Monday, December 12, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Friday, December 2, 2016

Missiology and Tedium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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