Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blessing and Breaking

When was the last time you were asked for money?  Sometimes it’s a relative needing help to pay for school fees or with medical care.  Sometimes it’s a neighbor who has come up short.  Sometimes it’s a stranger, someone you don’t know, who comes up to you or me with a story that would make angels weep.  I get approached several times a week.  And I’d bet that many of you do, too.  And how do we respond?  Sometimes we know the person and the situation and we try to help.  Sometimes we know the person and the situation and we know that this person will simply run straight to the bar for another drink.  Sometimes we don't know the person and we don’t know if the story they are telling us is true.  Sometimes we give something.  Sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes our own money is finished.  Sometimes we find out that the person is a liar and is just collecting money from gullible people.  Sometimes if I find out that a person is hungry, I will take him and buy him lunch.  Sometimes if they have a family, I will go with him to the grocery store and buy them food to eat.  And I bet many of us do the same thing, because I know that, at heart, many of us are generous people.  And sharing what we have is a good thing.  It’s what Christians do.

But what about giving to the church?  You know there are a lot of confusing ideas floating around when it comes to our responsibilities as Christians to give to the church.  Some people will tell you that we must tithe our income, that is give 10% of what we make to the church.  Other people teach that if you want God’s blessing or God’s help, then demonstrate that you have faith by giving ‘seed money’ back to the church.  But I have been watching people give offerings Sunday after Sunday since 1980, and despite all the noise from the preachers, in spite of all the smoke and mirrors from the health and prosperity heretics and the TD Jakes and Joel Osteen wannabes, on any given Sunday most people, if they give anything, will drop some coins in the basket, or 50 or maybe 100 shillings.  But I also know that many people will offer an empty fist and drop nothing in the basket.  And why?  Why do people who are otherwise often generous people suddenly close their wallets and purses when it comes to the church?

There are actually lots of reasons.  Sometimes people claim that they are too poor.  But that’s not a very convincing reason because poor people are some of the most generous people I know.  Other times people have witnessed corruption on the part of church leaders.  Maybe a priest or a chairman has been known to take the Lord’s money and use it for his own needs.  And so church people who might otherwise be generous in their giving decide they don’t want to help a corrupt person get fat.  Sometimes the church has leadership that refuses to lead.  No one has a vision for where the church is going or what the church could be doing.  The Bible says that without a vision the people perish.  And why should anybody keep giving any money to a church and to leaders who aren’t doing anything.  And then one of the worst killers of churches and of church giving is dependency.  It’s when the church and its leaders have gotten used to the Bishop or other outsiders taking care of all of their needs.  Maybe the bishop built the building, maybe the bishop pays the salaries of the priest and the workers.  Maybe the bishop takes care of the wine and the prosphera.  And so people start thinking that they don't have to do anything but show up.  And so when the bishop suddenly announces that he has no money, people in the church don’t believe him.  So power company shuts off the electricity because the bill hasn’t been paid, and people wait for the bishop to do it.  And the water gets cut off because the bill hasn’t been paid and people just wait for the bishop to take care of it.  We have all of this land around us but nothing ever happens because people are waiting for the bishop to do something.  Even tea and coffee and biscuits.  Most of us are happy to get.  Are we just as happy to help and to give?  This is dependency.  A church that is sick with dependency is all the time waiting for the bishop or rich foreigners or even harambees to take care of everything, meanwhile they do nothing.

A church characterised by dependency, by a lack of giving, by a lack of vision,  is a church that has lost its way.  It’s a church that has forgotten its calling.  Its a church that is teaching all the wrong lessons to its children and its young people.  Its a church that has nothing to offer the world around us.  Its a church that exists for what it can get, not for what it has been called by God to give.  This is not the way it is supposed to be.  God is calling us to something so much better.

The disciples were getting nervous and starting to grumble at Jesus.  He was busy preaching to a huge crowd, and he kept going on and on, and it was getting late.  Finally he took a break and his disciples reminded him of the time and told him to send everybody back to the nearby villages so that they could find something to eat, because they had been there all day.  ‘Why should they go away?’ Jesus asked.  ‘You feed them.’

By the way, we are the disciples, we who make up this parish.   God has in his wisdom placed this parish right here, and given us this specific group of people, this collection of ethnicities, of young and old, and he has put us in the middle of this city and he is saying to us, ‘There’s no need to send all these people away.  You feed them.  You reach them. You love them.’

Notice what the disciples did.   None of them said, um, feeding these people is the government’s responsibility. None of them said, um that’s the bishop’s job.  None of them said, I’m too poor, I don’t have anything I can give.  Instead they gave what they have.  And all they could come up with was five loaves and two fishes.  And we know from John’s gospel that even this was from a boy’s lunch that his mother packed for him.  I have a feeling that the disciples collected all this and presented it to Jesus to sort of make a point that, really, they were not in a position to feed more than 5000 people.  But do you see what Jesus does.  First he has all the people sit down.  Then He looks at what they bring, and he looks at them, and he essentially says, ‘Ok, this will do.’  And he breaks the loaves and the fish and he blesses them.  And then he starts handing them out.  He fills up basket after basket and the disciples take it and distribute it.  And more than 5000 hungry people eat until they are full and satisfied.  In fact each disciple fills up a basket full of leftovers.

This is a beautiful picture of stewardship.  The disciples give what they have.  And what they have is not enough.  In fact it’s so far short of what is needed that it is a joke.  But Jesus looks at it and says ‘This will do.’  and he breaks it and blesses it and it is more than enough.

Everything that I have, everything that you have is a gift given to you by God.  And it is given to me and to you so that we can use it for God’s glory.  Our time, our skills, our talents, and our money - it’s all given to me and to you so that we can be God’s blessing to someone, so that we can enable His kingdom to grow.  This is not a calling God gives to the bishop or to the priest or to the rich person, it’s the calling he gives to all of us.  And when we freely give back to the Lord, he can take the little we have and break and bless it, and then make it go beyond what any of us could ever ask or think.  But a person who thinks that his or her money belongs to just them, they will never see the glory of the Lord.  And the person who refuses to offer himself or herself on the altar to be used by the Lord will never see the power of God’s love at work through them.  And the person who believes that it is the bishop’s job to provide everything we need is guilty of robbing God of what God is calling you to give .

Put yourself in the place of one of those people sitting in the grass.  You heard the Lord Jesus speak this afternoon.  You are really hungry but you’ve been willing to listen because you have never heard anyone speak like this man.  And now, the men who are with him are bringing around food to share.  And you eat.  And you are satisfied.  You don’t know how so many people could be fed.  It seems like a miracle and that’s what people around you are saying.  You’re just grateful to have had something to eat, and you thank God for the blessing.  Now imagine the people around us, people who are not Orthodox, who do not know our Saviour Jesus.  Imagine what they will think and say when their lives are touched by us, when we start owning our church, when we start owning our calling, when we start owning our mission, when we start giving to Jesus what we have and who we are, when Jesus makes us his blessing in this place.  This is not a dream.  It’s not some  place far far away.  Instead its right here.  And it begins when our leaders find the courage to start leading, and when you and I start giving, giving who we are and what we have, back to the Lord, for him to break and bless and use for his glory.


A sermon preached on Sunday morning, July 30, 2017
At Sts. Cosmas and Damian Orthodox Cathedral, 
Nairobi, Kenya

The Gospel reading for today:
Matthew 14:14-22
14When He went ashore, He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  15When it was evening,the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.  22Immediately he made the disciples get in to the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Do I Talk or Keep Quiet?

Do I Talk or Keep Quiet?

Do I talk or keep quiet?
Do I write or delete the pages of my experience?
Do I broadcast or blackout what happened?

You will hurt the children.
You will embarrass your family.
You will make it uncomfortable for your friends.
Nobody wants to know about depression.
History is irrelevant.
Nobody cares about your struggles.
Nobody gives a damn what happened behind closed doors.
He said, she said.
Move on and look at the bright side.

So I am told.

Evil sprouts in silence,
in the hot black dirt of fear,
Snakes its choking vines,
Binding legs and arms
Around one's neck,
Covering eyes and mouth.
Diabolical kudzu
Smothering all beneath its green carpet of lies.

Don’t trouble me with what happened,
I don’t want to know.
Keep your stories to yourself.
Who was right? Who was wrong?
I’m sure you got what you deserved.

So these things happen? Just get over it?
Is that it?
The drunken husband beats his wife and rapes his daughter (behind closed doors), 
And we don’t want to know? That’s just the way it is?
The church elders assault the manager with their words for uncovering too much,
Lies, threats, she is forced out.  
And when the pastor and other staff rush to defend, 
More lies, more threats, and they too are gone. 
Convenient scapegoats.  
The pastor’s fault.  
In case anybody wants to know.
Which they don’t. 
And that’s ok?
Mean girls verbally batter their classmate 
Again and again.
She’s found hanging in the garage.
And should we not be concerned?

Self-serving shifting standards,   
It would seem.
One form of violence is appalling.
The other is not my problem.
Of no account.
We pass by the bloodied man
On the other side.

I want my children to know, 
because I never want what was done to me 
to be done to them.
I want my family to know, 
because I want them to grasp that evil is a part of us as well 
and pretending it doesn’t exist 
allows it to flourish
I want my friends to know,
So that they will realize that looking the other way 
will not make the wrong disappear.
I want to be honest about my depression 
So that someone driven to the same ledge 
where I found myself 
might know there’s a way off;  
So that family, friends, church will not continue 
to share the conspiracy of denial,
But will grasp that there is a darkness, 
a suffering that transcends physicality, 
that poisons the very well of the soul,
that they may not persecute any more, 
or ignore,
but help.

But most of all, 
I want the abuser 
to quit running,
quit denying,
quit blaming.
Changing behaviour is not so hard, 
with help.
It’s opening the eyes,
It’s remaking the heart.
Impossible.  I know.
Involves a crucifixion, you know.
Cut out your angry heart,
Sew in one that has the capacity to love again.
Standard operating procedure for the Saviour you confess 
Who made you,
And knows you,
And loves you.
But he cannot proceed unless you sign the papers.
And that’s where matters seem to have been stuck.
Many years stuck.
Many years that could have been otherwise.

Enabling has led to this mayhem. 
I was afraid if I stopped it would get worse.
I stopped.
The house fell down.
But just because I refuse to play any more 
Doesn’t mean my place hasn’t been taken 
by many, many others,
Who have their own reasons,
Their own dysfunctions.
Maybe they too will grow tired of playing the game.
Maybe having at last to live with oneself
Will give God the crack He needs.
Maybe, like Zacheaus, 
Salvation will come to this house, too. 


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Help My Unbelief

Help My Unbelief
(The 5th of 6 in my cycle of poems, The Valley of Shadow)

You are silent.  

But I was told that you are instant,
Help in trouble,
There for me,
Rushing to answer before I even finish asking.
The Cliche for every need.

Breath knocked out.
No one ever yelled at me!  
Where is this coming from?
Did we not make vows? 
To love?  
To cherish?
What did I do to deserve this from you?
The fire from your words burns,
It hurts.
Run, get away, hide,
Anything but stand in front of you and take this.

God!  Help!  Why?
But You are silent.
Married three months.  
Have I made a terrible mistake?

I am an expert now.  Beaten into submission.
I do what I need to do, whatever to avoid the blows.
But like clockwork I come short 
And you’ve been waiting.
You are always right. This justifies all.
You shrink me to nothing.
A mere boy,
and you the grownup,
so weary of playing that role.
Humiliation and condescension work best and sting deep.
You press in until I confess.
‘I’m sorry’ achieves your goal 
Though I don’t even know what monstrous thing I’ve done,
that makes me now your enemy.
Domination and control have usurped this marriage.

I stumble into the darkness
Going nowhere.  Just far away.
God! Help! Why?
But You are silent.
I drift alone in an ocean with no land in sight.

Ex nihilo storm force ten.
Nauseous I rush to close the windows
So the neighbors will not hear the shriek of your gale
Blasting at my heart, smashed against the wall.
They might think something is amiss.
Marital dissonance
sears my ears, batters my soul.  
Forced to dance to your discordant tune.
This feels so wrong.
I don’t know how to get away.
And you think this somehow good, proper, necessary?
Can you not see what you are doing to me?
Or is there a darker truth?
You are aware.  
You do know.  
You calculate to hurt.
Mocking words, 
shrill shouts, 
shaming names; 
Your savage contempt crumples me like a piece of paper, 
rips all my efforts to love you into a thousand pieces 
stripped away by the tempest.

Nobody hears.  
Nobody sees.  
Nobody knows.
Where can I possibly go?
I am all alone
Married to you.

Denial presses the darkness back into its hole.
I am fine.  Really.  We are fine.
Such great parents, a model couple.
On show for the relatives,
on display for the church.
But alone I break,
I plead with tears:
God! Help! Why?
But You are silent.
Change me! Change her!
I cannot hold it together.

I fall into blackness.  
No moon.  No stars.  Mid-day in eclipse.
You round on me.
Pounded by your accusations - 
‘Distant’, ‘morose’, ‘selfish’, I ‘take no initiative’, 
I am ‘mentally ill’, a sick sick man,
I force you to be the responsible one.
And then the ever-present chorus:
you are always, always right.
Never been wrong.
Just keep repeating, with feeling,
like some mindless praise and worship refrain. 
I remove myself.  I cannot respond, 
lest I throw up the emptiness substituting for my heart.  
Sit in my office.
Stare at nothing.  
I don’t know what’s wrong.  
I believe you.  You are my best friend.
It must be me.  
It must be me.

I cry, I shout, I beg -
God! Help!  Why?
But You are silent.
My pain, my confusion finds relief
Only with distraction, its pleasure 
Sharp relief to our barren bed.

The darkness is too great.
It presses.
I want to die.

I get help.
Unpacking decades is hard.
I begin to see what I have done.
I begin to see what you have done.
It's a lie.
It isn’t me.  It’s you.  All along.
I ask you to stop.  Many times - 

How dare me.
Rage, Storm, Verbal Blows bucket down.  
You laugh at me.  You pummel me.  
Accuse me of unfaithfulness.
Accuse me of lying.  
You transform self sex into adultery.
Hint darkly of divorce.
You take my deepest, most painful struggles 
and weave an ugly new narrative,
Reimagining me as having betrayed you 
when I’ve only ever been faithful.
My pain and confusion
Shared in confidence,
Becomes evidence for the prosecution.
I ‘abandoned’ you.
‘Stopped initiating intimacy’ with you.
But who can pretend to love when splayed upon your rack?
Never mind that you are wrong,
a playground bully hellbent on imposing your will.
Thirty years of intimidation.
It's worked so well.  It's the only game you know.
And my enabling part played to perfection.
No more.
Never mind your evidence makes the opposite case.
It suits your narrative.  
And you make it your reality, the story that gets told.
At least you are consistent. 
You have done nothing wrong.
Martyred by my terrible faults.
And if a ‘harsh word’ has been levelled at me, 
I have richly deserved it.
For you, it’s just another strategy,
one of many, the end the same,
to maintain control.
But I’m an Aztec prisoner, heart ripped out,
Your serial victim,
Tossed down your temple stairs.

This marriage has already died.
No breaking news, no service, no burial.
Just a corpse.
I keep trying to shake us, to wake us from slumber.
But only the foul rottenness of your contempt rises up, 
Of softly spoken brutal words.
You keep wielding the knife 
while all along proclaiming that I have murdered us.

Prayer without ceasing.
I am lost.
Everything that was safe, secure, settled, tied down,
Now unmoored in this hurricane, 
slammed onto rocks
Smashed again and again, splintered, 
broken pieces of wood.  

God. Help. Why?
But You are silent.
What’s left of my life washes up on the shore.

Everything is broken. 
I am broken.
I keep trying to run in the dark.
I trip. I fall.  
Stumble, I fall again.
Bloody knees.  Bloody hands.
God it hurts too much.  It’s too hard.
I don’t think I can go any further.
I don’t think I’m going to make it

Mother of God.
I stand before your icon.
Am I kissing heaven,
Or am I banging my head against a wall?
Every promise evaporated, every vision a mirage. 
Was it only ever about her control and my fear?

Loss takes many moments.  
Everything that was mine has somehow bled to her.
Sitting now in her house, robbed of context, 
stripped of all meaning.
My boyhood furniture, my mother’s hutch, 
my college photo albums, 
and all my books.  My bed.  My sofa. 
My grandfather’s World War I Army overcoat.  
Pictures of my children, the hoarded treasures of a life.  
Seized. By default.   
But not just things, 
Appropriated friends, 
who never stayed around long enough to ask why.
Happy to judge, second opinion be damned.  
And our life together reconstrued 
to make her look so very good 
and me the worst of villains.

It’s all gone.  Nothing left.
But the phantom pain of an amputated life.

I sift through blackened cinders.
In my loss, all I have is You.
God.  Help.  Why?
But for all the eager verbiage about You,

You’ve never been One for words.