Madagascar adventure

Boys from the neighborhood where we stayed
Boys from the neighborhood where we stayed. They proudly display their puppy.

This is an account of Amy’s and my first visit to Madagascar, 18-23 January, 2010. We visited again 30 May – June 3, 2011. Our Nazarenes there are a committed group of people, and the joy of the Lord radiates from their lives. Please pray for Rev Ronald and Rachelle Miller and family, current missionaries in Mada. They replaced Rev David and Lisa Johnson (who now serve on the Africa East Field).


What do you think of when you hear the word “Madagascar”? Some of us probably think of the movie that came out a few years back, or perhaps the lemur or some other exotic animal. From now on, I’ll think of the Big Island as the place where God is up to Big Things.

My wife, Amy, and I arrived on a Saturday and were greeted at the airport by Dave Johnson and his teenage daughter, Amanda. As we wound through Antananarivo, the capital city with nearly two million residents, the bustling activity was striking. Many barefoot men muscled a “pousse-pousse” (French for “push-push”) laden with bags of rice or other staples. Women set up small tables along the road, wooden stalls filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, suspended plucked chickens or dried fish and beans. Others displayed their wares on the ground, including shoes in all shapes and sizes, brooms or soap.

We went to church on Sunday. More than two hundred gathered under a tent at the children’s center. A group of seven teenage girls made up the worship team, including a boy playing drums and one of the older men on the keyboard. The Lord’s presence was close, and though I expected the many children present to become restless during my sermon, they listened with rapt attention. At the end, two dozen or more came forward as a sign that they wanted to follow Jesus!

On Monday, I began to teach a course on Galatians, part of the pastoral training program through the Institut Théologique Nazaréen. Fifteen students came faithfully, morning and afternoon, as we studied Paul’s letter. I couldn’t have done it without Pastor Richard, who translated my French into Malagasy, the local language. Every day, we memorized another verse from Galatians. Between lectures, students broke into small groups of three or four and talked about how to apply what we were learning to pastoral ministry. In this way, older students became mentors for those who were younger, encouraging them as they took their first steps as shepherds of the flock.

Church History I class
Church History I class

A highlight for me was hearing the testimonies from the students. Many had been born into homes where going to church was only a formality. Only later had they heard the Gospel, that Jesus could change their lives and give them a purpose. Several of the female pastors tearfully recounted how their husbands had beaten them, sometimes just for daring to go to the Nazarene Bible study. Despite this, they prayed for them and some of the husbands had come to Christ. Others spoke of how they had participated in the “turning of the bones” (ancestor worship) but later abandoned this annual ceremony, putting their faith in Christ. This was a step of faith for them, since honoring the dead by digging them up is prevalent in Madagascar.

The day before we left, we visited the street center. Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM International) sponsors this outreach to street children. Many live with parents in ramshackle lean-tos, in tunnels or under bridges. From Monday through Friday, they can come to the center and get a solid breakfast and lunch. There are primary school classes for those who are younger, and older girls can learn sewing or housekeeping. The building was completed with labor from five Work and Witness teams, and includes a basketball court and comfortable living quarters for Pastor Richard and his wife, Theresa, who is the center’s Director. As I toured the building, I thought of three students who had been in my Galatians class. They had come through the center, found the Lord, and felt the call to pastoral ministry. Those stories and many more were only possible because of the incredible work of the center, a work that is even more desperately needed as the economy in Madagascar has been crippled in recent days.

Before I knew it, our time was up. Amy and I said goodbye to our new friends. We left grateful for the many Nazarenes who continue to give sacrificially to the work in Madagascar. Most of all, we’re grateful for the Big Things that God is up to on the Big Island.

Introducing Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts

Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts

From time-to-time, I enjoy high-lighting budding theologians to readers here at “Theology in Overalls.” Today, I  introduce you to Mr Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts.

Mr Roberts graduated this year from Olivet Nazarene University. He will shortly begin work as a Youth Pastor at a church in the Chicago area. Simultaneously, he’ll be completing his studies to become an R.N.

His blog, “On a Journey: Diving into the Mysteries of the God we claim to love,” can be found here.  Of special interest to Roberts is the nexus between science and Christian faith and how the two need not conflict.

Check out his writings, and feel free to dialogue on the comment threads of his blog. He enjoys theological conversation and discusses topics in a gentle and even-handed manner.

Good start, sir. Keep it up.

Baptism: initiation into the people of God

water-baptism2-300x204West Africa has many people groups. Different tribes “mark off” their babies with distinctive scars. One of my adult students, Francis, had an inch-long scar on his right cheek, just under his eye. During a break in class, I asked him about it. “This mark shows that I belong to my people,” he explained.

This practice may seem strange to those born in a Western setting, though with the rise of tattoos, perhaps less strange than in days gone by. Yet for any student of the Bible, African scarification immediately evokes how God marked off the ancient male Israelites as God’s own. Genesis 17:23-27 explains:

On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen; Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

For both Africans and ancient Jews, personal identity evokes “we” more than”me.” The people to whom I belong is of first and overriding importance. My story is important only as it is caught up in the larger story of my people.

The Old Testament people of God

The Old Testament takes this concept of group solidarity and goes one step further. Not only is the individual enfolded into the story of his or her people – the priority of “we” over “me” – but the people’s story in-turn is caught up in a much bigger story, the Story of God. In a land infested with idols to false gods, the prophet Jeremiah warned of a coming exile, but gave the hope of a people reconstituted one day:

They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them (Jeremiah 32:38-39).

“They will be my people, and I will be their God.” This is the language of covenant, a solemn agreement between Yahweh and the people of God. Isaiah 49:6 is just one of a constellation of Old Testament passages that speak of Israel as a “light for the Gentiles.” They were to be a holy people, an example to the nations. Isaiah 56:6 speaks of “foreigners” who would come to Jerusalem, the “holy mountain,” to pray and make sacrifices to God. God’s people were to be a righteous, winsome, counter-cultural presence in the world, attracting even foreigners like a magnet to worship the one true God in the beauty of holiness.

The New Testament people of God

Old Testament passages like those in Isaiah are a bridge to the New Testament. In the New Testament, the people of God is no longer defined as blood descendants of Abraham. Rather, the people of God is comprised of anyone – Jew or Gentile – who are persons of the new covenant, the “new and living way” to God opened up through the sacrificial death of Christ (Hebrews 10:20). These individuals of the new covenant – this people of God – is the church.

Just as the ancient Jews “marked off” their male children through the rite of circumcision, so the new people of God, the church, marks off its young through a rite, that of water baptism. This replacement of circumcision by baptism is most explicit in the words of Paul to the Colossians:

 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,  and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ,  having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:9-12).

When the church evangelizes in communities largely untouched by the Gospel, many adults who come to Christ will not have had the blessing of growing up in a Christian home. In the United States, this is becoming more common. In some states, church attendance on a Sunday morning involves less than 10% of the population. Converts in such a context are unlikely to have a Christian heritage and – therefore – unlikely to have been baptized younger in life.  So, though older, they have never been initiated into the people of God. They, too, will pass through the door of water baptism into the household of faith, like the Ethiopian eunuch Philip baptized in the desert (Acts 8:26-40). As for the child baptized as an infant, they should receive later at a time when they can understand (traditionally around age 12) instruction in the meaning of their baptism and what it signifies to belong to the people of God. It is then – at the time some call “confirmation” – that they can affirm Christian faith as their own. By doing so, they  acknowledge what their parents by proxy accomplished when they presented them as babies for baptism. Confirmation means saying: “From the start, my parents always intended me to follow Christ, to be part of God’s people. Now, I openly acknowledge that these are my people, that Jesus is my Savior, and that I am His follower.” Like in many African cultures, so in the Christian family, the “we” precedes the “me.” This vital progression from “the faith of my family” to “my faith, too” is found in Paul’s words to Timothy:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also (2 Timothy 1:5).

Across Africa, there is an influx of converts to Christian faith. In a context where most are exiting African traditional religions, it is normal that most who are baptized are older. Yet as time goes by, the practice of baptism of those who are infants or young children is likely to increase, as portrayed in the book of Acts when entire families were baptized together (Acts 2:37-41, 16:33). Likewise, as believers in the West shift from the “Jesus and me” perspective to that of “Jesus and we,” the frequency of baptizing the young will surely grow. In any case, there is one baptism, not two (Ephesians 4:5). Baptism remains the once-in-a-lifetime sacrament (literally, “visible word”) of initiation into the people of God, though it may be performed very early or later in life, depending upon the circumstances.

Whether the sacrament of baptism is administered to an infant who later is confirmed or (alternatively) to an adult candidate, the people of God are the people of the covenant established by the blood of Christ (Luke 22:20). The “marking off” of baptism is an initiation into that holy people, at whatever age it occurs. It is an acknowledgment of the priority of who we are together, that the people of God predated me and they will continue when I am gone. I am a chapter in a book, an important chapter, to be sure, but  the book is a story of “we” with many chapters. Through baptism, I have been caught up in this bigger, divine/corporate story, the story of God and God’s people. What a story!


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My Times are in Thy Hand

William F. Lloyd, composer of "My Times are in Thy Hand"
William F. Lloyd, composer of “My Times are in Thy Hand”

I’m one who travels by jet, a lot.

Those who – as one of my Ivorian students put it, “vivent dans les avions” (live in planes) – get over thinking about the thousands things that could go wrong on an airplane at take-off, landing, or mid-flight. Statistics that prove you’re more likely to die in a car crash than in an airplane are comforting.

But whatever probability theory teaches, I find peace in theology, knowing that I am in God’s hands.

When our older son, John, was just 3 years old, he learned the Sunday School chorus, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” “Dad and Mom,” he asked one day from the back seat of the car, “does God really have the whole world in His hands?” “He sure does, Johnny” we replied. Johnny was quiet for about 10 seconds, then finally commented: “God sure must have big hands.”

I sang tenor with the A Cappella choir at Eastern Nazarene College. The choir was known for closing out its concerts with an interpretation of Psalm 31:15a, with lyrics by William F. Lloyd:

“My times are in Thy Hand,

My God I wish them there.

My life, my friends, my soul I leave entirely to thy care.”

But I really like the last line of the song: “Then after death, at Thy right hand, I shall forever be.”

The hope that we have in Christ is the resurrection of the body. No human or diabolical scheme can shake that faith. No missile can shoot it down.

Our love and prayers go out to those mourning the loss of loved ones on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

I believe in the resurrection, when wrongs not righted on this earth will be squared away and loved ones separated by evil and senseless acts will be reunited. God will have the last word.

Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus, and complete your Kingdom.


Image credit: Cyber Hymnal

The church and “we”: God’s holy people

Benin_2007_9L’unité fait la force – Unity is our strength. This national motto of the West African country of Benin is a window into the larger sub-Saharan African worldview. Individuals are not unimportant, yet they find their deepest identity not alone but as part of a people.

This collective cultural value shows up in pagne, the colorful cotton material locally woven and sold in many places across Africa. One popular pattern shows cracked fingers, separated one from another, dry,  lifeless, and empty. Next to them are hands, healthy and strong. All five fingers are connected, grasping pieces of gold that could only be gathered as they worked together. The Ivorian proverb reinforces a similar message: “You can’t pick up a grain of rice with just one finger.”

Modern individualism notwithstanding, historically, the United States has shared such a collective vision. Our tragic Civil War was fought from 1861-65 in part over the issue of whether we would be a single people. Prior to that conflict, it was common in writing to say: “The United States are.” Now we say “The United States is.” The Latin phrase, E plurbus unum – one from many – appears on the seal of the nation.

This longing to be part of a people is no stranger to the pages of Scripture. Peter wrote to the diaspora, believers scattered over five provinces of the Roman Empire:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

It is with the community of Christian faith – the holy people of God – that any study of how we can positively impact the world for Christ must begin. The church was here before any of us were born, and it will continue when we are gone. The words of the well-known African saying – “I am because we are” – are no less fitting when it comes to matters of belief. So while we will later look at our individual response to Christ’s call to follow him, we purposely begin with a more important concept than “me.” Let us begin with “we.”

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Introduction: Christlike Disciples, Christlike World

Christ-3It was 1972, and the Presidential race was on.

The 20 minute bus ride home from school was a raucous affair. Toward the front of the bus were the Nixon supporters; at the back congregated those who preferred McGovern. Like opposing sides in a volleyball game, we’d chant back and forth:

“Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man.  McGovern belongs in the garbage can!”

Of course, the erstwhile supporters of the Senator from South Dakota substituted the President’s name and rocketed the ball back to their 5th grade enemies at the front of the bus.

And so it went.

I soon learned that while the bus was an O.K. place for politics, the sacred halls of the church most definitely were not. If someone brought up the election at church, it was in hushed tones in the foyer, never publicly. On the few occasions where a brave soul ventured further, they were beaten back with an all-purpose proverbial stick, an elder gravely intoning:

“Religion and politics don’t mix.”

So when it came to deciding what our country would look like, venue was important. This 5th grader learned his lesson well. Bus? Good. Church? Bad.

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Emperor Constantine or King Jesus?

Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome

Constantine served an Empire founded upon military might. Jesus loved people, establishing a different kind of Kingdom altogether, the peaceable Kingdom of God. Where do our ultimate loyalties lie?

The Roman Emperor Constantine (280(?)-337 AD) represents the fusion of the state and Christianity. In the years following his 312 AD conversion at the Milvian Bridge, Christianity moved from being tolerated to being favored by the state as a way of uniting and advancing Empire. John Wesley (1703-91) argued that the People of God lost something essential in the process. Wesley lamented in his sermon, Of Former Times, that the “kingdoms of Christ and of the world” were so “unnaturally blended together” that the “power, riches and honour” that Constantine lavished upon both clergy and laity made the church a partner to evil.

I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and honour [power] on the Christian Church, the Clergy in particular, was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honour of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the Clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other, that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth. – See more at:
I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and honour [power] on the Christian Church, the Clergy in particular, was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honour of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the Clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other, that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth. – See more at:

Before Constantine, Christians always had a conflicted relationship with temporal powers, not encouraging their young to serve in the Roman legions and  looking to advance another way of doing things, a peaceable Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). But with the ascent and apparent conversion of Constantine, Christian leaders over time gained a favored status, entree into the halls of power. Increasingly, bishops and pastors became more concerned with promoting their own importance and status and less concerned with enacting Christ’s prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

This caution from Wesley about the dangers of melding spiritual and temporal power appears to have been unheeded in recent decades by some conservative Christian leaders in the United States. Yes, there was the occasional prophetic warning from the likes of former Nixon White House counselor turned prison reform advocate, Chuck Colson: “The Kingdom of God will not arrive on Air Force One….” Still, many placed an emphasis upon getting the right Christian people into political office which would then assure that their most cherished values would be protected and promoted.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was caught up in this philosophy. Too much of my time and effort as a pastor were spent on  might be called “moral environmentalism,” i.e. preaching about things ethical, writing letters to newspapers and opposing things I deemed nefarious. The result was predictable: I became known in town for what I was against rather than what I was for. My conviction was that elected officials should work to maintain a holy environment as conceived by my evangelical Christian worldview. I even distributed “voter guides” annually in our congregation, brochures produced by a quasi-Christian lobbying group that was a thin veneer for a political party.

Looking back, those lobbyists used me to promote their own political power as surely as Constantine used the church of his time to promote his. My complicity cheapened the witness of our local church. Ironically, in my zeal to keep a corner of America morally strong, I lost sight of the compassionate Jesus who always starts not by scolding sinful behavior but by graciously meeting people where they are and lovingly transforming the human heart.

Far from co-opting the system to advance a social agenda, Jesus promoted another system entirely, that of a non-violent Kingdom based upon love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31), new wine in new wine skins and all confirmed with signs, wonders, and authority (Hebrews 2:4, Matthew 7:29). By his creation of an alternative, global community of character,  Jesus transcends the interests of political parties or nations, uniting believers from places as far-flung as Iran, China, the United States, Russia, France, Argentina and Zambia around a different task, that of making Christlike disciples. Verses 1 and 3 of William Dunkerley’s hymn say it well:

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth…

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me…

We live in a world of Empires. There are still Constantines who would co-opt Christianity to consolidate earthly power. As followers of Christ, the temptation remains to think that this can be a “win-win” for both state and church, yet history tells us a different story. The church always loses when with the best of intentions she seeks to promote herself through the political structures of this world.

So, what will it be, the Empire of Constantine or the Kingdom of Christ? It’s time to choose.


Image credit: Constantine the Great Coins