Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Confluence of Brokenness

The confluence of the Rhone and Arve Rivers in Geneva , Switzerland

Marriage is a confluence of brokenness.  At least in my experience. A confluence is the junction of two rivers, especially rivers of approximately equal width, according to a dictionary I consulted.  Some rivers carry a lot of silt.  Some convey the pollution that gets dumped into it.  Rivers being rivers are full of life and death, muck and decay.  Each one contributes fully to what the combined stream will become, for better or for worse.

Confluence of the Danube, the Ilz and the Inn Rivers in Passau, Germany

My experience of marriage has been similar, both mine and others of which I am aware.  When we marry, often we are hoping for the best, and in denial about everything else that might compromise that hope.  We are attracted to our partners because of what they bring to us, what they do for us. I 'love' her; she 'loves' me. We want to please the other.  This in fact sustains us for a while, even a good long time.  But what we almost never take into consideration is that the biggest thing my partner will contribute to our relationship is her brokenness.  Just as the biggest thing I contribute to our life together is my brokenness.  This can be masked, can be hidden, it can be denied, it can be compensated for.  But eventually our true colors are up the pole, flapping in the wind.  What I choose to do with my wife’s brokenness, what she chooses to do with mine, this is the true test of our hearts; it’s the anvil on which our commitment will be either shaped or shattered.

The confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at Cairo, IL

It was shattered in my case, a long, slow-motion descent into relational hell with no one to rescue, no one to intervene, to staunch the bleeding, to pick up the pieces, to hear my cry.  May God deliver you from ever having to go there.  But I have learned something.  It didn’t have to be that way.  Even now, such is the nature of relationships, of Christian relationships, of being made in the image of God, even now it doesn’t need to be that way.

Confluence of the Jailing and Yangtze Rivers in Chongqing, China

And that is because a marriage, a Christian marriage, by which both partners both know and love God the Holy Trinity with all their hearts and are trying to love their neighbor – a Christian marriage is intended to be that safe place where brokenness can find healing.  As you experience grace in Christ, you are enabled to give grace to your husband.  As I experience forgiveness in Christ, I am enabled to forgive my wife.  Again and again.  Seventy times seven.  As a result of the hard experience of grace, the hard work of forgiveness, a marriage becomes a safe place for both partners.  The place where they experience Christ.  I no longer need to hide because I am afraid of what she will do if she finds out.  She too is broken, and she weeps, not in anger that I said this or did that, but knowing the depth of my own struggle, my own pain.  Because Jesus has touched her in her own brokenness, she can be a means that God can use to reach out and touch me in mine.  And I can be a means God uses, a sacrament, to touch, to serve, to minister, to heal her heart as well.

Confluence of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solemoes near Manaus, Brazil

So we bring our brokenness to our marriage.  We may have certain goals or expectations for our life together.  But God’s goal, God’s purpose for bringing two lives together is, to use the Western theological term, sanctification, or the Eastern term, theosis, or the word I’ve been using – healing.  We are damaged; we may think that it’s just a cosmetic dent in the fender when really the engine needs to be rebuilt.  We may think that a paracetamol will take care of this headache when actually we are dying of inoperable brain cancer.  It really is that serious, and we really are in denial.  The effect of which is we poison our relationship with our brokenness, and take matters out on our partner, and they take matters out on us.  And you can guess that it will not end well. 
A marriage that ends in divorce is doubly tragic.  Not just because two wounded people are wounded even further.  But because they were brought together not to end like this, but to be God’s instrument of healing for each other.  Recrimination and blame effectively kill the river of their marriage.  The supreme irony being the broken one could not allow the other to be broken.

Confluence of the Green and Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

This is very hard., this acknowledging and working through our brokenness together.  Very few marriages become the safe place, the paradise God intends.  God’s intention is that I become like Jesus, which means that I love my wife as Jesus has loved me.  And God’s purpose for her is that she also become more and more like Christ, a likeness that is experienced and demonstrated in her relationships, chief of which is her relationship with her husband.  That’s why God brings us together.  

Confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers in Lytton, BC, Canada

But half of all marriages self-destruct.  Others muddle through to some accommodation that smells more like a grudging tolerance or a negotiated cease fire than love.  But it doesn’t need to be that way either.  The sticking point is always our brokenness.  But not in the obvious sense that, of course, our sin makes a mess of things.  Rather, our refusal to acknowledge that we are broken, our insistence on finding fault everywhere, anywhere but in our own heart, or with our own words and deeds, our perverse and reflexive self-justification, our insistence on treating the other as if he wasn’t human, as if she wasn’t made in the image of God, as if he wasn’t dearly loved by the Savior of the world – this more than any ‘sin’ will doom a marriage.  Such a heart cannot make room for God, and cannot be forgiven for brokenness that does not, cannot, must not exist. And therefore such a heart cannot love, at least in the way defined by people like Jesus and Paul.

Confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Rivers in Devprayag, India

Marriage is not the only place intended by God to be safe for broken people.  The Church is established by God to be His Hospital, the place where the broken, the wounded, the injured, the dying, the blind, the lame, the leprous , the sinner – we can all go and find mercy, and healing, and rest for our souls, and salvation, the medicine of immortality.  But for too many, Church has become something else – the playground for power games, a place where I can use people to get what I want.  The place where I pretend, for whatever reason, to be something I am not.  Too many churches draw in hundreds, even thousands of broken people, but then offer only cheap distracting thrills, dishing out emotional experiences or heady well-constructed intellectual sermons that make rock stars out of the worship leader or preacher, up the number of followers on twitter, push up sales of the religious claptrap on offer in the church’s bookstore/coffee bar, push the assembled worshippers to bow down to our culture's Baal of entertainment as the be all and measure of what our 'church experience' should be like, all the while ensuring that appearance is everything for all the perfect people streaming in and imposing that subtle 'no worldliness allowed' faux 'Christian' sub-culture that tells the assembled faithful in a hundred different ways that whatever else they do, they cannot ever be vulnerable and broken because this is not a place for 'sinners'.  So instead of becoming the God-ordained safe place for the wounded to find healing, for sinners to find rescue, for the broken to be restored, and for the rescued to learn how to love, churches too often become temples of false, me-centered religion and with the predictable results that always accompany idolatry.  We create an army of hypocrites who fill our pews and clap their hands but are terrified of showing anyone what's really going on in their hearts and lives.  Whatever ‘gospel’ is being preached there saves precisely no one and in fact drives one further from Christ and creates a collective parody of Christianity and church, giving people the false security that they are going to heaven when they die when the actual evidence of their lives would indicate otherwise.  The broken stay broken, inflicting their brokenness on everyone else, all the while becoming ever more skilled in the fine art of denial and blame.  And like dysfunctional marriages, dysfunctional churches limp on, oblivious of the fact that they have already become example number one of what Jesus refers to as hypocrisy, or as Shakespeare so aptly said in another context, ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

Confluence of the Mosel and the Rhine Rivers in Koblenz, Germany

The only thing we the local church have to offer the world is not another seminar on ‘servant leadership,’ not another useless article on history or New Testament studies, not another trendy vacuous ‘worship’ song that does double time for Christian aerobics, not another celebrity preacher or concert quality worship extravaganza with lights and dry ice, not another dubious ‘crusade’ with an even more dubious ‘healing ministry’ – the only thing we have to offer as a church is ironically the same and only thing we as a married couple have to offer to one another, which is our love for the broken.  And the only way we can love the broken is if we the broken have also been loved.  When love, the love and forgiveness of Jesus, has not been experienced, you can tell.  And when I let his love in, when I offer my brokenness to him, it changes everything.

Confluence of the Drava and the Danube Rivers near Osijek, Croatia

When two rivers come together, they contribute the entirety of their mess to their life together.   When this broken man and this broken woman begin to experience forgiveness, and love, they begin to experience healing and wholeness, together.  It may be too late for me.  But I can still hope that this will be your experience.

Full disclosure - I found these great pictures of confluences at this webpage:

Thursday, May 11, 2017

'I Hate to Read' - Challenges Confronting Theological Education in Kenya

I have found that many if not most of my students, both at St. Paul's University and at the Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi, do not read their assignments.  Whereas I am the product of an education system where, as a humanities students, I would read hundreds if not thousands of pages per course per term, these students cannot imagine an assignment that would require them to read 50 pages of some text book.  I even had a church history class that fired me as their lecturer (they persuaded the dean to find another lecturer to take my place) after I went over the course requirements and they realised I was having them read more than 500 pages for the term and was planning on weekly reading quizzes!  It is hard for me to comprehend a Bachelors-level, much less a Masters-level history or theology course without reading.  Even my PhD-level students complain when I expect a certain amount of reading.

I have heard reasons, anecdotally, behind this aversion to reading.  It's not a lack of intelligence, as my students here compare favourably in that regard to students I'm familiar with in the US and the UK.  Rather, I think it has more to do with context and upbringing.  I had the privilege of being raised in a family that loved books and encouraged reading.  Very few Kenyan families have any books other than a Bible in their homes, and children are almost never read to by their parents.  Books also cost a lot of money, and most families simply cannot afford what for them is the luxury of children's books.  The education system also encourages learning by rote, as a lack of resources means that teachers cannot count on personalised reading materials for their students the way, say, American students have text books for all their subjects.  So Kenyan students learn how to read, but it is challenging and not easy, especially when faced with reading more than one or several pages.

As a theological educator, I can do nothing about the education experiences my students have already had and the postures they bring into class with them.  So I have to cope with what my students already are in terms of learners, both their strengths and weaknesses.  Most students in my classes are like the rest of us, in terms of they assume that the way they are is the way it is everywhere.  There is often an inability to fathom that with a new program or new course they may be faced with different expectations for reading than what they have always experienced and assumed.  So when they come to a program that has classes that are influenced by Western standards with respect to reading and writing, it can come as a rude shock.  As a Westerner teaching predominantly non-Western African students, this is one of the biggest challenges I face.  Because if my students will not do the reading, how am I supposed to ensure they engage with the necessary material?  Especially when things like power point, online learning and other interactive technologies to which educators in the West have become accustomed are not yet options where I live and teach.  So this is a problem.

One of the things I've tried to do is help my students realise that this is, indeed, a problem affecting learning at every level.  By doing so, I also enlist my students to begin thinking of how they themselves might address the issues involved.  I've come up with a case study to help me do this.  What I would be grateful for is if you can suggest improvements, both in terms of the case study itself, but also in terms of my discussion questions.  I will be presenting this case study next week in my Systematic Theology I class.  They are already in shock because I have assigned them to read almost 500 pages of Grudem's Systematic Theology  over the next 11 weeks of our term.  So I am sure they will be grateful for any help you can give them and me.

So here is my case study.

John Hates to Read

John hates to read.  In the home where he grew up, there were no books except a Bible from which evening devotions were read by his father.  There were no children’s books, no stories at bed time.  John was taught to read at school, but he found the process of learning how to read to be painful and difficult.  Others could read better than he could.  He was embarrassed because he read so poorly.  So he avoided having to read at school if at all possible.

Even though he struggled with reading, John was very bright.  He actually did very well in subjects like maths and science.  And in other subjects that required reading from him, he found that he could involve himself in discussions that gave the impression that he had read the assignment even though he hadn’t.  And when he was required to turn in a reading diary, he simply cheated and made it up.

John was able successfully to navigate high school, but when he got into university, it became much more difficult.  First, many of his courses required not just a few pages of reading, but hundreds of pages.  Secondly, it became obvious in class discussions that he didn’t have a clue what the conversation was about.  Thirdly, many of the exams were based on the reading, and were devised in such a way that it was difficult answer without giving away the fact that he had never read any of the assignments.  Fourthly, there were too many other things John wanted to do at university, like football or hanging out with his friends.  He also had a part-time job.  John could always find a reason to keep him from reading his assignments and preparing for his next class.

John did poorly in his first year, so much so that he received a warning letter from the Dean.  John was in danger of being sent home.

For Discussion
How would you describe John’s problem to someone else?

What should John do?

Is reading important for people in Kenya? Why or why not?

Why do people go to get a degree at St. Paul’s or other schools?

What is the purpose of ‘higher education’ like here at St. Paul’s?  Is it possible to achieve your goal for education without reading?

Is it important to read assignments?  Why or why not?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

'Sex, Abortion, Domestic Violence, and Other Unmentionables: Orthodox Christian Youth in Kenya and Windows into Their Attitudes About Sex'

I have just published another article, this one the results of a survey I took of Kenyan youth attending a conference for Kenyan Orthodox Youth in western Kenya last August.  I had the opportunity to present these findings at another conference I spoke at this past weekend.  As well as being interesting in its own right, I am hoping that this article will provoke searching and meaningful conversation among our priests and hierarchs.  I think it will be obvious that we have some work to do.

You can access the article and download it as a pdf file here:
Please feel free to share. And discuss.