Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Evangelicals and Orthodox Together - Imagine

I have just returned from Cambridge in the UK where I attended the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative conference on theological education.  It was my second opportunity to attend an LOI event.  I joined our Archbishop Makarios last year at the consultation in Addis Ababa.  As I have lived both in Addis (2000-2008) and Cambridge (1996-1999), the chance to participate in an international symposium like this has been augmented by the chance to go home.

Last week was like a dream.  Many of the presentations were stimulating.  But most interesting to me were the numerous layers of my own life experience coming together.  There were people from my Cambridge past there, from my Ethiopia past (including former students who are now lecturers and principals at schools where I taught!), from my Kenya past and present, as well as important people who introduced me to Orthodoxy, colleagues in my former mission (SIM) who showed up unannounced for my presentation, not to mention several people that I know by reputation whose books have been seminal in my own growth as a Christian and in my theological journey (thinking of Chris Wright and NT Wright), plus a whole constellation of new to me people who are leaders of the Orthodox and Evangelical movements in their own country.  The networking that went on during our tea breaks was a sight to see!

The picture below gives an indication of what it was like to be there for me.  On the left is Tom Wright who just presented a paper on the nature of the atonement and the implications for Evangelicals and Orthodox together.  Fr. John Jillions, in the middle was asked to give the response to the former Bishop of Durham's paper.  Fr. John, who was there with his wife Denise, were the ones who introduced me to Orthodoxy back in 1997.  It would take another fourteen years of struggle to conclude that I was already Orthodox and to take the step of being baptized and chrismated, but it was Fr. John and Denise who opened the door for me.  You have no idea how happy I was to catch up with them.  And on the right is Bishop Angelos, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the UK, and one of the most godly, kind, visionary and articulate men I know.  I was able to spend good time in personal conversation with each one of them during the course of the week.  That alone would have made the time worth the while for me.

Thanks to my friend, Dr. Ralph Lee, for this picture.
My own presentation was a challenge to prepare - Teaching Mission  - Evangelicals and Orthodox Together.  It was a challenge because I am increasingly vexed by the whole theological education 'industry' and the fact that Christian churches and denominations have ceded preparation for Christian ministry to a Western academic enterprise that's geared to answer Western perceptions of the need with Western solutions.  My observation is that these solutions have not served the Western churches very well.  It's even worse in the non-Western world, which has either had forced upon them or willingly imported these inadequate Western models for training Christian leaders.  And trust me, the translation into the parts of the world that I am familiar with is not going so well.

So my paper was a call to return to what Jesus and the apostles, indeed what many in the church until the rise of Western academia, indeed what many parachurch organizations are doing today - a call to return to discipleship.  Be disciples and make disciples.  I am not against academic study; I just think that we have been wrong to make it THE WAY we train people for ministry.  It plays into the professionalization of the ministry that has happened in the West over the past century or so, and which is galloping ahead in places like Kenya and Ethiopia, not just in Evangelical circles but Orthodox as well.  The implications of the lack of discipleship in our leaders and in our churches are legion.  It's not an accident that so many Western churches have slid into becoming me-centered entertainment palaces, as if that is what draws people to Christ.

So this must come to a quick close as I am in Addis Ababa and my plane to DC is about to board.  My time in Cambridge was immensely encouraging, with many soul-filling conversations with friends and colleagues from across the globe and across the Evangelical and Orthodox spectrum.  It is an encouraging process, this getting people together to talk and and listen, to take one another seriously and look for ways to make our relationship work.  We could do so much worse.

Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative Cambridge participants, at Selwyn College Chapel, Cambridge

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Stephen Hawking and Alien Radios

Star Trek episode where Hawking plays poker with Newton, Einstein and Data

This headline greeted me in today's UK paper The Telegraph:

Stephen Hawking mission to find alien civilisation detects radio signals coming from dwarf galaxy

All I can say is if someone in this faraway galaxy is beaming the BeeGees to us, we're in a lot of trouble.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Charlottesville and the Moral Vacuum - Some Further Thoughts

There was some interesting and good discussion by several others on my earlier post Charlottesville - Venom and Anti-Venom.  I responded to one comment on a friends FB page, and then repurposed it for here.  And that led to some further pondering over the past couple of days as I am still trying to figure out what this all means for my country, for my community, for my church, for me.  I welcome your own interaction.  I only ask that you treat me and others the way you want to be treated.

A woman on a friend’s fb page had the following comment on my blogpost.  And what follows is my response.
VJH  There are ways we are becoming more polarized and in those areas I agree with the author: tax policy, health care, what to do about climate change, size of government. All of these are areas which provoke anger and animosity, but in which right and wrong is not absolute and open dialogue can lead to understanding. But there are times when moral choices have to be made

Bill Black If I may interject, the challenge in this particular instance is that there is not one side against another side. There is a whole spectrum of views, motives, actions present, all mixed uncomfortably together. For years there have been in Charlottesville civil discussions between people of good will who have different opinions on the statues and what should be done with them. The same sorts of discussions have occurred concerning the complicated legacy of our fourth president and the founder of The University. It is possible to have different views without either intending or causing or taking offense. People of good will can and often do come to an understanding without result to verbal or physical violence. The problem in Charlottesville, and indeed across the country, is that people who are driven, not by the desire to find some sort of accommodation for a local problem, but by strong totalitarian-view ideologies that brook no dissent have hijacked the local issue for their own political agendas. The people who came to Charlottesville from all over don't actually care about Charlottesville as a local community, a community with its own history of race relations and its own history of trying to cope with its very complicated past. These people cared about their ideologies and the offense caused by the 'others'. They came to make their own statement, either for or against. And now that all of those people have gone, who is left to pick up the pieces and to ask 'What just happened?' The people who actually live in Charlottesville and who have the burden of having to actually cope with each other and make a community work in these circumstances. Yes the Nazis, Klanboys and white supremos were horrific - they are like boys who just found a cache of explosives, playing with things that they don’t realize willl destroy them. And there were a minority of people there who were driven by an opposite but also detrimental ideology. And then there were most people somewhere in the middle. Can we agree that it is possible to hold conservative social and political views and not be a white supremacist/KKKguy/neonazi? Can we agree that it is possible to hold liberal social and political views and not be a Marxist/anarchist/social justice extremist? If we can agree to resist the strong temptation to label our enemies with the worst possible cultural epithet (rather than seeing them as human beings and having a rational discussion with them), then there may be hope for us yet. If however we are driven to categorize everybody who disagrees with my very narrow ideology as the enemy, then history itself prophesies that it will not go well with us. So yes, condemn the Nazis and the small-minded Klanboys and White supremacists. But just realize that it is the agenda of some at the other end of the spectrum to use these miscreants as posterboys for the wider conservative movement and thus as justification for ridding the country of all manner of conservative social, moral, religious and political views and policies, tarring us all with the same brush. And the outcome of that agenda would be just as disastrous for the people of our divided land as the outcome of the vision for our country touted by the neoNazis, KKK and White supremacists and their ideologies, in my opinion. A pox on both their houses. As Christians we know a better way.

And this led me here:
There was a time when when the statement ‘there are times when moral choices have to be made’ was perfectly clear and made obvious sense, because just about everybody was reading from the same Christianity-informed moral page.  But those days are long gone in our society.  So my first question would be ‘Whose morality decides what those moral choices should be?’  At polar ends of the argument spectrum in Charlottesville, there were very different ‘moralities’ at play, as well as a bunch more in the middle, all of them persuaded that they were right.  So which morality are we to follow?  And who is to decide which one is ‘right’/’correct’/’binding’, indeed which morality is moral?  This is where all our fragmentation and pluralism as a culture has led us.  And the ones who have shouted the loudest, played the ‘outrage’ card most deftly,  and gotten the attention of, indeed managed to persuade the media of the rightness of their various causes, these are the ones loudly proclaiming the rightness of their social movement and the wrongness of the so-called alt-right and anybody associated with them.  But having cherry picked which moral guidelines from the Bible and Christianity they are going to highlight - ones which suit their purposes - they have tossed out everything else that disagrees with their lifestyle choices, on no other authority than their own personal sense of what is right and wrong.  When ‘triggered’ by a conservative Christians stand for what has always passed for ‘traditional’ morality (especially in the sexual arena), many on the others are quick to lay into the Christian perspective, shouting it down with the now classic ‘Who gave you the right to judge me?  You yourself are just a bigot and a homophobe and a hypocrite.’  But what these people consistently  fail to acknowledge is that the same argument could just as easily be turned against them, and to devastating effect.  They are, in effect, attempting to impose their own morality on Christians (totally ironic, in that this is what they claim Christians have done to them!), and though they claim the so-called moral high ground, they have actually no moral ground on which to judge or accuse anybody, having relativized all truth and thus all morality.  Their shaming tactics, their 'tell your story' tactics are just that - tactics, void of a moral center, employed to manipulate in order to achieve certain social goals.  So when my sense of what is right and wrong clashes with your sense of what is right and wrong, indeed when it offends your ‘morality’, or you offend mine, who is to judge between us as to who is right and who is wrong?  Nobody.  Despite all the self-righteous shouting and threats of the so-called social justice warriors.  

Our friends to the left have dismissed any and every objective authority from the discussion and replaced that authority with our own.  In order to justify their ‘moral’ choices, like for unfettered abortion rights, or homosexual marriage, as well as the rights of every sexual and social minority, they have had to get rid of all of the parts of the former morality that says that what they are doing is objectively and morally wrong.  In that respect, what we have witnessed in the past generation or two is both an assault on and revision of what was understood as foundational Christian morality.  And while one of the arguments for doing so was that Christians have always been part of the problem in their ‘literal’ understanding of Scripture and their obnoxious hypocrisy, it is the fact that there exists an objective Biblical morality that enables anybody, including those on the left, to make pronouncements about what is right and wrong.  Take the Bible away, take Christian morality away, and all we are left with are suggestions (although folks on the left in particular are still persuaded that their thunderous moral judgements have meaning, which they don’t, except in their circle of cheerleaders.)  This, I think, goes a long way towards describing what we see in terms of moral chaos going on in our culture today.
So while I understand the deep desire to come together and condemn what looks and feels and actually is abhorrent behavior on the part of the racist end of the spectrum, the other end of the spectrum has actually removed any kind of binding morality from the discussion, including their own, if consistent still means anything.  It is actually only the Christians and other faith communities that have moral system that can stand up to these terrible groups and their toxic ideologies.  This of course won’t stop people on the other side of the political spectrum from having all sorts of moral judgments against these ideological enemies as well as anybody that gets in the way of their Social Justice Warrior/LGBTQ/BLM social agendas.  But when you strip away all the impassioned rhetoric, given that they have bought in completely to moral relativism (or at least the kind that says everybody else morality is relative except mine/ours!) - that there is no truth - that I have the right to do or be anything I want - that we live in a pluralistic free-for-all, there remains no grounds for any of them to then say to me or anybody else that they are right and we are wrong.  It’s the hubris of the left to banish inconvenient (or homophobic, or bigoted) Christian morality and then assume they can replace it with a morality of their own making, created in their own image, designed to justify their own desires and agenda. It is a 'morality' which turns out to be just as bigoted and prejudiced as what they claim to be replacing.  But right now they have managed to persuade the guardians of our culture and body politic that it is otherwise. We are living in a time where the identity-rights juggernaut is steamrollering all opposition, and labeling not just Nazis, KKK people and angry white nationalists as bigots, racists, and dangerous to society, but conservative Christians and other social conservatives who have the gall to stand up to them.  And they are using the courts and threats of boycotts to powerful effect.  As a conservative Christian, I cannot dare disagree with the new orthodoxy on LGBTQ rights or their social agendas without triggering the kind of response that, if it were directed in their direction, they would call it hate.  It’s an altogether different kind of morality from what our country has seen, but this time it's being imposed by a minority on the majority, using fear, intimidation and manipulation to ensure the implementation of its social, cultural, political and religious agendas.  But again, for all the bluster, there is nothing behind it holding it together.  These people are rather like the great Wizard of Oz, who turns out to be not the fulminating image, but a little man (or woman?) in the back manipulating levers.  Five, ten or twenty years from now it will be something else, some other cause, some other ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Christianity – real Christianity, the Christianity that takes the Bible and the Church’s Traditions as its authority, has got a 2000 year track record.  This doesn’t mean that Christians have behaved consistently with their morality, but that Christian morality has remained robust for all this time.  Or to put it another way, just because the Christians are flawed doesn’t mean that Christian morality is flawed.  Indeed the very reason a Christian morality has persisted for two millennia is because its based, not on the whims and changing opinions of people in power and influence, but because the source is from the Triune God Himself.  The writer of the NT book of Hebrews states that Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday, and He will be the same forever.  Such a claim cannot even be heard, much less fathomed by the relativistic crowd that controls American culture today.  But it is a the claim that still underpins Christian morality today, just as it did 500 years ago, just as it did 1500 years ago.  

So all of these people in Charlottesville who were not loving their neighbor as themselves, much less loving God with their whole heart mind and soul, these people are leading lives apart from the one source, the only source that can redeem this situation, and indeed redeem them.  And their lives and their groups are bearing the kind of fruit that reflects the disorder of a life lived for self and not for God and his revealed agenda.  For persons and churches who have been reconciled with God and are being reconciled with each other, their lives and their groups are bearing a different kind of fruit, what the Apostle Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.  Which raises the question, what kind of people would you prefer to hang out with? Which kind of person do you and I want to be?  

None of the groups on the polar ends of Charlottesville have the power to effect this kind of transformation in individual lives and in society.  But this is precisely the good news found in the Christian gospel – what we people are unable to effect, God is able to do through Jesus and what he has done for us and for our salvation.  All of the sides in Charlottesville made a lot of noise, and continue to make a lot of noise.  But none of them can effect the change they think they want, much less the change that is actually needed in their own hearts, in their neighbors’ hearts, and in the nation, and the world, for that matter.  The volume and the agitation simply mask the moral bankruptcy of both sides.  Now, if we Christians could just do a better job of being what God has called us and empowered us to be, then all these other people might, just might, take us seriously.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


There's a reason it hasn't gotten any better.  
Against all the evidence, 
and the intervention of friends, 
you resist any notion that you might be sick. 
Go to the Doctor 
while there is still time 
to do something about it.  
Just saying.

From a friend who knows a thing or two about denial.

Somehow Dr. Price's school didn't make the upload.  He teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I got my MDiv some years ago..

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Charlottesville: Venom - Anti-venom

I am trying to fathom what is happening in my country.  When I am in the US, my home is close enough to Charlottesville, VA that I do my shopping there.  My two children attended the University of Virginia.  I know the place.  I also know that there have been discussions about the Lee statue and Lee park for years.  I am a professional historian and senior lecturer at an African university.  There have been good arguments presented on both the for and against side.  And no, acknowledging that might mean I disagree with you, but that does not make me a racist.  People from various perspectives and various ethnicities have disagreed with each other.  But they have been civil.  The past couple of years I have watched with increasing annoyance as that local and necessary debate has been hijacked by powerful ideologies, ideologies which brook no dissent.  On one side, the statue must go and the park renamed because they are powerful totems to white oppression over black people.  And all reminders of white atrocities, be they statues or buildings named after long-dead racists and slave-holders must go.  Indeed anybody who is not on the side of these culture cleansers is immediately shamed as a racist and bigot and thus toxic to the cultural progressives who control the media and trendy companies of the country.   So damn our county’s centuries-long involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, damn the policy of extermination against our indigenous people, damn the Civil War and the fact that most the people in the North were just as racist as the people in the south, damn the fact that most the people in our country were, and perhaps still are, racist through the 20th century into the 21st.  But we don’t promote ‘justice’ by erasing history and taking down monuments.  I think (hope?) what these people want is for us to learn from our past and to decide that we will do a different and better job when it comes to loving our neighbor.  Stridency may get one attention, but it doesn’t necessarily push the ball down the field.

But this is only one of a phalanx of identity ideologies that have emerged in our current generation.  And their tactics are eerily similar to those employed by the LGBTQ etc. ideologues in their similar relentless march through the cultural, political and legal halls of the country, not simply to secure their rights but to redefine morality in such a way that one’s support of the LGBTQ agenda is the litmus test of moral right and wrongness.  Shame words such us homophobe and bigot are affixed to any person who dares to disagree.  Identity politics generates its own self-righteous wrath and outs anybody who dares to disagree with their agendas, especially those in higher education and media.  These ideologies feel that the wrongs that either they or people like them in the past have experienced justifies their tactics.  Their ideas are now being parroted as institutional policy in government, education and media across the country.  There are many people who think this is a good thing.  But there are many people who are horrified and who are forced into moral hypocrisy because they are afraid of losing their jobs.  The identity social justice warriors have thus far engineered quite the cultural coup.  By specifically attacking historical Christian morality they have succeeded in sawing off that limb, but it was, ironically, the moral limb upon which they and we were sitting.  Their vacuous post-modern attempt at a post-Christian morality collapses of its own weight when challenged.  And given that they have obliterated traditional morality without any thought to a coherent replacement, they are falling back on the traditional stance taken by all tyrants, be they political, business and cultural, that of might makes right.  Their original complaints may (or may not) have been completely justified, and I for one have been in sympathy with at least some of their issues.  But in recent years they are evolving into something else.  And no one in any of these groups can seem to see that they are now beginning to treat the people who might disagree with them in the same way they claim that they or their ancestors were treated.  What is viewed as ‘justice’ to them is experienced as persecution by everyone else.  And once we are in this territory, something has gone bad, like Aunt Mae’s potato salad at a hot summer’s day picnic by the lake.  It will not end well.

And on the other end of the ideological spectrum, it is nauseating and revolting to see neo-Nazis, KKK sympathisers and white supremacists hijack the debate over the Charlottesville monument and park as a symbol for their agenda.  It beggars belief that anybody could think this is anything but evil, anybody who has taken time to understand what happened in Germany in WWI followed by the Weimar Republic and the chilling rise of Hitler and the institutionalization of his racist ideology against Jews and many other kinds of people (including Christians) and the steps he took to deal with everyone in his way.  It is more than chilling to think that there are actually individuals today who not only think that was a good thing but who will do anything to promote a similar murderous agenda today.  And to see a collection of Hitlerians and KKK-hooded losers and white people who are afraid of anybody who doesn’t look like them come to a place I know and love and attempt to redefine symbols to support their cause and then appropriate Nazi-era tactics to provoke fear in the locals and make a statement through the media to the rest of the country - these people display an utter ignorance and contempt of history and obviously don’t realise that they are playing with forces that they themselves will not be able to control and which in the end will consume them as well.

So on the one side, the ‘hatred’ of the others justifies taking whatever steps to silence and force them into submission for the sake of the movement.  And on the other side the perceived injustices against our people and the demonization of the others and the existential threat they pose to our way of life and our culture justifies taking whatever steps to silence and force them into submission.  I am not creating some sort of moral equivalence here.  Instead this is called polarization. 

But, but, but - those other people do this and say that and stand for this and it’s terrible and it’s wrong!  But when has violence ever solved the problem?  Violence, or the threat of violence may force opposition underground due to fear.  One may succeed in silencing or even killing most of one’s enemies.  But recent history shows us again and again that once one resorts to violence, either as an individual, as a movement or as a state, it almost never ends well, for anybody.

As matters polarize, people on one side tend to view people on the other side not as people, but as enemies.  And it is a short step from viewing one as an enemy to viewing one as less than human.  And it is an even shorter step, when one views the other as less than human, to treating the other inhumanely.  Think Rwanda, think the partition of India, think the ethnic violence in Kenya, in the Balkans, in Turkey/Armenia, in the so-called Caliphate, think of our own indigenous people in North America.  Things are polarizing right now in my country, and the ones doing the polarizing all think that they are completely, totally, utterly right and justified.  But their collective postures of moral superiority are simply shams in light of their utter individual and collective hypocrisy.  Both sides are self-seeking and self-justifying.  The way they treat their enemies is actually the proper measure of their morality, or lack thereof.  And both sides, by that criteria, come off as moral pygmies and just as selfish and obsessed with power as every other political movement.

What is needed, in my opinion, on the part of people on all sides, is not power over others to enforce our views, or to retake what is rightfully ours, or to ensure respect for our way of life.  What is needed is something that has, to this point, been totally lacking in any of the debates on all side, at least those debates with which I am familiar - what is needed is humility.  Humility is impossible  in a heart that is motivated by hatred of other individuals or groups.  Humility is impossible when one is seeking to advance one’s own position or agenda at whatever cost.  Humility is looked on by so-called powerful people as weakness.  And it is true - humility cannot silence anybody; humility cannot remove obstacles (read: people with whom I/we disagree) from the scene; humility cannot force people to do things they don’t want to do.  But none of those things can change a human heart.  And that is precisely what humility, when paired with love, can do.  Too many people have been seduced into thinking that it’s power that will bring them what they think they need or want.  This is certainly the case in my current home of Kenya, just as it is in the United States.  But to believe this is to build one’s life on a lie.  Humility on the other hand treats the other as a person just like me; listens to the other the way I want someone to listen to me, cares for the other as if their life is worth something; works to find a way to resolve differences and conflicts to the benefit not just of one party over another, but to the benefit of all.  It’s simply a life lived by the golden rule - Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.

Charlottesville this past weekend was an unveiling to many of us of the tactics and agenda of the Neo-Nazi/KKK/White supremacists who decided to use that place and that moment to make a statement.  And their agenda and tactics resulted in the deaths of three people and left nearly 20 others injured.  And their collective posture of unrepentance shames them all and reveals their true heart.  But Charlottesville is also a symptom of the even bigger ideological wars threatening to tear our country apart.  Our current world gives us hundreds of examples of people who think that power give them the right to squash others who disagree with them.  But they are wrong.  And they will all be proven wrong in the end.  

The vast majority of Americans are not the ones driving the current polarization of our society.  Our silence, our fear, however, is enabling those who are.  It is possible that those doing the polarising may learn humility.  But I am not holding my breath.  We, however, who have chosen to step aside from the rush of ideologies of right and left, we have the power to make both sides irrelevant, and to defang their tactics of intimidation and fear.  Jesus shows us what to do.  We know what to do.  We have in our hearts, those of us who know and love Him, the anti-venom.  When we take courage and do what is right and love our neighbour as ourselves, we will find a nation so transformed we will wonder if heaven has come to earth.  

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Is Anything True Anymore?

I come from a country whose president regularly makes the sort of claims that when I was a teenager I might have read in a Mad Magazine parody.  To further date me, it makes me feel as if I am living in an unending episode of the Twilight Zone.  One side threatens ‘fire and fury,’ another threatens to incinerate Guam and melt their southern neighbor off the planet.  Ho hum.  I guess we can derive some comfort from the fact that words have ceased to mean anything.  I hope.

I live in a country where politicians have apparently divorced themselves from verifiable fact, all in a race to see who can whip up the greatest fear.  Fear, of course, can motivate people to vote.  But in our case, fear is more likely to motive people to pack up and leave the mixed slums of Nairobi in their thousands and head for home where you won't have people bringing messages in the middle of the night threatening you and your family if you stick around for election day.  A non-vote is just as good as a vote for, in this terrible math.

I am part of a profession (higher education) where colleagues (in the West) are increasingly more concerned about ideological litmus tests than about the free exchange of ideas, where disagreement is no longer allowed, and where even the suspicion of ‘bigotry’ (read: anything that offends me) can be used to persecute me out of a job.

A recent review of the movie Dunkirk (which I have seen) by a self-styled ‘feminist’ critic came to my attention, in which said critic railed at the movie as being bigoted and sexist and completely insensitive to more than half of the population who aren't male, simply because there were hardly any women cast in major roles.  Evidently this critic believes that the purpose of cinema is to correct perceived (by her) social wrongs rather than to, in this case, attempt to tell the story of what happened in such a way as to bring what happened home to viewers.  But for this critic, truth - history can be dispensed with for the sake of fulfilling her particular quota need.

I regularly have upwards of half of my students turning in papers that turn out to be plagiarized. In other words, their paper is presented as their own work but they have filled it with long unacknowledged quotes, and sometimes even entire articles, which they tidy up, affix their name and turn it in as their own work.  According to students I have talked to about this, our students simply think this is what it means to write a paper.  One masters student submitted a thesis that turned out to have an entire chapter taken word for word from a book that just happened to be published by her examiner (and a friend of mine).  This happened just recently. I was there and watched with fascination at how my colleagues came up with a way to listen cordially to her exam but fail her nonetheless (to their credit).

I have been stopped more than 13 times at a notorious police check point on my way from work by law enforcement officers on the hunt, not for malefactors, but for money.  Should they find the slightest reason to write me a ticket, they will do so in such a way as to let me know that some help with lunch or tea would send me on my way.  But should I protest about the injustice of it all, or even come close to raising the spectre of b-r-i-b-e-r-y, they would arrest me, take me to the police station, charge me with the most expensive offence and make an appointment for me to appear in court and pay the fine.  When law enforcement and the justice system is no longer concerned about truth, there is no recourse.

Societies are held together by fragile contracts.  The capacity to believe what your neighbor, your colleagues, your spouse, your leaders are saying is the glue that holds this social contract together.  But introduce a solvent and that glue begins to dissolve, and the necessary bonds that hold things together begin to come apart.  Our society in the US has never been perfect, which is why we have historically put so much stock in an impartial justice system.  But should ‘justice’ be determined more and more by ideology (again.  We have have seen this sort of ideology tyrannize American justice in terms of African Americans throughout their history in North America), then it ceases to be justice.  It becomes instead another weapon for enforcing the ideology of whoever holds the power.  As such ‘justice’ simply reinforces the prerogatives of the culture tyrants rather than defends the rights of the poor and marginalized.   We see this happening in my country of origin in ways that we could not have even dreamed of twenty or thirty years ago.  And we see it happening in my country of current residents where truth and justice are simply up for sale.  Either way is a dangerous road, for everybody involved.  There always comes a tipping point, where things get so bad or so ridiculous that people feel they have nothing left to lose.  And once a society heads down that road, it is very very hard to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Truth is hard.  And presently it seems to me that prevailing cultural norms are giving people everywhere the notion that we can dispense with having to take truth seriously.  We’ve been in this place before, and it didn’t go well. Marxist-Leninist Russia and National Socialist Party Germany both dispensed with truth for different ends but with appallingly similar consequences.  Similarly in Mao’s China (and the Kims’ Korea)  And even if these are some of the most horrific examples, the tendency reappears with alarming regularity in history, enough so to summon the observation that we human beings are terrible at learning what should be one of the most obvious lessons that our combined histories labor to teach us, namely, that we dispense with truth at our peril.  One would think that we would have gotten it by now.  But evidently here we go again.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The End

The End

When it is simply
finally clear
that all this effort
has failed,
finally dependent
upon God
to show
his way
and provide.
This alone
gives me 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blessing and Breaking

When was the last time you were asked for money?  Sometimes it’s a relative needing help to pay for school fees or with medical care.  Sometimes it’s a neighbor who has come up short.  Sometimes it’s a stranger, someone you don’t know, who comes up to you or me with a story that would make angels weep.  I get approached several times a week.  And I’d bet that many of you do, too.  And how do we respond?  Sometimes we know the person and the situation and we try to help.  Sometimes we know the person and the situation and we know that this person will simply run straight to the bar for another drink.  Sometimes we don't know the person and we don’t know if the story they are telling us is true.  Sometimes we give something.  Sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes our own money is finished.  Sometimes we find out that the person is a liar and is just collecting money from gullible people.  Sometimes if I find out that a person is hungry, I will take him and buy him lunch.  Sometimes if they have a family, I will go with him to the grocery store and buy them food to eat.  And I bet many of us do the same thing, because I know that, at heart, many of us are generous people.  And sharing what we have is a good thing.  It’s what Christians do.

But what about giving to the church?  You know there are a lot of confusing ideas floating around when it comes to our responsibilities as Christians to give to the church.  Some people will tell you that we must tithe our income, that is give 10% of what we make to the church.  Other people teach that if you want God’s blessing or God’s help, then demonstrate that you have faith by giving ‘seed money’ back to the church.  But I have been watching people give offerings Sunday after Sunday since 1980, and despite all the noise from the preachers, in spite of all the smoke and mirrors from the health and prosperity heretics and the TD Jakes and Joel Osteen wannabes, on any given Sunday most people, if they give anything, will drop some coins in the basket, or 50 or maybe 100 shillings.  But I also know that many people will offer an empty fist and drop nothing in the basket.  And why?  Why do people who are otherwise often generous people suddenly close their wallets and purses when it comes to the church?

There are actually lots of reasons.  Sometimes people claim that they are too poor.  But that’s not a very convincing reason because poor people are some of the most generous people I know.  Other times people have witnessed corruption on the part of church leaders.  Maybe a priest or a chairman has been known to take the Lord’s money and use it for his own needs.  And so church people who might otherwise be generous in their giving decide they don’t want to help a corrupt person get fat.  Sometimes the church has leadership that refuses to lead.  No one has a vision for where the church is going or what the church could be doing.  The Bible says that without a vision the people perish.  And why should anybody keep giving any money to a church and to leaders who aren’t doing anything.  And then one of the worst killers of churches and of church giving is dependency.  It’s when the church and its leaders have gotten used to the Bishop or other outsiders taking care of all of their needs.  Maybe the bishop built the building, maybe the bishop pays the salaries of the priest and the workers.  Maybe the bishop takes care of the wine and the prosphera.  And so people start thinking that they don't have to do anything but show up.  And so when the bishop suddenly announces that he has no money, people in the church don’t believe him.  So power company shuts off the electricity because the bill hasn’t been paid, and people wait for the bishop to do it.  And the water gets cut off because the bill hasn’t been paid and people just wait for the bishop to take care of it.  We have all of this land around us but nothing ever happens because people are waiting for the bishop to do something.  Even tea and coffee and biscuits.  Most of us are happy to get.  Are we just as happy to help and to give?  This is dependency.  A church that is sick with dependency is all the time waiting for the bishop or rich foreigners or even harambees to take care of everything, meanwhile they do nothing.

A church characterised by dependency, by a lack of giving, by a lack of vision,  is a church that has lost its way.  It’s a church that has forgotten its calling.  Its a church that is teaching all the wrong lessons to its children and its young people.  Its a church that has nothing to offer the world around us.  Its a church that exists for what it can get, not for what it has been called by God to give.  This is not the way it is supposed to be.  God is calling us to something so much better.

The disciples were getting nervous and starting to grumble at Jesus.  He was busy preaching to a huge crowd, and he kept going on and on, and it was getting late.  Finally he took a break and his disciples reminded him of the time and told him to send everybody back to the nearby villages so that they could find something to eat, because they had been there all day.  ‘Why should they go away?’ Jesus asked.  ‘You feed them.’

By the way, we are the disciples, we who make up this parish.   God has in his wisdom placed this parish right here, and given us this specific group of people, this collection of ethnicities, of young and old, and he has put us in the middle of this city and he is saying to us, ‘There’s no need to send all these people away.  You feed them.  You reach them. You love them.’

Notice what the disciples did.   None of them said, um, feeding these people is the government’s responsibility. None of them said, um that’s the bishop’s job.  None of them said, I’m too poor, I don’t have anything I can give.  Instead they gave what they have.  And all they could come up with was five loaves and two fishes.  And we know from John’s gospel that even this was from a boy’s lunch that his mother packed for him.  I have a feeling that the disciples collected all this and presented it to Jesus to sort of make a point that, really, they were not in a position to feed more than 5000 people.  But do you see what Jesus does.  First he has all the people sit down.  Then He looks at what they bring, and he looks at them, and he essentially says, ‘Ok, this will do.’  And he breaks the loaves and the fish and he blesses them.  And then he starts handing them out.  He fills up basket after basket and the disciples take it and distribute it.  And more than 5000 hungry people eat until they are full and satisfied.  In fact each disciple fills up a basket full of leftovers.

This is a beautiful picture of stewardship.  The disciples give what they have.  And what they have is not enough.  In fact it’s so far short of what is needed that it is a joke.  But Jesus looks at it and says ‘This will do.’  and he breaks it and blesses it and it is more than enough.

Everything that I have, everything that you have is a gift given to you by God.  And it is given to me and to you so that we can use it for God’s glory.  Our time, our skills, our talents, and our money - it’s all given to me and to you so that we can be God’s blessing to someone, so that we can enable His kingdom to grow.  This is not a calling God gives to the bishop or to the priest or to the rich person, it’s the calling he gives to all of us.  And when we freely give back to the Lord, he can take the little we have and break and bless it, and then make it go beyond what any of us could ever ask or think.  But a person who thinks that his or her money belongs to just them, they will never see the glory of the Lord.  And the person who refuses to offer himself or herself on the altar to be used by the Lord will never see the power of God’s love at work through them.  And the person who believes that it is the bishop’s job to provide everything we need is guilty of robbing God of what God is calling you to give .

Put yourself in the place of one of those people sitting in the grass.  You heard the Lord Jesus speak this afternoon.  You are really hungry but you’ve been willing to listen because you have never heard anyone speak like this man.  And now, the men who are with him are bringing around food to share.  And you eat.  And you are satisfied.  You don’t know how so many people could be fed.  It seems like a miracle and that’s what people around you are saying.  You’re just grateful to have had something to eat, and you thank God for the blessing.  Now imagine the people around us, people who are not Orthodox, who do not know our Saviour Jesus.  Imagine what they will think and say when their lives are touched by us, when we start owning our church, when we start owning our calling, when we start owning our mission, when we start giving to Jesus what we have and who we are, when Jesus makes us his blessing in this place.  This is not a dream.  It’s not some  place far far away.  Instead its right here.  And it begins when our leaders find the courage to start leading, and when you and I start giving, giving who we are and what we have, back to the Lord, for him to break and bless and use for his glory.


A sermon preached on Sunday morning, July 30, 2017
At Sts. Cosmas and Damian Orthodox Cathedral, 
Nairobi, Kenya

The Gospel reading for today:
Matthew 14:14-22
14When He went ashore, He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  15When it was evening,the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.  22Immediately he made the disciples get in to the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Contextualization Weirdness: Some Thoughts on Orthodox Missions and Evangelism in Kenya

Preaching on St. Photini, the Samaritan 'woman at the well', to whom Jesus said,  'If you knew the gift of God and who it was who was talking to you, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.'

Evangelism is a lost art, a forgotten priority in many, if not most Orthodox parishes.  Many of us seem to think that our very existence, or the fact that we open our doors on Sunday, or put a sign outside identifying us, or hold an annual fete is enough for us to declare victory in the evangelism department and then go home having done our duty.  But most of us don’t even think of Orthodoxy and evangelism as existing in the same book, much less in the same sentence.  Most of us, if we are honest, including myself, have had our attitudes about evangelism badly mauled by the excessive, hyper-emotional, manipulative over-doing that passes for evangelism on the part of the TV and mega-church gods and in some Protestant and Pentecostal churches.  Sometimes one cannot tell whether the purpose is to preach some gospel or to demand donations as a demonstration of one’s faith.  The mix of salvation, emotionalism, promises of prosperity and healing and the ever present request for money leaves an understandable bad taste in one’s mouth, and has made not a few people say, if this is what ‘evangelism’ is, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Living in Kenya as I do, one cannot escape the presence of religion.  Almost everybody claims to be a Christian of one sort or another.  This is interesting in that Kenya also is one of the more corrupt countries in the world, one riven by ethnic hatreds, with high rates of promiscuity, domestic violence, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, etc.  Which might lead one to suspect that for all the religious hoopla, Christianity actually makes little difference in the way people actually live and has little impact on the communities and cultures of this land.  But that is for another time.

The largest denomination in Kenya is the Roman Catholic Church.  But the predominant style of Christianity that has overrun this country is Pentecostalism in its various forms.  And a Pentecostal style has become the preferred way of preaching, even in many non-Pentecostal churches.  And a Pentecostal style of ‘worship’, with a keyboard or a band and a worship leader with other singers dancing their hearts out, all miked and blaring out of over-taxed loudspeakers, undoubtedly making a contribution to the collective deafness of the community - all of these things, and especially the (very) loud speakers are being reproduced in church after church.  Churches may not be able to afford to pay their pastor, or take care of their poor, or construct a proper building.  But by golly they will have a keyboard and loudspeakers at the very least.  I have traveled over most of the country, and there is not a single place I have visited that hasn’t had many if not most of their churches in more-or-less Pentecostal mode.

All of which leads me to ask, when Orthodox Christians choose to do evangelism here in Kenya, how should we go about doing it?  Should we organise pilgrimages and processions and carry icons around the community whilst chanting?  Should we run seminars to better acquaint our neighbours with who we are and where we come from?  It has been said that funerals are actually a significant (and for many the only) point of contact with Orthodox priests and services.  To our credit (in my opinion) the simplicity and beauty of our funeral liturgy compares favourably with the way funerals are done in other denominations.  But this is more on the lines of exposure as opposed to evangelism.

So if we Orthodox Christians want to introduce people to Jesus, and introduce them to Orthodoxy, how then should we proceed?

People who think about mission strategy have always observed that things go better if we Christians take steps to meet our neighbours where they are (in terms of their context, assumptions, lifestyle, issues, etc) rather than force them to come meet us where we are.  This, of course, means being willing to leave the comfort of the familiar and to venture into territory that we are not used to experiencing.  This can be literally, in that we leave the confines of the Church and go to where the people we want to reach are.  In the UK where I lived, the Anglican Church I was a part of would have regular ‘Pub Nights’ where we would have a team from the church go to one of the local pubs, share a pint with the locals and use either a pub quiz or some other game as a way to introduce spiritual issues into the conversation. This would usually lead to several good conversations about Christ, Christianity, salvation and discipleship.  In Kenya I have tried this approach in several contexts and found an amazing openness on the part of people in the various bars I’ve visited.  I’m surprised that more Christians with a heart for evangelism are not fishing where the fish are, so to speak.  And it’s not just in bars.

The context for a baptismal liturgy in small town western Kenya.

But there is another way we can contextualise our evangelistic efforts as Orthodox Christians.  Again rather than wait for people to walk in our doors and imbibe the Orthodox essence and fall on their face and cry out that God is surely in your midst, we can also go into our community’s religious and experiential space, one that has been staked out by a veneer of Pentecostal style, and we can claim that space as our own.  In other words contextualization in Kenya no longer means communicating the gospel in terms of an African Traditional Religious perspective that actually has almost entirely disappeared.  That world view is drying up all over the continent like a water hole in drought.  The common coin of religious experience these days is the hoopla of Pentecostal form, if not content.  This is the wave-length that most people are on, and this is the wave-length that most people are responding to, at least initially.  It may be incredibly superficial, but it is where people are and what they know.  Even some of our own Orthodox parishes have introduced ‘praise and worship’ singing and dancing after the Divine Liturgy.  Imagine.

Preaching at the new St. Tabitha's Orthodox Church meeting in the orphanage sitting room.

So how do we reach our communities?  We speak to them in a language they understand, using a format that they can comprehend, in a style that won’t chase them away.  That means we probably forgo Byzantine chant in favour of a keyboard, singers and loudspeakers.  That means we probably have our event in a place where local people gather.  That means we speak in a style that wont be a stumbling block to the audience.  It’s still Orthodoxy, but its not dressed in a cassock; rather it’s Orthodoxy dressed in local garb.  And in this case, local garb is in Pentecostal style.

I have always studied contextualization in terms of understanding the uniqueness of the host culture, their religious assumptions, their rhetorical style, their concerns and priorities, and then taking the gospel and finding a way to communicate it effectively in light of these parameters.  Much is made of the ‘African world view’ (forgetting of course that ‘Africa’ is a very big place and that there is no such thing as an ‘African’ world view.)  Maybe a Kikuyu world view or a Luhya world view is more appropriate.  And these things are still important even today.  But less and less so.

Even so, care must be taken after we have identified the importance of Pentecostal style for communicating the gospel.  The ubiquity of Pentecostal style is certainly an indication of its success in permeating the various cultures of Kenya.  But as I observed above, the shallowness of the resulting Christianity serves as a warning that the advance of a Pentecostal style is not necessarily the same thing as an advance of the Kingdom of God. For all the 'Christians' here, Kenya is still desperately in need of evangelizing.

I think that, with care, even we Orthodox can use a Pentecostal style to gain a hearing for our Orthodox faith.  Paul was willing to be all things to all people so that he might win some for Christ. We should be ready to do no less than the Apostle.

Not what I was expecting. But then not many people here would respond to Palestrina.

So imagine my bemusement when we traveled to western Kenya and held a ‘crusade’ in a small town on the way between Webuye and Kakamega.  We had a banner replete with pictures of the speakers, announcing three days of ‘Gospel’ meetings sponsored by the local Orthodox parish.  We had our sound system and requisite (very) loud speakers.  We had our worship leader and singers, which led to worship songs and dancing.  And we had testimonies, introductions, and finally the preacher who would preach for an hour or so.  Followed by more singing and dancing until it was getting dark and we had to go home.  I’m a former Presbyterian minister, a university lecturer, an Orthodox  Christian and presently the dean of the Orthodox seminary - this is not my idiom.  But this is one of the ways we can reach people for Christ, one of the ways we can use to build bridges between the weird world of Pentecostal style and the even stranger world of Orthodox Christianity.  And there were people who responded.  I don’t think I am going to quit my day job any time soon and become a television evangelist.  But there is a place and a need for going to where the people are and engaging them in a way that they can hear with the actual gospel of Christ, not the half-cocked, me-centered pablum they are used to being fed.  God knows there are many others trying to do the same as we are trying to do and preaching something other than the true gospel.  If we the Orthodox won't be bothered to allow others to hear the gospel from us, we leave the field to the wolves and heretics, and reveal ourselves to be motivated by a different spirit than that of Christ’s.  So this is not a trivial matter.

Preaching on St. Mary's 'Yes' to God, in contrast to Eve's 'No' in the Garden of Eden.

These are just some thoughts, trying to place my experience of this past weekend in the wider frame work of missions, evangelism and contextualization.  I don't mind helpful criticism, or better ideas on how we Orthodox can undertake our commission to preach the gospel in our Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  But critics will have more credibility if they themselves are helping their own parishes reach out beyond their Churches and engage with the lost souls of our contexts.