Friday, March 31, 2017

Dependency, Harambees and the Struggle for Christian Stewardship in the Orthodox Churches of Kenya

In western Kenya with my friend Fr. John with children standing in front of the Church.

I have just published an article in the Pharos Journal of Theology.  It was one of the chapters in my forthcoming book, the provisional title for which is Using Money for the Glory of God: Rethinking Stewardship in Africa.  When my publisher (Oasis) wanted this to be distributed continent-wide, suddenly a couple of chapters which addressed the Kenyan context needed to be rewritten.  I thought that the issues were urgent enough to seek a publisher for these orphan chapters.  One is coming out eventually in the African Society of Evangelical Theology's journal and is entitled 'Dependency's Long Shadow:  Mission Churches in Kenya and Their Children.'  The second, 'Dependency, Harambees and the Struggle for Christian Stewardship in the Orthodox Churches of Kenya' was accepted and published this week in Pharos Journal of Theology at what passes for lightning speed in the academic world.  PharosJOT, or Ekklesiastikos Pharos as it used to be calledbegan as a journal of theological review established by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria at the beginning of the 20th century, making it one of the oldest academic journals on the continent.  After moving to Athens for some years, the journal returned to Africa in 1990 and is now published in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Here is the abstract:

The Orthodox Churches of Kenya, like many other mission churches, have long struggled with the issues of dependency, enabled by years of over-generous foreign financial and material support and exacerbated by a strong cultural inclination to appropriate the levers of various patronage systems as means to get ahead relationally, financially and politically.  Dependency and patronage have increasingly become the default posture when it comes to Orthodox individuals and their Churches with respect to how they perceive and handle their financial needs.  Churches have also increasingly made use of indigenous ways to raise financial support, known locally as harambee.   Harambees are widely seen as culturally appropriate ways to raise money when the need is beyond the means of the organization or even individual.  They are often the most successful means that Churches can adopt to push major projects forward such as buying property or constructing the church building.  However, while harambees may be culturally appropriate, in the case of Kenyan churches in general, and Orthodox Churches in particular, harambees enable the Churches and their leaders to sidestep the fundamental issue plaguing their parishes, which is a complete absence of New Testament and early Christian principles of stewardship and discipleship.  When the previous patron can no longer provide the financial support the Church needs, harambees become the new patron that enable the Church to move ahead.  The Church and its members thus never have to address their own lack of stewardship, responsibility and Christian discipleship.  The fundraising targets may all be met, but the Churches remain crippled by ongoing attitudes of dependency.  This article explores the dynamic of dependency and patronage afflicting Orthodox Churches in Kenya, critiques the preferred financial solution of harambee, and challenges Orthodox Christians to take their calling as stewards and disciples seriously as the only way to escape the slough of dependency that, unless addressed, will ultimately consume them.

And if you would like to read the whole thing, you can access it by following this link:

One always takes a big risk when one publishes anything.  I'm sure I have made mistakes at many levels, and I ask your forgiveness for the things I have not gotten right or done well.  My hope is that we might overlook the imperfect messenger and engage with the issues raised, and that any discussion would produce much light (rather than just heat) as to a way forward.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Wandering in the Foreign Land of Lent

I wrote this 6 years ago.  I had just converted to Orthodoxy. I had just returned from officiating at my mother’s funeral.  I was in the process of being fired from my position as lecturer in theology and history at a university in Nairobi. I was in the process of being fired by my mission.  My marriage, which had struggled for years, would self-destruct by the end of the year and never recover.  It was a very dark time.  Somehow I made it through this interminable set of class 5+ rapids.  God’s grace gets all the credit.  And the hard work of Lent.

This is what I was thinking back in April of 2011.

Orthodox Lent is about to end and Orthodox Holy Week is about to begin. Both involve fasting, special services, almsgiving and preparing for the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. For the always-have-been Orthodox and the been-Orthodox-for-a-while Orthodox, this is all familiar territory. You’ve got your collection of vegan cookbooks with your favorite fasting recipes; you’ve sorted whether the Vespers with the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is going to be celebrated as a proper vespers on the day of or as an early morning service the following day. You understand when a full prostration is in order or if a metanoia will do.You’ve got St. Ephrem’s prayer down, or at least you have it memorized. You’ve already realized that the 5th Friday of Lent Akathist Hymn service is really not the best service to bring your Protestant friends to.  

Having recently become Orthodox in a place where there are very few Westerners who are Orthodox Christians, I have found navigating Orthodox Lent to be a challenge. Especially when Lent evidently comes with no instructions, at least around here. First, since I live on the campus of an Evangelical theological college and teach classrooms full of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, nobody around me is aware that there is a Lent, except some of the Anglicans. And even for some of them, it’s more a matter of the cliché of ‘giving up chocolate for Lent’ as a kind of add-on to one’s spiritual discipline.  But the real challenge is in the area of hospitality. I have benefitted from the generous hospitality of a number of families who have taken pity on my aloneness while my wife Stephanie is away in the US.  But because few people are aware of Lent or what that might mean, few people are preparing meals with that in mind.  Occasionally someone will ask about what I can eat, and then they will proudly make a vegetarian (but not a vegan) meal. The rule of thumb I have adopted for myself is that I will eat with thanksgiving whatever is put before me by my hosts. The day after my mother’s funeral, this involved being served a meal of the most amazing grilled pork steaks by my sister and her partner who are not Christians but whom I love. My goodness those grilled pork steaks were real good (I slip into southern jus thinkin' about them), and I’m glad the Lord doesn’t seem to keep score of such things. And even my priest says that Lent is not about keeping all these rules, but rather doing what one can as we walk with Jesus towards his passion. 

Not being part of an Orthodox community or even an Orthodox family, it (food) still is a daily and sometimes hourly issue. Even now I am at a conference sponsored by my (non-Orthodox) mission. And the food is really good.  And it has not entered anybody’s mind that this is Lazarus Saturday.  And I’m having to pick and choose because I don’t think ‘vegan’ is even on the vocabulary list here.  But aside from my food challenges, it has been an exhausting time of spiritual intensity, these past 40 days. My mother’s death a month ago, along with a very intense 8 days of travel to do her funeral, then up to Virginia to help choose a house for us to buy, and then back to Kenya to teach a 40 hour theology course in 6 days, as well as grade several other courses’ worth of assignments. And then the actual Lenten goal itself to fast not just from food but from sin, and the resulting clarity with which I am perceiving my own shortcomings, infirmities and fallenness. 

All of this has combined to make me not just know but feel my need for a Savior and calls me to repentance. I’m confronted on every side with problems I can no longer ‘manage’, with issues I can no longer deny, with consequences (of my decision to become Orthodox, for example) that threaten to undo me and my life as I’ve known it.  As I begin the hard plod through Holy Week, I feel like the disciples must have felt in that they had no idea how any of this might turn out or what it might mean or where might this all be going.  

So for me at least, Lent has moved beyond food issues.  I can only wish this were as easy as a bowl of lentil soup and some fresh bread.

Friday, March 10, 2017

When I Think ‘They’ Are the Problem, or, Running from Wolves

I’ve recently joined an internet forum that’s composed of Orthodox people and some who are not Orthodox, all of whom are interested in talking about issues we all face as Orthodox Christians in our Churches and living in the world.  I have enjoyed the conversations I have found there - people feeling like they can ask questions without being jumped on, others feeling like they can share from their experiences a way that might help resolve the issue.  It seemed a friendly place to engage with others.  Of course it’s not an official ‘Orthodox’ anything; just a place where those who are interested can talk.

But as with anything online and tending towards anonymity, even sites like this invite the participation of those who seem to want either to disturb or to chastise or to put down other participants whose Orthodoxy doesn’t seem Orthodox enough.  In the case I stumbled upon, rather unkind words were being exchanged.  Then more things were said that probably shouldn’t have been said.  People were called names.  Threats were made to take one’s toys and go off and find someplace else to play.  I remember witnessing playground fights that had much the same on offer - offended pride, hurt feelings, name calling, fists flying, the surrounding witnesses pulling the combatants apart, and both of them sent to the principal’s office.  Only online, there is no principal’s office to be sent to.  So things are left raw and just hanging there.

Of course it’s also Lent.  And didn’t I just this morning pray with St. Ephrem, ‘and grant that I may see my own sins, and not judge my brother’?  And of course the temptation is strong to ask why all those other people can’t get their act together and behave like the followers of Christ these clergy and monks and faithful claim to be?  When really the question  is, ‘What does all this tell me about my own heart?’  I see in me the same judgmental spirit I’m about to condemn in this other person.  I see the same smugness of pride in me that the pharisee in the temple had because I haven’t sinned like that jerk back there.  I am making the disturbing discovery (again) that it’s easy to point out the hypocrisy in others; not so easy to realize that I am myself presiding at the head table of hypocrisy in doing so.  It’s easy to feel that someone is a wolf in sheep’s clothing ravaging with their un-Orthodox ideas the flock of God; not so easy to realize that with my own predilection to judge I myself am running with the pack and causing my own harm by pretending simply to be a concerned sheep while attacking, biting and generally taking down whoever else I feel is not behaving properly.  This is decidedly not the behaviour of sheep. I have to keep reminding myself that the Chief Shepherd knows how to deal with wolves and he doesn’t need my ‘help’ to do so.

I was thinking yesterday of how to respond to someone who seemed to be unhappy with people in the forum and who then informed the group of his intention to drop out and then pronounced his anathema on some of the members before leaving.  The whole affair bothered me.  And I wrote what follows to help me work through my own feelings and my own need for repentance in the midst of it.  Relationships are so hard, even ones online with people one doesn’t even know.  Here’s what I wrote yesterday as a participant in that conversation.

I am a convert to Orthodoxy. But someone wiser than me once told me while I was in that process that if I was looking for the perfect church and then believed that I had found it, it would cease to be so the moment I walked through the door.  i am so grateful that Jesus didn’t chase anyone away who was looking for answers or help.  He even patiently worked with disciples, not a single one who ever ‘got it’, even after Jesus went to the cross and was sealed dead in the tomb.  I am so grateful for the many Orthodox Christians who patiently worked with me, and who didn’t run away when I was trying to process how Orthodoxy fit with my Calvinism and my Charismatic background.  Even now when I get the tone screwed up while chanting, or write a blog post that is not edifying, or follow my passions rather than Christ, I am grateful for the circle of Orthodox Christians who have made it a part of their ministry to bear with me and help me take the next step.

Gary Larson - The Far Side

To my brothers who are afraid of wolves, I ask first to what place are you running where you are expecting not to find wolves, or sinners or other challenges?  Secondly, this is an internet forum, not a church, and not the Church.  If this were a Church, the I would imagine that what Jesus says about going to your brother one on one and seeing if you can resolve the issue is the way one could most profitably proceed.   If that doesn’t work, Jesus tells us to take a witness and try again.  And if that doesn’t work, only then do we take the matter before the Church, where, if he still refuses to heed the Church’s concern, we are enjoined to treat him as a tax collector and a sinner (which, interestingly enough, Jesus himself models just how we are to treat these tax collectors and sinners throughout the gospels!).  

But given that this is not a Church, I can see how you might want to simply skip steps one and two and go directly to step three.  Notorious wolves are indeed dangerous to the flock, and you may be right - there may be people in this circle who are deliberately trying to lead people astray.  There may be others who think they know something, and who are just playing with Orthodoxy.  There may be others who are pharisees in the negative sense who delight in pointing out how the other is insufficient, inadequate, or otherwise on the wrong side of being right.

But here’s the thing.  God has been known to convert notorious wolves and notorious sinners and even notorious pharisees.  If we are going to follow Jesus with our lives and not just our words, then we will of necessity follow him into dealing with all sorts of unsavory characters.  Who am I to judge if a notorious someone is moving away from Christ?  They might actually, by the patient work of God’s Spirit, be moving towards Christ.  Will my response to them help them move towards Christ, of push them further away?  When Saul of Tarsus showed up at Ananias’ door on Straight Street in Damascus, Ananias had a choice to make.  Just like with every interaction we have choices to make.  I can condemn the blind guy at my door as a wolf and shut the door and run out the back (and Ananias had rather good cause to do so).  Or I could see that God might in fact be using me and this situation and even the wolf to a different end.  

Gary Larson - The Far Side

You never know.  And if that’s the case, your choice to turn your back on us wolves may be denying yourself the opportunity to be the love, the mercy, and even the call of Christ for another.

With respect.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Small Adventures of a Kenyan Orthodox Chef in Lent

I am Orthodox.  I live in a room on the Orthodox seminary campus surrounded by a chaotic part of Nairobi known euphemistically as an ‘informal settlement’.  I used to cook a lot, but my new single lifestyle and my new responsibilities make it much easier to eat badly. I have a tiny ‘kitchen’ comprised of an old gas stove that has knobs and dials but no markings and that looks rather like it did a previous tour of duty at a nuclear weapons testing facility.  It works, so I don’t complain.  There is a small fridge with a freezer on top, about four feet tall and maybe twenty inches wide on a good day.  It wheezes and groans all day and all night and generally sounds like a death rasp.  When it didn’t immediately keel over and die the first night I was here, I decided not to take its complaining seriously.  Then there is a large cabinet in which I treat as a pantry/store for dishes/drawer for cutlery, etc.  The top of the cabinet serves as my counter top where I do just about everything, from make my coffee to chop things on a cutting board.  The last time I stood relative to a countertop like this, I think I was 7 years old.  Unlike most kitchens, I have no water supply and no sink in which to do dishes.  Not to worry, because just through the door immediately past my tall cabinet is my bathroom/washroom/toilet/whatever your culture is comfortable calling it.  In said room is a very small sink.  It’s here that I fill my kettle for tea and do my dishes, laying them out to dry on the top of a small bookcase that serves as a bathroom cabinet and store.  Sometimes geckos skittle across my wall and floor looking for mosquitos. Because I hate mosquitos, I don’t mind having a few lizards around.  My kitchen is really just a glorified hallway to the bathroom with about 3x8 feet to maneuver around in.  But since I’m not called upon to cook for large dinner parties, it has served me pretty well.

That’s the set up.  Here’s the challenge.  Lent arrived this past Monday. I suddenly had a hankering for lentil soup (I’m not joking.  It’s an Orthodox/Lent thing).  But this sort of item is not on the menu anywhere around here, including the Archbishop’s table where I am often privileged to share a meal.  So if I was going to have lentil soup I was going to have to make it myself.  On the one hand, no problem.  I spent most of my life cooking on alternate weeks.  And in recent years I’ve tried a number of different lentil soup recipes ranging from compost fare to gosh that’s really tasty.  So conceptually it was a go.

However once I motivated myself into action this past week, I discovered that I had a big soup pot with which to turn my aspirations into a reality, but nothing to put in it.  By the way, I was using a recipe that’s found in Catherine Mandell’s When You Fast…  Recipes for Lenten Seasons (p. 60), a cook book I really like and which I have used with profit for a number of years.  But the list of ingredients was daunting:

Fresh Parsley
Bay Leaf
Canned tomatos
Brown lentils
Fresh Spinach
Red wine vinegar

Ok, in a normal kitchen this all would be pretty standard.  But my kitchen is neither standard nor normal, and is stocked with stuff like Ethiopian coffee and Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix and important things like that.  This called for a major shop.  So major that for the first time since my return to Kenya in 2015 I used an actual grocery cart rather than a hand basket at the grocery store.

Shopping on this continent can be a challenge if one is looking for specific things.  In Ethiopia I regularly had to visit at least five shops to corral everything I needed.  Yes I said 5.  And here in Nairobi, even though we have our supermarket equivalents, it doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed to experience the pleasure of one-stop shopping.  Take, for instance, vegetable stock.  I got it in my mind that I needed vegetable stock for this cooking adventure.  But I checked Nakumatt, my local go-to grocery store of choice, but alas no vegetable stock.  Mountains of beef stock cubes and chicken stock cubes, but no veggie cubes anywhere.  I also discovered that both their spinach and celery looked as though they had both auditioned for a part as road kill and won.  So I just kept walking.  Though my recipe called for a teaspoon of oregano, if one has no oregano, one must buy a huge container of it to get a teaspoon of it.  And bay leaves, too.  I was thinking that these people had no carrots (how can your vegetable section have not carrots?), but then I discovered them hiding next to dairy.  I didn’t ask any questions.  I just took my bag of carrots and headed for check out.

So off to store number 2 - Zucchini, a very nice fruit and veg shop.  Their celery was in much better shape, but I looked in vain for spinach.  I also looked in vain for vegetable stock.  I was in the back corner looking longingly at the incredibly expensive dried prunes when I glanced at the refrigerated display shelfs and there, along with fruit juices and fruit salad was a few bags of baby spinach on the top shelf pushed to the back. Though tempted, I again refused to ask any questions and took my spinach and (after paying) ran.  

So I took my bags of Lenten soup supplies home and was immediately confronted with yet another challenge - what am I going to do with all of this stuff?  The canned things went into the pantry, the spices on one of the shelves above the cabinet.  But the vegetables, they had to go into the fridge.  My fridge has enough room for half a dozen eggs, a diet coke and a jar of pickles.  It being Lent, the eggs are gone, so that creates some space.  It was quite the effort, but eventually I got everything in the fridge and also managed to get the door shut without it opening again.

At this point, my schedule intervened, and the cooking I was planning on doing the next day got put off until the next and then the next.  I began to worry that all these vegetables I had so carefully selected were going to going to turn into rich dark loam in the bottom of my little fridge.  The good news is that I had a chance to check another grocery store - Chandarana - for vegetable stock.  Chandarana had no vegetable stock either, can you believe it!  So then I checked a heath food store we have here called Healthy U, which I usually avoid because it pretends that they and you are in Sweden and thus feels justified to charge you Swedish prices.  So I looked and amazingly enough they had vegetable stock.  It wasn’t Swedish, but it was Swiss which is even worse.  But since Kenya apparently was out of their own vegetable stock all across Nairobi at least, I paid Swiss prices and now am the proud (and significantly poorer) owner of imported Swiss vegetable stock cubes.

So today, Saturday, I finally had time to cook.  I was very proud of myself.  I had all the ingredients.  And so with Beethoven symphonies thundering away in the back ground, I chopped up all the vegetables.  I learned that chopping on the top of a cabinet at eye level is not optimum, but I persevered and got the job done.  I set off a nuclear chain reaction and got my stove going.  I added all the ingredients in their proper order and at the proper time. I simmered my lentils for an hour and added the last of the ingredients.  I put a stop to the nuclear fission experiment and I let the whole pot of lentil soup sit covered on the stove for the rest of the afternoon.  While I was out I went to yet another grocery store and bought the Kenyan version of a baguette, which if you are as far away from France as I am, it will do.  My baguette and I went home, I warmed up the soup, dished some out in a bowl, broke off a piece of baguette, gave thanks to the Lord and plunged into an awesome bowl of lentil soup.  One of life’s simple pleasures.  Only as with most things here it wasn’t so simple to accomplish.

I’m glad I like it.  My bowlful made no dent in my ginormous pot of soup.  There is a lot of it left.  I will be eating on it most of if not all of next week.  My current challenge is what to do with the very big pot of lentil soup cooling on my stovetop.  My fridge is tiny, my pot is big.  So I’m still working on this one.

In the meantime I just went back over the recipe and discovered that nowhere does it call for vegetable stock, Kenyan, Swedish or Swiss.  I went through a lot of trouble for my Swiss vegetable stock.  If I ever finish my current batch of lentil soup, I’ll have to find a recipe that will be enhanced by adding my special Swiss stock.  Fortunately, Lent lasts a long time.  Which just means plenty of opportunities for further Lenten culinary adventures.