Religion and politics don’t mix

A beaker filled with water to which oil has been added, demonstrating insolubility of oil in water.

When I was a boy, conversations around the dinner table helped knit our family together. Many words of wisdom from my father and mother were delivered in that setting, including : “Religion and politics don’t mix.” I wonder: Have we forgotten this wisdom?

A woman had been part of her denomination for decades. However, she recently left because leaders in her congregation strongly hinted that to be “Christian” means voting for a particular political party. This story comes from my home country, yet as a missionary living in West Africa, I encouraged pastors to strictly avoid endorsing specific candidates or their parties, to merely ask people to pray then vote their conscience. This was in accordance with the long-standing informal policy of my denomination.

In the global village now connected via the internet, these same pastors now know instantly what world leaders say. They hear American politicians promising to remove any remaining legal obstacles to U.S. churches endorsing political candidates and they hear the applause of church leaders. Yet is this wise? Such a move could be disastrous, making congregations satellite campaign offices instead of places where people can come to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. It would take our eyes off the unshakable Kingdom (Hebrews 12:28) that Jesus taught us to pray would come (Matthew 6:10), encouraging instead the church to down the cup of temporal power, a poisoned chalice that so far we’ve only been sipping.

The temptation is real in multiple countries. It was campaign season, and a West African politician approached one of our pastors and his associate, inviting them to visit his home. There, he pulled out a dresser drawer filled with money. “I’ll allow you to help yourself to this money,” he promised. “All you need to do is next Sunday endorse me from the pulpit.” That day, the two pastors resisted the temptation. Instead, they told me the story and I commended them for their courage.

Jesus knew something of this temptation. Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness eating nothing, he was famished. Matthew 4:1-17 (CEB) recounts three ways that the devil tried to entice our Lord to abandon his mission. His final method was to tempt Jesus with power, taking him to a high mountain and showing him all the world’s kingdoms. “I’ll give you all of these if you bow down and worship me,” he offered. Yet Jesus replied: “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, ‘You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him’ ” (4:10). When offered rulership – its power and its perks – the Son of God firmly refused. He would not be deterred from the holy mission his Father had set before him.

An election is just around the corner in Kenya. Last Sunday, our pastor encouraged people to register to vote, but added: “In our church, we don’t endorse candidates or parties.” My pastor knows the wisdom of neutrality, that the witness of the church can be compromised if we are not careful. I think he’d agree that what my parents insisted around our family dinner table is good advice. Religion and politics still don’t mix.

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Image credit: Carpenter Valley Assocation

Thoughts after a cancer ward visit

memorial_tombstone_at_przyszowice_cemetery_2
By myself (User:Piotrus) (Own work (taken by myself)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A hospital chaplain spoke of the comfort provided to Christians by the belief we have eternal souls. As patients’ bodies gradually become weaker and more uncooperative, they rest in the fact that no disease can diminish their soul which would soon go to be with Jesus. While I respect that position, N.T. Wright has correctly noted that the New Testament hope in the face of death is not disembodied existence but the resurrection.(See his excellent book, Surpised by Hope).

Yesterday I visited a cancer ward. There were many who were wasting away, limbs shriveled, eyes sunken, their frail frames a shadow of what they once were. As I prayed with a friend, my prayer was that God would restore his health. Yet whether God chooses to heal, our faith is that this is not the final chapter. Creation is followed by re-creation. Mortality surrenders to immortality; death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Eternal life follows resurrection at Christ’s return, God’s gracious gift to the righteous (John 3:16, Romans 6:23).

“He fell asleep in Jesus.” So wrote a friend of mine at the passing of a loved one. It’s a good summary of what happens when people die: They fall asleep. When Jesus returns, believers will have a sweet awakening to life eternal, while punishment and destruction is the rude awakening reserved for the wicked (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:11-15). Both Jesus and Paul used “sleep” as a snynonym for death (John 11:11-14, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Yet Christians fall asleep in the steadfast hope that the same Jesus whom God raised to life will himself raise us to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). One short sleep later and Jesus (at his return) will receive us (formerly mortal but now immortal) into his strong arms. The old Negro spirituals called this the “great gettin’ up mornin.’ ” What an amazing awakening that will be!

When it comes to how Christians conceptualize death, sleeping in Jesus is a minority position. Most instead believe in an immortal soul that leaves the body at the moment of death. While I see no conclusive biblical evidence for an “immortal soul” – an idea from Greek philosophy – there are a few New Testament passages traditionally interpreted as teaching a conscious existence apart from our bodies (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Cor 5:1-8, 12:1-5). This is called body-soul dualism, the belief that the enduring part of the human being is not the body but an indestructible soul.

Whichever position one takes, one thing is certain: We must be ready for our own demise. The writer to the Hebrews affirms that all human beings are “destined to die” and “after that face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV). There are no post mortem opportunities to make things right with God. Are you ready for that encounter?

If denominations took a StrengthFinder™ test

dscn6415Gallup’s StrengthFinder™ is all the rage. Take a 30 minute test online and you’ll discover your “Top 5,” the key elements of who you are and how you see the world. This constructive tool has helped me understand how God has wired me and what value I can add to the organizations where I work. It focuses on what is right with an individual and not what is wrong, designating 34 “strength themes” and describing them in detail.

Disclaimer: Though I’ve taken the test, have been in 2 workshops explaining the strengths approach, and have been coached on my Top 5  strengths, I am not a certified coach.

But I wonder:

What would the top strengths be if the StrengthFinder™ test were applied not to individuals but to Christian denominations?

I’m a lifelong Nazarene (in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition), so I have a better basis of speculating what my own denomination’s strengths might be. But because my readers come from a variety of Christian backgrounds, I’ll attempt an assessment of a handful of other Christian traditions based on what I’ve studied and observed about them supplemented by conversations over the years with individuals within those traditions. Feel free to correct me where you think I’ve gotten it wrong.

Take a minute and read about all 34 strength themes, then come back to this essay.

For brevity’s sake, let’s identify the top 3 from five major traditions.

(Note: Though I currently live in East Africa, my observations are most applicable in the North American setting which – as an American – is the context with which I am most familiar).

1) Roman Catholicism

a. command – For Roman Catholics, the Pope is the undisputed spiritual leader. Though advised by the Magesterium (collection of Cardinals), he can speak ex cathedra (from the Chair), making pronouncements that are binding upon the faithful. It makes for a unified and authoritative voice on matters of social ethics.

b. ideation – Across time, Roman Catholicism has been theologically creative. The doctrine of purgatory was innovative in its time, and the veneration of Mary and the saints has provided a conversation starter between Roman Catholic missionaries and those for whom ancestors are a large part of their religious worldview.

c. empathy – Hospitals and schools often sprout up wherever the Catholic message is preached. There’s a “can do” attitude apparent in various RC orders, from Jesuit priests (and their education emphasis) to the compassion of nuns as exemplified (for example) in Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

2) Episcopalians/Methodists

a. inclusiveness/includer – The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (ECUSA) prides itself on creating space for people that society has marginalized. Unlike many denominations, the ECUSA is happy to ordain women, as is the United Methodist Church.

b. harmony – Peace and reconciliation are important themes for both Episcopalians and United Methodists. For example, the UMC held a peace seminar in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 2015. Likewise, in 2013, the ECUSA participated in a World Council of Churches (WCC) conference in Busan, South Korea that emphasized the theme of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

c. positivity – Christians within this tradition often have a post-millenial view, believing that the church’s role is to help build the Kingdom of God while we await the return of Jesus Christ. There’s a strong belief that we can make the world a better place now, that the Gospel has marked social elements to it that are not incidental to the Christian message but are at its very core.

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Africa and the re-enchantment of the West

By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Merlin the magician
Vampires, wizards, witches, zombies – enchantment pervades the NetFlix movies we stream, the television programs we watch, and the books that sell by the millions. Science may be taught in our classrooms – the “Star Trek” franchise still has a following, after all – but it’s the paranormal and the supernatural that are all the rage. In North America and Europe at the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, we’re seeing what may be termed the re-enchantment of the West.

As a missionary serving in Africa, I find this phenomenon fascinating since Africa arguably has never been de-enchanted, nearly a century of colonial rule and decades of post-colonial Western influence notwithstanding. Teaching a class of pastors in Benin some years ago, one told the story of seeing a mob with sticks chasing a stray dog. They beat it while the animal tried to escape. Finally, the bleeding dog fell to the ground under the pummeling of the crowd, then before their eyes changed into a young man, complete with bleeding wounds on his body. The pastor wanted to know: What does Christian theology have to say about that?

Recently I ordered a textbook for a theology course at the unversity where I teach. The book was published recently in the West, by Western scholars. Though the book has much to commend it, my Kenyan students will look in vain to find any framework by which to respond to the question the West African pastor asked me, yet Benin and Kenya are close in outlook. In January 2016, a story was reported in multiple news outlets that breathes the same enchanted worldview. Purportedly, a Kenyan man had his motorcycle stolen. To find out who had taken it, and to get it back, he went to the witchdoctor, who allegedly sent a swarm of bees. The bees split into two groups, one enveloping the missing motorcycle, the other attacking the supposed thief. As reported in one French language edition of the story, people sent for the witchdoctor, who then made the bees leave. One Kenyan official gave an alternative explanation, reporting that a queen bee had become lodged in the handlebars, which explains the swarming of the rest of the hive. It was one event but explained through two very different pairs of spectacles.

The re-enchantment of the West and the ongoing enchantment of sub-Saharan Africa raise several questions in my mind:

  1. What place does science education have in curriculum of public and private schools? Is its purpose de-enchantment?
  2. Does an acknowledgment of cause/effect in the universe as explained by science necessarily exclude supplementary explanations of other agents such as witchdoctors, or – to use the Western paradigm – witches, warlocks, or wizards?
  3. Must Christian theology in a postmodern world rediscover categories that appear in older systematic theologies, including the discussion of angels and demons? Are there any other voids in our teaching that encourage African Christians to seek explanations – and sometime, solutions to their everyday problems, like stolen bikes – in sub-Christian ways, by means other than addressing their needs to God in prayer?
  4. Western views of magic as portrayed in fiction suggest both benevolent and malevolent forms, so-called “good witches” or “good wizards.” Can we mentally compartmentalize this as harmless fantasy – merely the entertaining product of a healthy imagination – or are we unwittingly encouraging dabbling with very real malevolent forces, to our own spiritual harm?
  5. How do we adress issues around magic while avoiding sowing fear, keeping our eyes firmly on the truth that Christ has vanquished evil in all of its forms? In desiring to be relevant, is it possible that we’ll end up making the devil and his minions larger and more powerful than they are? We must not inflate the power of the demonic by giving it undue attention, detracting from the surpassing greatness and power of the Triune God, a God who is never far away but present and active in our world.

These are areas that are ripe for theologizing based upon solid exegesis of biblical material. Having been trained in a Western setting, I did not have eyes to see Scripture in-light of the kind of question that the Beninese pastor asked me. After twenty years in Africa, I’m more sensitive to such questions. However, they are better dealt with by local African theologians who can marry scientific explanations (where applicable) to the more supernaturalistic worldview that they know so well and that is apparent in Scripture.

In light of the re-enchantment of the West, we are witnessing a golden opportunity for Western and African Christian theologians to put their heads together to provide biblical answers to practical questions but from a holistic worldview. Let us not be satisfied to let vacuums in our thinking persist. Answers that honor God are there if we are willing to seek them. We owe the church and our world nothing less.


Photo credit: By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The high-wire of sound doctrine

high-wireFalse doctrine can have a ring of truth to it. That’s what makes it attractive. But there’s a catch: Wrong teaching results when a single truth is isolated from other balancing truths.

Two examples come to mind. The first is from Psalm 46:10a (NIV): “Be still and know that I am God.” In our frenetic world, many of us need to rediscover the practice of quietness. Catherine Marshall spoke of the “prayer of relinquishment.” We must come to a place of stillness where we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.

Yet for the person who has trouble gearing down and waiting on the Lord, there is a polar opposite. This is the individual who is passive almost to the point of fatalism. Their motto is que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be. Such a person doesn’t need Psalm 46:10; instead, give them a dose of James 2:17. Tell them that faith without works is dead. Remind them to put feet to their prayers.

A second example has to do with how we describe God’s character. I’m reading through A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak. It’s representative of 21st century North American writers who emphasize the love and grace of God, and what amazing attributes of our Triune God these are! For those who have lingered in oppresssive, legalistic settings in the church, a book like Jersak’s is salve for a bruised spirit, just what the doctor  ordered.

But love and grace are not all Scripture has to say about God. Have we so emphasized these two truths that we risk losing sight of counterbalancing truths apparent in the life of Christ and the New Testament as a whole? Jesus was willing to make a whip and drive moneychangers from the Temple, an event so pivotal to the narrative that it is recorded in all four Gospels (John 2:13-17, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-47, Matthew 21:12-13). And the writer to the Hebrews thunders that our God is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, NIV). The same Bible that affirms God’s love affirms God’s wrath. If we are unable or – worse yet – unwilling to hold these twin truths together, then we’ll merely repeat the mistake of the Israelites who got bored at the foot of Mt. Sinai, forging our own golden calf, reshaping God into how we imagine the LORD should be instead of bowing before who God actually is. God ends up as the stereotypical doting and permissive grandpa, the substitute teacher who kids at first think is fun but ultimately whose clueless classroom management cannot earn their respect.

Sound doctrine is a balancing act. Scripture is nuanced and we can’t afford to lean too far in one direction or another, or we may tumble off the high wire. Let’s avoid falsehood by continuing to balance truth with truth.

_________

Image credit: Music Teacher’s Helper

 

 

Mirrors and transformation

hand_mirrorWhen I was young, barbers cut your hair with the customer facing away from the mirror. Then, when the cut was done, they’d dramatically spin you around for the big reveal. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a barber do that. But even if you’re sitting facing the mirror throughout the hair cut, you’ll never know what it looks like in the back unless they give you a hand miror. Then, you can tell by the reflection of the hand mirror into the larger mirror whether the cut in back is correct.

The apostle James knew something about the value of mirrors. In James 1:23-25 (NIV), he writes:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it–not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it–they will be blessed in what they do.

James lived centuries before the invention of motion pictures, but if he lived today, I think he’d agree that film can serve as a mirror, revealing the character of the one who looks in it. I was reminded of this tonight watching the 1967 masterpiece, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

John Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier) – an accomplished tropical medicine doctor – is a 39-year-old widower. On vacation to Hawaii, he meets the lovely 23-year-old Joey Drayton (played by Katharine Houghton). Together just 10 days, they fall madly in love and plan to marry. There is only one hitch. Prentice is African-American (or “Negro” as was the common label of the time) while Drayton is white. While the fiancée insists her liberal activist parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) will have no problem with the union, the fiancé is not so sure. They fly to San Francisco to meet Joey’s parents and have dinner. Suffice it to say that the daughter has naively misread her parents, particularly her father. The angst ratchets up from there and the hard lessons begin.

The movie takes me back to a Sunday dinner conversation around 1975 when I was twelve. My paternal grandmother – a fine Christian  woman now decesased – was visiting. That Sunday our pastor and the evangelist (who was at our church holding a revival) were among our dinner guests. When we were all done eating, we lingered around the table, enjoying good conversation. Somehow, we got on to the topic of so-called “interracial marriage.” When my grandmother expressed her opposition to African-Americans and white people marrying each other, she point blank asked the ministers what they thought. There was a long, awkward silence. The question clearly made them uncomfortable. Instead of answering, they changed the topic.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (GWCTD) made viewers squirm in 1967, and eight years later around my family’s dinner table, the same topic made people squirm. I wish that I could say that in 2016 we’d put race issues behind us. Sadly, they seem as alive as ever. Yet when the topic does arise, instead of talking it through and listening to each other, are we like the pastor and evangelist? Do we squirm, anxious to change the topic?

It’s not fun to look in the mirror of movies like GWCTD. They force us – indeed, they force me – to take stock of my own prejudices. Do I really believe, like Martin Luther King, Jr., that what matters most is not the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character? And surely this is larger than skin pigmentation. What about those who are followers of other religions not my own? To adapt King’s maxim, do I truly believe that what matters most is not the “color” of one’s religion but the content of one’s character? We say as followers of Christ that loving God and loving others is the essence of our belief system (Mark 12:28-31). But are we living up to that profession when we seem ready to write off more than a billion people in our world – to “other” them – because a tiny minority among them has done heinous things? Where is the Christian love in that? 

Film is a mirror. Sometimes when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see. Yet the jarring realization that our attitudes are ugly can be the opportunity for change. James 1:25 holds out the hope of “freedom.” When we listen to God’s law of love and continue in it, God can liberate us from the prejudices that bind us. Only then can we be “blessed” in what we do. Using the mirrors he places in our lives, may the Lord Christ open our eyes to the hidden but deadly hatred that lies in our hearts. May he transform us into the kind of people whose love knows no boundaries!

6 lessons from a climb

My companions on our November 12, 2016 excursion (left to right): Daryl Johnson, Matt Madtes, and Jordan North
My companions on our November 12, 2016 excursion (left to right): Daryl Johnson, Matt Madtes, and Jordan North

It’s an exaggeration to call it a climb. Ascending to the top of Mt. Longonot (2,560 meters above sea level) in Kenya’s Rift Valley is more like a steep hike. While you may not need any gear beyond a good pair of running shoes or hiking boots, plenty of water in your backpack, and a camera, reaching the summit of Longonot yields some rich life lessons. Here’s what I’ve learned from three times up-and-down this fascinating dormant volcano:

  1. Walking alone is O.K., but having companions is better. Conversation along the path helps pass the time, and when you get tired, an encouraging word from a friend can do wonders. Sometimes, you can even lend a steadying hand when the path gets too rocky for a fellow-traveler.
  2. Be willing to guide another hiker on to the right path. A seasoned hiker on the way up saw that I had taken a wrong turn on the way down, that I was heading for a dead end. He spoke up, warned me of the danger, and voice-guided me back to the right path. I was grateful.
  3. You need nourishment on the trail. Even if you’ve eaten a good breakfast, the hike is a long one. Make sure to eat something along the way. I shared a bag of raisins – one of my favorite healthy snacks – and others shared their snacks with me.
  4. Stay together. One of our group got a burst of energy and blazed ahead. When he realized several of us were taking too long, out of concern, he doubled-back to check on us. We need people like that for whom “winning” is less important than making sure every one is still making progress.
  5. Carry a walking stick. Especially on the way down, your legs will weaken since the path is steep and you feel like an 18-wheeler braking as it descends. The stick helps you balance and takes some of the weight off your legs. And if a snake should appear – always a possibility in Kenya – at least you have a weapon for defense! I always carry my four iron. I’ve never hit golf balls far with it, but it’s plenty useful on Longonot.
  6. The scenic summit makes the tough ascent worth it. On the way back down, hikers verbally spur on those still struggling to ascend: “Keep going! It’s beautiful at the top.” In the case of Longonot, successful hikers are rewarded with the sight of a massive crater lined with verdant trees. The air is fresh and the view of the Rift Valley is breathtaking. All the effort pays off.

As in hiking, so it is in walking with Christ. It’s not “Jesus and me.” Rather, because we are part of a community of faith, it’s always “Jesus and we.” Take spiritual nourishment along the way and stay together.

Paul reminds us: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:9, NIV). The goal for every follower of Christ is eternal fellowship with the Triune God, resurrected life together in a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-5). This is the “view from the top” and it’s worth every sacrifice.