Friday, March 10, 2017

When I Think ‘They’ Are the Problem, or, Running from Wolves

I’ve recently joined an internet forum that’s composed of Orthodox people and some who are not Orthodox, all of whom are interested in talking about issues we all face as Orthodox Christians in our Churches and living in the world.  I have enjoyed the conversations I have found there - people feeling like they can ask questions without being jumped on, others feeling like they can share from their experiences a way that might help resolve the issue.  It seemed a friendly place to engage with others.  Of course it’s not an official ‘Orthodox’ anything; just a place where those who are interested can talk.

But as with anything online and tending towards anonymity, even sites like this invite the participation of those who seem to want either to disturb or to chastise or to put down other participants whose Orthodoxy doesn’t seem Orthodox enough.  In the case I stumbled upon, rather unkind words were being exchanged.  Then more things were said that probably shouldn’t have been said.  People were called names.  Threats were made to take one’s toys and go off and find someplace else to play.  I remember witnessing playground fights that had much the same on offer - offended pride, hurt feelings, name calling, fists flying, the surrounding witnesses pulling the combatants apart, and both of them sent to the principal’s office.  Only online, there is no principal’s office to be sent to.  So things are left raw and just hanging there.

Of course it’s also Lent.  And didn’t I just this morning pray with St. Ephrem, ‘and grant that I may see my own sins, and not judge my brother’?  And of course the temptation is strong to ask why all those other people can’t get their act together and behave like the followers of Christ these clergy and monks and faithful claim to be?  When really the question  is, ‘What does all this tell me about my own heart?’  I see in me the same judgmental spirit I’m about to condemn in this other person.  I see the same smugness of pride in me that the pharisee in the temple had because I haven’t sinned like that jerk back there.  I am making the disturbing discovery (again) that it’s easy to point out the hypocrisy in others; not so easy to realize that I am myself presiding at the head table of hypocrisy in doing so.  It’s easy to feel that someone is a wolf in sheep’s clothing ravaging with their un-Orthodox ideas the flock of God; not so easy to realize that with my own predilection to judge I myself am running with the pack and causing my own harm by pretending simply to be a concerned sheep while attacking, biting and generally taking down whoever else I feel is not behaving properly.  This is decidedly not the behaviour of sheep. I have to keep reminding myself that the Chief Shepherd knows how to deal with wolves and he doesn’t need my ‘help’ to do so.

I was thinking yesterday of how to respond to someone who seemed to be unhappy with people in the forum and who then informed the group of his intention to drop out and then pronounced his anathema on some of the members before leaving.  The whole affair bothered me.  And I wrote what follows to help me work through my own feelings and my own need for repentance in the midst of it.  Relationships are so hard, even ones online with people one doesn’t even know.  Here’s what I wrote yesterday as a participant in that conversation.

I am a convert to Orthodoxy. But someone wiser than me once told me while I was in that process that if I was looking for the perfect church and then believed that I had found it, it would cease to be so the moment I walked through the door.  i am so grateful that Jesus didn’t chase anyone away who was looking for answers or help.  He even patiently worked with disciples, not a single one who ever ‘got it’, even after Jesus went to the cross and was sealed dead in the tomb.  I am so grateful for the many Orthodox Christians who patiently worked with me, and who didn’t run away when I was trying to process how Orthodoxy fit with my Calvinism and my Charismatic background.  Even now when I get the tone screwed up while chanting, or write a blog post that is not edifying, or follow my passions rather than Christ, I am grateful for the circle of Orthodox Christians who have made it a part of their ministry to bear with me and help me take the next step.

Gary Larson - The Far Side

To my brothers who are afraid of wolves, I ask first to what place are you running where you are expecting not to find wolves, or sinners or other challenges?  Secondly, this is an internet forum, not a church, and not the Church.  If this were a Church, the I would imagine that what Jesus says about going to your brother one on one and seeing if you can resolve the issue is the way one could most profitably proceed.   If that doesn’t work, Jesus tells us to take a witness and try again.  And if that doesn’t work, only then do we take the matter before the Church, where, if he still refuses to heed the Church’s concern, we are enjoined to treat him as a tax collector and a sinner (which, interestingly enough, Jesus himself models just how we are to treat these tax collectors and sinners throughout the gospels!).  

But given that this is not a Church, I can see how you might want to simply skip steps one and two and go directly to step three.  Notorious wolves are indeed dangerous to the flock, and you may be right - there may be people in this circle who are deliberately trying to lead people astray.  There may be others who think they know something, and who are just playing with Orthodoxy.  There may be others who are pharisees in the negative sense who delight in pointing out how the other is insufficient, inadequate, or otherwise on the wrong side of being right.

But here’s the thing.  God has been known to convert notorious wolves and notorious sinners and even notorious pharisees.  If we are going to follow Jesus with our lives and not just our words, then we will of necessity follow him into dealing with all sorts of unsavory characters.  Who am I to judge if a notorious someone is moving away from Christ?  They might actually, by the patient work of God’s Spirit, be moving towards Christ.  Will my response to them help them move towards Christ, of push them further away?  When Saul of Tarsus showed up at Ananias’ door on Straight Street in Damascus, Ananias had a choice to make.  Just like with every interaction we have choices to make.  I can condemn the blind guy at my door as a wolf and shut the door and run out the back (and Ananias had rather good cause to do so).  Or I could see that God might in fact be using me and this situation and even the wolf to a different end.  

Gary Larson - The Far Side

You never know.  And if that’s the case, your choice to turn your back on us wolves may be denying yourself the opportunity to be the love, the mercy, and even the call of Christ for another.

With respect.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Small Adventures of a Kenyan Orthodox Chef in Lent

I am Orthodox.  I live in a room on the Orthodox seminary campus surrounded by a chaotic part of Nairobi known euphemistically as an ‘informal settlement’.  I used to cook a lot, but my new single lifestyle and my new responsibilities make it much easier to eat badly. I have a tiny ‘kitchen’ comprised of an old gas stove that has knobs and dials but no markings and that looks rather like it did a previous tour of duty at a nuclear weapons testing facility.  It works, so I don’t complain.  There is a small fridge with a freezer on top, about four feet tall and maybe twenty inches wide on a good day.  It wheezes and groans all day and all night and generally sounds like a death rasp.  When it didn’t immediately keel over and die the first night I was here, I decided not to take its complaining seriously.  Then there is a large cabinet in which I treat as a pantry/store for dishes/drawer for cutlery, etc.  The top of the cabinet serves as my counter top where I do just about everything, from make my coffee to chop things on a cutting board.  The last time I stood relative to a countertop like this, I think I was 7 years old.  Unlike most kitchens, I have no water supply and no sink in which to do dishes.  Not to worry, because just through the door immediately past my tall cabinet is my bathroom/washroom/toilet/whatever your culture is comfortable calling it.  In said room is a very small sink.  It’s here that I fill my kettle for tea and do my dishes, laying them out to dry on the top of a small bookcase that serves as a bathroom cabinet and store.  Sometimes geckos skittle across my wall and floor looking for mosquitos. Because I hate mosquitos, I don’t mind having a few lizards around.  My kitchen is really just a glorified hallway to the bathroom with about 3x8 feet to maneuver around in.  But since I’m not called upon to cook for large dinner parties, it has served me pretty well.

That’s the set up.  Here’s the challenge.  Lent arrived this past Monday. I suddenly had a hankering for lentil soup (I’m not joking.  It’s an Orthodox/Lent thing).  But this sort of item is not on the menu anywhere around here, including the Archbishop’s table where I am often privileged to share a meal.  So if I was going to have lentil soup I was going to have to make it myself.  On the one hand, no problem.  I spent most of my life cooking on alternate weeks.  And in recent years I’ve tried a number of different lentil soup recipes ranging from compost fare to gosh that’s really tasty.  So conceptually it was a go.

However once I motivated myself into action this past week, I discovered that I had a big soup pot with which to turn my aspirations into a reality, but nothing to put in it.  By the way, I was using a recipe that’s found in Catherine Mandell’s When You Fast…  Recipes for Lenten Seasons (p. 60), a cook book I really like and which I have used with profit for a number of years.  But the list of ingredients was daunting:

Fresh Parsley
Bay Leaf
Canned tomatos
Brown lentils
Fresh Spinach
Red wine vinegar

Ok, in a normal kitchen this all would be pretty standard.  But my kitchen is neither standard nor normal, and is stocked with stuff like Ethiopian coffee and Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix and important things like that.  This called for a major shop.  So major that for the first time since my return to Kenya in 2015 I used an actual grocery cart rather than a hand basket at the grocery store.

Shopping on this continent can be a challenge if one is looking for specific things.  In Ethiopia I regularly had to visit at least five shops to corral everything I needed.  Yes I said 5.  And here in Nairobi, even though we have our supermarket equivalents, it doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed to experience the pleasure of one-stop shopping.  Take, for instance, vegetable stock.  I got it in my mind that I needed vegetable stock for this cooking adventure.  But I checked Nakumatt, my local go-to grocery store of choice, but alas no vegetable stock.  Mountains of beef stock cubes and chicken stock cubes, but no veggie cubes anywhere.  I also discovered that both their spinach and celery looked as though they had both auditioned for a part as road kill and won.  So I just kept walking.  Though my recipe called for a teaspoon of oregano, if one has no oregano, one must buy a huge container of it to get a teaspoon of it.  And bay leaves, too.  I was thinking that these people had no carrots (how can your vegetable section have not carrots?), but then I discovered them hiding next to dairy.  I didn’t ask any questions.  I just took my bag of carrots and headed for check out.

So off to store number 2 - Zucchini, a very nice fruit and veg shop.  Their celery was in much better shape, but I looked in vain for spinach.  I also looked in vain for vegetable stock.  I was in the back corner looking longingly at the incredibly expensive dried prunes when I glanced at the refrigerated display shelfs and there, along with fruit juices and fruit salad was a few bags of baby spinach on the top shelf pushed to the back. Though tempted, I again refused to ask any questions and took my spinach and (after paying) ran.  

So I took my bags of Lenten soup supplies home and was immediately confronted with yet another challenge - what am I going to do with all of this stuff?  The canned things went into the pantry, the spices on one of the shelves above the cabinet.  But the vegetables, they had to go into the fridge.  My fridge has enough room for half a dozen eggs, a diet coke and a jar of pickles.  It being Lent, the eggs are gone, so that creates some space.  It was quite the effort, but eventually I got everything in the fridge and also managed to get the door shut without it opening again.

At this point, my schedule intervened, and the cooking I was planning on doing the next day got put off until the next and then the next.  I began to worry that all these vegetables I had so carefully selected were going to going to turn into rich dark loam in the bottom of my little fridge.  The good news is that I had a chance to check another grocery store - Chandarana - for vegetable stock.  Chandarana had no vegetable stock either, can you believe it!  So then I checked a heath food store we have here called Healthy U, which I usually avoid because it pretends that they and you are in Sweden and thus feels justified to charge you Swedish prices.  So I looked and amazingly enough they had vegetable stock.  It wasn’t Swedish, but it was Swiss which is even worse.  But since Kenya apparently was out of their own vegetable stock all across Nairobi at least, I paid Swiss prices and now am the proud (and significantly poorer) owner of imported Swiss vegetable stock cubes.

So today, Saturday, I finally had time to cook.  I was very proud of myself.  I had all the ingredients.  And so with Beethoven symphonies thundering away in the back ground, I chopped up all the vegetables.  I learned that chopping on the top of a cabinet at eye level is not optimum, but I persevered and got the job done.  I set off a nuclear chain reaction and got my stove going.  I added all the ingredients in their proper order and at the proper time. I simmered my lentils for an hour and added the last of the ingredients.  I put a stop to the nuclear fission experiment and I let the whole pot of lentil soup sit covered on the stove for the rest of the afternoon.  While I was out I went to yet another grocery store and bought the Kenyan version of a baguette, which if you are as far away from France as I am, it will do.  My baguette and I went home, I warmed up the soup, dished some out in a bowl, broke off a piece of baguette, gave thanks to the Lord and plunged into an awesome bowl of lentil soup.  One of life’s simple pleasures.  Only as with most things here it wasn’t so simple to accomplish.

I’m glad I like it.  My bowlful made no dent in my ginormous pot of soup.  There is a lot of it left.  I will be eating on it most of if not all of next week.  My current challenge is what to do with the very big pot of lentil soup cooling on my stovetop.  My fridge is tiny, my pot is big.  So I’m still working on this one.

In the meantime I just went back over the recipe and discovered that nowhere does it call for vegetable stock, Kenyan, Swedish or Swiss.  I went through a lot of trouble for my Swiss vegetable stock.  If I ever finish my current batch of lentil soup, I’ll have to find a recipe that will be enhanced by adding my special Swiss stock.  Fortunately, Lent lasts a long time.  Which just means plenty of opportunities for further Lenten culinary adventures.

Monday, February 6, 2017

When the Liturgy Goes Bad - A Long Set Up and a Short Story

It’s hard to get Orthodox liturgical books in Kenya.  There are so many of them.  And they seem to keep multiplying.  There is, first of all, the Gospel Book, a usually specially decorated book containing all the readings from the four gospels for Orthros/Matins and Divine Liturgy.  Then there is the Apostolos, which has the schedule for all the Epistle readings for all the services during the year.  And the Psalter, which does the same for the Psalms. As well as the Prophetologion which contains the readings from the Old Testament. Then there is the Euchologion, the Horologion, the Menaia, the Irmologion, the Pentecostarion, the Ochteochos, the Lenton Triodion, the Typikon, the Archieratikon, and ‘other liturgical books’. 

The Gospel

Since you asked...
The Euchologian is a prayer book with prayers for the priest, deacon and reader for Vespers, Orthros and the Divine Liturgy, as well as the prayers for the services for the six other sacraments.  All of these services are done, not at a particular point in the Church calendar, but as the occasion arises.

The Hieratikon is the ‘book of the priest’, and contains the priest’s prayers for Vespers, Orthros and Divine Liturgy.

The Horologian is the ‘Book of Hours’, which has the fixed texts for the prayers for the daily cycle of services.

The Menaia, ‘books of the months’ is the collection of twelve books, one for each month, containing the services for the non-movable feasts of the Church year and for the saint’s days falling in that month.

The 12 month Menaion

The Octoechos is the ‘book of eight tones’ which has the which literally ‘sets the tone’ for any and every service.  The tone is the particular chant (there are eight of them, plus variations) used for the hymns and readings of each service.

The Pentecostarion contains the services used from the Sunday of Pascha through the first Sunday of Pentecost.

The Lenton Triodion contains the services and prayers for the preparation for Lent (beginning with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which was just this past Sunday and is the 10th Sunday before Pascha) and including all of Great Lent until Holy Saturday.

The Typikon is ‘the book of directives and rubrics’ which regulates the order of the services for every day of the year.  It collects the changeable aspects of every service for insertion at the appropriate point in the liturgy.

The Anthologion is a liturgical text that tries to collect as much of the necessary texts, readings, prayers and rubrics into one source. I don't know if anyone has actually made it all the way through yet so as to emerge from the other side and report if it was successful.

There are other books, too, such as the Prayer Book used by many Orthodox faithful in their private prayers.  There is also often collected in one book all the services used during Holy Week.  As well as a Service Book that contains prayers for Funerals, memorials, and other services, as well as the text for the Divine Liturgy.

Got that?

So you can imagine what a challenge it might be for an Orthodox parish in a developing country to keep track of all this.  And then multiply the number of parishes by about 300 or so.

One of the great helps made available recently is an online Orthodox Liturgy website that publishes the liturgy for all the services for every day of the week.  At my parish, one of my chant-stand colleagues prints out five copies of the liturgy for Orthros every week.  This has made a huge difference for us. It actually means we can have full Orthros on Sundays, rather than the abbreviated version many parishes are forced to use.

All of the above is just an introduction to what happened this past Sunday as we were chanting morning Orthros before the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.  We had gotten maybe a third through the service when we noticed that we were chanting hymns about the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation, and not about the relative prayers of the Pharisee and the Publican.  And then we came to a part of the Orthros liturgy that had a heading but no text for several pages.  We looked through and realized our printed copies were seriously wrong.  What to do?  Several of us with smartphones went to our ‘e-matins’ website and found that whatever the problem had been, they had fixed it.  So now we had two phones and nine chanters.  So when one would finish chanting his bit, he would pass the phone on to the next one.  And so the service went.

Being Orthodox in Kenya is constantly throwing surprises into the mix.  I never dreamed I would be using my smart phone to chant the Liturgy. (But then I never dreamed I would be attending  an Orthodox liturgy.  Dang, I never dreamed I would be Orthodox.  But I digress.)  There are at least three hundred Orthodox parishes in Kenya.  Not many of our parishes may have the small library of specialized texts listed above.  But we do have smart phones.  And like me, you can probably see where this is all probably going.

BTW much about the above books was new to me.  I am indebted to the Orthodox website Orthodox Wiki for my own tutorial.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Gospel, the (Orthodox) Church, and Missions - Preached

Put on Christ 
A sermon preached this past Sunday at an Orthodox Church in Nairobi

Dr. William Arthur, Presbyterian Missionary in Thogoto, Kenya

Colossians 3:4-11
4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.  5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly:  fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  7These are the ways you also once followed when you were living that life.  8But now you must get rid of all such things - anger wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

The New Testament has many ways of saying the same thing.  You will know the real thing, the real Christian from the counterfeit one, says Jesus, by their fruits.  ‘Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus,’ says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘you will know them by their fruits.’ (Matthew 7:16-20)

Roman Catholic Missionary Nun

The Apostle Paul is making the same point in our Epistle reading from Colossians 3.  There is something different about a person who is a Christian; or I should say, someone who is a real Christian.  There are many people who claim to be Christians, who claim to belong to this or that church, who claim to have been baptised or born again, who may even claim to belong to God’s special chosen people, the Orthodox Church, or to God’s special chosen ethnic group, who may even attend services more than just at Nativity and Pascha, who may even adorn the temple with large gifts.  But I think that you know it is possible to be all of these things and still be far from the Kingdom of God.  And that is because God has never been impressed (in the same way that we are) with outward marks of identity and grandiose religious gestures.  God is most concerned about what’s going on in your heart, and in mine.  

Unknown Missionary, People and Location

Christianity - the Gospel - is meant to resolve the much deeper, much more fundamental problem that each one of us is facing today.  The experience of everybody here this morning is characterised by brokenness.  All of us have left a trail of broken relationships and wounded people in our wakes.  And our relationships with God are broken, too.  Broken by our disregard of God’s love and God’s call, broken by our insistence on living on our terms rather than God’s,  broken by our pathological refusal to see God for who He is and to respond in worship and commitment and love.  But this is only one aspect of our problem. Because, you see, most of us also have character issues.  We know the good we should be doing, but too often we choose a different way.  Christ is our target, Christ is our goal, but we are missing the mark, and not by a little.  Our choices reveal our heart.  And the fruit we bear makes known the tree.

Missions Map with Pictures of Missionary Exploits and Details of Mission Needs

Our brokenness and our corruption would be enough to undo anyone, but on top of all that we all have a serious death problem  Paul calls death the final enemy.  And that is because death destroys everything it touches - our health, our lives, our relationships, our future, our hopes.  Even our bodies are destroyed by the overwhelming power of death.  Death will claim each one of us and we will be seen no more.

Missionary plane taking off from grass airstrip.

I think it is safe to say that most people are not aware of, or refuse to acknowledge, or simply will not open their eyes and see just how desperate our situation is.  We think that things will go on for us as they have in the past, and that our past will not catch up with us, and that the game of life is about self-fulfilment and getting what we want out of it, even if it is at the expense of other people.  We lull ourselves to spiritual sleep by thinking things are not as bad as they are.  And so we never hear the Gospel.  We never comprehend Christ.  We never see His cross.  We never fathom the empty tomb.  We never bow our necks and fall to our knees before His Lordship.  Instead we carry on with the ways that we have chosen, ways that lead us further and further from the love and mercy of God.  We choose to run from reality, to run from God until it is too late.  We spend our lives grasping for what we think we wanted.  Only to discover that a life without God at the centre is actually a very good definition of hell.

More intrepid missionary nuns

But I think that we here this morning are in a position to hear the good news of the Gospel.  Christ has come precisely because our relationships are broken.  Christ has come precisely because we are far from God and don’t know the way back home.  Christ has come precisely because we have squandered God’s image and what God has given us by our sin.  Christ has come precisely because we are doomed to die and to endure all of the destruction and separation that death entails.  You and I are desperately in need of a Saviour.  And Jesus has come to save us.  Jesus has come to reconcile us with God the Trinity and with one another.  Jesus has come to cleanse us from our wrong choices and to save us from our sin. Jesus has come to rescue us from the power of death and to raise us from the dead on the Last Day to be like Him in His Kingdom.  This is what is happening in the heart and in the life of a real Christian.  This is what a real Christian experiences.  And in response to this salvation that comes to us through the love and power of the Holy Trinity, our hearts are touched and transformed.  Our lives change.  Our lives bear good fruit.  Or as the Apostle Paul says, we put off the old life, the old way of living, the old way of thinking, the old way of being.  And instead we put on the New Man: we put on Christ. 

Collection box

When we respond to God’s grace, when we say ‘Yes!’ to Jesus, when we put on Christ, our lives change in so many ways.  We exchange our worldly perspective and begin to see ourselves and the people and the world around us as Christ sees.  We begin to prefer the good, the right, the beautiful, the just, the chaste and the lovely, instead of all the satanic counterfeits that flood our screens and contaminate our hearts.  We begin to want to pray. to want to spend time with God, to want to read His Word, to want to stand before the icons of His sanctuary and worship.  And we begin to understand that our life and our time and our possessions all belong to the Lord and not to us.  And as we have received so much, we see that the right response to God’s generosity, in fact the only response is for us to give back to God.  And so we begin to want to give, to give of our time, to give our wealth, to give our possessions.  Why else do you think God has given you all of these things, to pile up and stash away good for no one until you die?  No!  You are God’s steward and your things and your time are actually His, to be used as He directs.  You are God’s unique means by which He wants to bring His blessing to people and needs that only you can touch.

Missionary teacher

But to conclude, I want to draw your attention to one transformation in particular that Christ works in every heart that says ‘Yes’ to His gospel call.  This pearl of great value that we gladly sell everything to possess, this treasure of good news, of reconciliation, of salvation, of hope - we begin to look around and we notice that there are people right here around us who are still living in darkness, who have no idea that the light has come.  How will they ever know unless you tell them with your words, and show them by your compassion?  They suffer from the same spiritual sickness unto death that afflicted you.  And just as the Lord Jesus has reached out His hand to you and is in the process of saving you, so His hand is extended in love to them.  But it is not the priest’s responsibility to bring this good news to our family and neighbours.  This is not the bishop’s responsibility.  God calls us to let our lights so shine before the people around us, that they see our lives and good works and give glory to God.  God uses us to draw people to himself.  

Another collection box for missionaries

Now lift your eyes to the ends of the world for a moment and you will see not just individuals, but whole communities, and tribes, and nations who are without Christ and without hope in this world right now.  Again, how will these people come to hear about Jesus, how will they ever respond to a Gospel that they have never heard?  That’s why some of us feel so compelled by the love of God that we go to these places as missionaries. That’s why those Christians who are called by God to do other ministries back home will nevertheless also be compelled by the love of God to pray for  these missionaries and for the Churches they are establishing.  And that’s why those Christians and Churches back home will be compelled by the love of God to enable by their financial support these missionary ministries to take place.  Without the help of Christians here at home we missionaries could not do what God has called us to do.

So as we finish, as you respond to the Gospel call to put off the old man and to put on Christ instead, ask God to also give you His heart for the lost men and women and children in the lands beyond this great city and state and nation.  I know we missionaries in Kenya are really struggling and desperately need individuals and Churches who will come alongside us and be our partners in this great work we have, to establish the Church in the heart of Africa and train its leaders to take the work on from here.  Our work is not the only work that needs financial and prayer partners, so I ask you, pray to God and ask Him how He wants you to get involved, how He wants you to use your time, how He wants you to use your money and resources.  The Lord Jesus says that when we ask, it will be given to us; when we seek God we will find Him, when we knock, the door shall be opened (Luke 11:9).   Are you wasting your life for things that that will blow away with the dust in the end, or are you making your life count for the Kingdom of God, the one thing that will last forever? What kind of tree will you be?  What kind of fruit will you bear?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Some Observations Concerning American Orthodox Missionaries and Their Support

Ma'en Christian's home in far SW Ethiopia

I certainly don’t want to seem ungrateful, or even worse, grasping.  I also need to state from the start that, despite the impression given by my title, I am speaking for no one but myself on this topic.  But having served as a Protestant Evangelical missionary for 11 years, and been supported by Protestant Evangelicals even after I became Orthodox in 2011 for an additional 2 years of transition; and now, having served as an Orthodox missionary for 2 years to the present time, I have observed a few things about the way American Orthodox Christians and American Orthodox Churches support their missionaries.

Monastery chapel under construction in central Kenya

The most striking thing to me about the American Orthodox mission endeavor is how tiny it is.  There are more than two million Orthodox Christians in the United States.  The official missionary sending body approved by all the American Orthodox jurisdictions, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) in St. Augustine, FL, is currently facilitating the ministries of 19 full-time missionaries in places like Guatemala, Albania and Kenya.  Orthodox Christians are rightly proud of and impressed by what OCMC has accomplished over the years.  But let’s get some perspective.  SIM-USA, the independent interdenominational Evangelical Protestant mission board to which I belonged for 11 years when I was in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, has over 1200 missionaries in more than 40 countries.  There were 100 SIM missionaries in Ethiopia alone when I was there!  I know of another small Protestant denomination (250,000 members) whose denominational mission board has more than 500 missionaries on the field!  All of these missionaries raise their own support, often having budgets between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on family size and particular projects and needs.  All of these missionaries have their own support and prayer teams.  For example, when I was a Protestant Evangelical, we had more than 90 individuals and families contributing monthly towards our support, as well as 7 churches whose mission committees made commitments to give us a certain amount of money every month or quarter.  One church in particular made a commitment to contribute $16,000/year to our support, and did so for more than 13 years.

This missionary preaching when he was a Protestant
and the senior pastor of the International Evangelical Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I took all this for granted, because it was what this Protestant missionary had experienced.  I thought that most if not all churches were aware of what missionaries did and what their needs were.  I thought that most churches had ‘missions committees’ whose task was to help the church be a good steward of its resources by finding worthy missionaries and projects for the church to engage and to partner with.  I assumed that within every church I visited there would be individuals who were praying and asking God what they should do with their resources, and who were actively looking for missionaries to support and pray for.  Evidently this is not always the case.

This missionary teaching Systematic Theology to Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology
Students in 2009 before he became an Orthodox Christian

I hasten to acknowledge that there are a few Orthodox Churches in the US that are doing tremendous things with respect to missions.  They raise huge sums of money and support many of the OCMC missionaries currently on the field.  There are other Churches who have hosted missionaries and welcomed their presentations and responded warmly to the opportunity to get involved in their ministries.  There are a number of individual Orthodox Christians who have rallied around particular missionaries and missions and given sacrificially to their support.  But let’s face it.  The vast majority of Orthodox Churches in the US have no interest in or concern for the Church’s missionary mandate.  The vast majority of Orthodox Christians are ignorant of what the Bible teaches about missions, ignorant about the history of the Orthodox Churches rich history of missions, ignorant of the unprecedented global expansion of Christianity in the past century, and ignorant of what the Orthodox Church is doing globally today, and of what the current needs and opportunities are.  American Orthodox priests too often share in this ignorance.  And rather than lead their parishes into what should be a central aspect of their stewardship, the priests do little if anything, becoming part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, when it comes to helping each local Church fulfil its missionary calling.

This missionary speaking at an Orthodox Youth Conference
in western Kenya in August of 2016

In spite of the lack of awareness plaguing so many Parishes and their leaders, I have personally experienced astonishing generosity on the part of many Orthodox individuals, priests and Churches.  When I was accepted by OCMC to become a missionary to Kenya, we all thought (feared) it would take more than a year or two to come up with my support (OCMC wisely requires that its missionaries be fully funded before they leave for the field).  I was a convert to Orthodoxy and had never lived in America as an Orthodox Christian - all of my Orthodox experience had been in Kenya, as were all of my Orthodox contacts!  But despite my fears, it actually took me less than seven months to raise full amount of support that I needed.  I had some of my Protestant Evangelical friends who continued to help me.  But the majority of my supporters were new to me - Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Parishes who rallied behind me and enabled me to make the move to Nairobi, Kenya in July of 2015.  So my own experience tells me that American Orthodox Christians and parishes can (and do) support missionaries!

Sometimes missionary travel can be a bit challenging.  On our way to previously
unreached SW Ethiopia.  These places are unreached for a reason.

However, my experience is a bit misleading.  There may be 50,000 people in a football stadium when the football game gets underway.  But only 150 or so people are actually playing the game and facilitating what’s happening on the field.  The other 49,850 people are in the stands watching and otherwise keeping their seats warm.  My observation is that the American Orthodox Church is like that football game.  There are some incredibly engaged individuals and parishes that are making American Orthodox missions possible.  But everybody else is up in the stands, and many of them are not only not paying any attention to what’s happening on the field. Many don’t even know there’s a game on.

In my office at St. Paul's University

Another thing I have observed about American Orthodox mission support, and I’m not entirely sure what this means, is that it consists almost entirely of one-time gifts, at least in my experience.  As a Protestant missionary, I would occasionally receive a one-time gift towards my support from my Protestant Evangelical friends.  But almost all of my support when I was a Protestant Evangelical missionary came in the form of a monthly pledge and subsequent monthly support.  My Orthodox experience has been almost the complete opposite.  A handful of my Orthodox supporters give a monthly amount (and interestingly almost all of them are converts!).  The rest of my support has come in the form of one time gifts.  It may just be me and I may be finding it difficult to transition from one form of support to another.  Most one-time gifts come unannounced and without explanation.  I don’t know if it is only going to appear on my monthly missionary report  this once, or if it will appear next month, and the next month.  I’m not complaining.  I am dependent on the generosity of other Christians who want to partner with me in the work in Kenya I’m called to do. But it’s hard to tell if this is just a one-and-done and the donor is off to other things, or if the donor is giving and genuinely interested in tracking with me and, more importantly, praying for me and with for the issues I’m wrestling with.  I have noticed from my previous experience that those people who do join my monthly support team do tend to pray for me and even correspond with me are those who also give monthly.  And they are aware of what my issues are when they see me.  I cannot tell if my one time donors see themselves as part of my team.  I cannot tell if they are praying for me or tracking with my concerns.  This is a different dynamic from what I experienced before when I was a Protestant missionary.  I’m tempted to say that a one-time gift followed by no response to my thank-you or to my monthly prayer letters or to my blog posts means that the donor is involved insofar as funds have been transferred, but no further.  If this is the case (and ‘if’ is genuinely subjunctive), then that means that I am seen as nothing more than an opportunity for a charitable donation, in the same category as the SPCA (nothing against the SPCA here, they do good work).  But in terms of being engaged with missions, involved with the mission, owning the mission, this seems to be absent.  There have been wonderful exceptions, but these seem to be the kind of exceptions that end up proving the rule.

Presenting a gift of icons to my friend His Grace Athanasios, the bishop of Western Kenya

If (see the above caveat) this is the case, it would go far to explain the general overall weakness of American Orthodox missions.  Many Orthodox are not aware of the need.  Many Orthodox are not aware of what our Bible and Tradition teaches.  Many Orthodox are not aware of what is already being done.  Many Orthodox have never even met an Orthodox missionary or heard one speak.  Many Orthodox don’t know why they should care.  And even when American Orthodox Christians are aware of, say, OCMC, and when they do read mission literature, and they have heard Orthodox missionaries speak - they still don’t know how to get involved, how to support a missionary, how to become a partner in the work.  The only thing most people know how to do is write a check (or set up an electronic transfer).  And we all (donors and even missionaries) operate under the assumption that this is sufficient.
Talking about the different instruments we play for a group of children at
a concert given at the church in Addis Ababa where I was also the senior pastor.

We American Orthodox Christians have justifiably taken pride in the fact that we have our own mission sending agency and we are sending out American Orthodox missionaries.  But we are living in a spiritually irrelevant bubble if we think that what we are currently doing is an adequate answer to the call that is upon all of us as Orthodox faithful and Orthodox parishes with respect to missions and evangelism in the world beyond our little enclaves.  A Church with the resources that we have, with the depth of spirituality that we have - we could easily field more than a thousand missionaries all over the globe - not the mere 19 that we have right now.  And contrary to fears, such a mobilization will not adversely affect ministry at the parish and local level.  In fact, our parishes and local ministries would be so energised by our participation in the centre of God’s heart for His world and in the very purpose of our salvation, that our parishes would grow and our local ministries would expand.  We would have to build more and more Orthodox Churches to accommodate all of the people who would come because they saw that God was among us and at work through us.  More and more American Orthodox Christians would feel vitally connected with the most important ministry of our Church.  They would not only grow in their own relationship with God, they would be involved in the parish at every level.  We would enter into what Biblical stewardship - the kind assumed by Jesus and the Apostles and the Church Fathers - actually means.  Rather than sit idly in the stands as distracted spectators, Orthodox Christians would stream onto the field of intentional Christian engagement and ministry.  Our parishes would be transformed.  Our communities would feel our love.  We would see conversions.  We would participate in the expansion of the Kingdom of God.

Off to my day job as a university lecturer in 2010,
escorted by my dog Rambo.

But that’s not where most of us are right now.  Most of us are complacent, content with the little that we think we know.  However, engaging with God’s missionary agenda starts with becoming aware.  With learning about what’s most important to God.  With being willing to get involved.  With learning how to give.  With learning how to love.  Because that, in the end, is what Orthodox missions is all about.  It's actually what Orthodoxy is all about.  Not just for “those” missionaries out there somewhere, but us Orthodox Christians right here - our call, our mandate is the same: loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It surprisingly all becomes possible from here.

Grading papers, made less painful by the astonishing beauty around me.