Thursday, December 31, 2015

Something From Nothing

I have gotten rather used to this.  Having taught for fifteen years in various higher education institutions in both Ethiopia and Kenya, I’ve come to expect (based on experience) that there will be at least one course that I’m supposed to teach that I have either not taught before (or even taken before) or that at some point during the week before the new term starts I’m informed that I’m actually not meant to teach the course I’ve been asked to teach but another one (which may or may not be one I’ve ever taught before).  My blood pressure used to go up at this point in the year, wondering how I was ever going to come up with the new course along with the 4+ others on my plate to teach.  Now I’ve come to realize that this is just the way things are, and that all of my colleagues are going through the same set of unnatural yoga positions as we all try to prepare for a new term.

So it comes as no surprise that this coming term is proving no exception.  About two weeks ago I was assigned to teach a course for our Masters program, a ‘modular’ intensive course that packs half a semester (20 hours of class time) into two weeks now and two weeks later.  The course was called ‘Christian Doctrines and African Christianity’.  I confess to not having a clue as to what that meant.  Fortunately, one of my colleagues had taught it before and was interested in trading the course he had been assigned, ‘Theology and Society’, with mine.  Given that I was having difficulty figuring out what to do with ‘Christian Doctrines and African Christianity’, I gladly gave it up and took custody of ‘Theology and Society’.

During this time, our university shut down for the holidays and won’t reopen until January 4.  This has been a problem because now I couldn’t go to the proper office and get ahold of a course description to see how this course has been taught before.  Moreover, with no library available, I couldn’t track down what if any resources might be available for me, much less my students, to figure out what ‘Theology and Society’ might be about.  So I have been left to my own devices, which is never an optimum outcome.

Searching online for other variations of ‘Theology and Society’ that have been offered at other institutions around the world, I made the rather alarming discovery that this is not a course that has been taught.  I found one Masters program at one college in ‘Theology and Society’.  But in terms of relevant books and articles that might serve as an introduction to (me and) my students, um, nothing.  Instead, I found several unhelpfully vague descriptions of how theology ought to engage in society (all in that sickly interdenominational theology-speak that manages to string together a lot of important-sounding words that actually mean nothing).  I walked away from my searches more convinced than ever that if this is the best we Christians can do in our engagement with the real world in which we find ourselves, no wonder we are marginalized and in trouble.

I then came up with the brilliant idea of sending an email to all my theology faculty colleagues asking their help to come up with a course description (an idea that would have been even more brilliant had I come up with it two weeks ago).  To my delight, one of my colleagues came through.  I now have the official course description.  But, Lord have mercy, I don’t think one could try and make a course description more unhelpful.

Let me see if I can explain.  The course purpose reads thusly:

To critically evaluate religious ideas and motivations which underlie the social, religious and cultural phenomena of public life, as well as examine how theology interacts with issues of contemporary concerns with special reference to how faith influences such issues and in turn how the issues impact theological orientation and education.

OK, I think I get what this purpose is trying to say.  But it is not being said with much clarity, nor is it making me want to jump up and sign up for such a life-changing educational opportunity.

The course content actually reads like Frankenstein’s monster:

Definitions (introductory matters); Theology and other disciplines (especially philosophy and science); place and task of theology; Social Justice and empowerment; faith and public policy; power and politics; place of faith in contemporary society; church and state relations; theories and practice in doctrines; God and public morality; ecclesial structures (African church governments); pluralism and unity; secularism and globalization

Yes and let’s just throw in ‘pluralism and unity; secularism and globalization’ for good measure.  It reminds me of the gobbledygook I often-times come across coming out of institutions of a particular theological persuasion that, cut adrift from any meaningful engagement with historical Christianity, seem to delight in turning recognizable Christianity on its head using language that sounds so utterly profound but on examination is simply vapid.

Substitute 'course description' for 'sermon'

The last ‘Oh Jeez’ from my perusal of my upcoming course’s course description was a look at its course bibliography.  The required reading is as follows:

Stott, John; Issues Facing Christianity Today: A Major Appraisal of contemporary Social and Moral Questions, London: Marshall Morgan and Scott 1984.
Pool, Jeff B., Ed. Through the Tempest: Theological Voyages in a Pluralistic Culture; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1991.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like John Stott and benefitted greatly from reading his exegetical works.  But this work by Stott (who BTW died a number of years ago and who presumably is no longer interested in engaging theologically with society) came out in 1984 – 1984! I was not long out of university and a staff-member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in 1984.  My 27 year old daughter was not yet born in 1984.   A lot of water has gone under my bridge since then in my life, and I can only assume that the same is true for the rest of global society. As to Mr. Pool’s book, I have no reason to doubt that it is a worthy contribution to the discussion, but it’s a discussion that was taking place in 1991, not 2016.  In the remaining 9 texts in the recommended reading section of my course description, the most recent is from 2005.  The rest are from the 1980s and 90s.  The course (as I understand it) is meant to be about theology today, not historical theology.

I used to think I was facing challenges as a teacher of theology in what is one of the better Christian universities in Kenya, and that the problem was somehow me and my shortcomings as a teacher.  But now I’m realizing that we, my fellow faculty, indeed my entire institution, are the ones together facing what seem to be insurmountable challenges.  It is a difficult thing to teach, even when you have a classroom full of resources and a library that’s up to date.  But when one doesn’t have the stuff or the resources or the books or the articles and has just oneself and maybe a laptop – I hope you can get the picture of what a challenge education, much less higher education, is in such a context.

So this is my task – come up with a Masters-level course, by Monday.  And then teach 20 hours of it during the first two weeks of January.  All the while picking back up with my 5 courses at the diploma-level seminary which starts back up on Monday as well.

Ok, writing a blog about this hasn’t helped me make any progress in redesigning a course on ‘Theology and Society’, but talking about it has certainly been therapeutic.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On the Night of Nativity - A Poem by St. Ephraim the Syrian and a Selection of Nativity Icons

On the Night of Nativity

Pure is the present night, in which the Pure One appeared, Who came to purify us!
Let our hearing be pure, and the sight of our eyes chaste, and the feeling of the heart holy, and the speech of the mouth sincere!

The present night is the night of reconciliation; therefore, let no one be wroth against his brother and offend him!

This night gave peace to the whole world, and so, let no one threaten.  This is the night of the Most Meek One; let no one be cruel!

This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud!

Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge for offences!  Now is the day of good will; let us not be harsh. 

On this day of tranquility, let us not become agitated by anger!

Today God came unto sinners; let not the righteous exalt himself over sinners!

Today the Most Rich One became poor for our sake; let the rich man invite the poor to his table!

Today we received a gift which we did not ask for; let us bestow alms to those who cry out to us and beg!

The present day has opened the door of heaven to our prayers; let us also open our door to those who ask of us forgiveness!

Today the Godhead placed upon Himself the seal of humanity, and humanity has been adorned with the seal of Godhead!

St. Ephraim the Syrian
(circa 306-373)

Nativity Icons

Eastern Orthodox iconography uses a multi-layered method of painting that has been described as beginning with the non-being of darkness and moving into the light of life.  Icons are 'theology in color' and 'windows into eternity'.  And given their role over centuries in parish churches and monasteries throughout the world, they have also played the part of a 'picture Bible' for those who could not read the words of the Scriptures for themselves.

Eastern Orthodox icons of the Nativity are busy.  They depict the entire story of the Nativity in multiple scenes.  But there are details that will surprise.  First of all, Mary gives birth to the incarnate Son of God in a cave.  And secondly, the manger where Christ sleeps looks suspiciously like a tomb or coffin, and His swaddling clothes like a burial shroud.  This is no accident, as the icon intends to call to mind, even with this portrayal of the Son of God's entry into human history, the events leading up to the end of His earthly life, along with his death and burial, and His subsequent resurrection from another similar cave.

Other details to look for include the animals, often an ox and a donkey, worshipping their Maker. Their presence indicates the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, 'The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know Me, and the people do not understand Me.' (Isaiah 1:3)  Another scene shows one or two women helping the Virgin by bathing the infant Jesus.  Angels announce His birth to shepherds with their sheep.  In some icons, kings from the East are on their way to present their gifts.  And in almost all of them  there is the curious depiction of Joseph who looks despondent (who is, after all, having to experience all of this upheaval by faith) and who is being addressed by a bent old man who is in fact the devil tempting Joseph to despair.

1497, from St. Kirill Monastery, Cathedral of the Assumption, Russia

Nativity Cave as Tomb detail

An Ethiopian Icon

Very Busy.  Including the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt, among other scenes.

An Ethiopian Icon

A Coptic (Egyptian) icon

Monday, December 14, 2015

Not As It Seems – The Scandal of the Incarnation

The human ways of exerting power and compelling conformity have been everywhere on display this year.  Whether it’s ISIS and its clones enforcing by sheer brutality their vision of Islamic society, or the noisy multitude of outraged racial, gender and alternative sexuality crusades using their own brands of shaming and intimidation to force on the rest of us their vision of how things should be, it seems our recognizably Western and Christian way of life is being challenged from without and within as never before.

And yet even a superficial survey of history shows that both religion and culture are fragile things.  The only constant is that things change.  I grew up in what I thought was ‘Christian America’.  I now find myself part of an American society that bears more resemblance to the hostile pluralism of the Roman empire than the Christendom of medieval Western Europe.

Despite my assertion above, one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the human addiction to power.  And whether it’s the Ming dynasty in China or Sennacherib of Assyria, or Ezana of Axum, or the great Khans of the Mongol Golden Horde, or Charlemagne, or the great Popes of the High Middle Ages, or the British Empire on which the sun never set, or the attempts, still in living memory, to impose murderous ideologies by Hitler and Stalin and the leaders of Japan, attempts thwarted only by the most massive effusion of human blood ever seen.  It would seem that power and force constitutes the only universal human language; these are the levers towards which everyone aspires.  Such a thesis is rather easy to demonstrate in the global halls of power.  But even in our own personal worlds, the dance too often is all about power and control, even when it is passed off by another name.

It is not surprising that our theology tends to view God through the lens of our own experience, our own perspective, our own preferred ideologies.  The ‘Fundamentalist’ thundering from the pulpit about a God who hates sin and hates sinners and who seems all too eager to send the unrepentant straight to hell is telling his/her listeners much more about himself/herself than about the God he/she professes to speak about.  But the ‘Liberal’ who preaches inclusivity and a God that happily affirms and celebrates everything countercultural one might wish to do is just as guilty of channeling cultural assumptions and agendas as the Fundamentalist is, albeit to different ends.  Both have recreated Jesus in their own image. Both appropriate their ‘Jesus’ to give credence to their own cultural presuppositions.  Neither is listening to the Jesus who actually is. 

Our leaders are not the only ones guilty of misappropriation.  Even at the personal level, there is often a profound disconnect between profession and behavior. For example, a person who professes to be a ‘Christian’, who is even considered a somebody by others may also at the same time employ rage, anger and abuse as one’s preferred method of maintaining power and control in one’s relationships.  The term found in the gospels that refers to this sort of behavior is simply hypocrisy. 

We seem to be prone to this confusion, addicted to power and control, even Christians.  We can only be grateful that God chose not to follow our example and fix what is wrong in this world and in our lives by force, compulsion and control.  Instead he comes hidden in full view, as one of us, quietly carried to full time in the womb of a virgin girl. A human baby boy, and yet Immanuel.  A toddler learning how to eat and play, and yet God in the flesh.  A teenager learning his father’s carpentry skills, and yet the Creator of the world.  A young man supporting his widowed mother, and yet One of the Holy Trinity. A man embarking to call his fellow Jews to repentance, and yet the rightful Heir to David’s throne.  Teaching the multitudes what it meant to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart, and yet the very Word of God himself.  Despised and rejected by the leaders and people he came warn, and yet the Suffering Servant Isaiah foretold. Crucified and embracing death itself, and yet lifted up like Moses’ bronze serpent that anyone who looks upon him may be saved.

None of this was obvious when it happened.  No trumpets.  No angels.  No public service announcements.  No advertising blitz.  All of this happened under the cloak of misunderstanding, of multiple attempts to appropriate Jesus for different agendas.  Even by his friends.  Some things never change.

It was the resurrection that transformed the perspective of Jesus’ followers.  It was the resurrection that convinced a growing circle of people that Jesus was who he claimed to be.  It was the resurrection that provided the lens through which to review Jesus’ life.  And it is in the light of the resurrection that we begin to see the incarnation, and begin to hear what Jesus is saying, and begin to see what Jesus is doing.  It is in the light of the resurrection that we begin to perceive how the incarnation changes everything.  Jesus is not captive to any interpretive ideology, Jesus is not enslaved by any cultural agenda.  Rather he draws us into his agenda, and acquaints us with his ideology.  When we insist on resisting, of pursuing our own agendas, of maintaining our own power and control, we end up creating our own religion that ends up merely using Jesus as a patron saint of our own views of what’s right or wrong, good or bad.

But as C.S. Lewis once said about Aslan, the Christ-figure of The Chronicles of Narnia, ‘He is not a tame lion.’  There is much nonsense and bullshit that goes on in the name of Christianity (and always has been).  But at some point, sooner or later, every single one of us will come face to face with Jesus Himself, and it will become irrefutably clear whether our knee has bowed to a golden calf of our own making or if we have submitted ourselves to His rightful rule over every aspect of our lives.  The mark of the latter is always repentance and self-giving love.  The mark of the former is always defensiveness, outrage, arguing, and self-justification.  A little self-examination now might save a whole lot of grief later.

The world’s way of power, intimidation, force, and manipulation often seems successful in the short-run.  But it has never accomplished what it promised.  The preferred modus operandi of so much of our world’s people is a cracked and dry cistern that holds no water. Our planet has been on the hamster wheel of futility since before history started keeping records.  The way of Jesus has also been littered with the wretched examples of men and women who have borrowed Jesus and Christianity for their own purposes.  But when men and women have seen Jesus for who he is and laid down their own pretensions, we become a beachhead of the very Kingdom of God right here in space and time, the ladder that connects heaven and earth

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Discrimination & Me

Hi.  My name is Bill.  I’m a 56 year old white male (Cherokee Indian if you follow one line back four generations).  I have a PhD in Early Modern British History from the University of Cambridge.  I also have 15 years of teaching experience in a series of African graduate schools and universities.  I have published a modest number of academic articles and a book (I would have published more but I have been teaching full loads of classes helping African students catch up with their Western counterparts).  I’ve been told I’m a good teacher.  I recently faced an unanticipated life-transition that forced me to move back to the US.  I attempted to find a job as an associate professor, assistant professor, adjunct professor, janitor at any university/college/community college anywhere in the states.  I sent out on the shy side of 50 applications.  I did not get a single response.  Not a single institution even wanted to talk to me.

Of course no institution looking for someone to fill their history or theology position will ever admit it.  But I am guessing that my virtual stack of papers never made it past the screener, who never looked past my page 1.  You see, today nobody is hiring men (unless one has connections); in particular, nobody is hiring white men;  And if one is over 40, then sorry – there is no room at the inn.  And at 56, I’m practically a dinosaur.  To sum up, evidently I’m the wrong race, the wrong gender and the wrong age.  Old white men not served here.

Given the current climate of outrage across American college campuses and many other institutions and communities, I think I would be justified in calling this discrimination.  And I am guessing I would be laughed out of the discussion.  As a 56 year old white male, the rest of the culture would seem me as the posterchild of their problem.  It’s white men like me (according to the unhappy social justice warriors) who hold all the cards, who are the true bastion of racism and economic privilege in this country.  If I had a position to lose, I might get hounded out of my job, having been labeled a ‘racist’, if for no other reason than by association or not going along with their agenda.

by Frank Cotham

To use an old but useful cliché, the current movement of on-campus and community radicals is producing a lot of heat, a lot of smoke, but almost no light.  Victory is declared if some poor administrator is hounded from office, or if their threats and intimidation succeed in causing a policy review.  If only.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of discrimination happening throughout American culture today, and not just white on black, police on black, college administrators and teachers on black.  But what nobody seems to get, is that dealing with discrimination (and the racism behind it) in this way – naming, shaming, protesting, rioting, policy-making, legislating – when has this ever made a difference in resolving the real issues behind discrimination, from the personal to the institutional?  We have some wonderful laws on the books, both federal and state, but when has a law ever dealt with the real causes of discrimination and racism?  The concerns of the so-called radicals today may be legitimate, but the way they are going about addressing those concerns demonstrates they neither know history nor have they understood the true nature of the beast they claim to be fighting against.

Here in East Africa, we have horrific problems with racism.  The concerns of our campus and community social justice people look like the Promised Land given our ongoing reality here.  In Burundi today people are being killed daily.  There are fears of a new genocide being triggered.  Ever hear of the words Tutsi and Hutu?  That’s who lives in Burundi, and this is what racism looks like right now over here.  Or in Southern Sudan, the past couple of years have seen an absolutely horrendous civil war going on – at least that is how it is described in polite society.  It’s actually a war between two ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka.   They hate each other.  This is what racism does.  And you simply haven’t heard of the terrible number of atrocities going on and of the awful plight of the people on both sides, probably because Nuer and Dinka people fighting each other in Africa’s poorest country is not deemed important enough to mention in the Western press.  And perhaps that’s a kind of racism, too.

And then here in Kenya, we have had our own eruptions of horrific ethnic violence.  We are quiescent now.  But it only takes pressures there or incidents here to flame the coals into another fire like we had in 2007, where Kikuyus were killing Luos and Kalenjins and Luos and Kalenjins were killing Kikuyus.  We have a rather serious racism issue here.

Like the USA, all of these countries have laws on the books.  Like the USA, everyone here understands that racism is the underlying cause.  And like the USA, having discovered that laws and ‘education’ don’t make any difference, leaders are at sixes and sevens to know what to do.

for example.

I think it’s safe to say that shouting doesn’t work. Shaming doesn’t work.  Demonstrating doesn’t work.  Legislating doesn’t work.  Picking up guns and going after the other side doesn’t work.  These may make us feel better for a time, but they simply don’t work.  I think that there needs to be a change in strategy.  I have a modest suggestion.

My way out of racism has occurred because I have intentionally pursued relationships with people that were being discriminated against.  This means I have gotten to know Africans-Kenyans-Kikuyus-Luos-Kalenjins-Luhyas and Ethiopians-Amhara-Oromos-Tigrinyas, as well as Ugandans, Rwandans, Burundians, Tanzanians, Malawians, Congolese, South Africans and even Nigerians as real people, people just like me.  I have taken the initiative to learn something of their culture, of their hopes and dreams, to play with their children, to go to their churches, to share their food, to stay at their houses, to travel with them in matatus, to see them, not as some ‘enemy’, not as some threat to my well-being, but as a human being made in the image of God just like me.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t discriminate against someone I know and love.  I can’t think racist thoughts and pursue racist actions towards someone I know and love.

The problem of discrimination and racism is an individual problem and cannot be solved from above by threats or laws.  It will only be solved from below, relationship by relationship.  All those issues that folks are making so much noise about on campuses and in communities – those are symptoms of the problem, not the racisim problem itself.  When I see the people racing around from demonstration to campus to sit-in become willing to address the real problem they are facing, then we will be on the verge of real progress.  But as of right now, these people are just making a lot of noise and will end up having nothing to show for it – nothing of any meaning.

The strategy that I am advocating is actually very risky.  That is because by addressing the relationship issue, everybody – including the social justice warriors – will make the discovery that racism is not something out there that those people are doing to us.  Rather it is also something right here in my heart, something that I am doing to them.  All of us have a racism issue.

It is so much easier to find fault with the others and demand that they act on this list of things they need to do in order to change.  Much harder to take the risk and get to know someone and listen to them and then figure out a way to work together.  And given every other strategy has failed, one that requires a lot of hard work might actually be a good thing.

In the meantime, it would be lovely some college search committee chastened into doing justice will contact this wrong gender, wrong age, wrong color but otherwise well-qualified person and at least want to talk.  Of course I’m back in the job I want in Nairobi.  But it still would be nice.

public domain

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Can Christians Say the Islamic Shahada in Order to Save Their Lives? – A View from the Front Lines

The Islamic Shehada

It is an alarming sign of the times that my title not a hypothetical question, at least to those of us who live in Kenya.  There have been a series of horrific attacks by Islamists over the past several years in my country of residence, attacks on well-known sites designed to inflict maximum carnage and fear.  Just in the past couple of years, a cadre of Al-Shabab gunmen hit one of the largest and nicest of Nairobi’s shopping malls, shooting everyone they could find who couldn’t prove they were a Muslim.  Nearly 70 perished in that attack.  Last December a bus carrying workers from the Dadaab refugee camp back to their homes in central Kenya was stopped by gunmen.  Everyone was ordered off.  The Muslims were told to walk away.  Twenty seven Christians were lined up on the ground and shot.  This past April, a team of gunmen from the same Somali terrorist organization, slipped onto the University of Garissa campus before dawn and attacked a Christian prayer meeting.  Again, those who could not prove they were Muslims were slain on the spot, one by one.  Since no help came for several hours, the terrorists were able to be methodical in their destruction of the lives of these young people.  Nearly 150 Christian college students died.

Aftermath of the Garissa University Attack

Kenya represents a giant soft target.  Sadly, I assume that these attacks will only increase.  I know something about soft targets.  As the former senior pastor of the largest English-language church in post-9/11 Ethiopia, we were constantly aware that our church, with its large contingent of African diplomats, missionaries, NGO personnel and European and Asian and American expats, might seem an attractive option to someone who cared only to make statements and nothing about the value of human life.  As ‘World War III’, as I have heard our current conflagration called in various places, continues to engulf more and more countries, Christian gatherings that take place in unprotected venues open to anybody may increasingly be a thing of the past.

Last Decembers Dadaab bus attack

What is shocking is that I am increasingly hearing discussions amongst Christians here about what to do in case one is caught up in an act of mass terror and is given the choice of confessing Islam as one’s faith and going free or owning one’s Christian faith and being immediately dispatched.  It is being argued by a number of Christian leaders and academics that I respect that it is OK to say the Muslim Shahada (‘There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet.’) in order to save one’s life.  Even this past weekend at a forum exploring the issues behind the radicalization of Kenyan youth, sponsored by one of the organizations to which I belong, one of the speakers when asked said, ‘Absolutely, save your life.’  Even today in one of my classes, one woman said that she would say the Shahada if it meant survival so that she could be a mother to her children.

Westgate Mall attacker as seen on 'security' footage

What follows reflects my opinion (and not the position of my Church or the university or seminary where I teach).  I believe that attitudes such as this explain a lot about the state of Christianity in this country.  After years of shallow thinking and shoddy theology, the chickens are coming home to roost.  Kenya has been pestered for decades by an increasingly strident form of the health and prosperity heresy that gives the very strong impression that God is there for YOU, and that armed with sufficient faith you can direct the stream of blessing from God to your life.  This life is about getting the good life out of God here and now, and that if we are unable to achieve this level of prosperity, the fault lies with us and our lack of faith.  But this counterfeit ‘gospel’ is toxic to New Testament Christianity.  There is no room for discipleship here.  There is no capacity to comprehend stewardship.  And the universal suffering that surrounds us is simply denied, or if it does exist, it does so simply to be overcome by our victorious faith.  (I listened in disbelief to an individual who complained to me after hearing Joni Erickson Tada give a moving and powerful message at my church that 'that woman obviously doesn't have enough faith or she would be walking right now.'!)  This heresy – and that is what it is – leads one in a very different direction from the path on which Christ leads us.  Too many Kenyans are, like Americans, enamored with the upward way of prosperity, a prosperity that is apparently sanctioned by Almighty God Himself, as well as blessed by the Lord Jesus and facilitated by the power of the Holy Spirit (and known in my country as the 'American way').  The Jesus of the Gospels on the other hand calls each of us who would follow Him to deny oneself, take up one’s cross and follow, not some path to health and prosperity, but follow Me.  It is a statement – a call – the implications of which are all but ignored by many filling our churches here on a given Sunday morning.

Aftermath of the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi.  213 were killed.  4000 were wounded.

Christianity does not exist for Me; rather I exist for the Lord.  The fact that this is hardly heard anywhere today, much less believed, gives one some insight as to why someone might think it’s OK to practice a bit of deception and pretend to be a Muslim in order to live another day.

I think some Christian history could help us here.  This is not the first time that Christians have been given ultimatums by people to deny their faith or suffer horrific consequences.  And this is not the first time that Christians have disagreed over the issue of martyrdom.  Paula Fredricksen discusses whether it was official Roman Empire policy to persecute Christians:

Empires have better things to do than persecute nursing mothers, which is the example of the [famous martyr of Carthage] Perpetua.  Emperors tend not to care much about what people are doing so long as the servants and horses are not disturbed, taxes are collected, and nobody starts a rebellion.  So, empires in general, and I think the Roman Empire, in particular, are religiously tremendously ecumenical.  If you have a huge expansive political territory with huge varieties of religions, within those boundaries, you don’t care what people are doing religiously.  You just want your tax money…  Before the year 250, the persecution of Christians is sporadic.  It’s local.  It’s improvised.  It is at the discretion of a Governor to whom complaints are made and so on.  It’s not a dragnet and it’s not an imperial policy.  
After 250, when the empire is being battered on every frontier by invading armies, when there’s absolute rampant inflation, [there is] incredible governmental instability.  There are an average of two or three Emperors in a year.  They keep getting assassinated.  It’s just an incredibly fraught time.  That’s also the point at which you begin to get the imperial expression of persecution of Christians.  Now then again, also it’s interesting.  It’s not a criminal offense to be a Christian.  What you have to do is get a ticket, a lebevos, a chit saying that you have sacrificed for the well-being of the empire…  There are various responses on the part of different Christian communities.  You can have your servant go and do it for you.  He might also be a Christian, but, you know, that’s his problem.  Pay him.  He’ll get two chits and then you’re covered…. Or you can pay for the ticket but not actually do the sacrifice if you can bribe a friend of yours who’s a magistrate.  Or you can just go ahead and sacrifice, knowing that these gods are nothing, after all.  That’s right in … Paul’s letters, that these gods are nothing.  There are all sorts of different ways that people deal with this.  But some people absolutely refuse to oblige by this rule at all.  And those are the people – again, it’s the heroic minority – who end up being martyred by government force. (
Roman Emperor Decius (201-251)

Around 250 a fierce round of persecution broke out across the empire instigated by the Emperor Decius.  This was followed in the opening years of the fourth century by the ferocious persecution of Christians under the imperial policy of Diocletian.  Elizabeth Clark says: 

There was a grave problem for the church because many Christians were not made of the kind of moral fiber of the people who went to their deaths as martyrs.  They had been willing to recant the faith, to offer a pinch of incense to the emperor….[or] to bribe the officials at the pagan temples to give them a certificate saying they had offered the sacrifice when in fact they had not.  All this made a grave problem for the church when the persecutions were over because many of these people wanted to come back into the church.  It was also a problem because there were some bishops who had defected, you might say, during the persecutions, and they had baptized people.  The question then was were you really baptized if you had been baptized by a bishop who fell away from the faith during the persecutions? (
Roman Emperor Diocletian (245-311)

This sort of defection by bishops and lay people alike was viewed by all of the records that survive as a falling away from the faith.  It was a denial of Christ and a preference of one’s life over the truth of the gospel.  In other words, this was a very serious sin.  So serious that there were some who believed that such people could never be allowed back in the church.  Others felt that their defection could be forgiven, but that they had to remain outside the church for several years in repentance before being allowed to resume communion.

The great challenge facing many Christians and churches in Kenya is that there is no undergirding theology of discipleship, much less one of martyrdom, to guide us as we are apparently entering yet another cycle of persecution.  Times like this expose the health and prosperity churches for the lies that they are – one cannot love both God and mammon without incurring serious consequences, someone famous once said.  But the prosperity posture extends much further than the giant worship palaces thrown up by the various apostles/prophets/bishops for the glory of their ‘ministries’ and their legions of not-quite-as-successful wannabees.  Many other Protestant church leaders and members are also infected with the God-exists-for-me contagion.  The resulting churches and ministries are nothing more than castles built of sand and on sand which will simply melt away when the torrent of persecution and hard times rushes upon us.

I can completely understand why someone might want to save his or her life in the face of a murderous assault by someone who hates Christians (and others) and who is killing as many as he can to make some religious and/or political point.  But a Christian need not be afraid of death.  It wasn’t just Christians long ago who were willing to identify themselves with Christ even if it cost them their lives.  In the past 100 years, more Christians have been martyred – under Islam in the Middle East and Turkey, under communism in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Ethiopia, under Fascism in Nazi Germany, and in countless other places on the globe than in the entire rest of church history combined.  We were told by our Lord that it would be this way.

The Coptic Martyrs of Libya

So in light of Christian history and the teaching of the Gospel, it seems to me that for a genuine Christian to take the Shahada on one’s lips in the hope that by doing so one’s life might be spared is in fact choosing to deny Christ for the sake of self-preservation.  We are declaring thereby that we are unwilling to give up our life for the sake of knowing and following Christ.  We are saying rather clearly that there are some things more important than Jesus for us.  Moreover to do so dishonors the memory and example of those men and women and boys and girls who, in contrast to the pretenders, willingly offered themselves up for Christ.  It’s a perspective that seems to assume that my Christian commitment is expendable if it turns out being a Christian is more costly than I anticipated.  It communicates that my faith in Christ is a faith of convenience only, that I am a Christian right now because it suites me to be one, and that as long as it pays the dividends I need, I will identify myself with the Christians; but if it doesn’t for whatever reason, I will align myself with whatever will give me what I want or need.  It reveals rather starkly who is the real lord of my life.

The Coptic Martyrs of Libya, from the perspective that matters.

Islam will not be defeated by self-centered ‘Christians’ who praise the Lord one day and say the Muslim creed the next just to get out of suffering.  The Christian life is not about gaming the different denominations, or even religions, jumping here or there depending on who offers the greatest personal advantage.  Instead the rampant onslaught of militant Islam will be stopped only by Christians who love even their enemies, and who are willing to lay down their lives for the One who gave His life for us.  This is taken as great weakness on our part by Jihadi Muslims.  But then they have never understood real Christianity.  Let them do their worst.  I recall that our Lord endured similar abuse and suffering and a horrific death.  Besides, who are we to forget that some terrorist will not have the last word over us?  Who are we, of all people, to be afraid of anybody?  The risen Lord Jesus Himself will call us by name on the last day and raise us up and transform our broken bodies into one like His.  And when that day comes, at it surely will, justice will be done.  And if justice is going to be done, I don’t want to be found stammering lame excuses; and I’m guessing you don’t, either.

There is an article in the July/August Christianity Today on this issue in which I am quoted several times.  You can find it here:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

With Wandering Steps and Slow

by Hanna Varghese

In either hand the hastening Angel caught
Our lingering Parents, and to the eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain – and then disappeared.
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
 John Milton (1608-1674), Paradise Lost, The Twelfth Book, lines 635-647
 Some days I miss my Eden.
But then Eden is a place I’ve never known.  Rather it’s like being dropped off.  And having wished me well the cheerful driver is gone in a cloud of dust. And I suddenly realize I haven’t a clue where I am or what I’m meant to do.  I’m a quick study and I watch the people around me and guess what they are busy about and talking about and I set about trying to fit in.  But there is no map.  There are no directions.  Only a succession of people who think they know what they are doing, who assume I know what I’m doing and that I know where I’m going.  Just like them.
I ‘succeed’.  Doors open. Opportunities avail.  It seems like a good life.  I’m told it is a blessed life.  Some of it is wonderful, beautiful, exciting, breath-taking, thrilling even.  And some of it, well, isn’t.

The eclipse begins when all is bright and sunny.  The sun is so bright that one would never guess an eclipse was in process unless one had seen it discussed in the media.  25%, 40%, 60% - only as the black shroud of the moon stretches to smother entirely the bright burning countenance of the sun, only as light fails precipitously and as dusk falls at midday and startled evening birds pipe their songs does the celestial catastrophe make itself known.  But it was not a surprise to those who chart the skies or those who know the signs.
My world went dark.  It should not have been a surprise.  Had I known how to read the signs long ago I would have known that the bridge was out.  Had I known how to chart the human heart, I would have perceived an eclipse from the beginning.  But I didn’t.
From Eden to the wilderness is just a few quick steps.  But I turn around and can no longer see from whence I’ve come.  The land is new and foreign. That Adam still had his partner when the world went dark, though both had wounded the other.  But my Eve chose a different way. And I am alone.  Strangely I find other travelers here, in this place, others cast out of an Eden they never knew, others more certain of the way.

‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’  I struggle to let go of sight, even though what I see has killed me.  I do know where this is going, or how it may end.  One foot in front of the other. ‘…with wandering steps and slow’.

Joseph Bailly, 'Paradise Lost'

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Happy Sts Cosmas and Damian Day!

Today, November 1, is the Feastday of the patron saints of our Church, Sts. Cosmas and Damian. I was asked Friday evening by our priest (and my colleague and friend at the seminary) to preach.  It was a wild and crazy service.  Towards the end of Orthros, two people came for confession, which meant we in the choir went back over ground already covered and kept on chanting for what seemed to be a long time.  And after the liturgy, we had memorial prayers for the souls of those who perished in the Russian airliner crash in the Sinai.  And then we had the Artoklasia prayers to bless the bread and wine and oil brought in celebration of our saints.  In the middle of all that, after the Gospel reading (which I have included below), I brought the lectern to the middle of the sanctuary and stood before the people.  And this is what I said.

Luke 16:19-31
19There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and who feasted sumptuously every day.  20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.  22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  The rich man also died and was buried.  23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.’  25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’  27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – 28for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises form the dead.’

The story about the rich man and Lazarus is well known.  And it is a story.  For centuries people have interpreted this parable to say that this is what heaven must be like, and that this is what hell is going to be like.  But Jesus is not intending to give us a description of the life to come.  Instead, he is making another point altogether.  When the rich man who is in torment begs father Abraham to send Lazarus from the dead to warn his brothers, Father Abraham simply says, ‘They have Moses and the prophets.  Let them listen to them.’  But the rich man says, ‘No, father, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ To which Abraham replies, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

And you will recall that One did rise from the dead, the Lord Jesus himself.  And just as Jesus said, even though He rose from the dead, the vast majority of Jews found reasons not to believe in Him, not to trust in Him, not to turn from their rebellion and follow Him. 

And the application for us is obvious.  We are in the same position as the rich man’s family.  We are living our lives oblivious of the realities of hell and heaven.  And God in His grace has given us the absolutely amazing, astonishing, awesome treasures of His Word and His Church.  We have been given everything we need to understand where this world came from and what this world is about and where this world is going.  We’ve been given everything we need to understand where you and I came from and what our lives are meant to be about.  We’ve been told what sin is in general and how you and I in particular have chosen again and again not to love God and not to love our neighbor, but instead to choose to live for ourselves.  We are like that rich man, oblivious to spiritual reality, oblivious to human need, oblivious to everything except what gets us what we want.  But we also have been told of God’s great love for us, sending His Son Jesus Christ to die for us on the cross so that all of our many wrongs might be forgiven, and to rise again from the dead to defeat the power that death holds over us and open up the way for us to be born again in this life and live with Him forever in the life to come.   This is what God has done for us.  This is what God is doing for us, right here, right now, even in this place, extending His hands to you, calling you to Himself, calling you to turn from the life you have been leading and the choices you have been making, calling you into His new life of freedom from being a slave to this world and a slave of the devil.  But so many are like the rich man and his family, refusing to listen, with our ears stopped up, even some of us in the Church, who think that being religious somehow keeps us safe.  But the day is coming when we, like the rich man, will find ourselves simply getting from God what we deserve.

But I have a question I want to ask you.  I realize I am taking some liberties with the text.  But what if the rich man, instead of living the totally self-centered life, what if he saw the wrong of his ways ?  What if he repented?  What would it look like?  We don’t know any of his other circumstances.  But we do know his relationship with Lazarus.  In the parable, the rich man is aware of Lazarus, based on his conversation with Abraham when he is in hell.  The rich man even knows Lazarus’ name.  But he chose to ignore him in this life, and did nothing to relieve his suffering and need.

But we can guess that if he repented, he might use his riches, not for himself, but for good, and to help Lazarus.  Lazarus’ most pressing need is his health.  The rich man would have given some of us money to get medical help for Lazarus.  And once that emergency was dealt with, there are the issues of food and shelter, which, again, the rich man with his resources was in a position to do something about.  And then long term, I can envision an effort to help Lazarus go back to school and get some training so that he could work and make his own living.  And should Lazarus struggle to find someone to hire him, I can see that the rich man might give him a position on his own staff.  Can you see the difference that this would make.  Not only would it make a difference in Lazarus’ life; it would make a profound difference in the rich man’s life.  No longer would he view what he has as his own to spend on himself and for his pleasure.  Instead he sees who he is and what he has as belonging to someone else, belonging in fact to God, to be spent on those things God is doing.  This is what we call stewardship.  What you have is not your own, it was given to you by God.  And the purpose that God has given you all of these things and these talents and all this time is not that we can then spend it on ourselves, but so that we can give it away and spend it on those things God is doing.

Tragically for everyone, the rich man chose to do other things with his possessions, with his talents, with his time.  But I have another example, this time of two men, who made different choices.  Our church is named for them, and today is their feast day, when we remember them and thank God for their example.  But there is a challenge.  The Orthodox Church actually commemorates three sets of brothers who served as physicians during the 3rd and 4th centuries.  They are called unmercenary physicians because they helped people out of love and practiced medicine without receiving payment.  And the three different sets of brothers all came to be known as Cosmas and Damian.

The Cosmas and Damian from Syria and Arabia were Christian brothers who were physicians and were rounded up in a persecution during the 3rd century and tortured and beheaded.  We commemorate them on October 17.  The Cosmas and Damian of Rome were Christian brothers and physicians who were martyred outside Rome by a jealous pagan physician in 283-284.  We commemorate them on July 1. The Cosmas of Damian of Asia Minor were twin physicians who refused payment and whose gifts of healing led to a spread of Christianity where they lived.  And they took seriously the command Jesus gave to his disciples: ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’ (Matthew 10:8) They died peacefully and were buried in Mesopotamia.  And we commemorate them today.

Can you see the difference between these brothers and the rich man in our parable?  Instead of holding on tightly to possessions and money and spending it on themselves, Sts Cosmas and Damian gave it all away.  And God made them a tremendous blessing to their Church and their community.  They used their talents, and their gifts and their possessions to pursue God’s agenda of love.  They made a difference in the name of Christ.

Now I could make the obvious turn here and ask each one of you, how are you spending your time, your talents, your money and possessions?  Heaven or hell should not be any surprise to any of us – all we need to do is look and see what kind of steward we are being right here and right now.

But what I really want to do is stimulate a discussion about our Church.  We as a Church are named after Sts. Cosmas and Damian.  But are we like them?  Do we understand that who we are and what we have belongs not to us, or to any group in our midst, but to the Lord?  Do we understand what God’s agenda of love might be for us?  What would it look like if we made the decision not to exist for ourselves, but to give ourselves completely to what God is calling us to be? And what is God calling us to be?  Think with me for one more moment.

We are very wealthy.
We are both multi-ethnic and international.
We are centrally located.
We are at the heart of the largest and fastest-growing archdiocese in all of Africa.

Jesus says to us the same thing he said to Cosmas and Damian – ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’

What is keeping us from dreaming?  From asking, ‘God, what do you want us to do with all of these facilities and this property and all of this talent and all of these resources that you have given to us?

We could undertake to build a conference center to serve Kenya’s Orthodox Christians.
We could undertake to establish an excellent Christian bookstore – the very first Orthodox Bookstore in Kenya.
We could build a home for retired clergy, or a monastery, or a convent.
We could partner with other organizations and establish a first-response clinic in Kibera.

There is a world of need in front of us, which is another way of saying; there is a world of opportunity right here.  So we have a choice, not just as individuals, but as a Church.  We can just sit here and do what we’ve always done.  Or we can ask God, ‘What do you want me to do with all of this that you have given me and made me to be?  What do you want us to do with all of this that you have given us and made us to be?  So what do you think we should do?  I challenge you to pray about this.  Ask God to show us what he wants us to do.  And then like Dr. Cosmas and Dr. Damian, start doing it with everything we have.

Through the prayers of our holy fathers, St. Cosmas and St. Damian, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us.