Posted in Christian ethics, missions & evangelism

When compassion and purity embrace: Lessons from James 1:27

Cup-Cold-WaterI’ve always liked the New Testament book of James. Yes, James is my first name, so that’s a point in his favor, but it’s more than that. James knows how to marry compassion and purity. Take for instance James 1:27 (NIV):

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Some emphasize purity, contained in the last phrase of the verse, “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is an essential part of the Christian ethic and is as old as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Commandments 6-10 are all phrased negatively:

6) “You shall not murder.”

7) “You shall not commit adultery.”

8) “You shall not steal.”

9) “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

10) “You shall not covet…”

Jesus himself ratified the Ten Commandments as still in effect (Matthew 19:16-22). How many of the cases that clog our court system can be traced back to a non-respect of these basic principles of conduct? Eighty percent of divorce lawyers would be out of business if the seventh commandment was obeyed. Likewise, the corruption so rampant in many countries reflects a fundamental disregard of the tenth commandment, where the “little guy” is the victim of extortion, the prey of government bureaucrats determined to fleece the public. As for the sixth commandment, if followed by all, debate over the death penalty would be unnecessary since murders would be no more.

I am part of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. We have  been quite comfortable with the Ten Commandments and other Scriptures that apply to personal morality. As for preaching, the importance of being “saved” and “sanctified” is our stock-in-trade. While this has sometimes morphed into legalism – a piling up of rules not clearly taught in Scripture – more often there has been a positive note of the transformation God the Holy Spirit makes in our lives. That’s an outcome we can celebrate!

Where we have done less well is applying the earlier part of James 1:27, i.e. the looking after orphans and widows in their distress. This phrase symbolizes the positive aspect of holiness, that righteousness is more than what we don’t do; it is what we do. The order of the phrases is important. James calls us to positive action before he calls us to purity. The proverb affirms: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” It’s not enough to outline the things from which the believer should abstain. Rather, when we pour our lives compassionately into others, we may very well be too busy to be distracted by the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1a, NIV).

The old debate over whether we should emphasize compassion or purity is a false one. James 1:27 shows that the two go hand-in-glove. May the Lord show us opportunities to put our faith into loving action!

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Photo credit: Truth Endures

Posted in book reviews, missions & evangelism

Jonny Steinberg’s Tale of Two Liberias

little-liberia-an-african-odyssey-in-new-york-cityIf you’re looking for a whimsical read, then steer clear of Jonny Steinberg’s Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City (London: Vintage Books, 2012). But if you crave a journalistic style that ably presents riveting episodes from Liberia’s two civil wars (1989-96, 1999-2003) along with their ripple effect upon “Little Liberia” (Liberians refugees exiled on Staten Island in New York City), then Steinberg’s account is for you.

Full disclosure: I cannot read Little Liberia without seeing it through the eyes of my own visits to that country. It was during a lull in the fighting in the Spring of ’95  that I first touched-down in Monrovia, to teach a theology class to twenty pastors. Subsequent visits have confirmed for me the resiliency of this people, a determination to stick together through tough times. To visit Liberia is to love Liberians, a gregarious and hard-scrabble people.

This same enduring spirit imbues Steinberg’s book, narrated through the eyes of two Liberian refugees living in New York City. Rufus Arkoi was a soccer coach and organizer who left Liberia in 1986. His path later crossed with Jacob Massaquoi, whose foot had been badly mangled in a shooting in Monrovia during an outbreak of fighting. Through their childhood stories, we catch a glimpse of the historical dynamics that laid the tragic groundwork for the gathering storm.

What is it that made Liberia prone to such brutal civil wars? Part of it – according to Rufus Arkoi – is the “suspicion and jealousy” that permeates society. When asked where that comes from, his answer is polygamy (p. 149-50):

I always say it is because of how our families are structured: one man, four wives, four sets of children, four sets of goals, not one set of family goals. Jealousy among the four sets of children. This mother is only looking at the interests of her children and is wishing that those children from the other mothers do badly in life. That’s the family structure. That’s the society.

And yet the amazing thing about both Rufus Arkoi and Jacob Massaquoi is that – whatever the cause of suspicion – they both are most of the time able to rise above it, contributing to the good of their fellow Liberians in important ways. Theirs is an optimism that sees not only what is but what can be, both working to help Liberian youth on Staten island get the education that will keep them out of gangs, enabling them to build for a brighter future.

In connection with economic development back in their homeland, one assumption that that author never challenges is that salvation must come from outside of Liberia. It is Liberians working in New York City who – much like Haitians – send a significant portion of their salary back to their country of origin. On the one hand, this is admirable, a sign of solidarity that should be applauded. On the other hand, it perpetuates a cycle of dependency, blinding citizens to local resources. Of course, this is the dilemma of all foreign aid. How can legitimate human need be met without creating in those helped a sense of entitlement? To use the words of the late Jack Kemp, how can assistance be a “hand up” and not merely a “hand out”?

In the last chapter of the book, Rufus Arkoi returns to Liberia and makes promises that he will go back and raise money from American donors, that he will send American soccer scouts to Monrovia to recruit Liberian players for foreign teams (p. 241). One more time, he works from an old paradigm, that someone else from somewhere else will solve our problems. What is lacking is a strategy for developing local resources for long-term sustainability. To borrow a political slogan, how can Liberia move from “Yes, they can” to “Yes, we can”?

For those who have never traveled outside of North America, Little Liberia it is an excellent introduction to dynamics that operate not only in Liberia but across sub-Saharan Africa.  Truly, this is a continent with huge potential and where most of the solutions to most of the problems lie close by, not far away. A pastor from South Africa put it well: “We are a rich people with a poverty mentality.” Yet it is more than outlook; it is also values. Solutions are short-circuited by individual greed, through misappropriating for oneself funds that were intended for the common good. (And lest we Americans get too self-righteous on this score, Google “Bernie Madoff.” Pot, meet kettle.)

As Christian educators, our task remains to inculcate in the young the integrity that will prevent the corruption that has tainted the past. Economic poverty is closely tied to moral poverty, no matter where in the world one is working, Africa included. It is righteousness that “exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). Truly, holiness is Africa’s hope; indeed, it is the world’s hope!

Whether describing the depressing ravages of civil war or the optimism of re-directing youth through sports and education, Jonny Steinberg is a gifted writer well worth the reader’s time. I highly recommend Little Liberia.

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Photo credit: Angus Robertson

Posted in reflections

Time for some righteous rebellion?

Rebels often get smacked down. Jesus was a rebel, and he knew if we followed his example, we could expect the same treatment:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:11-12 (NIV)

In the United States, Christians throw around the term “persecution” far too lightly. It is a sacred word, dripping with the blood of the martyrs, and when we toss the term out nonchalantly, we cheapen it. This is why the Beatitude is clear: the blessing is only for those who are mistreated “because of me.” We’re not talking about a negative reaction from others that we’ve merited because of our own silly behavior in the name of Christ, such as the Florida pastor who in April 2012 threatened to burn the Koran. He should have been censored.  That’s not persecution; that’s public accountability.

But let’s not be naive. The drift of Western culture on multiple fronts is such that those who resist the tide, however quietly, will necessarily stand out. As a preacher rightly pointed out: “We’re upstream Christians in a downstream world.”

There are dangers in group psychology when those who before were culturally dominant become a cultural minority. This seems to be the moment we’re living in, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. The knee-jerk reaction for the believer can be to withdraw from broader society, like a turtle who – when you poke his head with a stick – draws back into his shell. But how can we be salt and light if we remove our loving influence at the very time when it’s most needed?

A second reaction is anger, a temptation to lash out at those we perceive as marginalizing us. This may show up on FaceBook as angry status updates or bitter criticisms of politicians. Time to add a new verse to the children’s song: “Oh, be careful little fingers what you type!”

A superior path is the path of righteousness. Want to rebel? Be holy! By doggedly modeling the values of love and integrity, no matter what, we can make a difference. Rather than disengaging, our commitment – in obedience to the Great Commandments to love God and neighbor- must be to re-engage our culture. Because the stereotype is that Christians are brittle and hateful, we must go the second mile to show that the stereotype is just plain wrong.

A good example of this was Sandra Bullock, the actor who played the mom in the 2009 film, The Blind Side. She turned down the role three times, fearing it was just another example of Christians grandstanding about good deeds, while on-the-side living low-down like too many others. But after she met the real-life Christian family behind the film and spent extended time with them, she concluded: “I finally met people who walk the walk.”

When “everyone else is doing it,” when Christianity has been compromised, it’s time we put a little rebellion in the mix. Follower of Jesus, are you ready for some righteous rebellion?

“Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” – Romans 12:2,  J.B. Phililips paraphrase

Let’s rebel against the low road, whether it’s the low road of non-believers or Christians who don’t act like it. It’s time to take our faith to the next level. It’s time for some holy rebellion. Are you ready to be a righteous rebel?

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Photo credit: Blue Cheddar

Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments, reflections

Tom Oord calls for Nazarenes to “open the windows”

Thomas J. Oord

If the Church of the Nazarene were an army, then Tom Oord of Northwest Nazarene University would be one of the scouts riding out in front, probing new territory. Armies need scouts, and the Church of the Nazarene needs theologians like Dr. Oord.

Oord has written an intriguing essay, calling for us to “open the windows” in the Church of the Nazarene. He lists 10 areas where we need to “let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.” (No doubt he means the Holy Spirit, and not just any “spirit.”)

You can read all ten points over at his blog. They are all worth the reader’s time, but here I’d like to quote two of them as a springboard for further reflection. Oord writes:

1. Engage contemporary theology. Theological scholars in the colleges and universities sponsored by the Church of the Nazarene explore a variety of theological ideas. Theology in the denomination is significantly different today than it was fifty years ago. And that’s to be expected. Unfortunately, however, pursuing new forms of Wesleyan-Holiness theology in dialogue with these contemporary theological ideas is not encouraged as it should be. I believe the Spirit intends to do new things and guide the denomination in new ways theologically.

Tom Oord is justified in calling the Church of the Nazarene to the theological task. Each generation must grasp the biblical underpinning of the doctrine of holiness, but – having done so – must clothe the message in language relevant to its own generation and cultural context. It is not enough to just reprint old holiness classics. Those books use a distinctive idiom and illustrations that spoke to a time past. Who will write holiness theology in a language and style that touches the hearts of people in the 21st century? And the very style that makes an American writer resonate with American culture may for that same reason make the book ineffective in cultures outside North America. Our task as a global church is to raise up theologians from each culture where we are at work.

Yet is it enough to engage only the theology being written in our own culture? Worldwide – not just in the Church of the Nazarene – the Church is growing in what Philip Jenkins has called the “Global South,” including Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. More and more, contemporary theology is being written in these parts of the world, yet to what degree do seminary students in the United States grapple with theologians from these other cultures? Do our Nazarene universities in the U.S. read these emerging theologians? I admit my weakness in this area, but as one serving in Africa, am determined to become more conversant with thinkers like Kwame Bediako of Ghana. Who among our Nazarene theologians in Africa will rise to his stature?

The late Prof. Kwame Bediako of Ghana

Oord continues, underscoring the need for us to re-empower women in ministry. He sounds a clarion call:

8. Reestablish the power of and number of women in leadership. Many members of the Church of the Nazarene happily note that while the Roman Catholic church has not embraced the Spirit’s move to establish women in the highest positions of leadership, Nazarenes have affirmed this throughout their history. And yet a very small percentage of Nazarene pastors are women. And leadership in various denominational sectors is dominated by men. Steps must be taken to encourage Nazarene members to promote women into positions of leadership.

I believe that the Church of the Nazarene in Africa will set an example for other denominations in Africa and the global Church of the Nazarene in this regard. Currently, 14% of the nearly 1,000 students enrolled in the Nazarene Theological Institute are women. While we are not satisfied with this paltry figure, it is nonetheless movement in the right direction. Of the 16 students in a class I taught in Madagascar in 2011, 14 were women. Likewise, of nine who were ordained in Bukavu (Democratic Republic of the Congo), three were women, and a recent seminar on spiritual gifts (see photo) included a healthy representation of women.

Church leaders in Bukavu, DRC

The obstacles that African women must overcome to become pastors are daunting. If they can do it, what other culture in the world can be excused from fully empowering women to pursue all roles of lay and ordained ministry?

Thank you, Dr. Oord, for raising important issues. May the Holy Spirit continue to blow, refreshing His Church, including the small branch we call the Church of the Nazarene!

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Photo credits:

Thomas J. Oord – from the website of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science

Kwame Bediako – from the Akrofi-Christaller Institute website

Posted in From soup to nuts

A Publishing House for a Peculiar People

Here’s a taste of an essay I wrote for the NNU Wesley Center, looking back at the Herald of Holiness 100 years ago:

Multiple editorials in the early pages of Vol. 1 No. 25 urged pastors, evangelists, and church members to view theHerald and books that would be produced as an essential way to increase the effectiveness of holiness evangelism.  As a former pastor who has heard many sales pitches at District Assembly from a representative of Nazarene Publishing House, it’s intriguing to see that this approach has a long pedigree!

Read the whole blog here.

Plus ça change…