Monday, January 16, 2017

The Gospel, the (Orthodox) Church, and Missions - Preached

Put on Christ 
A sermon preached this past Sunday at an Orthodox Church in Nairobi

Dr. William Arthur, Presbyterian Missionary in Thogoto, Kenya

Colossians 3:4-11
4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.  5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly:  fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  7These are the ways you also once followed when you were living that life.  8But now you must get rid of all such things - anger wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

The New Testament has many ways of saying the same thing.  You will know the real thing, the real Christian from the counterfeit one, says Jesus, by their fruits.  ‘Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus,’ says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘you will know them by their fruits.’ (Matthew 7:16-20)

Roman Catholic Missionary Nun

The Apostle Paul is making the same point in our Epistle reading from Colossians 3.  There is something different about a person who is a Christian; or I should say, someone who is a real Christian.  There are many people who claim to be Christians, who claim to belong to this or that church, who claim to have been baptised or born again, who may even claim to belong to God’s special chosen people, the Orthodox Church, or to God’s special chosen ethnic group, who may even attend services more than just at Nativity and Pascha, who may even adorn the temple with large gifts.  But I think that you know it is possible to be all of these things and still be far from the Kingdom of God.  And that is because God has never been impressed (in the same way that we are) with outward marks of identity and grandiose religious gestures.  God is most concerned about what’s going on in your heart, and in mine.  

Unknown Missionary, People and Location

Christianity - the Gospel - is meant to resolve the much deeper, much more fundamental problem that each one of us is facing today.  The experience of everybody here this morning is characterised by brokenness.  All of us have left a trail of broken relationships and wounded people in our wakes.  And our relationships with God are broken, too.  Broken by our disregard of God’s love and God’s call, broken by our insistence on living on our terms rather than God’s,  broken by our pathological refusal to see God for who He is and to respond in worship and commitment and love.  But this is only one aspect of our problem. Because, you see, most of us also have character issues.  We know the good we should be doing, but too often we choose a different way.  Christ is our target, Christ is our goal, but we are missing the mark, and not by a little.  Our choices reveal our heart.  And the fruit we bear makes known the tree.

Missions Map with Pictures of Missionary Exploits and Details of Mission Needs

Our brokenness and our corruption would be enough to undo anyone, but on top of all that we all have a serious death problem  Paul calls death the final enemy.  And that is because death destroys everything it touches - our health, our lives, our relationships, our future, our hopes.  Even our bodies are destroyed by the overwhelming power of death.  Death will claim each one of us and we will be seen no more.

Missionary plane taking off from grass airstrip.

I think it is safe to say that most people are not aware of, or refuse to acknowledge, or simply will not open their eyes and see just how desperate our situation is.  We think that things will go on for us as they have in the past, and that our past will not catch up with us, and that the game of life is about self-fulfilment and getting what we want out of it, even if it is at the expense of other people.  We lull ourselves to spiritual sleep by thinking things are not as bad as they are.  And so we never hear the Gospel.  We never comprehend Christ.  We never see His cross.  We never fathom the empty tomb.  We never bow our necks and fall to our knees before His Lordship.  Instead we carry on with the ways that we have chosen, ways that lead us further and further from the love and mercy of God.  We choose to run from reality, to run from God until it is too late.  We spend our lives grasping for what we think we wanted.  Only to discover that a life without God at the centre is actually a very good definition of hell.

More intrepid missionary nuns

But I think that we here this morning are in a position to hear the good news of the Gospel.  Christ has come precisely because our relationships are broken.  Christ has come precisely because we are far from God and don’t know the way back home.  Christ has come precisely because we have squandered God’s image and what God has given us by our sin.  Christ has come precisely because we are doomed to die and to endure all of the destruction and separation that death entails.  You and I are desperately in need of a Saviour.  And Jesus has come to save us.  Jesus has come to reconcile us with God the Trinity and with one another.  Jesus has come to cleanse us from our wrong choices and to save us from our sin. Jesus has come to rescue us from the power of death and to raise us from the dead on the Last Day to be like Him in His Kingdom.  This is what is happening in the heart and in the life of a real Christian.  This is what a real Christian experiences.  And in response to this salvation that comes to us through the love and power of the Holy Trinity, our hearts are touched and transformed.  Our lives change.  Our lives bear good fruit.  Or as the Apostle Paul says, we put off the old life, the old way of living, the old way of thinking, the old way of being.  And instead we put on the New Man: we put on Christ. 

Collection box

When we respond to God’s grace, when we say ‘Yes!’ to Jesus, when we put on Christ, our lives change in so many ways.  We exchange our worldly perspective and begin to see ourselves and the people and the world around us as Christ sees.  We begin to prefer the good, the right, the beautiful, the just, the chaste and the lovely, instead of all the satanic counterfeits that flood our screens and contaminate our hearts.  We begin to want to pray. to want to spend time with God, to want to read His Word, to want to stand before the icons of His sanctuary and worship.  And we begin to understand that our life and our time and our possessions all belong to the Lord and not to us.  And as we have received so much, we see that the right response to God’s generosity, in fact the only response is for us to give back to God.  And so we begin to want to give, to give of our time, to give our wealth, to give our possessions.  Why else do you think God has given you all of these things, to pile up and stash away good for no one until you die?  No!  You are God’s steward and your things and your time are actually His, to be used as He directs.  You are God’s unique means by which He wants to bring His blessing to people and needs that only you can touch.

Missionary teacher

But to conclude, I want to draw your attention to one transformation in particular that Christ works in every heart that says ‘Yes’ to His gospel call.  This pearl of great value that we gladly sell everything to possess, this treasure of good news, of reconciliation, of salvation, of hope - we begin to look around and we notice that there are people right here around us who are still living in darkness, who have no idea that the light has come.  How will they ever know unless you tell them with your words, and show them by your compassion?  They suffer from the same spiritual sickness unto death that afflicted you.  And just as the Lord Jesus has reached out His hand to you and is in the process of saving you, so His hand is extended in love to them.  But it is not the priest’s responsibility to bring this good news to our family and neighbours.  This is not the bishop’s responsibility.  God calls us to let our lights so shine before the people around us, that they see our lives and good works and give glory to God.  God uses us to draw people to himself.  

Another collection box for missionaries

Now lift your eyes to the ends of the world for a moment and you will see not just individuals, but whole communities, and tribes, and nations who are without Christ and without hope in this world right now.  Again, how will these people come to hear about Jesus, how will they ever respond to a Gospel that they have never heard?  That’s why some of us feel so compelled by the love of God that we go to these places as missionaries. That’s why those Christians who are called by God to do other ministries back home will nevertheless also be compelled by the love of God to pray for  these missionaries and for the Churches they are establishing.  And that’s why those Christians and Churches back home will be compelled by the love of God to enable by their financial support these missionary ministries to take place.  Without the help of Christians here at home we missionaries could not do what God has called us to do.

So as we finish, as you respond to the Gospel call to put off the old man and to put on Christ instead, ask God to also give you His heart for the lost men and women and children in the lands beyond this great city and state and nation.  I know we missionaries in Kenya are really struggling and desperately need individuals and Churches who will come alongside us and be our partners in this great work we have, to establish the Church in the heart of Africa and train its leaders to take the work on from here.  Our work is not the only work that needs financial and prayer partners, so I ask you, pray to God and ask Him how He wants you to get involved, how He wants you to use your time, how He wants you to use your money and resources.  The Lord Jesus says that when we ask, it will be given to us; when we seek God we will find Him, when we knock, the door shall be opened (Luke 11:9).   Are you wasting your life for things that that will blow away with the dust in the end, or are you making your life count for the Kingdom of God, the one thing that will last forever? What kind of tree will you be?  What kind of fruit will you bear?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Some Observations Concerning American Orthodox Missionaries and Their Support

Ma'en Christian's home in far SW Ethiopia

I certainly don’t want to seem ungrateful, or even worse, grasping.  I also need to state from the start that, despite the impression given by my title, I am speaking for no one but myself on this topic.  But having served as a Protestant Evangelical missionary for 11 years, and been supported by Protestant Evangelicals even after I became Orthodox in 2011 for an additional 2 years of transition; and now, having served as an Orthodox missionary for 2 years to the present time, I have observed a few things about the way American Orthodox Christians and American Orthodox Churches support their missionaries.

Monastery chapel under construction in central Kenya

The most striking thing to me about the American Orthodox mission endeavor is how tiny it is.  There are more than two million Orthodox Christians in the United States.  The official missionary sending body approved by all the American Orthodox jurisdictions, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) in St. Augustine, FL, is currently facilitating the ministries of 19 full-time missionaries in places like Guatemala, Albania and Kenya.  Orthodox Christians are rightly proud of and impressed by what OCMC has accomplished over the years.  But let’s get some perspective.  SIM-USA, the independent interdenominational Evangelical Protestant mission board to which I belonged for 11 years when I was in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, has over 3000 missionaries in more than 40 countries.  There were 100 SIM missionaries in Ethiopia alone when I was there!  I know of another small Presbyterian denomination (250,000 members) whose denominational mission board has more than 500 missionaries on the field!  All of these missionaries raise their own support, often having budgets between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on family size and particular projects and needs.  All of these missionaries have their own support and prayer teams.  For example, when I was a Protestant Evangelical, we had more than 90 individuals and families contributing monthly towards our support, as well as 7 churches whose mission committees made commitments to give us a certain amount of money every month or quarter.  One church in particular made a commitment to contribute $16,000/year to our support, and did so for more than 13 years.

This missionary preaching when he was a Protestant
and the senior pastor of the International Evangelical Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I took all this for granted, because it was what this Protestant missionary had experienced.  I thought that most if not all churches were aware of what missionaries did and what their needs were.  I thought that most churches had ‘missions committees’ whose task was to help the church be a good steward of its resources by finding worthy missionaries and projects for the church to engage and to partner with.  I assumed that within every church I visited there would be individuals who were praying and asking God what they should do with their resources, and who were actively looking for missionaries to support and pray for.  Evidently this is not always the case.

This missionary teaching Systematic Theology to Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology
Students in 2009 before he became an Orthodox Christian

I hasten to acknowledge that there are a few Orthodox Churches in the US that are doing tremendous things with respect to missions.  They raise huge sums of money and support many of the OCMC missionaries currently on the field.  There are other Churches who have hosted missionaries and welcomed their presentations and responded warmly to the opportunity to get involved in their ministries.  There are a number of individual Orthodox Christians who have rallied around particular missionaries and missions and given sacrificially to their support.  But let’s face it.  The vast majority of Orthodox Churches in the US have no interest in or concern for the Church’s missionary mandate.  The vast majority of Orthodox Christians are ignorant of what the Bible teaches about missions, ignorant about the history of the Orthodox Churches rich history of missions, ignorant of the unprecedented global expansion of Christianity in the past century, and ignorant of what the Orthodox Church is doing globally today, and of what the current needs and opportunities are.  American Orthodox priests too often share in this ignorance.  And rather than lead their parishes into what should be a central aspect of their stewardship, the priests do little if anything, becoming part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, when it comes to helping each local Church fulfil its missionary calling.

This missionary speaking at an Orthodox Youth Conference
in western Kenya in August of 2016

In spite of the lack of awareness plaguing so many Parishes and their leaders, I have personally experienced astonishing generosity on the part of many Orthodox individuals, priests and Churches.  When I was accepted by OCMC to become a missionary to Kenya, we all thought (feared) it would take more than a year or two to come up with my support (OCMC wisely requires that its missionaries be fully funded before they leave for the field).  I was a convert to Orthodoxy and had never lived in America as an Orthodox Christian - all of my Orthodox experience had been in Kenya, as were all of my Orthodox contacts!  But despite my fears, it actually took me less than seven months to raise full amount of support that I needed.  I had some of my Protestant Evangelical friends who continued to help me.  But the majority of my supporters were new to me - Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Parishes who rallied behind me and enabled me to make the move to Nairobi, Kenya in July of 2015.  So my own experience tells me that American Orthodox Christians and parishes can (and do) support missionaries!

Sometimes missionary travel can be a bit challenging.  On our way to previously
unreached SW Ethiopia.  These places are unreached for a reason.

However, my experience is a bit misleading.  There may be 50,000 people in a football stadium when the football game gets underway.  But only 150 or so people are actually playing the game and facilitating what’s happening on the field.  The other 49,850 people are in the stands watching and otherwise keeping their seats warm.  My observation is that the American Orthodox Church is like that football game.  There are some incredibly engaged individuals and parishes that are making American Orthodox missions possible.  But everybody else is up in the stands, and many of them are not only not paying any attention to what’s happening on the field. Many don’t even know there’s a game on.

In my office at St. Paul's University

Another thing I have observed about American Orthodox mission support, and I’m not entirely sure what this means, is that it consists almost entirely of one-time gifts, at least in my experience.  As a Protestant missionary, I would occasionally receive a one-time gift towards my support from my Protestant Evangelical friends.  But almost all of my support when I was a Protestant Evangelical missionary came in the form of a monthly pledge and subsequent monthly support.  My Orthodox experience has been almost the complete opposite.  A handful of my Orthodox supporters give a monthly amount (and interestingly almost all of them are converts!).  The rest of my support has come in the form of one time gifts.  It may just be me and I may be finding it difficult to transition from one form of support to another.  Most one-time gifts come unannounced and without explanation.  I don’t know if it is only going to appear on my monthly missionary report  this once, or if it will appear next month, and the next month.  I’m not complaining.  I am dependent on the generosity of other Christians who want to partner with me in the work in Kenya I’m called to do. But it’s hard to tell if this is just a one-and-done and the donor is off to other things, or if the donor is giving and genuinely interested in tracking with me and, more importantly, praying for me and with for the issues I’m wrestling with.  I have noticed from my previous experience that those people who do join my monthly support team do tend to pray for me and even correspond with me are those who also give monthly.  And they are aware of what my issues are when they see me.  I cannot tell if my one time donors see themselves as part of my team.  I cannot tell if they are praying for me or tracking with my concerns.  This is a different dynamic from what I experienced before when I was a Protestant missionary.  I’m tempted to say that a one-time gift followed by no response to my thank-you or to my monthly prayer letters or to my blog posts means that the donor is involved insofar as funds have been transferred, but no further.  If this is the case (and ‘if’ is genuinely subjunctive), then that means that I am seen as nothing more than an opportunity for a charitable donation, in the same category as the SPCA (nothing against the SPCA here, they do good work).  But in terms of being engaged with missions, involved with the mission, owning the mission, this seems to be absent.  There have been wonderful exceptions, but these seem to be the kind of exceptions that end up proving the rule.

Presenting a gift of icons to my friend His Grace Athanasios, the bishop of Western Kenya

If (see the above caveat) this is the case, it would go far to explain the general overall weakness of American Orthodox missions.  Many Orthodox are not aware of the need.  Many Orthodox are not aware of what our Bible and Tradition teaches.  Many Orthodox are not aware of what is already being done.  Many Orthodox have never even met an Orthodox missionary or heard one speak.  Many Orthodox don’t know why they should care.  And even when American Orthodox Christians are aware of, say, OCMC, and when they do read mission literature, and they have heard Orthodox missionaries speak - they still don’t know how to get involved, how to support a missionary, how to become a partner in the work.  The only thing most people know how to do is write a check (or set up an electronic transfer).  And we all (donors and even missionaries) operate under the assumption that this is sufficient.
Talking about the different instruments we play for a group of children at
a concert given at the church in Addis Ababa where I was also the senior pastor.

We American Orthodox Christians have justifiably taken pride in the fact that we have our own mission sending agency and we are sending out American Orthodox missionaries.  But we are living in a spiritually irrelevant bubble if we think that what we are currently doing is an adequate answer to the call that is upon all of us as Orthodox faithful and Orthodox parishes with respect to missions and evangelism in the world beyond our little enclaves.  A Church with the resources that we have, with the depth of spirituality that we have - we could easily field more than a thousand missionaries all over the globe - not the mere 19 that we have right now.  And contrary to fears, such a mobilization will not adversely affect ministry at the parish and local level.  In fact, our parishes and local ministries would be so energised by our participation in the centre of God’s heart for His world and in the very purpose of our salvation, that our parishes would grow and our local ministries would expand.  We would have to build more and more Orthodox Churches to accommodate all of the people who would come because they saw that God was among us and at work through us.  More and more American Orthodox Christians would feel vitally connected with the most important ministry of our Church.  They would not only grow in their own relationship with God, they would be involved in the parish at every level.  We would enter into what Biblical stewardship - the kind assumed by Jesus and the Apostles and the Church Fathers - actually means.  Rather than sit idly in the stands as distracted spectators, Orthodox Christians would stream onto the field of intentional Christian engagement and ministry.  Our parishes would be transformed.  Our communities would feel our love.  We would see conversions.  We would participate in the expansion of the Kingdom of God.

Off to my day job as a university lecturer in 2010,
escorted by my dog Rambo.

But that’s not where most of us are right now.  Most of us are complacent, content with the little that we think we know.  However, engaging with God’s missionary agenda starts with becoming aware.  With learning about what’s most important to God.  With being willing to get involved.  With learning how to give.  With learning how to love.  Because that, in the end, is what Orthodox missions is all about.  It's actually what Orthodoxy is all about.  Not just for “those” missionaries out there somewhere, but us Orthodox Christians right here - our call, our mandate is the same: loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It surprisingly all becomes possible from here.

Grading papers, made less painful by the astonishing beauty around me.