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. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Contextualization Weirdness: Some Thoughts on Orthodox Missions and Evangelism in Kenya

Preaching on St. Photini, the Samaritan 'woman at the well', to whom Jesus said,  'If you knew the gift of God and who it was who was talking to you, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.'

Evangelism is a lost art, a forgotten priority in many, if not most Orthodox parishes.  Many of us seem to think that our very existence, or the fact that we open our doors on Sunday, or put a sign outside identifying us, or hold an annual fete is enough for us to declare victory in the evangelism department and then go home having done our duty.  But most of us don’t even think of Orthodoxy and evangelism as existing in the same book, much less in the same sentence.  Most of us, if we are honest, including myself, have had our attitudes about evangelism badly mauled by the excessive, hyper-emotional, manipulative over-doing that passes for evangelism on the part of the TV and mega-church gods and in some Protestant and Pentecostal churches.  Sometimes one cannot tell whether the purpose is to preach some gospel or to demand donations as a demonstration of one’s faith.  The mix of salvation, emotionalism, promises of prosperity and healing and the ever present request for money leaves an understandable bad taste in one’s mouth, and has made not a few people say, if this is what ‘evangelism’ is, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Living in Kenya as I do, one cannot escape the presence of religion.  Almost everybody claims to be a Christian of one sort or another.  This is interesting in that Kenya also is one of the more corrupt countries in the world, one riven by ethnic hatreds, with high rates of promiscuity, domestic violence, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, etc.  Which might lead one to suspect that for all the religious hoopla, Christianity actually makes little difference in the way people actually live and has little impact on the communities and cultures of this land.  But that is for another time.

The largest denomination in Kenya is the Roman Catholic Church.  But the predominant style of Christianity that has overrun this country is Pentecostalism in its various forms.  And a Pentecostal style has become the preferred way of preaching, even in many non-Pentecostal churches.  And a Pentecostal style of ‘worship’, with a keyboard or a band and a worship leader with other singers dancing their hearts out, all miked and blaring out of over-taxed loudspeakers, undoubtedly making a contribution to the collective deafness of the community - all of these things, and especially the (very) loud speakers are being reproduced in church after church.  Churches may not be able to afford to pay their pastor, or take care of their poor, or construct a proper building.  But by golly they will have a keyboard and loudspeakers at the very least.  I have traveled over most of the country, and there is not a single place I have visited that hasn’t had many if not most of their churches in more-or-less Pentecostal mode.

All of which leads me to ask, when Orthodox Christians choose to do evangelism here in Kenya, how should we go about doing it?  Should we organise pilgrimages and processions and carry icons around the community whilst chanting?  Should we run seminars to better acquaint our neighbours with who we are and where we come from?  It has been said that funerals are actually a significant (and for many the only) point of contact with Orthodox priests and services.  To our credit (in my opinion) the simplicity and beauty of our funeral liturgy compares favourably with the way funerals are done in other denominations.  But this is more on the lines of exposure as opposed to evangelism.

So if we Orthodox Christians want to introduce people to Jesus, and introduce them to Orthodoxy, how then should we proceed?

People who think about mission strategy have always observed that things go better if we Christians take steps to meet our neighbours where they are (in terms of their context, assumptions, lifestyle, issues, etc) rather than force them to come meet us where we are.  This, of course, means being willing to leave the comfort of the familiar and to venture into territory that we are not used to experiencing.  This can be literally, in that we leave the confines of the Church and go to where the people we want to reach are.  In the UK where I lived, the Anglican Church I was a part of would have regular ‘Pub Nights’ where we would have a team from the church go to one of the local pubs, share a pint with the locals and use either a pub quiz or some other game as a way to introduce spiritual issues into the conversation. This would usually lead to several good conversations about Christ, Christianity, salvation and discipleship.  In Kenya I have tried this approach in several contexts and found an amazing openness on the part of people in the various bars I’ve visited.  I’m surprised that more Christians with a heart for evangelism are not fishing where the fish are, so to speak.  And it’s not just in bars.

The context for a baptismal liturgy in small town western Kenya.

But there is another way we can contextualise our evangelistic efforts as Orthodox Christians.  Again rather than wait for people to walk in our doors and imbibe the Orthodox essence and fall on their face and cry out that God is surely in your midst, we can also go into our community’s religious and experiential space, one that has been staked out by a veneer of Pentecostal style, and we can claim that space as our own.  In other words contextualization in Kenya no longer means communicating the gospel in terms of an African Traditional Religious perspective that actually has almost entirely disappeared.  That world view is drying up all over the continent like a water hole in drought.  The common coin of religious experience these days is the hoopla of Pentecostal form, if not content.  This is the wave-length that most people are on, and this is the wave-length that most people are responding to, at least initially.  It may be incredibly superficial, but it is where people are and what they know.  Even some of our own Orthodox parishes have introduced ‘praise and worship’ singing and dancing after the Divine Liturgy.  Imagine.

Preaching at the new St. Tabitha's Orthodox Church meeting in the orphanage sitting room.

So how do we reach our communities?  We speak to them in a language they understand, using a format that they can comprehend, in a style that won’t chase them away.  That means we probably forgo Byzantine chant in favour of a keyboard, singers and loudspeakers.  That means we probably have our event in a place where local people gather.  That means we speak in a style that wont be a stumbling block to the audience.  It’s still Orthodoxy, but its not dressed in a cassock; rather it’s Orthodoxy dressed in local garb.  And in this case, local garb is in Pentecostal style.

I have always studied contextualization in terms of understanding the uniqueness of the host culture, their religious assumptions, their rhetorical style, their concerns and priorities, and then taking the gospel and finding a way to communicate it effectively in light of these parameters.  Much is made of the ‘African world view’ (forgetting of course that ‘Africa’ is a very big place and that there is no such thing as an ‘African’ world view.)  Maybe a Kikuyu world view or a Luhya world view is more appropriate.  And these things are still important even today.  But less and less so.

Even so, care must be taken after we have identified the importance of Pentecostal style for communicating the gospel.  The ubiquity of Pentecostal style is certainly an indication of its success in permeating the various cultures of Kenya.  But as I observed above, the shallowness of the resulting Christianity serves as a warning that the advance of a Pentecostal style is not necessarily the same thing as an advance of the Kingdom of God. For all the 'Christians' here, Kenya is still desperately in need of evangelizing.

I think that, with care, even we Orthodox can use a Pentecostal style to gain a hearing for our Orthodox faith.  Paul was willing to be all things to all people so that he might win some for Christ. We should be ready to do no less than the Apostle.

Not what I was expecting. But then not many people here would respond to Palestrina.

So imagine my bemusement when we traveled to western Kenya and held a ‘crusade’ in a small town on the way between Webuye and Kakamega.  We had a banner replete with pictures of the speakers, announcing three days of ‘Gospel’ meetings sponsored by the local Orthodox parish.  We had our sound system and requisite (very) loud speakers.  We had our worship leader and singers, which led to worship songs and dancing.  And we had testimonies, introductions, and finally the preacher who would preach for an hour or so.  Followed by more singing and dancing until it was getting dark and we had to go home.  I’m a former Presbyterian minister, a university lecturer, an Orthodox  Christian and presently the dean of the Orthodox seminary - this is not my idiom.  But this is one of the ways we can reach people for Christ, one of the ways we can use to build bridges between the weird world of Pentecostal style and the even stranger world of Orthodox Christianity.  And there were people who responded.  I don’t think I am going to quit my day job any time soon and become a television evangelist.  But there is a place and a need for going to where the people are and engaging them in a way that they can hear with the actual gospel of Christ, not the half-cocked, me-centered pablum they are used to being fed.  God knows there are many others trying to do the same as we are trying to do and preaching something other than the true gospel.  If we the Orthodox won't be bothered to allow others to hear the gospel from us, we leave the field to the wolves and heretics, and reveal ourselves to be motivated by a different spirit than that of Christ’s.  So this is not a trivial matter.

Preaching on St. Mary's 'Yes' to God, in contrast to Eve's 'No' in the Garden of Eden.

These are just some thoughts, trying to place my experience of this past weekend in the wider frame work of missions, evangelism and contextualization.  I don't mind helpful criticism, or better ideas on how we Orthodox can undertake our commission to preach the gospel in our Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  But critics will have more credibility if they themselves are helping their own parishes reach out beyond their Churches and engage with the lost souls of our contexts.