Saturday, December 22, 2012

My Country Has Lost It’s Mind.

Bushmaster AR-15 Assault Rifle, the weapon used in the Newtown, CT massacre

I have lived overseas for most of the past 16 years – a 3 ½ year stint in the UK, a nearly 8 year run in Ethiopia, and most recently I’ve lived in Kenya for the past 4 ½ years.  During that time it has been one incident after another of mass murder mayhem in the US involving a man with a gun taking out his anger/frustration/madness on either those closest to him or on perfect strangers.  Commentators have repeatedly mentioned in the sources that I have consulted that the actual number of mass murders involving guns in the US has remained constant over the past 20 or 30 years.  This is supposed to be a comfort.

I am back in the States for the Christmas holidays with my family, just in time for the latest massacre in Newtown, CT.  All of the others have been horrific, but this one has been almost unbearable, as the shooter intentionally targeted six and seven year old children, killing 20 children, each one the loved little girl or loved little boy in a Newtown family.  Oh yes, and six courageous women attempting to protect the children in their care.  This past week we have witnessed the sad funerals for these murdered children and their teachers.  The pain has been raw, the sense of loss too deep to measure.  For anyone with children, and even for those without, it has been a terrible week.

Alongside the shock then grief then outrage felt by many watching all of this unfold on TV or reading about in online has been an increasingly furious debate about the role of guns in our society, as well as a welcome discussion about the desperate needs of the mentally ill all around us.  But I’ve been particularly struck at the response of those who seem to support the right to bear whatever arms at any cost.  There seems to be this palpable fear that the government is going to come and take everybody’s gun(s) away.  Aside from the fact that there are some people whose guns do need to be taken away, I am scratching my head at this uber-shrill response, because nobody that I have read or heard advocates that position.  Nobody.  And yet, somehow, gun control has become equated with gun confiscation in the minds of many who seem to be more prone than the rest of the population to conspiracy theories.  There seems to be a complete inability for otherwise rational people to acknowledge that allowing citizens to arm themselves with military-grade weaponry, and allowing those citizens to carry such weaponry around wherever they might want to go with it – there seems to be an inability to conceive that this might not be a good thing, and that just because something can be made, it doesn’t mean that it is appropriate to have.

As I have listened this week, I have heard thoughtful, gun-owning individuals say that the time for placing limits on the firepower that is appropriate for citizens to have their hands on has come.  Hunters that I know struggle to fathom why anyone would need an M16 equivalent to take down a deer, or a rabbit, or a squirrel.  And why would one need an ammo clip of 30, 50 or 100+ armor piercing bullets?  To bring down a duck?  To deal with a moose?  Something else is going on here.
I do not own a gun, but I am not ideologically averse to gun ownership.  But the current situation, where it is perfectly legal to buy military-grade weaponry and to have force-multiplying automatic weapons with  the capacity to fire scores of bullets without pausing to reload – this is madness.  But even more outrageous, if possible, has been the response of some lobbyists and politicians during this week.  The solution to all this easily available firepower and its tendency to fall into the hands of the 'bad guys', it seems, is more firepower.  The NRA totally sidestepped the real issues in their ‘press conference’ yesterday and said that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.  And then they called on the government (!) (And I thought these guys were Republicans!) to put armed police in every school across the country.  In the state of SC where I currently am visiting relatives, a state legislator has introduced a bill allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into schools!!  Evidently there are 11 other states where lawmakers have introduced similar bills.  Talk about slippery slope!  How much longer before we are allowing students to carry guns to school (legally, that is)!  Bus drivers?  Cafeteria ladies?

Personally, I think the problem lies with the US constitution, with the second amendment which is being interpreted by those on the right in such a way as to allow Americans to bear whatever arms they want.  And to deign to draw the line anywhere is taken as provocative attack on our personal constitutionally-guaranteed liberties as American citizens.  But these same people willfully ignore the fact that we as a country have always attempted to balance individual rights with corporate rights and responsibilities.  We have often not gotten that balance right, which is why we have amendments to our constitution.  Which is why we have a 2nd amendment to our constitution, because at the earliest stages of our nation’s history, coming out of our experience as colonies, the then governing power sought to restrict our ability to alter the status quo by forbidding militias and weapons.  The second amendment as it stands was a good solution to that problem.  But more than two hundred years on, our current problems are more complicated, and the blanket solution implied by the second amendment is not serving us as a nation very well any more.  Constitutionally, machine guns at the mall, in church, at school, at the ball park, may be allowable, but I think one would be hard pressed to find anyone who felt it was a good idea.  Given that no politician is going to lay a glove on the second amendment any time soon, the better solution seems to be not to make our schools into armed camps and our public gathering places into fortresses. In my opinion all sides need to recognize that for the public good, lines with respect to what sort of guns may be owned, must be drawn.  And rather leaving this to the lobbyists and politicians to decide for us, get people who have the public’s interests in mind involved, and maybe those who are on the front lines of our gun carnage, our policemen and women, get them to have a say.

Presently, however, this discussion is controlled by people in whose interest it is that there be more and more guns in this country and by people whose views on this matter are on one extreme or the other.  Until we stop allowing ourselves to be bullied by these ideologues, our country will increasingly be held hostage to gun violence and the fear of gun violence.  At this point in the debate I have noticed that a blizzard of exceptions is always introduced – deal with mental health, deal with the bad people, because we all know that guns don’t kill people, people kill people…  At a certain level, of course.  But I also know that after the Dunblane school massacre in Scotland two decades ago, the UK tightened their already strict gun control laws, and their violent death by gun rate is a fraction of what it is here in the States.  And in Australia after that person took 35 lives with an automatic weapon in Tasmania the conservative government of John Howard pushed through very strict gun control legislation.  And Australia’s rate of violent death by gun is a fraction of what it is in the States.  It would seem that having access to weapons that can kill give angry or deranged people the capacity to do just that.  And having access to the force-multiplying weapon and ammo clips easily available at the local sporting goods store can rather easily multiply the number of casualties, be those casualties movie goers, high school students, Sikhs at worship, or 6-7 year old boys and girls.  And where and when is this going to stop?   Not until we address all of the factors that make these slaughters possible, and that includes gun control.

But until we get to that point, my original statement stands, that when it comes to guns and violence, I think my country has lost its mind.

A postscript.  After I posted the above yesterday, I went to the local walmart to return a set of unused cookie cutters for my wife.  As I was walking out, in front of me was a man and a woman pushing a cart piled high with just-bought toys.  On the top was a toy M16 that looked just like the thing pictured above, only smaller.   I  played my share of cowboys and indians when I was growing up, and army as well.  But after all that has happened this past week, this past year, this past decade, this sort of thing strikes me as basic insanity.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

We Can Live Without Guns. Really.

We can live without guns, without automatic weapons, without semi-automatic weapons. Really, we can. The entire discussion has till now been framed by certain lobbying groups in terms of rights. But almost nothing has been said about choosing to lay down rights for the sake of a greater good. The school shooting is horrific enough. But terrible as this tragedy is, it is tiny compared to the fact that 15,000 Americans died as a result of gun violence this past year. Gun control wont solve everything, but it is a first and necessary step to putting an end to easy murder.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

My First Orthodox Wedding

On Saturday, I traveled with a bus-full of fellow choir members from Nairobi's Sts. Anagyroi (Sts Cosmas and Damien) Church down to the Rift Valley town of Maai Mahiu (Kikuyu for 'hot water').  Our priest has been working over the past several years to establish a new congregation there.  They first met under a tree.  Then they constructed a tiny tin church.  And in the past year, a beautiful stone building has been erected and is close to being finished.  We got there with some time to spare.  I decided not to look at my watch and just flow with the event.  This gave me time to have good conversations, to explore, to take some pictures and to enjoy what was going on.  Below is a series of pictures that document my day.

Our bus arriving at the Maai Mahiu Church of St. Mary and St. Alexander

Ready for the wedding!

Fr. John, Monk and administrator at the Orthodox Seminary in Riruta/Nairobi

Daniel, primary school teacher and friend who is teaching me how to chant.

Fr. Innocentios, our parish priest and my spiritual father, with Titus our choir director

St. Mary and St. Alexander Church from a distance.  Note tiny tin Church on left.

Last minute choir rehersal

Me with Fr. John

Church with tents to shelter guests from the weather (sun, wind, rain - we had it all)

After the Betrothal, the Wedding liturgy begins.  Groom and Bride on the left.

Note the crowns, which is a Russian Orthodox tradition.  They also did garlands after the Greek manner.

And they did this which I had never seen before.  A brilliant use for a wedding dress train, if you ask me!

After the Liturgy comes the singing and dancing!

Me the Reader in the African Rift

The menu was Goat, Chicken, Beans, rice, Cabbage and Carrots, and a soda!

The little girl on the right is all dressed up for the special day!

Mission accomplished!  Our team getting ready for the trip back to Nairobi.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Incarnation, Up Close and Personal

A Sermon Preached Today at 

Sts Anagyroi (Sts Cosmas and Damien) Cathedral Church, Nairobi, Kenya                    

Luke 8:41-56
            41And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue.  And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, 42or he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying.
            But has He went, the multitudes thronged Him.  43Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, 44came from behind and touched the border of His garment.  And immediately her flow of blood stopped.
            45And Jesus said, ‘Who touched Me?’
            When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, ‘Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, “Who touched Me?”’
            46But Jesus said, ‘Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.’
47Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately.
            48And He said to her, ‘Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well.  Go in peace.’
            49While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house saying to him, ‘Your daughter is dead.  Do not trouble the Teacher.’
            50But when Jesus heard it, He answered him saying, ‘Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.’  51When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl.  52Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, ‘Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.’ 53And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.
            54But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, ‘Little girl, arise.’  55Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately.  And He commanded that she be given something to eat.  56And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

The crisis is real; and if you have had children, it’s terrifying.  It happens so fast.  The parents are frantic.  Their only child, their dearest daughter is stricken.  Despite everything they do, she gets weaker and weaker.  Her life is slipping away.  She was the light in her father’s eyes, her laughter made her mother’s heart sing.  They can’t believe this is happening.  They are losing their little girl.  Their hearts are breaking.

The father, and his name is Jairus, thinks of Jesus.  Jairus is one of the synagogue leaders, and he was there in the Capernaum synagogue when the Rabbi Jesus electrified the congregation with his teaching, when he cast out that demon from that man.  Jairus was there when Jesus spent that long evening healing everybody who came with needs.  Jairus saw the leper that Jesus touched, and now he wasn’t a leper any more.  Jairus knew the paralyzed man, whose friends knocked a hole in the roof and lowered him to Jesus.  He saw with his own eyes when Jesus both forgave and then healed right there in front of everybody.  And the man with the withered hand, Jesus healed him right in front of everybody right there in the middle of synagogue.  Whatever you might think about Jesus, people were saying nobody could do the things he was doing if God wasn’t with him.  And Jairus found himself agreeing.

But now, his world was turning upside down.  His daughter was dying. And Jesus?  Where was Jesus?  Someone said he had traveled to the other side of the lake with his disciples. So he was gone.  There would be no help.  He tried to be strong for his little girl, he tried to be strong for his wife.  But his fear, his grief, his helplessness… 

And then he hears that Jesus has come back, a boat with him on board has just come ashore.  Jairus hurries to meet him.  But lots of people have the same idea.  Lots of people are running to the lake.  So many people.  Jairus is desperate.  He pushes and breaks through.  Jesus looks at him, and Jairus just throws himself down on the ground at Jesus’ feet.  Please, Jesus, our little girl.  She’s sick.  She’s dying.  Please, Jesus, you’ve helped so many people. Please, Jesus, please, come help her.  And the Rabbi agrees to come.  Jairus can hardly take it in.  Maybe his daughter will get well.  He gets up and they start to go.  But the way is thronged with people, and they can only go so very slowly.

But Jairus isn’t the only desperate person there.  A woman, whose period has not stopped bleeding for 12 years, whose flow of blood has made her unclean, unable to go to prayers, unable to enter anyone’s house, unable to go anywhere, a prisoner of her illness and of the laws against uncleanness, she too has seen Jesus heal.  So she’s come, secretly, probably veiled so no one would recognize her as being that unclean woman, she’s heard that Jesus is back and she is in the crowd, wanting just to get close enough to touch Jesus, even his robe would do.  And so she pushes her way through, up behind him and, there, she stretches out and grabs the edge of his robe.  And suddenly, she feels that the bleeding has stopped, her womb is made whole.  She feels healthy, restored, clean.  She starts to turn away when she hears the Rabbi call out, ‘Who touched me?’  Even his disciples laugh, because Jesus has been jostled and pushed every which way.  But Jesus has stopped and is insistent, ‘Who touched me?’  And she realizes that Jesus is asking for her.  So she comes.  And she tells her story.  And then Jesus does something of great importance for her – he publically declares her healed.  The community had declared her unclean, and now Jesus lets it be known that her uncleanness has been taken away and she came be restored to the community.  Jesus heals her body, but he touches her soul as well.

But Jairus is almost beside himself as he watches this go on.  He knew time was running out when he started.  His hopes had been raised.  But now, the message comes that every parent fears: ‘Your daughter is dead.  Don’t trouble the Teacher anymore.’  He just stands there, utterly lost, utterly bereaved.  Jesus says some things about believing, but he can hardly hear it.  He half expects some consoling words from the teacher, ‘So sorry for your loss.’  But Jesus presses on to his house.  Once there He asks all the mourners who have gathered in the big room and outside by the door to leave.  They laugh at him when he says that she is just asleep and that he had come to wake her.  He takes the dead girl’s mother and father to the room where her body lay, along with Peter, James and John.  And very simply, he takes her by the hand and says, ‘Little girl, arise.’  And her eyes opened, and she sees her mother and her father and she sits up, and she sees Jesus.  ‘Give her something to eat,’ says Jesus.  And by the way, don’t tell anybody what’s just happened here.

This passage is about the incarnation and what that means for each one of us.  God has chosen not to remain far away from us, but to come to us, to involve himself with us, with our world, with our lives. He hasn’t just sat on his throne on high issuing commands and threats.  Instead, he became a person, he lived as we live.  Not only does he transfigure humanity, but he meets each one of us right where we are.  He meets Jairus and his wife at the point of their desperation.  He meets the bleeding woman in the middle of her alienation.  And he comes to meet you. He comes to meet me.  Not because we somehow clean ourselves up and make ourselves better.  But right here, right now, right where we are, precisely in our own woundedness, precisely in our own dying.  Brothers and sisters, the incarnation means that we are not alone.

Secondly, the incarnation also means he really cares.  Jesus really loves you.  Jesus himself has come looking for you.  Like the good shepherd.  He leaves the 99 behind and comes looking for the lost little sheep.  He comes looking for you.  He comes looking for me.

Thirdly, because of the incarnation we no longer need to be afraid.  Everything arrayed against us, Jesus has gone before us and confronted.  All of our fears are ultimately rooted in our fear of death and all that that means.  But when Jesus became human, Jesus went all the way and embraced even our death.  And by dying, he took death upon himself and broke its power.  And by rising again he became the new Adam, and he became the door for us to enter into his new resurrection life.  So we can face our trials, our struggles, our sicknesses, our losses, knowing that none of these will have the final word over our lives.  The good news this morning is that Jesus will have the final word over you.  As St. Paul says, ‘What then can we say in response to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things…. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword [separate us from Christ’s love]?...  No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.   For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus or Lord.’ (Romans 8:31-39)

When Jesus comes into our lives, to our circumstances, to our pain, to our brokenness, to our fear, he can make all things new.  Just ask the woman whom Jesus set free from her bleeding and from all of the stigma attached to it.  Just ask that little girl’s mom and dad.  Just ask the leper that Jesus touched.  Just ask the paralyzed man who stood up and took his mat and walked home.  Just ask the man who was no longer tormented by a legion of demons.  Just ask the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.  Just ask the thief dying on the cross next to Jesus.  When Jesus comes in, when we ask Jesus in, when we let Jesus in, things change.

Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale, 1372

artist - Dinah Roe Kendall

artist unknown

artist unknown

artist unknown

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Salvation is Societal

I wrote this back in February of 2010, so apologies from the outset to those who are allergic to reblogging.  But a lot has happened since then.  When I wrote this, I was still a Protestant Evangelical Charismatic ordained Presbyterian minister and SIM missionary teaching at a conservative Evangelical Kenyan theological college.  Now I am none of these.  Instead, driven by astonishment over what I was discovering about God and salvation and me, even after all these years, I made the very costly decision to leave all that behind and become an Orthodox Christian.  It has been hard, hard, hard and on multiple levels.  But knowing what I now know, I am where I must be.  Anyway what follows is a snapshot of one of the steps in the process of what turned out to be my conversion.

Rublev's The Hospitality of Abraham, or, The Holy Trinity

Archimandrite Innocentios Byatakunga began his homily last Sunday at Nairobi’s Orthodox Cathedral of Sts Cosmas and Damian, following the gospel reading from Matthew 25 of the parable of the sheep and the goats, with this three-word sentence:  ‘Salvation is societal.’  This was unexpected.  As was his next sentence, which tied our salvation directly to the very essence of God as Trinity.  Just as God himself is a society of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just as humanity reflects God’s society and capacity for love in that the created image of God in humanity is both male and female together, just as sin is ultimately the rejection of the choice to love, and ultimately the rejection of the Trinitarian society of love, so salvation is humanity’s reintroduction into the life of the Trinitarian society of love, humanity recreated in the resurrected Christ with the capacity and vocation to love restored. 

Ok, I’m of good Protestant/Presbyterian/Evangelical/Charismatic stock, a 1970s graduate of both the Four Spiritual Laws and Evangelism Explosion and 1980s-IVCF’s Ten Steps to God and the then nascent so-called Church Growth movement, but I aint never heard the gospel presented like what I heard last Sunday!  You see, as a card-carrying Evangelical, and, even worse, a theology faculty member at an Evangelical theological institution, I and my ilk have been taught and continue to teach and preach that salvation is about me being right with God, about me responding to the gospel, about me being ‘born again’, about me trusting Christ to save me from my sins and believing that his death purchased my salvation from condemnation and so therefore I am saved.  In other words, salvation is about me.  It doesn’t help matters that I come from one of the most me-centered, individualistic, self-absorbed cultures ever produced in human history.  Nor should it surprise anyone that many attempts to make Christianity ‘relevant’ to such a crowd focus primarily on Christianity’s supposed advantages in the hunt for self-fulfillment, prosperity and success.  Words and phrases like ‘suffering’, ‘discipline’, ‘dying to self’, ‘crucified with Christ’, ‘cost of commitment’ have all but disappeared from the sermons, web pages, magazines, books and TV programs of the most popular preachers, churches and ministries.  It suddenly strikes me that a case could be made that in most conservative and popular churches in my country of origin, the gospel long ago ceased to confront the cultural assumptions of the majority but has increasingly become identified with them, even married to them.  Not only does it not cost anybody to become a Christian anymore where I’m from, but by all accounts it will be to your material advantage and physical well-being to get right with God. (Yes, yes, I know that there are exceptions to the picture I’m painting here, but might not our own defensiveness here itself a symptom of our over-much concern for our own reputations?)  By these lights, God longs to ‘bless’ me, he yearns for my success, he’s just waiting to set me free from all those things that prevent me from being all I’m meant to be.  And then on top of all that, I get to waltz into heaven on account of my wonderful Savior.  It all sounds so good.  It’s a message that’s seemingly guaranteed to fill your church and force you to display just how successful your ministry is by having to build a new ministry center just to manage all the crowds.  The only problem is, according to Fr Innocentios, that this version of Christianity simply isn’t Christian.

In all fairness, there have been Evangelical voices making the same critique for years.  David Wells, my old theology professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has been sounding alarm bells on precisely these issues for years, but to seemingly no avail.

When it comes to salvation, at the very least we Evangelicals suffer from a confusion of language.  To describe the experience of being reconciled with God through the death and resurrection of Christ, most Evangelicals (at least) have adopted a kind of short hand lingo to explain what has happened in their lives.  We give ‘testimonies’ about our ‘conversion’ and talk about when we were ‘saved’.  All fine and good.  Except that too many of us have forgotten that these are simply short-hand expressions describing the actual biblical process of salvation.  In fact, most so-called ‘conversion’ narratives are talking about a personal apprehension and application of the New Testament idea of ‘justification’.  Again, all well and good.  But what has tended to happen is that for many of us, what the New Testament describes as ‘justification’ has in fact for us become ‘salvation’, as if now that we have our legal issues sorted out between us and God thanks to the intervention of Jesus and his willingness to ‘die for our sins’, ours is simply to believe the good news and so be ‘saved’.

Perhaps our best theologians know better, but nearly everybody else I’ve talked to recently believes that justification is what gets them into heaven.  Never mind for now that the goal of salvation in the New Testament is not ‘going to heaven after I die’, but the New Testament simply does not teach that justification is salvation.  The distinction is crucial.  The New Testament (and most of early Christianity with the exception of a rather dire spell in the Western medieval Catholic church) understands that none of us are ever justified before God by our own efforts or ‘good works’.  Justification is entirely by the grace of God and accomplished entirely by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  But justification isn’t the end, it’s simply the beginning.  It’s the door one must go through to enter into what it means to be saved.  And what it means to be saved is to enter into the transformative relationship of love with the Holy Trinity, a relationship that realigns our hearts and requires our own response of love, both to God the Trinity and to our neighbor. 

In this sense, faith is not belief; rather, faith works by constantly demonstrating our trust in God’s promises of love by learning how to love in response, which means becoming increasingly like Christ as we live as members of God’s new family and God’s irrupting Kingdom, seen mainly in how we treat one another and those around us.  But even if our legal problems are resolved by Christ and our character problems are being resolved by the Holy Spirit, we still all have a death problem. 

Death is the negation of God’s gift of live and of God’s intentions when he created humanity.  And until death is undone, and not just death in the abstract, but my bodily death and yours, conquered so that you and I are released from its corruption and dissolution and raised to a new life by the power of the New Adam who himself came to engage not just sin but death itself and slay it by bursting its bonds through the power of his own resurrection—until we see our Savior with new living eyes in our own resurrection body, we cannot say that we have been saved yet.  This is the hope of the gospel, the hope towards which the New Testament points.  And a ‘salvation’ that does not involve a transformational relationship with the Holy Trinity, the fruit of this relationship of love in our lives and the actual rescue of our sin-corrupted bodies from death into the resurrection life of the new humanity and new creation of the New Adam, such a ‘salvation’ is a hell-inspired parody.

Me-centered Christianity is an oxymoron.  Too many ‘gospel’ presentations are clever sales pitches designed to appeal to self-interest, which, when one thinks about it, is not too far off the strategy used on Eve by the serpent in the garden.  Instead, we were created to love.  And only when I realize just how far I’ve personally missed the mark will I then realize that repentance is my only hope.  Christ then becomes in my eyes the door of escape from my self-induced hell into a new way of living, in relationship with God and in relationship with one another.  This is the way of salvation, the way of Christ.  No longer are we talking about abstract theology, but real relationships and real deeds of love.  ‘Then the righteous (!) will answer him, “But Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, and gave you food, or thirsty, and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing.  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the King will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”’  (Matthew 25:37-40)

Salvation is societal because salvation is love; and that’s because God, as Trinity, is nothing if not love.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

When Missions Becomes Toxic; or, Um, They Don't Need Us Anymore

I originally published this on the previous incarnation of this blog, Onesimus Online.  But I continue to be challenged by the content, and given that I find myself in an ongoing missionary capacity, I think it's healthy to keep wrestling with these issues, especially since things since I first posted this go on unchanged.  It's intentionally provocative, and that is because I want to stir up discussion and encourage us all to think about the nature of Western missionary involvement at this stage in the history of the Church.

‘Missions’ has undergone a very interesting transformation in my lifetime.  I can speak only as a North American Evangelical (who has recently become Orthodox) who has been a part of the North American missions scene since I was a university student in the 1970s.  I have been on short term mission trips.  I have coordinated a short term missions program for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  I have served as ‘chair’ of a presbytery ‘mission’ committee (PCUSA, in case the subtle shift from ‘missions’ to ‘mission’ didn’t tip you off).  I have served as a missionary as a member of the largest independent mission organization in the world (SIM), first in Ethiopia and now in Kenya, where I have served variously as a faculty member of several theological colleges and also as the senior pastor of a very large ‘international’ church.  By mentioning all this, I am not trying to impress anyone; rather, I’m simply trying to establish that I am not some neophyte.

During these nearly four decades of my missions involvement, missions has been ‘sold’ to individuals and to churches in my home (US and UK) contexts as God’s call for us as Christians to supply what is lacking, Christianly-speaking,  in other parts of the world.  So off we go to ‘preach the gospel,’ to ‘plant churches’, to translate the Scriptures, to train leaders, to ‘build capacity’, to build and staff clinics, hospitals and schools, to care for orphans, and generally to reach the (fill in the blank) for Christ.  I’ve also observed first-hand the revolution in both communication and travel and something of the effects on how missions is done.  When I first came as a short-termer to Kenya thirty years ago this summer, there was no telephone in the community where I lived.  It took two weeks for a letter to my mother to reach home, and another two weeks for her reply to catch up with me.  Tonight, I will probably video skype via wireless internet from our back patio from our suburb of Nairobi with my daughters who are in their end-of-year exams at university in Virginia.  Thirty years ago, international travel was exotic and rare.  This past year, various family emergencies have meant that I have traveled back and forth between Kenya and the US three different times.  When we lived in Ethiopia, it was possible to have an early breakfast in Addis Ababa, Lunch in London and a late dinner in Washington, DC, all in the same day.

Used to be us Western missionaries came out for life.  Now ‘long term’ averages about eight years, with the majority of people coming for ‘short-term’ assignments from two years to two weeks.  Very few Westerners are going out to live in remote areas as all-purpose missionary generalists (it still happens, but as the exception rather than the rule), with most coming to urban areas and providing some sort of service or skill.  For example, my wife and I are niche missionaries, with our PhDs enabling me to meet a very specialized need at the top of the theological education food chain.

The other big change is that, while I was in my country of origin, we very much thought we were at the center of the world and at the center of what God is doing.  When I travel back to my ‘people’, I find this still the assumption, whether in local churches or theological colleges/seminaries.  But I’ve also observed that, increasingly, Americans are almost the only people left who think this way about Americans anymore.  The Christian world has moved along, and our multi-billion dollar ‘Christian’ media and music and publishing and conference and education industries, um, 'ministries' are all busy generating the sorts of things that they have always generated, but with less and less relevance to the rest of the world.

Now that I’ve been here (on the ‘field’) for a while, I am realizing that we Western missionaries are not the wonderful blessing from heaven to all these poor and lost people that we like to think of ourselves as.  While we have been certainly busy ‘preaching the gospel’ all these years, we’ve actually succeeded in reproducing some of our less savory attributes much more than anybody is admitting.  Most people who come here as missionaries only know what they know and do not know what they don’t know.  While this is endearing in children, it’s been disastrous on the mission field.  We have reproduced not just our seriously inculturated Western understanding of ‘the gospel’, but we have also reproduced our various and seriously inculturated understandings of the church as well.  The problem is, most of us missionaries have really not thought that much about what sort of ‘church’ we are planting, assuming this to be obvious.  As a result, we have succeeded merely in passing on our ignorances and prejudices, all dressed up as Bible truth.  We came here as Baptists (of multiple sorts), Presbyterians, Methodists, Bible Church Independents, Brethren, Pentecostals, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc, etc, and wonder of wonders is it not surprising that we have succeeded in importing all of our Western arguments and divisions and prejudices in spades.  We excuse our differences by calling them ‘distinctives’ and by saying that they are essentially adiaphora (matters of indifference)—especially your adiaphora—but then fight like the devil when someone actually presumes to treat our distinctives as adiaphora (‘no, really, believer baptism is necessary to be a real NT Christian!’).

I would like to suggest that there are very few places left in the world where a Western Christian presence is advisable, at least the way it has been practiced in the recent past.  I have several reasons motivating me to make this suggestion.

First, our continuing presence as mission organizations actively facilitates a church-killing dependence among the Christians we are supposedly trying to help.  In the churches of sub-Saharan Africa that I am most familiar with, many if not most Christians have never learned to give in a way that enables them to support a local church that is actually sustainable.  We in the West never let them.  For the most part, we dictated what their churches would look like, what their leadership structures should look like, what their ministry programs should look like, what their staffing needs should look like, what their theological education programs should look like, and as long as we were around, we could make it happen.  But take Western money away and all these components collapse of their own unsustainable weight.  And so we rush back in with our ‘resources’ (read money and ‘free’ staff) and thereby keep the plates all spinning until the local churches can keep them spinning on their own (according to our standards of how fast they should be spinning, of course).  But notice in all of this, we from the West simply assumed what was needed and then imposed it on the nascent Christian movements of the non-West.  In the spheres of politics and economics, this is referred to as colonialism.  This sort of intervention has long been understood as disastrous for the economic and political development of sub-Saharan African countries.  It’s time to acknowledge that the ongoing uncritical spiritual colonization of Africa is having just as devastating effects on the long-term health and viability of the African Christian movements.  The problem is, too many African Christians have developed a taste for Western Christian money and programs and education and the local status that comes with being associated with such money, programs and education.  We have created institutions that are perceived by those involved with them as being ‘too big to fail’, as well as created an entire class of dependents who would be destitute were we no longer around to pay the salaries or provide the scholarships or fund the aid programs.

Secondly, this sort of dynamic works the other way, too.  There are too many Western mission organizations and NGOs who, except for spiritualized lingo, have become little more than giant corporations, with layers of management, following every leadership and management trend, focused on the bottom line and becoming ever more efficient in connecting donors with the product as well as expanding the market for the product (i.e. the field/area in which we missionaries or NGO people can ‘serve’).  We’ve become increasingly a missions and aid industry, with our own versions of success and upward mobility, jetting all over the globe to this and that conference, looking always to expand our ability to raise ever more money to fund our salaries and lifestyles and ‘ministries’.  We’ve made ourselves indispensible by convincing ourselves and our donors (and our clients) that we really are not only necessary, but the best, most efficient, most biblical and most convenient way to get whatever done.  We’ve done a superb job of creating a market for what we have to offer.  Some ‘missions’ in the countries where I have lived have been there for 80, 90, 100 years and more.

Thirdly, it is long past time for local Christians to take responsibility for their own churches and training and programs.  This is happening in some places, like India for example, where for years missionaries were forbidden by the government from operating as ‘missionaries.’  Local Christians were forced to take responsibility for themselves.  And while not perfect, there is a maturity among many Indian Christians that is refreshing.  And if taking responsibility for one’s own Christian life and one’s own local church or ‘ministry’ means some churches and schools and programs fail, then it likely means that they were not viable to begin with, at least on the grandiose scales they were conceived when an open tap of resources from the West was assumed.  And if it means that Christianity evaporates from some areas, then that should tell us that whatever ‘Christian’ things were going on there before were not making real contact with the lives of real people.  There comes a point when local Christians must take responsibility for their own fellowship and mission.  If something cannot happen without Western funding and staffing, then should it be happening at all?

The bottom line is that, if we Westerners don’t get out of the way, the churches of Africa and Asia and Latin America will remain the spiritual infants and self-absorbed teenagers that many of them really are.  I was a teenager once, and I remember seething with resentment when a parent forced me away from entertaining myself with TV and music and from stuffing my face with all manner of junk food and made me work as a responsible family member.  With all our faults, we in the West have been instrumental in relaunching Christianity as a global religion.  But our current posture is no longer healthy.  That movement now needs desperately to stand on its own two feet and be made to use limbs and muscles that have been coddled so long that they seem to have atrophied.  We’ve been addicted to each other for way too long.  And as long as we are around, we (the West and its ‘resources’) will be your (non-Western Christians') preferred drug of choice, rather than learning what every other legitimate disciple and church of our Lord has had to learn, that his call means that each one of us pick up our cross and follow him to our deaths.  Our imported business models of ministry success have persuaded too many non-Western Christians that the cross can finally be avoided and that victory is ours for the grasping.  But this sort of hyper-over-realized eschatology is little more than the ‘American Dream’ writ large, which actually is one of the devil’s more effective delusions.

I would love to have some thoughtful discussion on all this.  But I fear that this is one of those untouchable topics in Evangelical and mission circles because, truth be told, too many of us seem to have too much to lose.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Theotokos, Mariology, and the Challenge of Orthodox Exuberance

A good friend who is a Protestant but sympathetic to Orthodoxy wrote me with a question about Mary.  Many Protestants, it would seem, get queasy when they find themselves in the midst of Orthodox songs of fulsome praise to the Mother of God (Theotokos).  My friend cited this example:

Canon to the Theotokos
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
I hold you as the Intercessor and Protection of my life,
O Virgin Birth-Giver of God.
Pilot me to your haven, O Cause of good things,
O only all-hymned Support of the faithful.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
I pray, O Virgin: dispel the storm of my sorrows and spiritual turmoil.
You are the Bride of God who bore the Origin of stillness and alone are most pure.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Pour a wealth of generosity for all, O you who bore
The Benefactor, the Cause of all Good. 
You can do anything, for God has blessed you, the Bearer of Christ
Who is might in strength.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Help me, O Virgin, for I am cruelly tried by severe illness and painful afflictions.
I know, Ever-Undefiled One,
That you are an inexhaustible and generous treasury of healings.

And then  my friend goes on to say:
I don't have a problem asking people, alive or dead (in this physical plane), to pray for us.  I understand the title given her.  I understand referring to people like her as holy, righteous, etc., knowing that doesn't mean without sin or need of a Savior.  I understand that tradition considers her to have been always a virgin - no issue there.  But it seems a stretch, and somewhat dangerous, to pray in a way that seems to imply that she, in herself, saves, answers prayer, grants blessing, protection, etc.  One could say that she intercedes and asks God to grant these things, but I am working with many people who see her and even acknowledge her as the co-mediatrix.

My response was as follows:

Your question about the rather high Mariology that some/many seem to have is a good one.  Orthodox teaching on Mary makes a clear distinction between Mary and the members of the Holy Trinity.  Mary is a woman and not God, and therefore she cannot do the things that only God can do.  Moreover, Mary is presently enjoying a state of being, an aspect of salvation, that all the redeemed of the Lord will one day enjoy in full.  She receives the honor due to one who has done what she has done.  No one can be said to have carried the Almighty and infinite God, as she has, nor cared for the incarnate Son of God in his infancy and childhood as she did.  And as you say, there is no problem with any of this, or at least there shouldn't be, from any of Christianity's main traditions.  But as you point out, sometimes the language in some of the songs and prayers seems rather exuberant.  As the one who gave birth to the Savior, she is often described as the source of the sorts of things the Savior does (heal, save, guide, etc.) and there is truth in that.  But as with icons, Mary is/must always be seen, not by herself, but in the context of her Son.  The exception are those icons that depict a biblical scene.  The danger comes when less theologically-informed Christians separate Mary from Jesus, and make her into a stand-alone dispenser of spiritual and temporal blessings.  At this point the songs, prayers and over-emphases veer dangerously into making Mary more than she is, both biblically and in the Tradition.  In my opinion, a proper understanding and focus on Christ will always promote a proper understanding and appreciation of Mary.  This is what I've found so far, at least, in my experience in the Orthodox Church.  But I am new to this.

I would love to have both Orthodox and non-Orthodox friends share their perspective on Mary!

Friday, September 14, 2012

On How Orthodox Christians Can Be of Genuine Help to their Non-Orthodox Friends

I am borrowing this from Macrina Walker and her well-worth-the-read blog A Vow of Conversation.  We Orthodox, especially new converts, tend towards a black and white, in or out view of religion.  So this is a useful reminder of a more generous, Christ-like posture.

Elder Sophronius Sakharov relates the following story:

I remember a conversation [Staretz Silouan] had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work.  This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain.  The Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people.  The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly, I tell them, “Your raith is all wrong, perverted.  There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.”

The Staretz heard him out, then asked, “Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?”

“Yes, that they do believe.”

“And do they revere the Mother of God?”

Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.”

“And what of the Saints?”

“Yes, they honour them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?”

“Do the celebrate the Divine Office in their churches?  Do they read the Gospels?”

“Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services withi ours how cold and lifeless theirs are!”

“Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…  But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honour the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine Word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them.  And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation….  God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love.  Then both preacher and listener will profit.  But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.”

This  excerpt is taken from Archimandrite Sophronius Sakharov’s book Saint Silouan the Athonite