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.

Monday, December 12, 2016


‘God With Us’                                                               Dr. Joseph William Black
Sts Anargyroi Orthodox Cathedral, Nairobi                          December 11, 2016

Matthew 1:23
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us”.’

Have you been to one of the big shopping malls recently?  All of the lights, all of the decorations, all of the Christmas music, all of the advertising.  I was in one store on Friday and there was a big sign in Christmas colors as I walked in that said, ‘Christmas is about giving,’ which aside from the fact that that’s  not true, what  the store owner is really saying here is that ‘Christmas is about buying,’ and if we really want to get crass, we could further translate the words into, ‘Christmas is about spending your money right here right now,’ which of course is just another way of saying, ‘Christmas is about getting more stuff.’

All of the pictures are random shots of shopping mall Christmas decorations.

Meanwhile, schools are putting on Christmas concerts, churches are doing special Christmas music, even my little choir the Greenwood Singers has our Christmas concert this afternoon at 3 at St. Austin’s Church, people are throwing Christmas parties.  Then there are holiday displays that invariably involve snow.  Snow? Seriously? At the equator?

But despite all the festive good cheer, I’ve had a rough week.  Reality keeps trying to crash my party.  A good friend of mine died on Wednesday.  I had a crush on her forty years ago when we were first year university students.  Social media allowed us to reconnect. Then two years ago, she was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative nerve disease that slowly but surely shuts down every part of your body until you can no longer move, or swallow, or breathe.  It is not a happy way to die, because your mind carries on until the rest of your body dies around you.  My friend Nancy was a strong Christian.  She was in fact a pastor. She had gone back to seminary after a successful career and raising two beautiful children, and then planted a church.  But what kind of world do we live in where a beautiful, God-fearing soul can suffer and die like that?  

My mother in law - her name was Nancy, too - whose memorial we will celebrate in a few minutes along with her husband Jim, Nancy was in her sixties when she out of nowhere suffered a seizure.  When the doctors had a look, they discovered that she had a brain tumour, called a glioblastoma.  Of all the different kinds of brain tumours you can get, this is the worst because it’s shaped not like a ball or a sack growing there in your brain, but like an octopus that sends tentacles out in every direction making it impossible to get it all when you are operating.  But they tried anyway, and also tried some new radiation and chemotherapy treatments.  Life expectancy, even with surgery and treatment, is about a year.  After her surgery, Nancy had about 10 good months.  But we all knew that the cancer would come back.  It always does.  We got the bad news when we were visiting supporting churches.  And then we hard that she had suffered a stroke.  We rushed back to Jim and Nancy’s home.  Jim had decided not to put Nancy in the hospital with all the machines and disruptions, but to take care of Nancy at home.  When we got there, we found Nancy surrounded by all her friends from the Church.  Several of them were nurses and had already come up with a rota to help care for her.  Nancy was paralysed on her right side, which meant she couldn’t speak any more.  But she could speak with her eyes and could make signs with her one good hand.

We were there with Nancy for her last four weeks.  We helped feed her.  We helped turn her.  I sat with her, read the Bible to her, held her hand and prayed with her.  But the tumour ravaging her brain was relentless and her body began to fail.  She began sleeping more and more.  She stopped eating.  And then very early, while it was still dark before dawn on St. Nicholas Day, Jim woke us up and told us to come.  We stood around Nancy’s bed as she quietly took her last breaths, and then was still.

Such a wonderful mother and wife.  An incredible mother-in-law and friend for me.  And the most wonderful Grandmama for my two girls.  And a fun and dear friend for so many.  And a lover of Jesus, a hardworking saint at her church.  And then she was taken from us.

Then there was the young missionary couple from Australia, Andrew and Sharon.  Andrew was managing a construction site on the compound where I lived in Addis Ababa.  Sharon was a medical doctor, but she was teaching English at the Theological College where I taught.  I was the pastor of the big International Evangelical Church at the time, and Andrew and Sharon were always there on Sundays for church.  It was Tuesday and it had rained earlier.  It was damp and humid.  Andrew was checking the wall on top of the second floor of the new warehouse he was building, to figure out how to put the joists for the roof.   He passed within a meter of a power line and suddenly there was a flash and a loud cracking boom, the electricity arced from the line to the tiny wire of metal on the inside of his hat.  The electricity passed through his head, through his heart and blasted out of his shoes.  Andrew was thrown off the building.  He landed on his back and was quickly surrounded by his workers and colleagues, but there was nothing anybody could do.  They commandeered a land cruiser and took him to the national hospital just across the street from where I was at a meeting. I rushed over as soon as I had heard that there had been an accident.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I was there when they brought Andrew in.  But Andrew was gone.  There was absolute pandemonium in the emergency room, so I arranged for them to take Andrew’s body to a quiet room off to the side. And then came the hard part.  We had to find Sharon.  Her phone was switched off.  I took off to the college where she had been teaching that morning and discovered she had just left.  So I rushed back and got there just as Sharon walked in and found her husband and lover and best friend dead.  There simply are no words.  All you can do is hold someone and let them be in shock and then let them cry.

Everyone of us this morning could tell our own stories.  We have seen great pain and suffering.  Maybe we are going through our own private hell right now.  Maybe we are in the hole of poverty and cannot get the credentials to get us the job that would help us get out.  Maybe we are trapped in an addiction - addicted to alcohol, addicted to gambling, addicted to pornography, and we are in denial.  And in the meantime it’s killing us and all our relationships.  Maybe we’re suffering from depression.  Maybe it seems our life will never be happy again.  Maybe we are in a relationship that’s become a living hell.  Maybe we are being beaten, maybe we are married to a drunkard, maybe we are married to a bully who abuses us with her or his words.  And maybe so messed up is our world that the people around us, and maybe we ourselves, think this is just normal.

My friends, this is our world.  And it will be one sad, terrible, tragic story after another.  In just a few short years, there will be different people sitting here or standing here.  One by one all of us will come to the end.  Whether by accident or sickness or by malice of others or just old age, our bodies will stop working.  And what seems so solid and so real today will dissolve back into the earth from which we all came. There are good things about this life for sure, but they seem here to remind us of just how wrong things have gone.  All the brokenness, all the evil, all the sickness, all the dying -  It’s not what God created. It was never intended to be this way.

So when I see all the lights and decorations, all the presents and faux holiday cheer, I realise that Christmas as most of us celebrate it is not part of the solution, but rather part of the problem.  The world as we know it can’t actually handle the solution.  Because to do so would mean that we would have to acknowledged that things are really messed up, that our ways of coping are not working, that the ways of this world lead not to life but to death, that we are in fact desperately in need of a Savior.  And so a Savior comes.  Not to give us a handout, as if that ever ultimately helped us.  Not to provide another program to give us the money or the stuff that we think we need. Not someone standing outside our lives and our world telling us just to do the right thing, just love each other, just be good, yet another list of dos and don’ts.  Instead God Himself comes to us.  Not through the words of one of His prophets.  Not through some holy book.  Not to mobilise some holy crusade.  But God becomes one of us.  God wraps Himself in our life.  God becomes a human being, a human baby, a human body and mind, with human eyes and ears, with human hands and feet, a human voice, a human heartbeat.  God himself takes on our life, our sorrows.  He experiences our world.  He sees our traumas, understands our heartaches, weeps at our bereavement and then suffers, he embraces our death.  Not simply so that he can say that he did it, but so that he can, by His transforming power defeat it, and remake our broken humanity, remake our broken lives, undo what sin has done and is doing, undo the end that death has made for every son of Adam and daughter of Eve.  Matthew quotes Isaiah the prophet:  ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us.’  

God with us.  That is the good news that Christmas brings.  Not that we get more stuff.  As if that ever solved any of our problems.  Not that we are left alone by a distant God to carry on with the same attitudes and behaviours and hardness of heart that has brought each of us precisely to this point of desperation.  Not that God has made a way for us to come to him, when not a single religion of this world has ever made the difference we so desperately need.  Instead God Himself has not waited for us to get our acts together and to come to Him. Rather, He has come to us.  He becomes one of us.  He knows us and loves us precisely as we are, precisely where we are.  The good news of Christmas is Emmanuel.  God Himself with us.  And when He opens our blind eyes and softens our hard heart, and we see Him, our salvation can actually now begin.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Friday, December 2, 2016

Missiology and Tedium

I am in the middle of writing a paper comparing the missiologies of the Orthodox missionaries of 19th century Alaska and those of late 20th century Kenya.  This is interesting (to me, at least) because, whereas Protestants and Roman Catholics have long developed thoughtful and involved missiologies, and even developed their own category of academic studies, the Orthodox, in contrast, are rather new to the missiology game, at least as it has been played in recent decades.  Part of this has to do with the fact that, more than any branch of Christianity, the Orthodox have been more ‘under the cross’ than any of the others, though this is not to make little of the suffering of anyone who has found themselves facing persecution for identifying as a follower of Christ.  Part of it has to do with the fact that the Eastern Church is not wired like the Western Church.  It has never been a priority to systematise theological knowledge in the East, as if if were actually possible to understand God.  The great systemizations of Western theologians have given just that impression - that their authors know their subject.  And it is true, these men (and some women) have mastered vast mountains of information about their subject, as well as what just about everybody else thinks about their subject.  And to hear any one of these great theologians speak is to be amazed at what they have to say. 

But in the East, this temptation has been more readily resisted - this temptation to think that by knowing about something, one actually knows that something.  There is an awareness of and passionate respect for mystery in the East, a realization that the so-called truths of theology can only take one so far, and are instead are beyond verifying, that the subjects of theology are actually beyond knowing.  This has never meant that theology collapses into subjectivity (the way the epistemology and certain rooms of theology are doing so in the West today).  Rather it puts the emphasis back on God the Holy Trinity, and upon the Trinity’s astonishing acts of self-revelation, and on how that revelation should be understood, interpreted and applied through the guidance of the Church’s Tradition.   Some aspects of this revelation have been viewed as through a glass darkly.  Others have, dramatically, been face to face, as women and men and even children were confronted with and blessed by and challenged by the words and presence of the incarnate Son of God Himself, Jesus of Nazareth.  But even in the face of Revelation Himself, we are confronted with intractable mystery - How can this person be both God and human?  How can He save His people from their sin?  How can He rise again after being executed?  etc.  There are, of course, no shortage of ideas, and many books and papers have been written in every generation since He walked this earth attempting to address these very things.  But for all the words we still don’t know the hows and the whys and the wherefores.

But this was just an example.  Back to missiology.  Missiology is the attempt to study the transmission of the Christian gospel and its impact on individuals, communities and cultures through the establishment of churches.  One on-line definition calls it ‘the science of the cross-cultural communication of the Christian faith.’  But to reduce missiology to a ‘science,’ in my opinion, reduces the study of missions to that of the amassing and plumbing of a body of knowledge, an organising of missionary facts, as if this described the reality.

In the East this is about as satisfactory as coming up with a ‘how to’ set of directions as to how the sacraments ‘work’.  The (western) Roman Catholic Church has long held that sacraments are ex opere operato, ‘from the work worked’.  This means that the sacraments work when they are validly effected, independent of the faith of either the recipient or the performer of the sacrament.  But this is to answer questions that neither Jesus nor the apostles ever answered.  It points to the existence of a ‘system’ of sacramental theology that demands certain answers apart from and beyond what the Revelation we do have actually says.  In the East, we have sacraments, but no sacramental theological system.  The sacraments are means of God’s grace. They Church has faithfully passed down certain ways of accessing these God-given gifts, but nobody has presumed to put a limit on how God gives his grace or how it must be received.  Rather than two sacraments for Protestants (an unfortunate allergic reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism), or seven sacraments for Roman Catholics, there are as many sacraments for the Orthodox as there are ways that God may choose to manifest his love.  We celebrate seven in the Orthodox Churches, but nobody is so foolish as to limit God to seven in the way He chooses to govern His world.

With respect to missiology the literature that I have become familiar with attempts to say what can be said about the great themes of cross-cultural evangelism, the various strategies employed, the profound insights elucidated, the great personalities who have set their shoulder to the plough.  Other disciplines are plundered, such as history, anthropology, theology, biblical studies, linguistics and the like.  Theories are advanced, others are debunked. The whole process has been academized and professionalized, with proper journals, scholarly books, conferences and the like.

In the rush towards legitimacy, it seems, to this observer at least, that all the sound and fury is in danger of missing the point, to badly paraphrase Shakespeare.  My experience of the ‘mission field’ since my first foray in 1980 has engaged with precious few of the great themes of missiology as such.  In fact, most of my experience can be described by the unhappy word - tedium.  I have made many good friends.  Had many good opportunities to do what I am trained to do, which is to preach and to teach.  I have given my two cents’ worth in conversations at every level from spouse to friend to Bible Study class to congregation to conference to dais of experts.  But mostly, being a missionary has meant living my life in a cross-cultural context, and that has meant large swaths of time with not much to do.  And if one adds the time one has been sleeping during all that time, then the actual percentage of time spent doing something as a missionary is actually quite small.  It’s amazing that we humans are able to accomplish anything at all when you think about it.

I think that God is actually (and surprisingly) most interested in my tedium.  When I am operating in my strength, in my abilities, in my ‘calling’, I am doing what I feel most comfortable doing.  I am doing what I can do.  But when I am outside that zone, in the quiet times, the times when I don’t have enough to do, when I’m not cramming my schedule full of everything I can just so I can give the appearance of being busy and important, it’s these times that God finds me, the real me, me as I am, the me left to my own devices.  I think that God is actually most interested in the me of tedium because he knows that if I cannot be touched and transformed there, all of the rest is actually worthless dust and noise.

This calls to mind that Jesus himself was born into what, for Him, was a cross-cultural situation.  Jesus himself never systematised anything.  (It might actually be good for us Westerners to repeat that several times!)  He spent His time as an infant as all infants do, with His mother and caregivers.  He spent His time as a boy as all boys do, playing with sticks and rocks and dirt and friends.  He spent his time as a teenager as all teenagers do, studying and hanging out with friends.  He spent his time as a young man as all young men do, learning a trade with his father, working and earning a living.  With respect to his ‘ministry’, the subject of almost all that is written about Him in the gospels, those three years comprise less than 10% of the time he spent alive on this earth.  What was he doing the rest of that time if he wasn’t doing ‘ministry’?  He was living.  With all the relationships, all the quiet, times, all the visiting, all the listening, all the joking and laughing, all the reading and studying, all the time apart praying, all the things that we do.  Except that he didn’t have a radio, or a TV, or an iPod, or an iPhone, or a laptop or all the other things you and I feel like we need to save us from boredom.  Dare I say the Incarnate Son of God experienced boredom, too?  If He was truly human, the answer must be yes.

So it’s actually in this most needy hole of our lives, our tedium, our boredom, that we find ourselves most of the time. Our professional Christian identities eschew any suggestions that our maximalized lives may be anything other than optimally utilised.  It is, moreover, strange that our systematized theologies pretend this aspect of our humanity does not exist.   It’s equally strange that our systematised missiologies ignore this aspect of our missionary reality.  But a theology and missiology that is not touching our tedium is not touching our humanity, nor is it touching our reality.

In this it would be wise to catch up with our Lord Jesus Himself, who not so much addressed this as lived it and therefore sanctified it.  His life was full of empty moments.  So is mine.  And likely so is yours.  Resisting the temptation to understand why or how, it is enough to begin to enter the sacramental potential of our tedium.  By the incarnation, even this catches sacramental fire and becomes a means of grace for me in God’s hands.  It’s part of God’s shaking loose from me everything that is not worthy of the New Jerusalem, filling every corner of my mind and heart, mending the broken parts, cauterising the diseased, wiping the tears.  And it doesn’t happen when I am too busy to hear or care.  This does not mean that I find something more or better to do.  It means, simply, that I find God.

Knowledge is not insignificant.  But knowing God the Holy Trinity is infinitely better.