, 2016

I'm Sorry But Jesus Doesn't Make Anybody 'Whole'

A friend asked me to revisit this blog post.  I wrote it for my original 'Onesimus' blog, sometime before I converted to Orthodoxy between 2009 and 2011.  Since then I have gone through unimaginable relational suffering, and I have several friends who are enduring immense physical trauma as they walk through their own valley of the shadow of death. And my increasingly long experience of relating to Christians as they really are just makes me stop and wonder.  I've not seen, heard or experienced anything that would make me revise what I've written below.  So read it, and let me know if it corresponds to your experience, or not.


I like Paul Baloche’s music. Some of his tunes do a great job of distracting my mind from the pains and creaks of jogging. But one line in one of his songs has been bothering me for some time. It’s too bad, too, because I like the song, and even figured out how to play it on the piano. You Have Been So Good to Me’ has a wonderful, heartfelt sentiment of thanks. And musically, it works, at least for what it is supposed to be and do. The problem comes in the middle of the chorus where after we sing ‘You have been so good to me, You have been so good to me’, we then testify: ‘I came here broken You made me whole.’  

This idea that Christ has made us whole has a long history in popular Protestantism, particularly in popular Protestant hymnody. One of the biggest reasons has nothing to do with theology or biblical teaching, but rather with the convenience that ‘whole’ rhymes with ‘soul’. And so generations of Protestants have sung about our wounded souls having been made whole by Christ. 


Baloche continues this noble tradition. The problem is, it simply isn’t true.  Jesus has restored our relationship with the Holy Trinity, but he hasn’t made us whole, the rhetoric of popular Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism notwithstanding. Assuming and believing that rhetoric for decades, I personally longed to be made whole. I carried scars from my parents’ divorce, was sexually abused, have struggled in my most important relationships, been stricken with chronic depression, was unfairly forced from my last pastorate, and been overwhelmed by the scope and depth of my own character flaws. I know what it means to be in a world turned black and to cry out to God for help. I have cried out again and again for mercy, help, transformation, healing – to be made whole. I have asked, but the answer has been ‘No.’ I found the emphasis in Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism on being made whole increasingly disorienting in the past decade. The rhetoric I was believing, the rhetoric I was singing, the rhetoric I was preaching was not matching the reality I was experiencing and that I was seeing in others. It wasn’t just that I was not experiencing wholeness, nobody else I knew was experiencing wholeness as well. I continue to hear this rhetoric all around me, particularly from the popular preachers and authors. I do not think anybody is being malicious or is intentionally setting out to deceive. But the effect of this one little tiny misstatement is to set Christianity off in a ruinous direction that puts the emphasis on our experience and performance, the glorious and utterly false testimony that ‘Jesus made me whole’.

Our goal, as I understand the Christian life, is not the experience of wholeness. Instead, our goal is giving and receiving love in the midst of our brokenness and need.  I do not know of a single person who has been made whole. Even the TV and radio preachers that know how to wind their audiences up with wonderful sounding rhetoric of what the power of God can do, even these men and women fall sadly short on the wholeness scale in terms of relationships and character and even health. And if that wasn’t enough, the sad reality is that every single one of us, including me and you, will experience the ultimate breakdown and calamitous failure of our bodily systems which will result in our inevitable death. I’m sorry, there is no wholeness for us in this life. 

Instead, the Apostle Paul has a much more realistic take on what this life is all about in a paragraph from his second letter to the church in Corinth that gets almost no play in these sorts of discussions: 

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed we are perplexed, but not in despair persecuted, but not forsaken struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.  (2 Corinthians 4:6-11)

Clearly the Christian life is about something other than attaining personal wholeness. Wholeness, of course, will be attained, but only in the New Jerusalem, after we have left these broken bodies and minds behind and been raised with Christ. Only there are we promised no more tears. Here, however, there are tears aplenty, if my past month or so is any measure. But what is being restored here and now is our capacity and most importantly our desire to love. Being born again isn’t just about being given a new status – that of ‘being saved’ or becoming a member of God’s family. Rather we are made alive and empowered to love – God intends all of our relationships to experience this transformation, starting with our relationship with the Holy Trinity, extending to our spouses and children and siblings and parents and neighbors and coworkers and (here’s the hard part) even our enemies. And church is the place where this is supposed to take place, it’s the laboratory where the new life is lived out. And ‘new life’, biblically speaking, is transformed relationships. The goal is not wholeness.  The goal is love in the midst of all the brokenness. The world does a very seductive job of mimicking what it thinks wholeness should look like. And we Christians are amongst the most gullible people in the world, based on our tendency uncritically to adopt the world’s measure of such things. But only Jesus can set a human heart free to love. Only Christians can demonstrate just what love can do. The world and the devil cannot create hearts that can love.

This is why, in my opinion, Baloche’s lyrics are not just wrong, they are dangerous. They get me to thinking that wholeness is possible in this life when it isn't. They set me looking for wholeness when the Lord is not offering wholeness. And in my assumption that this is what the Lord wants to do for me, I overlook what the Lord is actually all about. It's too bad, because I really like the song.

Or to paraphrase : 'It's all about ME, Jesus...'  If you are looking for
a good example of what's wrong with Western Christianity, it's all right here.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Slum Runner


Just a year ago my running routes took me through some amazingly beautiful scenery along the Blue Ridge near Crozet, VA.  The previous autumn I took my camera along on a sixteen mile run to document what I was otherwise taking for granted.  You can see those pictures here.

Today I find myself still running, but in very different circumstances.  Now I live in Kenya, in a part of Nairobi that has been described as a slum.  Lots of people live here, and in conditions that many in the West would find unthinkable and intolerable.

I go running three or four times a week.  On Saturdays I go with a priest friend of mine.  We go on a 10k loop, starting from the Orthodox seminary where I live, up Kabiria Road until we finally leave the crowds of people and the makeshift market stalls and the tin shanties and the mud (or dust) and sewerage and sheep and goats and jostling buses and matatus behind and run up a muddy (dusty) road through some land that's still green and cultivated.  Then we turn back through another community called Waithaka, winding along streets thronged with busy people and playing children and lined with tiny shops all selling much the same things.  We reach the main road that connects the town of Kikuyu with Kawangware and dodge the mud on one side and the traffic on the other until we reach Kawangware proper and fling ourselves into the midst of the bus/matatu/traffic scrum that behaves like blocked coronary arteries during a heart attack.  Assuming we survive, we turn with relief onto Kinyanjui Road which takes us through a less frenzied, more 'industrial' (at least it's plentiful in sludge and piles of garbage) part of our community until we turn back onto the beginning of Kabiria Road and back into the slum we call home.

Here are some pictures of what that run looked like his past Saturday.  It's rainy season.  So there's water and mud and muck everywhere.  I've supplemented my pictures with a handful of others of things I see on other runs I make.  I try not to think of beautiful Crozet, where I was running a year ago.

Leaving the seminary, a relatively quiet oasis, via our muddy track to Kabiria Road 

Dodging puddles and mud

Past the car and then left onto Kabiria Road.
Because of road construction there are no busses, matatus, cars and pickipickis on this road to
impress you with.  A rare blessing we took full advantage of.
When one leaves the main road...

Been there, done that.


Sadly, sights like this are not uncommon in Kawangware.

I run by a 'river' that looks something like this.


My running partner, Fr. Methodius.  We've left the slum behind us, with green
up and down hills ahead.

Now on the main road connecting Kikuyu and Kawangware.

Welcome to Kawangware. Not an optimal running space. But we manage.

Below are three gifs of us on the road.
Apologies for the choppiness.  I'm a novice at the technology.





Note:  I have to be careful where I take pictures, which is why I don't have many from the thronged parts of my route.  People who look like me who come around taking random pictures are sometimes not appreciated.