Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Help My Unbelief

Help My Unbelief
(The 5th of 6 in my cycle of poems, The Valley of Shadow)

You are silent.  

But I was told that you are instant,
Help in trouble,
There for me,
Rushing to answer before I even finish asking.
The Cliche for every need.

Breath knocked out.
No one ever yelled at me!  
Where is this coming from?
Did we not make vows? 
To love?  
To cherish?
What did I do to deserve this from you?
The fire from your words burns,
It hurts.
Run, get away, hide,
Anything but stand in front of you and take this.

God!  Help!  Why?
But You are silent.
Married three months.  
Have I made a terrible mistake?

I am an expert now.  Beaten into submission.
I do what I need to do, whatever to avoid the blows.
But like clockwork I come short 
And you’ve been waiting.
You are always right. This justifies all.
You shrink me to nothing.
A mere boy,
and you the grownup,
so weary of playing that role.
Humiliation and condescension work best and sting deep.
You press in until I confess.
‘I’m sorry’ achieves your goal 
Though I don’t even know what monstrous thing I’ve done,
that makes me now your enemy.
Domination and control have usurped this marriage.

I stumble into the darkness
Going nowhere.  Just far away.
God! Help! Why?
But You are silent.
I drift alone in an ocean with no land in sight.

Ex nihilo storm force ten.
Nauseous I rush to close the windows
So the neighbors will not hear the shriek of your gale
Blasting at my heart, smashed against the wall.
They might think something is amiss.
Marital dissonance
sears my ears, batters my soul.  
Forced to dance to your discordant tune.
This feels so wrong.
I don’t know how to get away.
And you think this somehow good, proper, necessary?
Can you not see what you are doing to me?
Or is there a darker truth?
You are aware.  
You do know.  
You calculate to hurt.
Mocking words, 
shrill shouts, 
shaming names; 
Your savage contempt crumples me like a piece of paper, 
rips all my efforts to love you into a thousand pieces 
stripped away by the tempest.

Nobody hears.  
Nobody sees.  
Nobody knows.
Where can I possibly go?
I am all alone
Married to you.

Denial presses the darkness back into its hole.
I am fine.  Really.  We are fine.
Such great parents, a model couple.
On show for the relatives,
on display for the church.
But alone I break,
I plead with tears:
God! Help! Why?
But You are silent.
Change me! Change her!
I cannot hold it together.

I fall into blackness.  
No moon.  No stars.  Mid-day in eclipse.
You round on me.
Pounded by your accusations - 
‘Distant’, ‘morose’, ‘selfish’, I ‘take no initiative’, 
I am ‘mentally ill’, a sick sick man,
I force you to be the responsible one.
And then the ever-present chorus:
you are always, always right.
Never been wrong.
Just keep repeating, with feeling,
like some mindless praise and worship refrain. 
I remove myself.  I cannot respond, 
lest I throw up the emptiness substituting for my heart.  
Sit in my office.
Stare at nothing.  
I don’t know what’s wrong.  
I believe you.  You are my best friend.
It must be me.  
It must be me.

I cry, I shout, I beg -
God! Help!  Why?
But You are silent.
My pain, my confusion finds relief
Only with distraction, its pleasure 
Sharp relief to our barren bed.

The darkness is too great.
It presses.
I want to die.

I get help.
Unpacking decades is hard.
I begin to see what I have done.
I begin to see what you have done.
It's a lie.
It isn’t me.  It’s you.  All along.
I ask you to stop.  Many times - 

How dare me.
Rage, Storm, Verbal Blows bucket down.  
You laugh at me.  You pummel me.  
Accuse me of unfaithfulness.
Accuse me of lying.  
You transform self sex into adultery.
Hint darkly of divorce.
You take my deepest, most painful struggles 
and weave an ugly new narrative,
Reimagining me as having betrayed you 
when I’ve only ever been faithful.
My pain and confusion
Shared in confidence,
Becomes evidence for the prosecution.
I ‘abandoned’ you.
‘Stopped initiating intimacy’ with you.
But who can pretend to love when splayed upon your rack?
Never mind that you are wrong,
a playground bully hellbent on imposing your will.
Thirty years of intimidation.
It's worked so well.  It's the only game you know.
And my enabling part played to perfection.
No more.
Never mind your evidence makes the opposite case.
It suits your narrative.  
And you make it your reality, the story that gets told.
At least you are consistent. 
You have done nothing wrong.
Martyred by my terrible faults.
And if a ‘harsh word’ has been levelled at me, 
I have richly deserved it.
For you, it’s just another strategy,
one of many, the end the same,
to maintain control.
But I’m an Aztec prisoner, heart ripped out,
Your serial victim,
Tossed down your temple stairs.

This marriage has already died.
No breaking news, no service, no burial.
Just a corpse.
I keep trying to shake us, to wake us from slumber.
But only the foul rottenness of your contempt rises up, 
Of softly spoken brutal words.
You keep wielding the knife 
while all along proclaiming that I have murdered us.

Prayer without ceasing.
I am lost.
Everything that was safe, secure, settled, tied down,
Now unmoored in this hurricane, 
slammed onto rocks
Smashed again and again, splintered, 
broken pieces of wood.  

God. Help. Why?
But You are silent.
What’s left of my life washes up on the shore.

Everything is broken. 
I am broken.
I keep trying to run in the dark.
I trip. I fall.  
Stumble, I fall again.
Bloody knees.  Bloody hands.
God it hurts too much.  It’s too hard.
I don’t think I can go any further.
I don’t think I’m going to make it

Mother of God.
I stand before your icon.
Am I kissing heaven,
Or am I banging my head against a wall?
Every promise evaporated, every vision a mirage. 
Was it only ever about her control and my fear?

Loss takes many moments.  
Everything that was mine has somehow bled to her.
Sitting now in her house, robbed of context, 
stripped of all meaning.
My boyhood furniture, my mother’s hutch, 
my college photo albums, 
and all my books.  My bed.  My sofa. 
My grandfather’s World War I Army overcoat.  
Pictures of my children, the hoarded treasures of a life.  
Seized. By default.   
But not just things, 
Appropriated friends, 
who never stayed around long enough to ask why.
Happy to judge, second opinion be damned.  
And our life together reconstrued 
to make her look so very good 
and me the worst of villains.

It’s all gone.  Nothing left.
But the phantom pain of an amputated life.

I sift through blackened cinders.
In my loss, all I have is You.
God.  Help.  Why?
But for all the eager verbiage about You,

You’ve never been One for words. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


(From The Valley of the Shadow, the 2nd of 6)

It’s dark.
I’m driving.
We’re talking.
No, arguing.
Damn it.
I can’t keep up with you.
Into the same mire
It’s like you find pleasure
hurting me.
Your words lacerate,
I’m stressed, I’m angry, 
I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
And, but, no,
Lord have mercy!
Every warning light flashes in my brain.
The gyre - 
What the!
The rufter's affixed mid-flight.
The falcon forgets to fly.
Through the seat,
Through the floor, 
Down, Down,
Stars and headlights swirl.
Silently the
void swallows me.
Black clouds
punctured by my descent
spin round my brain 
with strands of mental vertigo,
unmoored, unhinged, and swinging
unable to close, 
to keep it out,
to let it in.
I surface, gasp for air.
I’m still driving,
You’re still angry 
destroying my arguments,
Obliterating me, 
as I fade again
Down, Down.
Into the hole.
I can’t stop,
No one to catch me.
Just your angry words
which offer no help
But stomp my fingers 
As I cling to the edge of the abyss;
Just your merciless anger,
cumulative knives that do not care
and my blood-slicked hands 
find no hold
as I’m nailed again
with your harsh words
to your rack.
I ride the darkness
far far away 
staring straight ahead
as white dashes 
a thousand clarifications
racing beneath our speeding car.
I keep quiet.
I no longer care.
You still have very important
points to make.
You rush to make sure
I understand,
That any opposition has been annihilated.
Why do you care?
You destroy me
for the pleasure
of being
I don’t remember,
Getting home,
brushing my teeth,
climbing into bed.
My lover oblivion.
I awaken crushed.
I want to cry,
To be somewhere 
Anywhere but here.
Trapped, without hope,
No way out.
I do not want to be. 
I finally open my eyes.
But already 
I know this place, 
I dread what’s next.
My world gone grey, 
music into tedium,
palate swilling paste.
legs and arms of lead.
The falling stopped.
But I am far away, 
deep, out of sight,
Hidden from the sun.
In Jeremiah’s cistern 
Sinking in the muck.
And I am sure
It’s as you always say,

All my fault.

Fr. Stephen Freeman has written a very helpful post on the major issue (for me) in all this.  See https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/07/12/poor-debts-enemies-learning-forgive-pray/
His prayer, which I strive to make my prayer - 'O Lord, you know what my enemies have done to me.  On the Day of Judgment, do not hold it against them on my account.'

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.