Sunday, February 24, 2013

'A Matter of Perspective' - A Sermon Preached on the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican

Sts. Anagyroi, Cosmas and Damien Church, Nairobi, Kenya
24 February 2013

Luke 18:9-14
9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
13But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
14I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’

Today we begin the transition into Lent.  It’s the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican, and in our Church we begin using the Lenten Triodion, a liturgical book that we start using in our prayers and hymns from now on Saturdays and Sundays, and then every day once Lent actually starts, all the way to when we celebrate Pascha in May.  And if you were here for Orthros or were listening to the hymns we sang before the reading of the Scriptures, you will know that we’ve already begun to change the key of our prayers and hymns from the major key of celebration to the minor key of repentance.  One of the hymns we chanted goes like this:  ‘Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-Giver, for my spirit rises early to pray toward your holy temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled, but in your compassion, purify me by the loving-kindness of your mercy; lead me on the paths of salvation, O mother of God, for I have profaned my soul with shameful sins and have wasted my life in laziness, but by your intercessions deliver me from all impurity.  When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful Day of Judgment, but trusting in your loving-kindness like David, I cry out to you: have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy.’

            And to help us in our own relationship with God, every year our liturgy turns our attention to this parable, the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.  Now we need to keep a few things in mind when we hear this story.  First of all, this is a parable, and a parable is a story that someone tells in order to make a particular point.  That means a parable is not something that actually happened. The second thing is that this is a story that Jesus is telling.    And Jesus is telling this story for a particular reason.  There is a point that Jesus is trying to make.  Thirdly, a parable usually has a surprise ending, or an ending that the people who first heard it didn’t expect.

            Jesus is drawing a contrast here, a contrast between someone who is really good and religious by everyone’s standards, and someone who is worse than bad in everyone’s eyes, a corrupt traitor who abuses his authority as a tax collector to steal money from his own people.  And in this story, Jesus wants us to know that the Pharisee really is an exemplary kind of guy.  He’s not broken any of the commandments, he tithes, he fasts twice a week.  And Jesus makes sure we understand that the publican, the tax collector, really isn’t a good guy.  Instead he’s broken all the rules, he’s sold out to the Gentile Roman oppressors for the purpose of financial gain.  And even he knows he isn’t a good person, he doesn’t dare stand up front to pray, he doesn’t dare thank God that he isn’t like all those other sinners.  Instead, he stands in the back overcome, and having realized that he was in the presence of God, maybe for the first time in his life, he sees himself and his sin from God’s perspective.  He’s overcome by the realization that he is a sinner and that he desperately needs to be saved from his sin, saved from its power, saved from its consequences. He has nothing he can point to like the Pharisee, and so all he can do is say ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

            The surprise of this story is that Jesus says this man, the sinner, the bad guy, not the good, religious Pharisee, left the temple justified before God.  And then Jesus tells us that if we think our religion or our being better than other people is what counts when it comes to the things of God, then we are simply deluded.  It’s like saying that that Mungiki member back there walked out justified in God’s eyes and this Reader missed the point and is simply a self-righteous hypocrite that God paid no attention to.

            So what was the Pharisee’s problem?  Simply put, the Pharisee might have been an expert in his religion, he might have compared favorably with other people around him, like the tax collector who was standing in the back.  But at the heart of the matter, he had never really had an encounter with the living God.  Everything he knew, everything he understood, he did so from his perspective.  He was the measure of all things.  He was the center of his universe.  He had never found himself in the presence of the Lord, the holy, glorious God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and mercy.  He never bothered to see himself from God’s perspective.  He really thought that keeping the law and doing all the religious rules made him ok and took care of everything when it came to God and religion.  But Jesus disagrees and says that this man’s heart, when he left the temple, was instead far away from God and from those things which really mattered.

But the Publican, he seems somehow to have had a genuine encounter with God.  He realizes that he is a sinner, that he has missed the mark, that he is far from God.  He has no good deeds to point to, no religious performance to lean on, all he can do is call out to God for mercy.  And by calling out, he finds God and he finds God’s mercy.

But what about us Orthodox Christians? Who are we like?  Who are you like?  We do have a lot of rules, don’t we?  And I and the Fathers and His Eminence would all affirm that the rules need to be kept.  Yes, we Orthodox should fast, we should say our prayers three times a day, or seven, we should tithe and even more than tithe, giving what we can to help the needy, we should come to services and keep vigils, go to confession, we should read the Bible and do prostrations.  All of these are essential to being an Orthodox Christian.  But none of these are ‘good works’ that make us right with God.  Instead, this is how we demonstrate our faith, these are the ways we respond and open ourselves to God’s grace and put ourselves in those places where we can meet God and encounter God and be transformed by God. But as all the Fathers and Saints teach, these things may be good, but they are not an end in themselves, rather they are a means to an end.  And the end is that you and I have an ongoing encounter, an ongoing relationship with God the Holy Trinity, and that we are thereby increasingly transformed to become more and more like our Savior the Lord Jesus.  If we neglect these means, then the Fathers teach and experience teaches that we will drift further and further away from God.  And if we make these means themselves the end, then we have missed the point altogether and have in fact become idolaters because we are worshipping the rules and not the One to whom they point.

            So what happens when one encounters God?  When one sees God?  When one knows God?  Repentance happens.  We see ourselves from God’s perspective, we see ourselves as we really are.  We see the true poverty of our lives and we cry out for help!  We see the true diseases of our hearts and we cry out for healing!  We see the hurt and the pain we have caused others and we cry out for forgiveness!  And we see what we must do, what we must change, what we must revisit, who we must talk to, and God gives us the desire to change, to turn, to make right the wrong we’ve done.  That’s what repentance is.

            So it’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it?  From whose perspective do you see yourself and your life right now?  Do you see your life from your own perspective?  All of your relationships and dealings, your interactions and your religion?  It’s all about what you do, and who you are, and how you compare with this person and that.  You’re a good person, you go to church, you say your prayers, and you’ve done your duty.  You will probably walk out of here this morning untouched and unchanged.  Or do you see yourself from God’s perspective?  God, who is able to see into our hearts, who perceives our motives and our thoughts from afar, God who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves.  It is at this point that we realize there are things that are not right, that there are people that we have wronged or hurt, that selfishness has governed our interactions, and we begin to understand the depth of our need for a Savior.

            We make the turn towards Lent today as we think about this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  As a hymn of our Church says, ‘Let us flee from the boastfulness and the pridefulness of the Pharisee who just kept the rules externally, and let us learn from the Publican’s tears.’  And when we come into God’s presence, when we encounter the living loving God, we, too, will shed tears.  The Fathers say, ‘Without tears, no one can be saved’, which is another way of saying, without God, encountering God, seeing oneself from God’s perspective, no one can be saved.  As Fr. Thomas Hopko says, ‘What’s so interesting is that the more righteous, the more holy, the more full of grace, the more the fruit of the Spirit is in a person, the more they repent, the more they weep, and the more they pray the Publican’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”’[1]  And when we encounter God, when we see ourselves from God’s perspective, when we turn from our selfishness, when we repent, the good news of the Gospel is that right here we find forgiveness, and right here we get another chance.  God meets us and we will walk out of here changed, transformed, different.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Good Day for Theological Education

Tonight I'm in downtown Nairobi teaching my Research Methodology class (it's actually more interesting than you might think) to eight new Masters of Theology students.  After several weeks of trying, I finally was able to arrange with Bosco our IT guy for my class to come to the computer lab so I could show them the wonders of online academic databases and search engines.  We had to displace a class to do it, but we are currently in the computer lab, and my students are simply astonished.

Our great (academic) problem on this continent is access to (academic) resources.  But the internet has done much to level the playing field, and with the development of powerful academic search engines, one can find just about anything that anyone has written, at least.  Some journals make their articles available online, and some books can be had in e-book format.  At the very least, one has access to the bibliographic information that will enable one to find it in a library somewhere.

Anyway, my job tonight was to teach my students how to find their way around all the academic search engines and publisher search engines.  When they typed in their first searches and discovered there were 20,000 articles on their too broad topic, they were amazed.  They had no idea that there was so much information out there.  So after giving them an overview, I've set them loose and now they are ransacking the web for articles and books on their areas of research interest, and finding really cool stuff, and even downloading pdf files and ebooks.  They were a hundred questions a minute for the first half of class, but now they are doing it all themselves.  Hence I'm sitting in the back of the lab working on a blog post!

A new universe of information has dawned on these students.  They had no idea what was about to hit them when they came to class.  They won't be the same when they leave.  This is one of the best things about teaching - midwifing this sort of revelation.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nairobi Christian Bookstore Review

I'm in the CBD, the Central Business District of Nairobi, otherwise known as 'Tao' by the matatu and bus touts.  I'm here to meet with a student who's masters thesis I am supervising.  Afterwards, I will gambol down to Church House on the corner of Moi Ave and Haile Selassie (across from the site of the former US embassy) where starting at 5:30 pm I will teach my class on Research Methodology to a class of 9 exhausted students, all of whom are coming from day jobs.  In the meantime, I have paid a visit to several of the main Christian bookstores in Nairobi.  And given the state of bookstoredom across the country, a 'Nairobi Christian Bookstore Review' is in reality a 'Kenya Christian Bookstore Review'.

Kenyan Anglican theologian John Mbiti

I've been frequenting bookstores here for a decade (I am not counting any 'booking' done in the 1980s and 1990s).  And my impressions have been remarkably consistent.  By far the best Christian bookstore in Nairobi is the Catholic Bookshop on the grounds of the Holy Family Basilica, the cathedral church for the archdiocese.  They have by far the best and most interesting selection, especially in the fields of theology, spiritualility, and philosophy.  Their greatest strength is the range of African authors in all of those areas, as well as studies on African themes.  More so than any other Christian group, the Catholics have done a very good job at training African scholars and then helping them to publish their work.  The only drawback is that the selection is almost entirely, um, Catholic.  Surprise, I know.

Pope Benedict XVI.  He's Catholic.

Back in the 2000s, they also had a superb Biblical studies section, with scholarly titles and authors across all Christian denominations.  That section no longer exists, for whatever reason.  But what they do have remains impressive.  The store isn't large by Western standards, but there's plenty of room for browsing.  The nuns do a good job of keeping things in order and are infallibly helpful.  Some are even friendly.

Catholic Bookshop, Downtown Nairobi, with Nun

Just down the street is the Keswick Bookshop.  Back in the 2000s and before, this was one of the best places to buy Protestant Evangelical titles, some popular, but many others good solid evangelical studies, as well as reference books and commentaries. Then there was evidently a decline of some sorts, because for the past several years, Keswick was the place to go if I wanted something by Joel Osteen or TD Jakes, Smith Wigglesworth or others along that line (that is, the 'Jesus exists for ME ME ME' line).

If bookstores stock what sells, then woe to the Protestant communities of Nairobi.  More than half of Keswick's floor space is taken up with selling Christian bric-a-brac, little plaques with Scripture verses written on them, bumper stickers, posters, etc.  Today, however, I noticed a distinct increase in the number of Evangelical and Reformed titles of substance.  I always feel much better if I find J.I. Packer's Knowing God for sale in a bookstore, and so I'm feeling much better about Keswick.

Dr. Jim Packer

Joel Osteen is still there, prominently displayed with those amazing promises he comes up with. But at least one begins to have a choice again.  Which, given the way things have been going, is saying something.

For Nairobi/Kenya Protestants, probably the best bookstore around is the ACTS (Africa Christian Textbooks) bookstore, located at the end of a former chicken coop on the campus of Africa International University down the road from Karen on the way to Dagoretti Market.  Got that?

ACTS Bookshop in the low building that looks like a chicken coop because it was. 

Though the shop is small (did I say it used to be a chicken coop?), there is a wide selection of 'good' titles, and there is obviously much effort going on to get the 'right' books into the hands of African theology students.

Dr. Mercy Oduyoye. Her books are not for sale at ACTS. Unfortunately. 

 By 'good' and 'right', of course I mean 'Reformed' and 'Evangelical'.  Unsurprisingly neither Joel Osteen nor Wolfhart Pannenberg make an appearance in this bookstore, but one can find lots and lots of books about Reformation theology (the correct Reformation theology, that is, not that neo-Catholic Lutheran stuff, the swishy Anglican meringue  or that Anabaptist froth.  And you can forget about finding anything remotely experiential that might smack of Pentecostalism. And if a copy of Left Behind had somehow been left behind by one of the schools Dispensationalist wannabees, then a special Fiction shelf would no doubt have to be erected.  It is that kind of bookstore.  This was the bookstore that several years ago banned N.T. Wright books from being sold because they were too 'liberal', until enough faculty came forward to remind the proprietors that we were actually an academic institution and we really needed access to (dangerous) books like those written by Dr. Wright so our students might know what was actually going on in their field today, not 450 years ago.

Rt. Revd. Dr. N.T. Wright
And except for the fact that there are very few titles by African authors, and very few titles that are dealing with African issues, it's a great little bookstore.  This last issue was dealt with by bringing in some titles by African authors published by Paulines Press.  But this was no doubt a difficult decision because Paulines is a Catholic press and most of their authors are Catholic.

Dr Diane Stinton, Evangelical author whose books on African issues are sold at the Catholic Bookshop, and even ACTS! 

But if you are looking for good basic solid Western reformed theology and Biblical studies works that can be trusted (by Reformed and Evangelical types), then ACTS is the place to go.  That is if you can find it.

Trusted ACTS Author John Calvin

And then from time to time, appearing as if from nowhere, a booktable emerges selling titles published by the American Evangelical publisher, InterVarsity Press.  This is evidently sponsored by the Kenyan version of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship - FOCUS, or the Fellowship of Christian Unions.  Personally, I have always been impressed with the title selection and the breadth of subjects covered by IVP books.  Given what all is out there being hawked in bookstores, one could do a lot worse than IVP.  But again the main problem is that they are, in the main, written for an American Evangelical audience (with the British version being written for a British Evangelical audience).  And while certain things do cross borders rather easily, even too easily (like Mr. Osteen's books, for example), enough doesn't, which in my mind raises a question of Western-centric assumptions, namely, why do we think what may be good for American Evangelicals will be good for Kenyan Christians?  One might more cynically ask, since American Evangelicals have been so successful at living the Christian life and being the church and engaging with the wider culture, etc, why do we think enthusiastically importing our own decidedly mixed reviews into another culture will be any more successful?  Do we really think that Western Evangelical Christianity is the Way the Truth and the Life?  The learned response to that question is a rather curt, 'Of course not.'  But our actions speak more truly than our words sometimes.  Anyway, back to IVP and booktables in Kenya.  One can just imagine the state of affairs with respect to access to resources if I'm reduced to talking about a couple of boxes of books thrown in the backseat of a car and flogged on various Christian college campuses as being one of the best options going.  But there you have it.

In the meantime, Christians who are Orthodox have no place to go for good books.  There is no such thing as an Orthodox bookstore anywhere in Kenya, or in all of East Africa for that matter.  So none of the priests and none of our laypeople have access to anything other than what they hear on Sunday morning during sermon time.  This is a shame.  There are many superb, excellent books and helps out there for Orthodox Christians.  But we Orthodox are reduced to haunting the Catholic bookshop, or even worse, taking Joel Osteen's word for it from Keswick.  And to be honest, most Orthodox don't have the kind of resources it would take to afford the Protestant books, even if they were successful in locating the right chicken coop or just happened to be standing around when lightning struck or someone from FOCUS arrived to set up a booktable.

The late John Stott
There may be other bookstores of note in Nairobi and Kenya that I am not aware of, in which case I would be thrilled to hear about them.  But books are a costly rare commodity here.  My textbook for systematic theology costs some students about 20% or more of their monthly salary.  Which comes into sharper focus when I consider if I would be willing to spend 20% of my monthly salary for a book.  But if you are looking for an African author dealing with problems facing African churches, then don't waste time anywhere else, go straight to the Catholic bookshop and pay the nuns there a visit.  If you are looking for books about how God wants to bless you and how you can get your life on track and be a more successful you, then Keswick's your place, and you can get a Scripture plaque to reinforce all the good feelings while you're at it.  If you are persuaded that Reformed theology is God's answer to the world, and think that what's right for the ACTS people is right for you, then go on a hunting expedition and track down ACTS Bookstore at AIU.  You will not be disappointed.  But if you are Orthodox, and you want to read something about your faith or your history or your spirituality, sorry, there aint nothing here in Kenya for you.  You'll just have to make do with Cardinal Ratzinger, or Dr. Calvin, or, um, Mr. Osteen.

Monday, February 4, 2013

When Questions Aren't Appreciated

I've had many responses to my theology lectures, but none like I had last week.  In the course of some animated back in forth with a Systematic Theology class, several students were unhappy that I was raising questions about 'Western' theology with the implications that they were, by association, 'Western' Christians in their understanding of Christianity.  Essentially they were saying, 'And the problem is?'  Good question!  But only if you are willing to listen to the answer.

Other fascinating questions aimed my way:

'Why are you raising so many questions?'
'You make it sound like the Western understanding of the Gospel is not what the Bible teaches?'
'What if we want to be Western in our understanding of Christianity?'
'Why aren't you teaching us like our other instructors? Why don't you just go over the options of each position and then just tell us [what we are supposed to believe like our other instructors].'

As I have said in other places before, the whole game of Systematic Theology (which I am supposed to be teaching) is a Western game seeking to resolve Western fights and come up with the appropriate Western answer to Western questions.  It is very difficult to get us Westerners to acknowledge that ours is a perspective, not the perspective.  So pervasive is Western theology and Western assumptions (and Western books and Western founded theological colleges and Western modeled courses) that it's not surprising that my class is alarmed at the implications of some of their lecturer's questions.  But the great problem, at least from my vantage point here in East Africa, is that Western Theology does not work.  We (Western Missionaries and our Progeny) have been assiduously teaching our hearts out, passing on to a new generation of African Church leaders what we have learned from our own (Western) educations.  There are exceptions, but creating African Theologians and Bible Scholars who are more or less experts in the Western ways of doing these things has done little to touch the actual African soul and points of need.  And untouched, the African soul takes its points of need increasingly to so-called African Initiated Christianities (or other experience-based versions of Pentecostalism), some of which are only vaguely Christian (like many of the 2nd and 3rd century Gnosticisms).

My students were alarmed in particular that I was criticizing the Western 'Jesus meets my legal need' understanding of salvation as being essentially irrelevant to the lives people actually live here.  Is it any wonder that the Health and Prosperity heresy has flooded into many Pentecostal churches and is making inroads into many Protestant churches as well.  Some of my students who hold to a form of the Health and Prosperity teaching were understandably unhappy.

I must keep reminding myself that this is a class.  And  my job is to make my students think.  And it's ok if thinking causes controversy.  My job is to keep it from becoming personal and to keep students focuses on the issues.  My students, in the end, may choose to remain Western in their theological orientation and in their assumptions.  But at least I will have helped them understand that they have a choice.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Weird, Wonderful Orange Fanta

I cannot explain it.  When I am in Kenya, I crave Orange Fanta.  I had it today with my lunch. Paid about 30 KSh (which brought the total for my lunch of ndengu, mashed potatoes and kale to about $1).  But put me in another country and my Fanta cravings drain away.

Some interesting facts about Fanta.  It was concocted in Germany during WWII.  The German Coca Cola Company found it impossible to import Coca Cola syrup from the US due to the trade embargo against Nazi Germany.  The company head, a man named Max Keith, decided to come up with his own formula made out of materials they had on hand in Germany.  (The sources are quick to mention that none of the German Coca Cola leadership were members of the Nazi party.)  Having created a new soft drink, they needed to come up with a name.  When Keith urged his colleagues to 'use their imagination' to come up with something (the word for imagination he used was 'Fantasie', one of his colleagues called out 'Fanta', and it stuck.  After the war, Fanta reverted to Coca Cola, which can spot profit potential from a mile away.

I was introduced to Orange Fanta in 1980 when I traveled to Kenya for the first time.  Prior to that, all I knew of was Nehi Grape Soda from my childhood in South Carolina, which bore a striking resemblance to cough syrup.  When I came to Kenya, I was living with a Kikuyu family and was regularly invited to church events and family suppers where the hosts had gone to the expense of providing sodas for people to drink.  The choices were always Coke or Fanta and rarely Sprite.  Having grown tired of Coke, I tried Fanta and liked it.  And several times when we traveled by matatu to different remote parts of Kenya, after a fraught, bumpy, crowded and dusty ride, a shade-cooled Fanta became an anticipated treat, a kind of self-reward for making it this far.  A missionary friend observed that if the Coca Cola Company could find a way to get its soft drinks to the most remote parts of the earth, surely we Christians could do a better job with our Good News!

But when I went back home to the US, I forgot Fanta...  Until I returned to Kenya again.  Which in the 1980s was another 6 or 7 times.  Ahhh, Fanta.

A 'case' of Fanta worship?
In the 1990s, I was busy being a pastor, and then working on my PhD.  And for most of the 2000s, I was in Ethiopia.  And strangely, though Fanta was available in Addis Ababa, I never had any in the nearly 8 years we were there.  But when we moved to Kenya in 2008,  Fanta and me, we got immediately reacquainted.  Go figure.

Now just to clarify, its Orange Fanta that my Kenyan persona must have.  Not the horrid pineapple Fanta, or the absolutely evil black currant Fanta.  Orange for me, please.  I don't know why.

It makes no sense.  This liquid comes in a shade of orange that may not actually exist anywhere else.  And it has a sugar content that is high enough to trigger diabetes by mere proximity among the unsuspecting.  And unlike diet versions of Coke, which are now available in Kenya and which enable one to avoid the calories that pile on from nowhere, no such version of Fanta exists, in this country at least.  Here in Kenya, we must drink our Fanta straight and loaded.

So, any insight about my Fanta cravings?  Are you similarly afflicted, conflicted?  Your soft drink of choice?  All I can think of right now is just how grateful I am that Krispy Kreme has not opened shop in Nairobi.  The combination with readily available Orange Fanta would be lethal, maybe even illegal under some controlled substance act.  It would be self-inflicted death by sugar.  The fact I am presently salivating is an indication of the trouble I am in.  So I best stop now before I go out and buy the rights for the franchise...

At least I know it's not just me.  From a wedding in Rwanda.  With wine glasses filled with  Fanta!
For the full description, go to this blog.