Thursday, November 2, 2017

It Will Not End Well

I have just lost a friend.  I never met him.  I knew him because he somehow heard of me and sought me out and we started an off and on again correspondence that ended just before I returned to the US.  We had made plans to meet finally when I came to Tidewater later this month.  And now he’s gone.

Mark was still a young man, in his 40s, the father of two children.  He was a musician, much more accomplished than me, a composer whose works had been performed internationally.  He had gone through the excruciating demise of his marriage, which ended in divorce this past year.  I could relate.  We talked about it.  He was also a seeker after God.  When his Baptist faith no longer could sustain the gravity of his questions, he turned east and started attended the Orthodox Church.  Once again, I could relate.

In September, his femur snapped in the simple act of walking.  Since healthy bones don’t just snap, further investigation discovered cancer.  There was surgery, setbacks, infections.  And then, this morning, I learned that he died.

Random picture from the internet meant to serve as an illustration of the sort of thing Death does.

My American culture puts a brave face on death by choosing not to deal with it.  Christian America tries to paint death as a positive thing, where the deceased leaves this world of pain and suffering and goes to heaven to be with Jesus.  I have officiated scores of funerals where we cope with death by celebrating the life of the deceased.

But even a cursory survey of the New Testament and the witness of apostolic Christianity will reveal that this idea of escaping this world and going to heaven when we die has more in common with a platonized gnosticism than it does with anything Jesus and the Apostles ever taught. 

Jesus is doing something different, and it has to do with the coming of the Kingdom of God and the remaking, not just of humanity in His image, but all of creation, so that we become anew what God intended us to be.  And so the Gospel is doing something different, and it has not to do with providing ‘fire insurance’ so that we can be forgiven and thus ‘saved’, but with calling us to repentance and reconciliation with one another and with God, thus laying the existential foundation for the Church as the countercultural Kingdom of God, the beach-head of the transforming reign of Christ in this world.

But there is a major problem with this and every attempt to make sense of this world, and that problem is death.  Because as long as we die, it will not end well for any of us.  Whatever controversy exists about what sin is and who is a worse sinner than whom, the fact that every single one arguing the point will die means that rightness or wrongness on the question is actually a moot point - we are all in more trouble than we can imagine.

In spite of the denial, in spite of the way our health care and death industries try to sanitize what death does, none of us can escape the fact that death destroys us.  Already many of us are suffering the gradual breakdown of our bodies or our mental capacities, from which there is no climbing back out.  And it doesn’t stop with the cessation of of our hearts and brainwaves.  Death goes on to destroy our bodies.  That would be horrible enough, but death robs us of our most valuable possessions.  Some people might be thinking of the things that they are finally separated from at death - their clothes, their house, their bank accounts, their pleasures.  But I’m thinking of those intangible possessions that are even more precious to us - our relationships.  I will never again sit in my mother’s kitchen and have a conversation with her.  I will never get to witness my brother-in-law's joy and pride as he holds his grandchildren.  I will never know my own brother who died as an infant.  Death destroys our relationships.  And there is not only no more opportunity to enjoy the love we shared, there is also no more chance to fix the brokenness we might have inflicted that was left unmended.

It doesn’t end well.  For any of us.

I have been privileged to meet an octogenarian priest and his octogenarian wife this past week, both of them still active, both of them still sharp. They had five children who are now my age, and now their children’ children are having children.  It is a big, boisterous family, not without its share of drama, but about as close as I’ve seen to getting it right.  And even this godly man and this godly woman will have their long life cut short by death.  And the years will come and go, and then one day all that’s left are just names on someone’s genealogy, and then even they will be buried in the shifting sand of history yet to be, and forgotten.

As the Apostle Paul says, ‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied above all people.’ (1 Corinthians 15:19)

I grieve for my dead friend from a distance.  I see so much of myself in the mirror of his life.  And I am reminded how quickly it could all be gone.

Even this morning before I read the news, I wrote out my daughter’s name and phone number on the back of my business card and stuck it in the back pocket of my running shorts in case for some reason I didn’t make it back, a habit I started over 17 years of living in Africa.  It is that kind of world, and we are not guaranteed tomorrow, much less the next stride on my run.

So here are my takeaways. 
If my religion does not have an answer for my friend’s death, my spouse’s death, my child’s death, then it is not worth believing.

And if there is anything undone that I would regret leaving undone if I were to be called off the stage tomorrow, then get it done.  Have that conversation. Try yet again to be reconciled.  Do everything in my power to make it right.

Give thanks for the resurrection of Christ.  Our problem isn’t simply that we need forgiveness.  And I am grateful for the cross.  But forgiveness is useless unless we also have deliverance from what Paul calls ‘the final enemy’ - death.  The goal of our salvation is not some bodiless heaven.  Our goal is the New Jerusalem, for which we shall be raised from the dead and made anew like Christ himself, who is the New Adam.  

As the Apostle John says, ‘Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears.  But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.’ (1 John 3:2)

This is my hope and prayer for my friend who just died, whose broken body could no longer sustain his life.  The day is coming, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and will rise from their graves, however they may be scattered and lost and forgotten.  And we will hear our Lord call us by name.  And with new eyes we shall see him, and we shall stand and be like him, and we will live our new life forever in the new heavens and the new earth.

Death is terrible.  And we are all walking through the valley of its shadow.  But death will not have the last word.

Monday, October 16, 2017

When Someone Really Doesn't Like What I Am Doing

Sometimes the most painful opposition comes from people on the inside, from so-called friends who see themselves as self-appointed warriors rushing to the defense of the Church.  I usually don't allow personal attacks to stay, but I felt I needed to respond to this.  I think it is important to realize that 1) there are people who are saying things like this; and 2) there are people who think it is ok to say things in this way.   I personally believe it would be good to have an honest engagement with the issues that my unhappy correspondent raises, as well as the ones I raise.  But I also want to flag that personal attacks are never acceptable in any context, much less between people who consider themselves to be Christians.  Sadly, this person was not interested in engaging with me further, for reasons this person has kept to themselves.  But it it doesn’t mean I/we can’t learn something from the interactions. 

So this ‘friend’ wrote to complain that I was trying to raise money to send a bunch of books given to me to the libraries at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary and St. Paul’s University, the schools where I teach in Nairobi.  When I indicated with a ‘?’ that I didn’t understand why she was unhappy, this person wrote what follows below.  

Oh you want a comment? Okay, here ya go. So why are you soliciting Orthodox people to send you money to ship Protestant books to a Protestant school for Protestants? In fact whay [sic] are you teaching at a Protestant school? You can't have one foot in Orthodoxy and one back in your old religion. I have thought for some time that you are just some gung-ho Protestant missionary who for some obscure reason found it more convenient to do your own missionary thing under an Orthodox umbrella, And that you are still basically doing your own Protestant thing, still filled with and teaching all your old Protestant ideas and practices and using your old Protestant models and methods. I have thought of unfriending and blocking you before but thought no, I'll stick around and see what you are up to, Well I have heard enough. This soliciting money from Orthodox to ship Protestant books---and using a picture of Orthodox priests to get it-- is as sleezy [sic] as it comes. You are exactly the kind of person we do not need in missions in Africa. I would suggest you go back to America and join a traditional congregation there, as a layperson,  where you can learn instead of trying to teach--because all you are doing is sowing Protestant seeds in Orthodox Africa...."the blind leading the blind". So, I am sending this same message to you privately, so you can see it, and then I am blocking you. I want no contact with this kind of nonsense.

I tried to respond to the message, but had already been blocked.  This is what I wrote:

Dear ——-, 
I am willing to be wrong, but you sound like a person who has a lot of unresolved anger, and I just happen to be the latest recipient who has gotten in the way.  I have my own set of issues which I have owned and am trying to get the help I need.  I hope you can take the same steps.  As to your charges (and it does rather feel like you have taken the role of prosecuting attorney here), probably about half of the books are appropriate for and intended for the Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary library, for which I am administratively responsible as deputy dean under HE Makarios.  As to involvement with a Protestant school, I look at it as a strategic opportunity to introduce colleagues and students who would otherwise be ignorant of Orthodoxy to the treasures of Orthodox theology, history and spirituality. I know this kind of engagement is effective, because it is in this way that I became aware of Orthodoxy after 40 years of knowing nothing about it.  

As to me being influenced by Protestantism, well duh.  I became a Christian as a Charismatic Presbyterian, worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in campus ministry for 8 years, attended an Evangelical seminary, served as a Presbyterian minister for 21 years, was  a Protestant missionary for 11 years in East Africa and published a book on the man who wrote the most influential book on Protestant pastoral ministry.  So yes, I would agree with your insinuation that I have been influenced by Protestantism.  Unlike you, though, I think we Orthodox can learn a few things from our Roman Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters, not in a way that changes what we have received in terms of our written and apostolic tradition, but in terms of how we apply it.  Too many of our churches are bound by the chains of ethnic identity or self-centeredness which serves narrow ethnic and personal agendas rather than the kingdom of God.  We could learn a thing or two from our Protestant and Catholic friends who have been much more effective at reaching out in evangelism and charity than our own ethnic enclaves.  There are exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule.  Given that Jesus says that the tree is known by the fruit it bears (and not by being precisely correct in doctrine, by the way), while I would prefer to get both right, if I am going to err, I would much rather get the love and outreach part right than nail everything down perfectly on the doctrine side. 

Lastly, you talk as though you have inside knowledge of Orthodoxy as it exists in Kenya and the rest of Africa.  You sound like you know exactly what we need and how to make it work, how to solve our long time dysfunctions, how to get around the substantial conflicts, how to reach the hundreds of different cultures around us with the Gospel, how to order our priorities and how best to come up with the funds we desperately need, how to make bricks without straw.  Since you know what we need, and what we don't need (i.e. apparently me the former Protestant), please come and help us.  Come put your life on the line the way I and my colleagues have been willing to do, going into places that the rest of the world doesn't consider to be 'safe'.  Come pour your life into what so often feels like a lost cause.  Come leave your family, your home, your friends, your culture like I and my colleagues have done, and come instead to a place and culture that's strange and different and hard. Come give your talents and your abilities and your money like I and all of my colleagues there do on a daily basis to people who will never be able to pay us back.  It is so very easy to sit behind a screen and lob snark in someone's direction.  And you may be right in some of your critiques, or even all of your critiques.  But so what?  Unfortunately it reveals more about you than it does about those of us trying to serve our Lord in Kenya and other parts of the world.  If I had any sense that you actually cared for us, for the work there, for me, I might be willing to listen and hear you as a valuable counselor.  But unfortunately I don't see your motive as being trying to help, or to build up; but rather to hurt and tear down.  I end as I began - there is a lot of anger in your words, and I have lived long enough to realize it's probably not aimed at me.  I'm just in the way of whatever it is that spins your wheels.  Please get the help you need.  You probably have a lot to offer, but not like this.  And when you have dealt with the log in your own eye, please come over and help us.  We surely need it.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The End of 'Boys' and 'Girls'

'Emotion dolls' used in a gender-neutral Swedish preschool

Just when one might fervently hope we had arrived at peak idiocy in the so-called ‘social justice’ culture wars, I read this morning in a major news outlet that several Swedish primary schools have banned the use of the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ in an effort to abolish gender stereotypes from an early age. (  One might as well ban the words penis and vagina whilst one is at it.  This effort of culture cleansing is making the gigantic assumption that all culturally-ingrained sexual stereotypes are wrong and should be excised.  They are also making the assumption that banning words is a significant way to go about doing this.  They are making a further assumption that because a tiny percentage of the population is gender-confused, that the best way to deal with that is to make their confusion the new norm and to declare the vast majority of human beings to be abnormal in their experience and use of language.  The crazy thing is, these people are succeeding in redefining both language and the morality behind that language.

Sweden is an interesting choice for such a cultural experiment because genuine Christian morality was replaced long ago by a moral posture that has abolished absolutes and instead has thrown the anchor of morality overboard into the abyss of a bottomless sea of subjectivity and the power of human reason and human society to decide what is best for everybody but never hitting bottom, giving the appearance of moral certitude but driven across the sea by the contrary stormy winds of moral fashion and whim.  We have seen this happen before in every totalitarian society that has to create a new morality to sustain it’s ideology.  Like so many first century Roman galleys, it’s not a matter of if but when these out of control forces drive the ship into the rocks. 

Ironically, these self-proclaimed cultural elites decry the imposition of absolute Christian values on the basis that no such absolutes exist, only to replace them with their own set of values that turn out to be even more absolutist and totalitarian than those they are replacing.  This complete hypocrisy goes unnoticed by most in the press and government because they are, after all, playing the same game.

I have made the observation before and must make it again.  We are no longer in a majority Christian culture, and Christian values are no longer defining our society.  We are reverting to a point in the Church’s history where the dominant values, culture and language was pagan and where the politics and resulting society was controlled top-down and was essentially totalitarian.  Given that Christians, when we did control governments and cultures, made such an utter hash of things by our incompetence and corruption, I am not persuaded that the cultural revolt against Christian morality we are witnessing today is an altogether bad thing.  In too many instances we Christians have ended up hurting others and not helping others.  We are getting what we deserved for our terrible stewardship.  Whilst in a minority status in the Roman world, Christians were able to focus on those things that distinguished themselves from everybody around them - their love of God, their love of neighbor and their willingness to live and die for what they believed.  Their neighbors took notice, and some of them were drawn to the faith as a result.  Does anybody stand up and take notice of Christians today except for the unfriendly press that is constantly on the prowl to catch out Christians in their hypocrisy (which is all too easy to do, evidently)?  The reason is likely that Christians, who are supposed to be God’s counter-culture in this world have instead embodied the world by their lifestyle and their values, a lifestyle and values that too often give the lie to the faith that they profess.

So these Swedish educators undoubtedly feel noble, that they are on the cutting edge of where society is going and thus doing a good thing.  We Christians may feel that they are instead placidly paddling towards the Niagra Falls of cultural degradation.  But we need to ask ourselves, how have we contributed to all the negative stereotypes of men and women that are used to abuse both individuals and entire genders?  When have we not stepped up to stop the terrible treatment of women as made equally with men in the image of God?  When have we not defended the beauty, the reality and the necessity of gender differences as essential in God’s created paradise, whilst separating from them the ways these differences have been used to deny women equal rights and privileges in both law and culture from the richness these differences and diversities give us?  We Christians have enabled the further bad treatment of women (and minorities) by passively ignoring that bad treatment or actively participating in the prejudices of the surrounding culture.

But now we are adrift in an ocean of moral madness.  We’re already battered by the waves of so-called sexual freedom and the pornogrified culture it has been shaping for a generation.  The murder of unborn infants is now passe, as is state-sanctioned euthanasia in too many states and countries.  Christian morality has been curtly dismissed from the discussion and our own hypocrisy has sent us packing from the table.  So now yet another wave pushes us further into open water. Swedish schools are saying goodbye to ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.  This is crazy.  This is chilling.  But as with so much going on in our world (see below) I’m sad to say it’s not surprising.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

We Should Not Be Surprised

Appalled? Yes. Heartbroken? How could we not be?  Surprised at the mass murder of 58 country music concert goers in Las Vegas earlier this week?  No.  The fact that there are people in our society who have the desire to cause mayhem on a massive scale is not new news.  The fact that these people now have the means to do so is the changing variable.  And we, as Americans in the society that we have created, are enabling them.

Evidently no one pays any attention to a rich old white man who wishes to assemble enough firepower to arm a National Guard regiment.  He did it legally!  But as with so many things in our hyper-litigious society, just because something is legal does not mean that it is necessarily moral.  Nevertheless, we are the ones who set up the rules to make this possible.

The governing political party has gone to bed with a gun lobby whose strategy to promote the protection of what they perceive to be 2nd amendment gun ownership rights is to beat back furiously any and every attempt to proscribe those rights, however sane and common-sensical they may be.  Introduce a bill to outlaw nuclear-tipped assault rifle ammunition - Damn those commies to hell - they are trying to take our guns away!!!  Everything for these people is an onramp to the slippery slope of government agents showing up in the middle of the night to relieve you of your firearms.  And to forestall that apocalyptic event from ever happening, everything must be allowed. EVERYTHING!  You want a howitzer to round off your gun collection?  Just get Amazon to deliver one to you by drone.  You can already get pre-1986 machine guns if you have enough money.  The day is coming, if one follows the logic, when you can get your own patriot missile system as well.  And we will all want one.  To protect us from that nefarious government of ours.

The claim that the government is going to take away our guns is specious.  This will never happen.  But even though this will never happen, this is the stick that is used to beat us all senseless.  And we have become completely senseless on the issue of guns in this country.  Go to any gun lobby - sponsored rally and you will hear the same discredited cliches tarted up for a new generation of proud American gun owners who just want to enjoy their constitutional rights.  But dangerously, too many refuse to listen to any argument that does not line up with their presuppositions.  The moral contortions thus produced are worthy of a county fair freak show, if there was anyone left to care about morality.  It has become all about getting what I want, and protecting my right to get want I want at all costs.  The constitution is, among many things, a document that seeks to chart a course between the rights of the individual and the needs of the community.  But in this case the pendulum has swung itself into low earth orbit on the individual rights side, and today (and in fact every day when it comes to the unnecessary insanity of gun violence) the needs of the community are buried with every gun death funeral.

Americans, we have set up our society to be precisely like this.  And because we value abstract ‘rights’ more than real human lives, we will continue to witness people with guns taking more and more American lives.  We are the ones who are doing this, enabling this. And this - what happened in Las Vegas - is neither the last time this will happen, nor the worst it will be. This is appalling. This is insane.  This is heartbreaking.  But it should not surprise anybody.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Christianity in the Land of Litmus Tests

I’ve watch this happen slowly, surely, a landslide starting with a few skittering rocks, dragging loose more and more of the terrain until the whole mountainside seems to be sliding, burying everything in its path.  American society has become increasingly fractured, trivialized.  Historians will tell us that this has, to some extent, always been the case.  But never has the disintegration of the public square been so polarizing, so self-absorbed.  Suddenly, just this week, we have now to either support kneeling football players protesting police brutality towards people of color or we are all racists, or we have to stand up for our national anthem and respect our flag and risk becoming unAmerican, anti-military/anti-veterans and a disgrace to the country if we don’t.  We must - MUST! - allow biological boys to self select to be girls/young women and use that genders facilities (and visa versa) or we have become the cultural off-scouring of the planet, bigots who HATE transgender people.  And not only must we be tolerant of people who choose (or otherwise) to be sexually active with members of their own sex, we MUST also give our unreserved approval for the LGBT manifesto for the complete rewriting of Western civilization’s two millennia old code of sexual morality.  To disagree makes one guilty of HATE, reveals one to be HOMOPHOBIC.  To not sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because it violates one’s sense of morality makes one liable to a law suit, a lawsuit that one will lose.  The internet is itself a neutral tool.  But it is used today by many activist as a powerful magnifier of public shaming, and public shaming is one of the most effective methods ever devised to ensure public conformity.  Universities have for hundreds of years been a place that encourages the exploration of ideas without the fear of being quashed by cultural norms.  But today, universities have become the vanguard of that very quashing.  Ideas that are deemed not to measure up to the new hyper-liberal orthodoxy cause fragile psyches to flee into trigger-free zones.  To disagree with me is to HATE me, to become guilty of HATE-SPEECH.  An invitation to a known conservative to address a conservative audience is enough to cause a riot.  And the threat of violence is always effective in shutting down dissident events on grounds of ‘security’.

Are we serious?

The intellectual barbarians have succeeded in sacking Rome.  But just like the Visigothic king Alaric, whose army in 410 plundered Rome of its riches and then left (because establishing and maintaining a society is not as fun as ruining it), just like the little boy at the beach who is gifted at knocking down someone’s masterpiece of a sandcastle, both have nothing to replace what they have destroyed.  LGBT/liberal-driven 'morality' (what might be described as mirage morality) has ridden the wave of media-induced ‘popularity’ but driven by self-interest it has no staying power.  Having gotten rid of the reasons behind more traditional Christian-based morality, these people will discover too late that the foundations of their own sense of justice and outrage are Christian principles and that these have been engulfed and swept away by their same landslide that so altered the cultural scene.  There is no reason why what these people are telling us is true, or right.  True and right no longer exist.  These people are simply being reactionary, and their engine of outrage will take them only so far.  Once they dispense with right and wrong, they are only walking on hubris to judge me or you as being right or wrong, good or bad.  And once we arrive at this point - and we are there right now - morality is no longer tied to ideas or to revelation, but to power.  Nietzche's observation that morality does not exist, only power - or as the aphorism says 'might makes right' is unfolding right in front of us.  It is always this way when a society takes a turn towards totalitarianism.  That is where we are moving right now, and with shocking speed.  And history attests again and again that this is a train we really don’t want to be on.

Christianity was never intended to be a power religion.  It was a persecuted minority for much of its first three centuries.  Every time the Church has attempted to become a power within society, within the economy, within the governing powers, bad things have happened.  Church history provides full evidence to back up my claim.  So the reflex of so many American Christians to try to use the levers of government or law or the economy or the culture to wrest back control from the godless forces, the demonic Legion that has gripped our world today, will only end in compromise and failure, just like it has every other time Christians have attempted to force their views, their theology, their morality on the culture.

We Christians could learn a lot from the early Church.  Like, the Church and Christians will be persecuted, and we should expect it.  Like, Christians are always at their best when they are loving God with all their heart and loving their neighbor as themselves.  Like, Christians should separate themselves from their idols of materialism and success and ladder-climbing (we simply ape ‘the world’ with all of this) and focus instead on the things that Jesus is concerned about.

I have called other countries ‘home’ besides America for 21 years.  I have come back ‘home’ and found a different place, a different culture from what I left.  Unfortunately, the Church that I was a part of in the 70s, 80s and 90s has continued its slide into compromise and has lost all moral authority.  Is it any wonder that the surrounding culture has ceased to take Christians seriously?  This is nobody’s fault but our own.  The culture is simply doing what fallen cultures do.  But we have ceased, in large measure, doing what the Church is called to do.  We have lots of mega 'churches' and media 'ministries', but what do these have to do with the Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles?  Is there anybody else over here bothered by these things?  

These next years will not be easy.  But they will go a long way towards demonstrating whether American Christianity has any good news worth proclaiming, of if we will continue down the broad highway that presently stretches out for miles in front of us. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Evangelicals and Orthodox Together - Imagine

I have just returned from Cambridge in the UK where I attended the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative conference on theological education.  It was my second opportunity to attend an LOI event.  I joined our Archbishop Makarios last year at the consultation in Addis Ababa.  As I have lived both in Addis (2000-2008) and Cambridge (1996-1999), the chance to participate in an international symposium like this has been augmented by the chance to go home.

Last week was like a dream.  Many of the presentations were stimulating.  But most interesting to me were the numerous layers of my own life experience coming together.  There were people from my Cambridge past there, from my Ethiopia past (including former students who are now lecturers and principals at schools where I taught!), from my Kenya past and present, as well as important people who introduced me to Orthodoxy, colleagues in my former mission (SIM) who showed up unannounced for my presentation, not to mention several people that I know by reputation whose books have been seminal in my own growth as a Christian and in my theological journey (thinking of Chris Wright and NT Wright), plus a whole constellation of new to me people who are leaders of the Orthodox and Evangelical movements in their own country.  The networking that went on during our tea breaks was a sight to see!

The picture below gives an indication of what it was like to be there for me.  On the left is Tom Wright who just presented a paper on the nature of the atonement and the implications for Evangelicals and Orthodox together.  Fr. John Jillions, in the middle was asked to give the response to the former Bishop of Durham's paper.  Fr. John, who was there with his wife Denise, were the ones who introduced me to Orthodoxy back in 1997.  It would take another fourteen years of struggle to conclude that I was already Orthodox and to take the step of being baptized and chrismated, but it was Fr. John and Denise who opened the door for me.  You have no idea how happy I was to catch up with them.  And on the right is Bishop Angelos, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the UK, and one of the most godly, kind, visionary and articulate men I know.  I was able to spend good time in personal conversation with each one of them during the course of the week.  That alone would have made the time worth the while for me.

Thanks to my friend, Dr. Ralph Lee, for this picture.
My own presentation was a challenge to prepare - Teaching Mission  - Evangelicals and Orthodox Together.  It was a challenge because I am increasingly vexed by the whole theological education 'industry' and the fact that Christian churches and denominations have ceded preparation for Christian ministry to a Western academic enterprise that's geared to answer Western perceptions of the need with Western solutions.  My observation is that these solutions have not served the Western churches very well.  It's even worse in the non-Western world, which has either had forced upon them or willingly imported these inadequate Western models for training Christian leaders.  And trust me, the translation into the parts of the world that I am familiar with is not going so well.

So my paper was a call to return to what Jesus and the apostles, indeed what many in the church until the rise of Western academia, indeed what many parachurch organizations are doing today - a call to return to discipleship.  Be disciples and make disciples.  I am not against academic study; I just think that we have been wrong to make it THE WAY we train people for ministry.  It plays into the professionalization of the ministry that has happened in the West over the past century or so, and which is galloping ahead in places like Kenya and Ethiopia, not just in Evangelical circles but Orthodox as well.  The implications of the lack of discipleship in our leaders and in our churches are legion.  It's not an accident that so many Western churches have slid into becoming me-centered entertainment palaces, as if that is what draws people to Christ.

So this must come to a quick close as I am in Addis Ababa and my plane to DC is about to board.  My time in Cambridge was immensely encouraging, with many soul-filling conversations with friends and colleagues from across the globe and across the Evangelical and Orthodox spectrum.  It is an encouraging process, this getting people together to talk and and listen, to take one another seriously and look for ways to make our relationship work.  We could do so much worse.

Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative Cambridge participants, at Selwyn College Chapel, Cambridge

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Stephen Hawking and Alien Radios

Star Trek episode where Hawking plays poker with Newton, Einstein and Data

This headline greeted me in today's UK paper The Telegraph:

Stephen Hawking mission to find alien civilisation detects radio signals coming from dwarf galaxy

All I can say is if someone in this faraway galaxy is beaming the BeeGees to us, we're in a lot of trouble.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Charlottesville and the Moral Vacuum - Some Further Thoughts

There was some interesting and good discussion by several others on my earlier post Charlottesville - Venom and Anti-Venom.  I responded to one comment on a friends FB page, and then repurposed it for here.  And that led to some further pondering over the past couple of days as I am still trying to figure out what this all means for my country, for my community, for my church, for me.  I welcome your own interaction.  I only ask that you treat me and others the way you want to be treated.

A woman on a friend’s fb page had the following comment on my blogpost.  And what follows is my response.
VJH  There are ways we are becoming more polarized and in those areas I agree with the author: tax policy, health care, what to do about climate change, size of government. All of these are areas which provoke anger and animosity, but in which right and wrong is not absolute and open dialogue can lead to understanding. But there are times when moral choices have to be made

Bill Black If I may interject, the challenge in this particular instance is that there is not one side against another side. There is a whole spectrum of views, motives, actions present, all mixed uncomfortably together. For years there have been in Charlottesville civil discussions between people of good will who have different opinions on the statues and what should be done with them. The same sorts of discussions have occurred concerning the complicated legacy of our fourth president and the founder of The University. It is possible to have different views without either intending or causing or taking offense. People of good will can and often do come to an understanding without result to verbal or physical violence. The problem in Charlottesville, and indeed across the country, is that people who are driven, not by the desire to find some sort of accommodation for a local problem, but by strong totalitarian-view ideologies that brook no dissent have hijacked the local issue for their own political agendas. The people who came to Charlottesville from all over don't actually care about Charlottesville as a local community, a community with its own history of race relations and its own history of trying to cope with its very complicated past. These people cared about their ideologies and the offense caused by the 'others'. They came to make their own statement, either for or against. And now that all of those people have gone, who is left to pick up the pieces and to ask 'What just happened?' The people who actually live in Charlottesville and who have the burden of having to actually cope with each other and make a community work in these circumstances. Yes the Nazis, Klanboys and white supremos were horrific - they are like boys who just found a cache of explosives, playing with things that they don’t realize willl destroy them. And there were a minority of people there who were driven by an opposite but also detrimental ideology. And then there were most people somewhere in the middle. Can we agree that it is possible to hold conservative social and political views and not be a white supremacist/KKKguy/neonazi? Can we agree that it is possible to hold liberal social and political views and not be a Marxist/anarchist/social justice extremist? If we can agree to resist the strong temptation to label our enemies with the worst possible cultural epithet (rather than seeing them as human beings and having a rational discussion with them), then there may be hope for us yet. If however we are driven to categorize everybody who disagrees with my very narrow ideology as the enemy, then history itself prophesies that it will not go well with us. So yes, condemn the Nazis and the small-minded Klanboys and White supremacists. But just realize that it is the agenda of some at the other end of the spectrum to use these miscreants as posterboys for the wider conservative movement and thus as justification for ridding the country of all manner of conservative social, moral, religious and political views and policies, tarring us all with the same brush. And the outcome of that agenda would be just as disastrous for the people of our divided land as the outcome of the vision for our country touted by the neoNazis, KKK and White supremacists and their ideologies, in my opinion. A pox on both their houses. As Christians we know a better way.

And this led me here:
There was a time when when the statement ‘there are times when moral choices have to be made’ was perfectly clear and made obvious sense, because just about everybody was reading from the same Christianity-informed moral page.  But those days are long gone in our society.  So my first question would be ‘Whose morality decides what those moral choices should be?’  At polar ends of the argument spectrum in Charlottesville, there were very different ‘moralities’ at play, as well as a bunch more in the middle, all of them persuaded that they were right.  So which morality are we to follow?  And who is to decide which one is ‘right’/’correct’/’binding’, indeed which morality is moral?  This is where all our fragmentation and pluralism as a culture has led us.  And the ones who have shouted the loudest, played the ‘outrage’ card most deftly,  and gotten the attention of, indeed managed to persuade the media of the rightness of their various causes, these are the ones loudly proclaiming the rightness of their social movement and the wrongness of the so-called alt-right and anybody associated with them.  But having cherry picked which moral guidelines from the Bible and Christianity they are going to highlight - ones which suit their purposes - they have tossed out everything else that disagrees with their lifestyle choices, on no other authority than their own personal sense of what is right and wrong.  When ‘triggered’ by a conservative Christians stand for what has always passed for ‘traditional’ morality (especially in the sexual arena), many on the others are quick to lay into the Christian perspective, shouting it down with the now classic ‘Who gave you the right to judge me?  You yourself are just a bigot and a homophobe and a hypocrite.’  But what these people consistently  fail to acknowledge is that the same argument could just as easily be turned against them, and to devastating effect.  They are, in effect, attempting to impose their own morality on Christians (totally ironic, in that this is what they claim Christians have done to them!), and though they claim the so-called moral high ground, they have actually no moral ground on which to judge or accuse anybody, having relativized all truth and thus all morality.  Their shaming tactics, their 'tell your story' tactics are just that - tactics, void of a moral center, employed to manipulate in order to achieve certain social goals.  So when my sense of what is right and wrong clashes with your sense of what is right and wrong, indeed when it offends your ‘morality’, or you offend mine, who is to judge between us as to who is right and who is wrong?  Nobody.  Despite all the self-righteous shouting and threats of the so-called social justice warriors.  

Our friends to the left have dismissed any and every objective authority from the discussion and replaced that authority with our own.  In order to justify their ‘moral’ choices, like for unfettered abortion rights, or homosexual marriage, as well as the rights of every sexual and social minority, they have had to get rid of all of the parts of the former morality that says that what they are doing is objectively and morally wrong.  In that respect, what we have witnessed in the past generation or two is both an assault on and revision of what was understood as foundational Christian morality.  And while one of the arguments for doing so was that Christians have always been part of the problem in their ‘literal’ understanding of Scripture and their obnoxious hypocrisy, it is the fact that there exists an objective Biblical morality that enables anybody, including those on the left, to make pronouncements about what is right and wrong.  Take the Bible away, take Christian morality away, and all we are left with are suggestions (although folks on the left in particular are still persuaded that their thunderous moral judgements have meaning, which they don’t, except in their circle of cheerleaders.)  This, I think, goes a long way towards describing what we see in terms of moral chaos going on in our culture today.
So while I understand the deep desire to come together and condemn what looks and feels and actually is abhorrent behavior on the part of the racist end of the spectrum, the other end of the spectrum has actually removed any kind of binding morality from the discussion, including their own, if consistent still means anything.  It is actually only the Christians and other faith communities that have moral system that can stand up to these terrible groups and their toxic ideologies.  This of course won’t stop people on the other side of the political spectrum from having all sorts of moral judgments against these ideological enemies as well as anybody that gets in the way of their Social Justice Warrior/LGBTQ/BLM social agendas.  But when you strip away all the impassioned rhetoric, given that they have bought in completely to moral relativism (or at least the kind that says everybody else morality is relative except mine/ours!) - that there is no truth - that I have the right to do or be anything I want - that we live in a pluralistic free-for-all, there remains no grounds for any of them to then say to me or anybody else that they are right and we are wrong.  It’s the hubris of the left to banish inconvenient (or homophobic, or bigoted) Christian morality and then assume they can replace it with a morality of their own making, created in their own image, designed to justify their own desires and agenda. It is a 'morality' which turns out to be just as bigoted and prejudiced as what they claim to be replacing.  But right now they have managed to persuade the guardians of our culture and body politic that it is otherwise. We are living in a time where the identity-rights juggernaut is steamrollering all opposition, and labeling not just Nazis, KKK people and angry white nationalists as bigots, racists, and dangerous to society, but conservative Christians and other social conservatives who have the gall to stand up to them.  And they are using the courts and threats of boycotts to powerful effect.  As a conservative Christian, I cannot dare disagree with the new orthodoxy on LGBTQ rights or their social agendas without triggering the kind of response that, if it were directed in their direction, they would call it hate.  It’s an altogether different kind of morality from what our country has seen, but this time it's being imposed by a minority on the majority, using fear, intimidation and manipulation to ensure the implementation of its social, cultural, political and religious agendas.  But again, for all the bluster, there is nothing behind it holding it together.  These people are rather like the great Wizard of Oz, who turns out to be not the fulminating image, but a little man (or woman?) in the back manipulating levers.  Five, ten or twenty years from now it will be something else, some other cause, some other ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Christianity – real Christianity, the Christianity that takes the Bible and the Church’s Traditions as its authority, has got a 2000 year track record.  This doesn’t mean that Christians have behaved consistently with their morality, but that Christian morality has remained robust for all this time.  Or to put it another way, just because the Christians are flawed doesn’t mean that Christian morality is flawed.  Indeed the very reason a Christian morality has persisted for two millennia is because its based, not on the whims and changing opinions of people in power and influence, but because the source is from the Triune God Himself.  The writer of the NT book of Hebrews states that Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday, and He will be the same forever.  Such a claim cannot even be heard, much less fathomed by the relativistic crowd that controls American culture today.  But it is a the claim that still underpins Christian morality today, just as it did 500 years ago, just as it did 1500 years ago.  

So all of these people in Charlottesville who were not loving their neighbor as themselves, much less loving God with their whole heart mind and soul, these people are leading lives apart from the one source, the only source that can redeem this situation, and indeed redeem them.  And their lives and their groups are bearing the kind of fruit that reflects the disorder of a life lived for self and not for God and his revealed agenda.  For persons and churches who have been reconciled with God and are being reconciled with each other, their lives and their groups are bearing a different kind of fruit, what the Apostle Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.  Which raises the question, what kind of people would you prefer to hang out with? Which kind of person do you and I want to be?  

None of the groups on the polar ends of Charlottesville have the power to effect this kind of transformation in individual lives and in society.  But this is precisely the good news found in the Christian gospel – what we people are unable to effect, God is able to do through Jesus and what he has done for us and for our salvation.  All of the sides in Charlottesville made a lot of noise, and continue to make a lot of noise.  But none of them can effect the change they think they want, much less the change that is actually needed in their own hearts, in their neighbors’ hearts, and in the nation, and the world, for that matter.  The volume and the agitation simply mask the moral bankruptcy of both sides.  Now, if we Christians could just do a better job of being what God has called us and empowered us to be, then all these other people might, just might, take us seriously.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


There's a reason it hasn't gotten any better.  
Against all the evidence, 
and the intervention of friends, 
you resist any notion that you might be sick. 
Go to the Doctor 
while there is still time 
to do something about it.  
Just saying.

From a friend who knows a thing or two about denial.

Somehow Dr. Price's school didn't make the upload.  He teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I got my MDiv some years ago..

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Charlottesville: Venom - Anti-venom

I am trying to fathom what is happening in my country.  When I am in the US, my home is close enough to Charlottesville, VA that I do my shopping there.  My two children attended the University of Virginia.  I know the place.  I also know that there have been discussions about the Lee statue and Lee park for years.  I am a professional historian and senior lecturer at an African university.  There have been good arguments presented on both the for and against side.  And no, acknowledging that might mean I disagree with you, but that does not make me a racist.  People from various perspectives and various ethnicities have disagreed with each other.  But they have been civil.  The past couple of years I have watched with increasing annoyance as that local and necessary debate has been hijacked by powerful ideologies, ideologies which brook no dissent.  On one side, the statue must go and the park renamed because they are powerful totems to white oppression over black people.  And all reminders of white atrocities, be they statues or buildings named after long-dead racists and slave-holders must go.  Indeed anybody who is not on the side of these culture cleansers is immediately shamed as a racist and bigot and thus toxic to the cultural progressives who control the media and trendy companies of the country.   So damn our county’s centuries-long involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, damn the policy of extermination against our indigenous people, damn the Civil War and the fact that most the people in the North were just as racist as the people in the south, damn the fact that most the people in our country were, and perhaps still are, racist through the 20th century into the 21st.  But we don’t promote ‘justice’ by erasing history and taking down monuments.  I think (hope?) what these people want is for us to learn from our past and to decide that we will do a different and better job when it comes to loving our neighbor.  Stridency may get one attention, but it doesn’t necessarily push the ball down the field.

But this is only one of a phalanx of identity ideologies that have emerged in our current generation.  And their tactics are eerily similar to those employed by the LGBTQ etc. ideologues in their similar relentless march through the cultural, political and legal halls of the country, not simply to secure their rights but to redefine morality in such a way that one’s support of the LGBTQ agenda is the litmus test of moral right and wrongness.  Shame words such us homophobe and bigot are affixed to any person who dares to disagree.  Identity politics generates its own self-righteous wrath and outs anybody who dares to disagree with their agendas, especially those in higher education and media.  These ideologies feel that the wrongs that either they or people like them in the past have experienced justifies their tactics.  Their ideas are now being parroted as institutional policy in government, education and media across the country.  There are many people who think this is a good thing.  But there are many people who are horrified and who are forced into moral hypocrisy because they are afraid of losing their jobs.  The identity social justice warriors have thus far engineered quite the cultural coup.  By specifically attacking historical Christian morality they have succeeded in sawing off that limb, but it was, ironically, the moral limb upon which they and we were sitting.  Their vacuous post-modern attempt at a post-Christian morality collapses of its own weight when challenged.  And given that they have obliterated traditional morality without any thought to a coherent replacement, they are falling back on the traditional stance taken by all tyrants, be they political, business and cultural, that of might makes right.  Their original complaints may (or may not) have been completely justified, and I for one have been in sympathy with at least some of their issues.  But in recent years they are evolving into something else.  And no one in any of these groups can seem to see that they are now beginning to treat the people who might disagree with them in the same way they claim that they or their ancestors were treated.  What is viewed as ‘justice’ to them is experienced as persecution by everyone else.  And once we are in this territory, something has gone bad, like Aunt Mae’s potato salad at a hot summer’s day picnic by the lake.  It will not end well.

And on the other end of the ideological spectrum, it is nauseating and revolting to see neo-Nazis, KKK sympathisers and white supremacists hijack the debate over the Charlottesville monument and park as a symbol for their agenda.  It beggars belief that anybody could think this is anything but evil, anybody who has taken time to understand what happened in Germany in WWI followed by the Weimar Republic and the chilling rise of Hitler and the institutionalization of his racist ideology against Jews and many other kinds of people (including Christians) and the steps he took to deal with everyone in his way.  It is more than chilling to think that there are actually individuals today who not only think that was a good thing but who will do anything to promote a similar murderous agenda today.  And to see a collection of Hitlerians and KKK-hooded losers and white people who are afraid of anybody who doesn’t look like them come to a place I know and love and attempt to redefine symbols to support their cause and then appropriate Nazi-era tactics to provoke fear in the locals and make a statement through the media to the rest of the country - these people display an utter ignorance and contempt of history and obviously don’t realise that they are playing with forces that they themselves will not be able to control and which in the end will consume them as well.

So on the one side, the ‘hatred’ of the others justifies taking whatever steps to silence and force them into submission for the sake of the movement.  And on the other side the perceived injustices against our people and the demonization of the others and the existential threat they pose to our way of life and our culture justifies taking whatever steps to silence and force them into submission.  I am not creating some sort of moral equivalence here.  Instead this is called polarization. 

But, but, but - those other people do this and say that and stand for this and it’s terrible and it’s wrong!  But when has violence ever solved the problem?  Violence, or the threat of violence may force opposition underground due to fear.  One may succeed in silencing or even killing most of one’s enemies.  But recent history shows us again and again that once one resorts to violence, either as an individual, as a movement or as a state, it almost never ends well, for anybody.

As matters polarize, people on one side tend to view people on the other side not as people, but as enemies.  And it is a short step from viewing one as an enemy to viewing one as less than human.  And it is an even shorter step, when one views the other as less than human, to treating the other inhumanely.  Think Rwanda, think the partition of India, think the ethnic violence in Kenya, in the Balkans, in Turkey/Armenia, in the so-called Caliphate, think of our own indigenous people in North America.  Things are polarizing right now in my country, and the ones doing the polarizing all think that they are completely, totally, utterly right and justified.  But their collective postures of moral superiority are simply shams in light of their utter individual and collective hypocrisy.  Both sides are self-seeking and self-justifying.  The way they treat their enemies is actually the proper measure of their morality, or lack thereof.  And both sides, by that criteria, come off as moral pygmies and just as selfish and obsessed with power as every other political movement.

What is needed, in my opinion, on the part of people on all sides, is not power over others to enforce our views, or to retake what is rightfully ours, or to ensure respect for our way of life.  What is needed is something that has, to this point, been totally lacking in any of the debates on all side, at least those debates with which I am familiar - what is needed is humility.  Humility is impossible  in a heart that is motivated by hatred of other individuals or groups.  Humility is impossible when one is seeking to advance one’s own position or agenda at whatever cost.  Humility is looked on by so-called powerful people as weakness.  And it is true - humility cannot silence anybody; humility cannot remove obstacles (read: people with whom I/we disagree) from the scene; humility cannot force people to do things they don’t want to do.  But none of those things can change a human heart.  And that is precisely what humility, when paired with love, can do.  Too many people have been seduced into thinking that it’s power that will bring them what they think they need or want.  This is certainly the case in my current home of Kenya, just as it is in the United States.  But to believe this is to build one’s life on a lie.  Humility on the other hand treats the other as a person just like me; listens to the other the way I want someone to listen to me, cares for the other as if their life is worth something; works to find a way to resolve differences and conflicts to the benefit not just of one party over another, but to the benefit of all.  It’s simply a life lived by the golden rule - Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.

Charlottesville this past weekend was an unveiling to many of us of the tactics and agenda of the Neo-Nazi/KKK/White supremacists who decided to use that place and that moment to make a statement.  And their agenda and tactics resulted in the deaths of three people and left nearly 20 others injured.  And their collective posture of unrepentance shames them all and reveals their true heart.  But Charlottesville is also a symptom of the even bigger ideological wars threatening to tear our country apart.  Our current world gives us hundreds of examples of people who think that power give them the right to squash others who disagree with them.  But they are wrong.  And they will all be proven wrong in the end.  

The vast majority of Americans are not the ones driving the current polarization of our society.  Our silence, our fear, however, is enabling those who are.  It is possible that those doing the polarising may learn humility.  But I am not holding my breath.  We, however, who have chosen to step aside from the rush of ideologies of right and left, we have the power to make both sides irrelevant, and to defang their tactics of intimidation and fear.  Jesus shows us what to do.  We know what to do.  We have in our hearts, those of us who know and love Him, the anti-venom.  When we take courage and do what is right and love our neighbour as ourselves, we will find a nation so transformed we will wonder if heaven has come to earth.