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.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sinners and Lent

Today, the 5th Sunday of Lent, we Orthodox Christians remembered St. Mary of Egypt.  If there had been an award for Most Notorious Sinner, Mary just might have won. She was the epitome of the loose woman, the one the Book of Proverbs spends so many early verses warning young (and presumably also old) men about.  Mary didn’t slink around trying to hide her sins the way many Christians do, who thereby earn the label of hypocrite.  No, Mary sinned boldly, with enthusiasm, without thought or care for any implications.  She loved pleasure.  She loved the passions, and embraced them in an ongoing wild orgy of self-centeredness.

Mary was converted dramatically to Christ.  She went from a woman trying desperately to seduce the Christian men with whom she was traveling to Jerusalem to suddenly seeing, understanding, realizing her sin for what it was, what it was doing to herself and others, and then fathoming what repentance was and what it would mean for her.

In response, Mary went to the desert.  She went to the desert to repent, to fast and to pray.  She was in the desert for years.  She died fasting, praying and repenting.

It says a lot about the Orthodox Church that St. Mary is not just remembered, but given such a prominent place in our annual Lenten fast and in our spiritual preparation for Holy Week.  At our best, we make room for great sinners like Mary, because each one of us is also a great sinner.  At our best, we refuse to judge our neighbor, but instead direct our energies towards remembering our own sins, failures and shortcomings.  We don’t sweep sin under the rug because of the scandal it might cause.  Rather we have a way to deal with it.  We go to confession.  We own what we’ve done and who we are.  We listen to wise counsel, and we kneel before the presence of Christ and confess and receive Christ’s forgiveness.

I spent decades looking for just such a safe place.  It wasn’t that I was in denial.  I knew from my youth that I was a great sinner and that I was struggling with serious issues.  But everywhere I turned I saw people dealing with ‘sinners’ as if they were some contagion.  People who were caught ‘in sin’ were disgraced, dismissed, removed, or, my favorite, sent off for ‘counseling,’ which of course meant they were never coming back.  Sin was such a scandal, especially sexual sin.  Such treatment had a chilling effect.  It almost never reduced the number of sinners or the incidence of sin.  Instead people became very good at putting on a pious front and finding ways to do what they did so that they would never get caught.  The reason I know this is because I talked to a lot of men in the churches that I pastored.  I tried to be a safe place where men could come and talk and know that they would not be judged or outed.  And while I would never betray a confidence, I can say that men, at least, almost universally it seemed to me, were struggling profoundly with temptations and sins, and there was no place to go with their struggle.  So they kept quiet and struggled silently.  In our churches, we prided ourselves on having preserved the gospel and being the place where we could experience the grace of God through faith in Christ.  But in reality our churches were not hospitals where sinners could experience grace and receive the medicine of repentance.  Instead we were too often ministries of condemnation.  I could confess losing my temper in a difficult traffic situation – that was a tolerable sin; but was there any space to confess a pornography addiction, or that my marriage was not what it seemed?  Nope.

We Orthodox certainly have our share of hypocrites, our share of nominal ‘Christians’ whose claim to the Church is based on ethnicity but not on spirituality.  But we have made a long-standing decision to make room for the Marys of Egypt who show up in our Narthex looking for something and perhaps not even knowing what.  That choice, to welcome Mary, means I was welcomed, too.  It means that every single sinner that shows up at an Orthodox Church – and there are a lot of us – we are welcome, too. (I know there are terrible exceptions where we treat new comers as if they don’t exist or worse.  Those Churches obviously have issues, too.)  We sinners need not slink around afraid that someone might throw us out of the house or out of the Church if they ever found out what I was really struggling with.  No, we own our sin, our brokenness, our anger, our hypocrisy, our enslavement to one or more or all of the passions.  Because that’s the only way we will ever see Christ, and receive from Him the medicine for our souls. Isn’t that what this Christianity is supposed to be about?

So many people around me claim to have been ‘saved,’ but I wonder if that is even possible because most people around me believe they have actually never done anything that would require the services of a Savior.  So much of what is said in church is just religious rhetoric that means very little.  The reason I say that is that so much Christianity seems to make so little difference in people’s lives, in how they treat each other, in how they manage their recourses, in whether they are self-oriented in what they choose to do and say, or whether they are Christ-centered in what they choose to do and say.  And I think people are aware enough of the politics that poison most churches to create doubt as to whether these so-called church leaders have any knowledge of Christ at all.

It’s worth asking – is your church, is my church a safe place to be a sinner?  And by sinner, I mean a person who is grappling with the consequences of who they are and what they have done and trying to find their way out of brokenness and back to wholeness.  If you can answer yes, then fall on your knees right now in gratitude to God for bringing you home.  For this is the essence of the Kingdom of God that Christ is establishing in our midst.   But if I can only answer no, then realize that however excellent the theology, however exciting the ‘worship’, however fantastic the preaching, however popular the church, Christ is not there.  And if Christ is not there, I may find many things, but I won’t find the one thing needful, the only One who can heal my soul.

During Orthros this morning, about two thirds through, after we had sung Psalm 50 (51) and venerated the Gospel book, we chanted this:

Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life, for early in the morning my spirit hastens to Your holy temple, bringing the temple of my body all defiled.  But as one compassionate, cleanse me, I pray, by Your loving-kindness and mercy.

Guide me in the paths of salvation, O Theotokos [mother of God], for I have befouled my soul with shameful sins and I heedlessly squandered all of my life’s resources.  By your intercession deliver me from every uncleanness.

When I ponder in my wretchedness on the many terrible things that I have done, I tremble for that fearful day, the Day of Judgment.  But trusting in the mercy of your compassion, like David I cry to You, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy.’

As we chanted these three verses, I remembered my own journey.  My own struggle with sin has been long and great.  And places and people that I thought were safe turned out not to be.  And I have lost much.  But I am grateful that, like Mary, I have finally found a safe place.  And that safe place is Christ and the other great sinners who are in fact His people.

Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all of the saints, and the prayers of St. Mary of Egypt, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.

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.