George Floyd and the African Response

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Protesters wearing face masks kneel in Dakar, Senegal on June 9, during a rally in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and against racism and police brutality (Picture courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine and SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images)

 

The week of the 26th of May should have been like any other during the Covid19 pandemic. “Working from home if possible”, “social distancing”, “sanitize”, “wash your hands”. New words and phrases for the so-called new normal. But that week found me still thinking about Ahmaud Arbery’s killing and emotionally spent after the rage and anger had subsided. Little did I or the rest of the world know that yet another black man in America, would lose his life in questionable circumstances igniting protests decrying police brutality in lands across seas he might have never considered crossing, from Germany to Japan to Senegal.

Much of what many would hear about George Floyd at least from here in Kenya was the story of a man moving from his home in Houston to Minneapolis in search of a better life and a break from his past. A man who had become a pillar in his community and church but who despite all his efforts ended up another statistic; an unarmed black man killed by police. As many opined on the entire situation, Trevor Noah’s masterful analysis of the situation emerged and went viral. The ubiquitous presence of the internet even in Kenya’s slums ensured with nothing much else to do what with jobs lost and the ample time to reflect now available, that his death would not go unnoticed by the curious eye.

The black experience in America has been communicated across countries through music and media and with it comes the realities of systemic inequalities because of how black people arrived in America through slavery and were then treated long after it was over. Although most Africans are fully aware of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the civil rights movement and Black American urban culture, the interpretive lens to often piece the American Black experience and history is usually not complete. Case in point, several years ago with my graduation looming a few years after the global recession I had mixed feelings about joining corporate Kenya. To help me in my concerns, I obtained a book that I thought would be an aid for unorthodox career pathways. It wasn’t much later that I realised the book; The Strange Career of Jim Crow was not the career advice book that I thought it was.

With the death of George Floyd, however, has come an urgency to understand even more about what it means to be a black image bearer in America. Although the “black experience” varies from the African continent where black Africans are the majority to other areas of the world where black people are minorities such as in the USA, it has been understood that much of the world the USA included, can be a hostile place for black people simply because history is real and so is the depravity of the human heart which twists the word of God to arrive at strange doctrines such as The Curse Of Ham.

 

Brutality and Instability

This new awareness especially from Africans is to my mind rather unique. So unique, that it elicited an unprecedented formal response by the African Union’s chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat. It should be noted however that Africans did not protest as a general response to the killing of George Floyd because we suddenly became aware of police brutality as though it does not exist on the continent. Police brutality also occurs in many African countries albeit not as vividly documented as in the USA in recent months and years. Furthermore, we have had our fair share of brutality and instability not only at the hands of police but also through military and armed militia. The war in Darfur though forgotten by mainstream media is still going on. Joseph Kony remains at large. Many Rwandese describe in part, significant local and national events in terms of their chronological proximity to the 1994 genocide. Extra judicial killings in Kenya considered one of the continent’s bastions for free speech still happen.

For millions of millennial Africans these are all either within living memory or current realities. It is for these reasons and more that some African activists while standing in solidarity with George Floyd and his family, equally criticized the AU for rushing to condemn America while overlooking its own record of silence regarding brutal regimes. After all many Africans do live as refugees in many Western countries precisely because they are escaping violence at home. So clearly, Africans were not this time especially taken aback by the George Floyd killing because there is either an overwhelming absence of brutality on the continent or a present compassion for black image bearers in America that wasn’t there before. I do however wish to propose two key factors that made Africans resonate with the George Floyd event in the way we did.

 

Hope and Agency

Africans have always been a people on the move making homes along the way and trading as well. Whether it’s Bantu migration from West Africa to East and Southern Africa or Nilotic tribes moving from Pubungu Pakwach to Uganda and Kenya or some other migration pattern on the continent. A history of movement is inherent in the African experience. This very act of migration represents hope and agency on the part of the migrant. Hope for a fresh and better start as well as an increased sense of agency whether it’s moving across the continent in rural to urban migration or away from the continent entirely. This agency however is not an expression of individual self-actualization but rather an agency keenly aware of the networked effect of its actions. As mentioned, many Africans live in America as refugees but even more are living and working in numerous industries. With each of these Africans is a direct connection back home on the continent; a connection that passes along stories of what it means to be a black African in a land where one suddenly finds themselves a minority. And though their migrant black experience differs from that of American descendants of slaves, it overlaps in varying extents on account of the colour of their skin.

A strong resonance for me reading and hearing the story of George Floyd was his migration from Houston to Minneapolis in search of a better life and a fresh start while retaining his connections to the place he came from. Despite his action of hope and agency, his life was extinguished on a road underneath the knee of an agent of law and order. Many Africans like myself seeing George Floyd’s life slipping away before their eyes could not help but see a connection here to the same act of hope and agency that we engage in ourselves or hear of from first-hand accounts.

 

The Shattering of a Myth

The second factor I would propose as having a significant effect on how the George Floyd event was received on the continent was the realization that as an American, George Floyd did not manage to escape the old normal of a pre-covid19 state of affairs. That there are realities that remain to be confronted aside from our individual acts of hope and agency however those acts manifest themselves. For many Africans, the USA remains a land of opportunity despite the rhetoric of Donald Trump. A place where unlike anywhere else, it is perceived that the outcomes of individual agency do in fact come to fruition. America is considered a shining city on a hill where the rule of law is said to prevail and where there is no limit to what one can do to begin a new and fresh life. The formal name for this idea is American Exceptionalism; the notion that America is a type of New Jerusalem and as such the existence of America and the perpetuation of American values is essential to an optimistic world of progress and fulfillment. Finding its origins in Puritan New England and spreading across America, this ideology has spread throughout the world through Hollywood, various media and the rhetoric of some American institutions and people abroad in a globalized world. So ubiquitous is this message that to many, modernization and globalization has become synonymous with Americanization. For many Africans such as myself, seeing George Floyd dying on the street meant that America is not entirely unique in the world and that the processes that safeguard law and order in America such as fair trial are equally capable of being subverted there like anywhere else.

To my mind, the protests on the African continent and quite frankly elsewhere in the world, were not simply an outcry against hypocrisy but the cries that accompanied a shattering of the myth of American exceptionalism. Africa and much of the world had believed in this American gospel and the George Floyd protests were the the many screams of a world having a cold turkey awakening. One in which silence could not be a reasonable response.

 

So, What Now?

When Jesus spoke of a city on a shining hill, his reference was not to a country that would be conceived centuries later in history but to the people of the covenant of grace who would in their actions be a reflection of God’s love and providence in the world. A people born not of flesh (or even territory) but of the Spirit who like their father Abraham, would look forward to a city not built with hands but whose architect and builder is God.

In a post-George Floyd world disillusioned by the breakdown of the rule of law and teetering on the edge of despair, it is especially important for Christians to engage in works of service while clarifying whenever we can the law and the gospel as well as their underlying components. American exceptionalism may very well be a distortion of Christianity but exceptionalism itself is not unique to America. Every country has its own stories of exceptionalism. Few have had a far-reaching effect as that of the USA. It is a human imperative to love our neighbours, but a particularly Christian imperative to do it in the name of the Triune God. Nevertheless, because of how American exceptionalism came to be and the fact that Christianity is in fact not a Western religion, the work of neighbour-love becomes uniquely heavier on the shoulders of Christians; American or otherwise.

In a post-George Floyd world, a specific act of love that Christians can engage in at present is to untangle the threads that confuse the Christian message with national identity and civic responsibility. Such responsibilities whatever they may be at an individual and institutional level should carry with them a keen awareness that their goal is to undo the works of the devil and in so doing be an avenue from which praise to God may emerge. This involves communicating the unique anthropological truths of Christianity which unite humanity as one while not deriding the fact that ethnic diversity will be gloriously displayed in the New Heavens and New Earth.

As African Christians, we really can engage in multifaceted works of hope and agency in the strength of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of the Father because Christ has purchased it for us. And there is no shortage of work right where we are and wherever else the image of God may reside. May the Triune God be our help for these tasks ahead of us in this unique time of need.

Thanking God for J.I. Packer

Like many in the conservative Protestant Anglophone world, I woke up today to the sad news of J.I. Packer’s death. He leaves behind his wife Kit, his three children Ruth, Naomi, and Martin, and two grandsons.  Inevitably there will be many pieces written about him however we should not forget that he was also a family man; Dad, Husband, and “Papa” to a family whose grief is understandably much greater than those of his spiritual sons and daughters of whom I count myself. May God be with them in this time of grief. Nevertheless, the first thing I said to myself was “Thank You Lord” – thank you for the life that Rev. James Innell Packer lead and the example he gave to me and the church.

The first book I ever read by him was Knowing God upon the recommendation of a pastor at my then church. Having read it slowly between 2012 and 2013, I concluded with the realization that this is what I had needed from the very beginning as a new believer. I like to joke that he put everything within my mind in its proper place; that the furniture after conversion was all there but that the telly was in the loo and the chairs were on top of the table! There really is no other book besides the Bible that I would say has had a more profound effect on me. So profound that when my atheist friend was converted, the first thing I decided to buy for him as a Christmas gift was an interactive version of the book where he could reflect upon it in writing as he read along. He too eventually found Knowing God to be an incredible resource for his journey with God.

Not only did he help me rearrange my doctrine appropriately, but it was Knowing God that really set me onto the path towards Reformed theology. Having read Ephesians, Romans and frankly speaking the rest of scripture, I had the knowledge and assented to the basic truths of Reformed theology as true and Biblical yet I had not committed myself to this frame of thought.

In those heady days, we were scrambling for the latest resources through the blessing of the internet, attending Christian conferences and meeting like-minded people at forums such as The Meaty Forum, Grace and Truth Conference and the like. At that time the Proclaim Conference at Emmanuel Baptist Church hadn’t started yet. A lot of people were listening to Christian rap artists like Shai Linne and others. Inasmuch as this was all great, my spiritual journey was slightly different and as a metalhead, I frankly at times felt like some things were a bit over my head culturally speaking and found it difficult to relate to the evangelical young adult crowd in Nairobi.

So even though I appreciated it all and was edified by it all to a degree, ultimately my Reformed theology journey really began with the writings of J.I. Packer more than any other media. Equally crucial in arriving at a proper understanding of the Reformed tradition was his little booklet introducing John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ which firmly convinced me of the doctrine of definite atonement. And just as with most who have read his little booklet, I am still yet to read the book to which it was an introduction!

Soon after, I read his book “God Has Spoken” and was yet again helped immensely by his doctrine of scripture which helped to extract false ideas I had about the inspiration of scripture while introducing new important ones that are central to the interpretation of scripture. One thing that I did recoil from at that time however in the book was the notion that consistency in scriptural interpretation demanded a paedo-baptist view of baptism. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that a man as gifted and helpful as J.I. Packer would still embrace an “absurd relic” such as paedo-baptism. Little did I know that yet again, Dr. Packer would lead me gently by the hand into another world, into classical Reformed theology. A world in which I would not only enter but make a home in.

On my book-stand an arm’s length or so away from me as I write, are two more books from Dr. Packer that I know will yet again eventually become signposts in my spiritual journey. Yet for all that he has written, I am even more grateful for his steadfast character in times of testing and his desire to speak to the pew rather than the academy. Not because the academy is to be eschewed, but rather because on that pew is the church; from the academic to the barely literate, from the wealthy politician to the poor widow and Christ’s call to Peter and to us all is to love him by feeding his sheep. ALL his sheep.

As I think of his entering into glory it also seems to me to be the end of a particular era; one defined by him along with Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. Three men who have had immense influence upon modern conservative evangelicals – an influence felt even here in lowly Kenya. A common feature among them as I think about it was the sentiment that in their addresses to British society generally speaking, lay a perception of it as being somewhat catechized enough to at least have a Christian framework in mind no matter how flimsy that framework may be.

With the increased secularization and multiculturalism of modern Britain it can no longer be assumed that the average British citizen has any Christian framework whatsoever. Possibly this may have been the impetus for Packer’s writing on catechesis. As I consider the following generation of British theologians, I do however see Alistair McGrath, Sinclair Ferguson, Alistair Begg, Michael Reeves, Derek Thomas and Lee Gatiss among others. The flame of Reformed orthodoxy has not been totally extinguished it would seem.

As far as widespread influence is concerned however, it would seem that the other torch he carried; an apologetic heart for the pew, uniquely marked by clarity and depth is presently being carried most notably in my opinion by Dr. Michael Horton. However, he belongs to the URCNA denomination in America; a country seeking to follow in Britain’s secularization footsteps albeit at a faster pace but which still bears the assumption mistaken as it often is, that a Christian framework is still accessible to the average citizen. British society seems to be past the age in which it could produce a self-conscious Anglican the likes of Packer. Then again, there could only ever be one J.I. Packer. The present society poses its own challenges unlike its predecessor for which God as always, entrusts capable men.

The greatest influence as far as an assessment of myself is concerned however, was the character of the man which cannot go unconsidered. Packer’s character quite frankly, has greatly encouraged me in my ministry in that although I have been prodded in the past towards academic theology, God in his providence has and is encouraging me to be in some way, the catechist that Packer was. Not necessarily through writing only but also by teaching Sunday school, catechizing children and to overall love the church “in the background” so to speak, without making a career out of it. Steve MccAlpine has a perspective on how he avoided the path of “a careerist” that I believe matches my own perception of his life. What I do know concerning his influence on my life is that I would not be the Presbyterian churchman that I am today had I not witnessed from afar the life and ministry of J.I. Packer.

Nevertheless, I hope to continue in my faith in the same way as our elder brother and father in faith who was a living witness to Christ-likeness; entrusting himself to God knowing that the God of all creation is just and good in all things.

So for all these things and more, I thank God for J.I. Packer and look forward to meeting him when Jesus returns.

A Change of Heart (and Mind)

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I haven’t written anything here for quite some time and as it may be surmised, it in part has to do with my last post on mental health. In the meantime I have been recuperating from ministry and trying to find my footing in the secular world which is to say, having realized that an ordained preaching ministry is not the calling that God has placed on my life, I have been seeking to hone my craft/s so that I can put food on the table by some other means. Though I will not be preaching or discipling 24/7 a writing and discipleship ministry is slowly taking shape in my life which I cannot see the full contours of at this stage in time.

However, I do now see a few hints of it here and there and part of it has to do with writing from a distinctly African perspective that considers itself as Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Reformed and Presbyterian. In that precise order. During my “hiatus” from writing it occurred to me that my main doctrinal influences till now have been if my accumulated books are any indication notably Tim Keller, C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer and John Owen with Michael Horton and Herman Bavinck slowly jostling for a position in my frame of thought. Inasmuch as these theologians have indeed shaped my mind profoundly and continue to do so, it was disturbing to me to step back and realize there were no African authors in that list.

Granted, few African theologians write for an audience in the same way that writers writing for a chiefly USA evangelical audience do. After all, our key discipleship channels in sub-Saharan Africa are not best-selling books but rather hymnals, mentorship relationships, Bible study groupings and sermons. However, I am fully aware of African theologians such as St. Augustine, John Mbiti, Lamin Sanneh and Yusufu Turaki. Why haven’t I written considering the reflections of these and other African theologians; reflections that have more to do with my real and present situation as an African than the aforementioned Western authors? That shall be addressed someday. Somewhere else. Nevertheless, I have become convinced that I need to have a change of heart and mind on how I view myself, the world I inhabit and how I write on this blog.

One thing that I can at least venture into as far as my change of direction is concerned is my growing awareness of the American “culture wars” that have been going on for a few decades now. A while back it occurred to me that a particular American pastor’s sermons were using very often, American illustrations and examples. This would have been well and good had the pastor been preaching to an American audience however the pastor was preaching to Kenyans. As a culture with foundations in oral traditions, we try to be very good listeners and not a few people in that audience at times realized that the preacher was talking past them. Had they given feedback it would have been revealed that they believed the preacher was not interested in them or their lives but was rather fighting his own rhetorical wars with the Kenyan congregation being used as proxies or human shields. He was preaching in Nairobi, but his mind and efforts were focussed on America and the congregation was useful at that point to the extent that they could be co-opted into fighting America’s so-called culture wars.

Now, I have no doubt that had an older congregant taken him aside and asked him what he was doing, he would have understood immediately the consequences of his speech, repented for his actions and refocused his attention to the sheep in his care at that very moment rather than to the sheep of another under-shepherd’s pastures. And I have no doubt in my mind that that congregation would have overlooked this error and proceeded to walk again together in faith.

It is for this reason among others that I will now aim to be as present as is humanly possible within my context and will endeavour for that to be reflected in my writing. That means, appreciating North American and Western authors perspectives whilst effectively delisting myself from the social concerns that are unique to the American and Western evangelical space.

I have quite a few pieces to publish on this blog in 2020, with perspectives that I have not seen reflected elsewhere. It can only be for my own good and for the good of my readers to do so. I did therefore consider it imperative to give this brief preamble before I commence on this new journey.

All in all, may God continue to be glorified through this blog as the light that shines eternal.

A KINDLY WORSHIP

Church-Alone

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust,”

Psalm 103: 13 – 14 NIV

Over at the website ‘Facts and Trends’, Daniel Bowman Jr. an Associate Professor of English at Taylor University has written an insightful article that I would urge all who haven’t read it yet to do so. In it, he details his experience as an autistic individual worshiping in an American evangelical church. Though I am not autistic, I do struggle with mental health issues and have done so for many years and in many ways, Daniel’s article is the article I have wanted to write for a few years now.

Daniel essentially details the cultural challenges he has had adapting to evangelical circles with well meaning but ill-advised Christians who do not know how to engage with individuals such as himself. When I first realized I had severe depression, I dug in harder and put in more hours working and volunteering at my Kenyan evangelical church in a bid to ‘get over it’ but that never happened.

After a series of events that acted as triggers, I unexpectedly shut down mentally and began having serious panic attacks. Some were so serious that I could not concentrate on the sermon and had to leave the area almost immediately. In other cases, merely approaching the church gate and hearing the loud music from several meters away would trigger such severe panic attacks that I initially began slowing down my pace till the ‘Praise’ section was done and the ‘Worship’ section set in. The demarcation between ‘Praise’ and ‘Worship’ music in evangelical churches is one that has been borrowed from Pentecostalism but has now become an expected feature of non-denominational Protestant worship. Over time, I learned to time myself so that I arrived just in time as the ‘Worship’ section was starting to avoid any questions as to why I was staying away until the service was midway.

Like Daniel, I have realized that predictability and liturgy are essential for someone with mental health issues to experience. Furthermore, I have come to learn that the multi-sensory approach that evangelical churches have adopted over the years can have negative effects for people who struggle with mental health problems. So essential to me have been these realizations that I came to a stark conclusion; that I could no longer attend my evangelical church which I had served in even in high profile roles, simply because my mental health was deteriorating and that I needed something simpler, consistent, predictable, and more compassionate.

Compassionate may seem like a stretch when it comes to describing what I was seeking outside of the Nairobi evangelical culture which has aped in the last 20 years nearly every jot and tittle of American evangelical culture. But I do believe it is the apt word to use. Evangelical churches; Kenyan, American, or otherwise do not of course seek to be cruel to people with mental health issues but this is unfortunately the outcome often. As someone who once served at my evangelical church in a prominent role, I made attempts to use my influence to address mental health issues using my own struggle with depression and anxiety to no avail as it was almost always brushed off as something to get over. It also always seemed that proponents of the sort of things I objected to were more interested in creating ‘a good show’ than in listening to what people on the pew were saying.

I recall in one instance; bright flashing lights were put on to give a more concert-like feel to the praise and worship and when I rushed over to the sound guy to ask him to switch them off in case there was an epileptic in the church that morning, there was a look of bewilderment at my strange request. On another occasion, I noticed that a family with a non-speaking autistic son were trying hard to enjoy the service as their son was clearly and strongly agitated by the multi-sensory worship. The pressure on families to balance the desires of their children who want to attend churches with exuberant worship and vibrant youth programs versus children within the same family who have significant health challenges such as epilepsy and autism in need of a more consistent and slower spiritual care is palpable.

Sadly, the evangelical church does not know how to deal comprehensively with such issues and from my own experience, often ignores them as hindrances or nuisances. Now on hindsight, it does not surprise me that my own concerns about flashing lights during Sunday morning worship which I believed to be self evident, were not thought of by anyone else until the very last minute or that my own struggles with anxiety and depression once disclosed were treated as trivial.

In the last few decades and centuries, significant sociological pressures have been placed on the Christian church to conform to the whims of society so much so, that to not cater to the expectations of society is thought to be anti-evangelistic. And society demands enthusiasm, charisma, and entertainment not realizing that even its own demands are artificial. In Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ one of her interviewees Adam McHugh details under the subheading ‘Does God Love Introverts’, how extroversion and expressiveness have become the gold standard for the supposedly spiritually mature Christian, “The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness and extroversion, McHugh explained, “The emphasis is on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that they are not living out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing as well as I’d like,’ it feels like, ‘God isn’t pleased with me,’ [chapter 2, page 66]

For many who may not be able to participate in the exuberance of evangelical worship and life, either out of being very introverted or because of mental health issues, this from McHugh feels familiar. I know so because it was my exact experience as an introvert pretending to be as extroverted as I could to fit in while at the same time struggling with severe depression within a culture that inadvertently implies that to be spiritually mature is to be extroverted and charismatic. At some point due to all the leg work I somehow became convinced that my core job as a church worker was to “keep the show running” and to be as approachable, relatable and outgoing as I could possibly be. As a result, I eventually became convinced that God needed me but as to whether he loved me, that was neither certain nor up for consideration in my own mind.

At the root of the problems with evangelical worship is an eschatological issue whereby, it is assumed that worship on Sunday mornings is to be an exact picture of heaven unspoiled by sin and other realities of the fall of man. Others are sociological whereby the assumption for worshipers is that the sermon and the aesthetics of worship are to be like an elaborate, enthusiastic sales pitch and that everything should be done to ‘clinch that deal’ i.e. save souls, at all costs.

There is much I wish to write about in the coming months specifically about Christian worship however, I’d like to finish where I began. With God’s acknowledgment of us. Christian worship as I see it, seeks to honour God despite our limitations. There really is a limitation on our lives from the fall that we may call mortality. And from beginning to end, God knows that our whole lives which are to be lives of worship, will be marred by the very real effects of our mortality. From the degradation of the body to the degradation of the mind. And for all of us lying within that health spectrum from the best our bodies and minds could be, to the worst our bodies and minds could be; all of us in the church of Christ on this spectrum are called to worship.

So, I would propose that at the very least, regardless of what our beliefs concerning the nature of worship in the Christian church may be, we should acknowledge that God acknowledges us in our frailty and mortality and that his demand on us to worship is cognizant of this. And that therefore this demand is a kindly one which ought to translate to an evidently kindly worship. I use the word kindly, not to evoke sentimentality but to indicate that sense in which God shows compassion by calling the church to worship knowing full well that our bodies and minds in many ways bear the evidence of our mortality and therefore what he demands of us in worship in every age will by the nature of his inherent compassion, mirror his character and thoughts towards our frail bodies and minds regardless of the passing features and fads that change with the cultures of the world as time goes by.

Christian worship if for no other reason other than on the basis of God’s character alone, should be a fundamentally kindly worship. Sadly, much of the evangelical world is not a kindly place in which to worship God and Daniel’s article should give us pause on how we should restore the worship of God to a state where all manner of people across the board can feel welcomed to worship their creator whether they are autistic or arthritic or struggling with anything else concerning their health. Until then, one can only hope for change and the fortitude to seek and maintain God’s best for us in how he wants us to worship him. After all, the distortions in worship that seem so fixed today are only features of a passing period in time and not inherent within the nature of Christian worship as God envisioned it.

Polarity: Kenya’s 2017 Elections, Identity Politics & The Fidelity of the Kenyan Church.

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(Photo Courtesy of The Standard Media Group)

On the 8th of August, Kenya went to the polls and voted. Three days later on Friday evening, the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta was officially declared the victor. The opposition coalition N.A.S.A refused to be a part of the final process and its candidate Raila Odinga refused to concede defeat seeking instead to fight the ruling at the Supreme Court and finding a historically unprecedented victory there on the 1st of September. The country seems to be putting much on hold and waiting for the outcome of the new election to be held on October 17th. This is the context we are living in; in a state of angst and as the Waswahili say, “Fahali wawili wakizozana, nyasi ndizo huumia,” [Translation: When two bulls fight, it is the grass that hurts]

Throughout our history as a country, we have been fixated on an ongoing drama between the Kenyatta and Odinga family dynasties despite alternative voices in the political sphere seeking equal attention; a drama that has become imbued since independence in 1963 with a litany of shifting ideologies: socialism, democracy, liberation theology, Marxism, Rogue Capitalism, negative ethnicity…the list could go on and on. After all, our literacy rate for Kenyans over the age of 15 lies at 78% and with access to an innumerable number of ideologies for the literate populace to pick from and absorb in an attempt to understand itself, the drama goes on.

In this ideological environment, Kenya’s greatest asset; an eclectic population (40+ tribes as well as Caucasian and South Asian ethnicities) has not been fully brought to bear in attempts to mitigate the negative effects of this ongoing drama and has instead been perverted. This is often seen in the subsuming of ethnic identities into either side of the Kenyatta/Odinga narrative and the subsequent sociopolitical outlooks either side adopts on the day whilst seeking to negate its ideological opposition. One such example of this is the GEMA outfit. Unlike the sort of harmony expected of relations that begin from a position of mutuality e.g. inter-ethnic marriage or enterprise that includes ethnicities across the Kenyan spectrum, this particular melding eventually harms. The harm is further fostered by historical revisionism, unsubstantiated claims as well as the “requisite” denials, assertions and deliberate instances of silence when speaking is preferred. The August 8th elections were no different. However, the brazenness with which new lines were drawn by both sides of the Kenyan election especially on social media was uniquely startling:

  • The assertions that 9 year old Stephanie Moraa shot on her balcony was in fact protesting; thus a subconscious attempt to cut the flow of empathy towards her grieving family.
  • That the police was not at all acting recklessly; a denial easily refuted by the instance of tear gas canisters lobbed inside an SDA church.
  • The deliberate silence that was a response in several circles to the clubbing to death of 6-month old Baby Pendo.
  • Unsubstantiated claims from opposition supporters that the election was rigged through a collusion between the IEBC, Electoral Observers and Multi-National Corporations with ghoulish intentions.
  • The initial boycott from the opposition to take their issue to the mandated governing authorities for election disputes where objectivity rather than sentiment is to be the rule i.e. the courts despite some of its players having played a part in the past in the fight for stronger public institutions. (The question may very well be asked, should we only support our governance institutions when we think it will go our way?)

The Kenyan church in its overall ethos of social and ethical transformation, has more often than not assumed that it could neatly excise itself from this context it inhabits while in practice rather than in doctrine, denying that our fight remains against the world, the flesh and the devil. The pervasiveness of this error runs so deeply that within the theological systems of some sects and African Christian theologians, can be sensed the unchallenged assumption that within our “Africanness” lies an immunity from particular ravages of the devil as far as our perception of reality as God has decreed it to be is concerned.

With these standpoints, implicitly yet firmly in place, it now surprises the church in Kenya that the same denials, assertions and deliberate instances of silence when speaking is appropriate are also to be found within its walls and not simply from all sides outside of it. As Christians, we often speak of the importance of our worldview being shaped by the word of God. What we really say in another way is that, our reality is always being reshaped, modified if you will and that it is to be appropriately modified by the word of God. The question then is, are we aware of this and the standards by which our reality is modified throughout our lives or will we be surprised as we are now when we realize we have been modifying our reality on false assumptions? On this point, Carl Trueman’s lecture below at Westminster Theological Seminary on Martin Luther is strikingly relevant. Here he describes Luther’s commentary on Genesis 3:1 in which Luther considers the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent and his conclusion from that passage that in speaking an untruth, the serpent essentially presents to our first parents a “false reality”.

Carl Trueman: “…With a word, it attacks “The Word” – The word which the Lord had spoken to Adam was do not eat from the true of the knowledge of good and evil. For Adam, this word was Gospel and law. It was his worship, it was his service and the obedience he could offer God in this state of innocence. These Satan attacks and tries to destroy. Nor is it only his intention as those who lack knowledge think to point out the tree and issue an invitation to pick its fruit. He points it out indeed but then he adds another new statement as he still does in the church.”

What Luther is saying there is that sin involves an alternative reality. But what Satan does, he doesn’t just point to the tree and say ‘Go on, have a go. Eat it.’ Satan re-describes reality. And because Satan re-describes reality in a way that is false, ultimately you can never make sense. The world is a certain way because God has decreed it to be that way. When Satan sets up an alternative reality, it is inevitable, it is inevitable that the world no longer makes sense. Death invades. Death is senseless for Luther. The world no longer makes sense because it no longer runs along the lines of reality that God has established in his word.

As lovers of truth which the Christian is to be we should furthermore recognize without partiality, the thoroughly inappropriate hijacking of religious themes by both sides i.e. the naming of the current government as the Jubilee Coalition in 2013 with reference to the Biblical concept of “Jubilee” as well as the self-identification of Raila Odinga as “Joshua” attempting to lead Kenya into a “land of prosperity” as it were. It should not come as a surprise that this hijacking would occur; as a matter of fact the people of Kenya themselves often eagerly ascribe these Biblical themes and messianic identities to politicians. These abuses and the deliberate silence from many Christian clergy in response to them clearly shows that much of the Kenyan church has no clue whatsoever when it comes to rightly dividing the word of God. The Bible for many in the Kenyan church is not immediately understood as a book containing significant, historic, at times unrepeatable events but is rather overall, a collection of aphorisms that can be appropriated for selfish gain in whichever way the reader of the Bible deems appropriate. As for the history in it, that kind of Kenyan reader might very well say albeit implicitly, “That is neither here nor there,”

In this way, the Biblical narrative is re-shaped. Uhuru Kenyatta becomes the kingly Christ-figure whose sinlessness is attested to by several of his supporters denying any allegation of corruption or other wrongdoing on the part of the Jubilee government in the last few years. They then term them all (the allegations) as mere propaganda and attempts at “economic sabotage” whilst denouncing those who would call for this “sinlessness” to be critiqued i.e. civil society. In this narrative, Raila Odinga and his followers with his frequent “scandal revelations” becomes the accusatory anti-Christ figure in need of final vanquishing.

On the other side, a similar plot plays out this time with Raila Odinga appropriating the identity of Biblical Joshua; another Christ figure whose task is to lead Israel i.e. his followers, into “Canaan”; a corruption free, virtue-laden prosperous Kenya for all ethnicities, whose eyes are trained on the lawless residents of Canaan due for judgment on account of their evil deeds as well as a siege and subsequent transformation of that land from a Kenya where privileged tribal elites play carrot and stick games with their own tribesman whilst recruiting more into the ranks of their corrupt cabal. This quest apparently ends in creating a utopia on earth worthy of the world’s admiration.

With the Kenyan church – except for a few faithful Christians and churches, clearly incapable or unwilling to address these pertinent issues outlined above, it ought to be clear to any right-thinking Christian that the fidelity of the church to Christ on this issue is not really a matter of defense i.e. prevention, but rather a matter of offense and retrieval. Which is to say, we must modify our reality in accordance with the word of God, arrive at the proper judgment that we are overall compromised and then proceed to do what needs to be done to rectify the problem. What the political elite have done in appropriating Biblical themes and messianic narratives is that they have entered the house of Christianity under false pretenses. They have then proceeded to demand that we re-arrange the furniture in accordance to their whims and are now insisting as all Kenyan squatters tend to do, that their ancestors were buried somewhere on our property and they are now laying claim to our history for their own purposes.

May I suggest that by tolerating the false realities presented to the Kenyan church and resorting to silence for too long when speaking was preferred, that what we as Kenyan Christians were really preferring and seeking out was the comfort of pretended social cohesion over the peace that God himself supplies? In doing so we have opened ourselves to at least these two specific challenges to Gospel witness in Kenya:

  1. The silence of numerous Christians and churches in appropriately talking about historical injustices as well as the two currently prominent false realities; the socially destructive doctrine of Uthamaki and the nascent, inevitably inadequate “Luo Messiah Narrative” for lack of a better term – the attempt to weaponize the Luo tribal identity into a social justice vehicle and its subsequent appropriation by all and sundry, says loudly to non-Christians that for some reason, the church is inherently incapable of speaking to these things. Thus, the logic on the ground may flow in this way – the church is silent therefore it has nothing to say. It has nothing to say because it’s scriptures do not speak on these things and therefore the (supposed) insufficiency of scripture to speak on all of life here in Kenya is evidence of its total bankruptcy. And because the Christian scriptures cannot be trusted, either its God is false or does not exist. In this way, we who know that scripture really does speak to these things cede ground to competing worldviews who claim to extensively address these issues that the church is too bashful to acknowledge. It would not be a surprise to me to hear that the conversion of many in Kenya to Islam is due to the Sharia system’s claims to extensively address justice issues. These “alternatives” are further emboldened in their assertions when we limit our strategy for addressing issues in the civic sphere not immediately from the Bible but rather to ministry blueprints from other countries e.g. America and as a result address only the issues that for example American churches address. Hence perpetuating false assertions that Christianity is alien to the African continent and that its appropriation in African countries serves only as a power game for the goal of moral policing.
  2. The constant revisionism of objective historical facts trickles down into a lack of objectivity in general as far as the relationship between history and logic is concerned. As J. Gresham Machen taught in his seminal work, “History and Faith”, the student of the New Testament is primarily a student of history. Without the objectivity of historical facts, we will eventually find it incredibly difficult to proclaim the giving of the son of God as a substitute for our sins and the subsequent giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as objective historical facts. In its toleration via silence concerning revisionism and subjectivism, the church becomes complicit in aiding the enemy to destroy the context for our Christian witness throughout the ages. In this context we are unwittingly complicit in destroying, The Law of Non-Contradiction is made obsolete.

Even more chilling is the future of our present Kenyan youth who we expect to pass on the faith to in this context we are creating. The Aga Khan University in its recently conducted research on Kenyan youth culture has arrived at the conclusion that Kenya is headed for an economically prosperous yet morally dubious future thus complicating further the Kenyan Gospel witness for the future. Having painted such a bleak picture what is the Christian to do, what is the church to do when the foundations are broken?

Well, it ought to be categorically stated that having realized the present precarious nature of our foundations, the necessary process of retrieval in the Kenyan church is in fact nothing short of the retrieval of Biblical redemptive history and its implications within the Kenyan context. Primarily at a corporate level through Redemptive-Historical preaching from the pulpit and Holy-Spirit empowered ‘love of neighbour’ at the individual Christian’s level across all ethnic lines. This retrieval of redemptive history in our churches would proclaim our common anthropology and that our need and solution as a human race regardless of your ethnicity is one and the same as that of anyone from another ethnicity.

Such a statement of our common anthropology through Adam; humanity’s representative, the fall of humanity in him, and consequently all of humanity’s need for Jesus Christ; the second Adam, entails in practicality, rejecting the Judaizing walls reminiscent of the Galatian heresy such as those implicitly embodied within the Uthamaki doctrine and the Luo Messiah Narrative. Adam not Uhuru Kenyatta or Raila Odinga is the representative of every Kenyan all of whom are born into sin. Jesus Christ and not Uhuru Kenyatta nor Raila Odinga is the head of the church; a church in which Kenyans from every ethnic community are found. We are as Christians to modify our view of the world not on the social-political claims of either Uhuru Kenyatta or Raila Odinga but on the timeless and trustworthy word of God.

Furthermore, it entails celebrating our ethnicities rather than being bashful of them or deliberately and destructively subsuming our ethnicities into the socio-political constructs of the players on each side. As Revelations teaches us, we need to arrive at an understanding that at the end of human history as we currently know it and long past the time when the names Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta have faded into memory, we should expect to hear in heaven the languages of the Kikuyu, Luo, Abagusii, Kamba, Pokot, Ogiek, Mijikenda, Arabic, Indian, Pakistani communities as well as the tongues of every other community under the sky. Though we should strive for social cohesion as much as is possible, we also need to have a reasonable end view of things and understand that ultimate peace will not be eternally secured without the prince of peace at the end of human history as we now know it. Like Abraham our patriarch, we are not as Christians to seek out an earthly abode and become “kingdom financiers” or anything of the sort rather, we are to look for that city whose architect and builder is God as we love our neighbours at an individual level no matter the cost to ourselves.

In this appropriate modification, we are to in all situations to set apart Christ as Lord in our first act and from that act, appropriately and within our relevant spheres and degrees of influence see to it that we live in a manner that honours God and appropriately loves our neighbours and in doing so, bear witness to the fact that as a church we are a tapestry of many ethnicities brought out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

In ensuring that this is portrayed, the manner of preaching in our churches must also drastically change to reflect the reality of the working of the word of God throughout human history in the hearts of all mankind. The sort of heart-changing and world-turning preaching necessary for this task at hand is expository preaching in the Lectio-Continua tradition that proclaims in its methodology the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ in scripture and history whilst accompanied by much prayer. To ensure that the word of God is unhindered in its work, we shall also need healthy churches governed by elders as well as ordained deacons who see to it that the material needs of its parishioners are not committed to the realm of theory but instead proclaim in action, that the Christian faith is a tangible faith rather than a Gnostic faith.

There is much else that could be said and that needs to be said, but at the end of the day, Christian faithfulness in a polarized Kenya can only be achieved by a process of retrieval at an individual Christian level as well as at the institutional church level. May God help us to realize the sheer magnitude of this necessary task at hand and our dire need for the work of the Holy Spirit whose strength is the only sure help towards the accomplishment of this crucial work.

Further Resources

 

Disagreeing Well.

Here below is a video that has been really helpful to me in doing conversations with people I may disagree with particularly on theological issues.

Clearly, the three people in conversation here i.e. Michael Horton, Matt Chandler and Tim Keller are in what some would imagine to be in very different worlds. Yet, that is what makes this conversation very useful because they are essentially coming to an agreeable set of “house rules” as far as conversation is concerned especially in the age of the internet.

The conclusions they arrive at are especially helpful for Christians in conversation with each other who may not see ‘eye to eye’ on what one party within the dialogue may consider a critical issue.

I especially enjoyed Michael Horton’s application of the 9th commandment because it is essentially a Reformed approach to the Decalogue in the life of the Christian i.e. The Third Use of the Law.

Much Ado about…Evangelicalism, Denominations, Non-Denominationalism (?)

 Church-christian-world-denominations

There was a time when I really hated denominations. I was at one time firmly planted in that stream of thought that considers the term ‘denomination’ to be a dirty word and denominations themselves as ‘man-made’ and dangerous preferring to stay within that sphere dubbed ‘Mere Christianity’ or “non-denominational evangelicalism”. Yet today i stand on the opposite side of that sentiment or at least an inch or two closer to that denominational side. Interestingly enough, even C.S Lewis who wrote that famous book; Mere Christianity, would have abhorred such a category even going so far as to say that one can’t live in the corridor of a house, but rather it is the rooms of a house where lives are lived.

Probably being ‘burned’ by a denominational church caused me to hate all things denominational at some point. Most certainly I DID hate all things about that particular denomination I was raised in as a child. More often than not, I’ve found that many who disagree with denominations have been ‘burned’ by a denominational church in one way or another and usually what attracts people like the old me to non-denominational churches is what said churches are assumed to stand in opposition to, rather than what they stand for.

In my own experience, I was attracted to my current local church because of what they stand for though I must confess that what initially made me stay there was because I assumed that they opposed many of the things I opposed. Lately I’ve come to realise that I had set up straw –man arguments against denominations. Arguments that tied denominations to strife, bureaucracy, a ‘Spirit-less’ life and the list goes on and on. Nevertheless, it is still worth considering why many of us understand the term to imply division rather than diversity.

Truth be told, denominations can not deliver us world peace neither are they the pristine, sanitized habitats that some may think they are. In fact, even orthodox and once orthodox denominations have produced their fair share of weirdos e.g. Harold Camping, Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale were/are members of Reformed Presbyterian denominations (R.C.A and C.R.C) and Harry Emerson Fosdick as well as Fred Phelps were Baptists of some kind. Not to mention that some denominations such as the E.L.C.A and the United Church of Christ have committed and in fact encourage what any right thinking Christian would clearly see as outright heresy within their ranks.

 

What Makes a Denomination?

So why bother anyway? What is it about denominations that irks some and make others gleeful? Probably what we ought to be asking first is, what is it that makes a denomination or at least a Christian denomination? A layman such as me would assume shared ideals; ideals concerning God’s word spoken and presented in a type of tradition. Also, not every denomination begins ‘squeaky clean’ but they should at least attempt to continuously be shaped by scripture on all things, changing their minds where necessary on non-essential issues that may be the outworking of a particular socio-cultural setting. The exception to the Establishment Principle in The Westminster Confession of Faith by some Presbyterians is one such example.

In 2nd Timothy 1:13-18, we see Paul exhorting Timothy to preserve the ‘pattern of sound words’ given to him. As some theologians have pointed out (and i agree with them) this is the precedent for the formation of expressed orthodoxy i.e. creeds and confessions. Basic Christian orthodoxy to my mind ought to be found at the very least within The Apostles Creed, The Nicene Creed and The Athanasian Creed. Others would go further to say that the various historic Protestant expressions of faith such as The Westminster Standards, The Three Forms of Unity, The 1689 Baptist Confession, The 39 articles, The Augsburg Confession etc ought to be a standard of orthodoxy and i would agree with their right to say so even if i disagreed with the particulars of some of those expressions of faith. Nevertheless, they are all attempts to express what it is that Timothy received; which we too received i.e. Christian orthodoxy. I would also go so far as to say that statements of faith and/or church constitutions that Christian churches make are a valid attempt at phrasing the apostolic faith that binds us all to each other and goes beyond likes, dislikes, or vague shared ideals such as the colour of the carpet in the church or the inherent value of ‘spaghetti western’ movies. In order to notice deviations from orthodoxy, we need to have a recognised orthodoxy that can be (unfortunately and dangerously) deviated from in the very beginning..

 

Non-Confessional Evangelicalism/Non-Denominationalism: A View from the Pew.

In recent decades, the biggest threat to Christian orthodoxy has been postmodernism. Defining postmodernism is a problem because it refuses to be defined. Yet at the heart of it has been the recognizable denial of certainty, the denial of absolute truth.  Truth be told, I can’t help but wonder to what extent postmodernism has affected Christianity as we know it.

Much of modern day American evangelicalism and its urban Kenyan cousins represented majorly by non-denominational churches seems to be averse to certainty and I can’t help but wonder if this has its roots in postmodernism if not the seeds of postmodernism itself. Would the early church fathers or any other faithful Christians in the ages prior to our own have had any notion of the the unique distinctions that define non-denominational evangelicalism whatever those may be? Is there any correlation at all between non-denominationalism and postmodernism given the aversion to certainty in both or is it simply a ‘coincidence’ that they seem to exist within the same time frame?

I recall watching a video of Prof. Ali Mazrui the African Islamic scholar speaking about how Africans uncritically take up everything from ‘the West’ without considering the dynamics of how those appropriated things should work. And therein that statement is where this African finds a reason to reconsider what evangelicalism nay non-denominational evangelicalism has to offer us as Africans.

 

What We Are Is What We Are Not?

For whatever reason many (though gladly not all) of our brothers in The West decided to abandon distinctives for the sake of socio-political unity, the consequences have not been good. Sadly, the refusal to state what people actually do hold onto for the sake of a vague form of unity has seen heresy and heterodoxy run amok. As a result, we had the ridiculous notion that moralism (teetotalism anybody?) was worthy glue with which to bind Christian unity. Here is where evangelicalism and especially the non denominational version of it has failed as Anthony Bradley points out. It is well worth noting how he connects the pursuit of political mileage, with the American culture wars and the fact that many young people have left the church. And in case you think this is irrelevant to Kenya, all I can say is watch Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘Coming Out’ interview on N.T.V where he blasts the Southern Baptist Convention; a major player in American evangelicalism whose churches do not all subscribe to a uniform confession of faith.

Additionally, without stated orthodoxy, criticisms also become flippant and majorly based on power grabs and preferences thus causing unwanted strife and division within the church. I recall listening to a lecture by a Presbyterian musician about how music in today’s church is changing and he happened to mention a past scenario in which he enjoyed working with a Methodist church. He went on to say that ‘denominationalists’ prefer to work with each other instead of with ‘non-denominational’ musicians because the latter tend to be hostile towards them and therefore difficult to work with! He and the Methodist church he was working with knew beforehand that he wasn’t coming in as a maverick to convert all of Methodism to Presbyterianism despite his self-conscious Presbyterian convictions. Hearing that, a light bulb was lit in my mind: where you don’t have your church identity sorted out in light of all of God’s word and then progressively  communicated clearly, eventually everything from the colour of the carpets to dietary preferences to even differing theories on economic policy will soon become a ‘gospel issue’ and people will eagerly get into fights over all manner of trivial nonsense. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen too often and the hostility tends to be all too real though veiled behind pretenses. A hostility that is symptomatic of the fact that we have forgotten that we are a ‘Gospel People’ first and foremost.

This is the unfortunate ‘pick and choose’ mentality that is a prevalent characteristic of much of the non-denominational world. In this world which I happen to be a part of, the church is always being built from the ground up under the assumption of hermenutical neutrality and a sort of optimism that despite its ‘Spirit-led’ undertones, more often than not ends up in the long run to be inappropriate if not foolhardy.

 

The Way Forward?

Movements by definition are constantly in motion and seldom take the time to develop healthy roots. Non-denominationalism as a movement, is not an exception to this reality.  Who knows what our non-denominational churches may look like in 25 years? Will they have kept the faith or will they have abandoned it under the influence of a great persuasive leader? Furthermore, the very term ‘non-denominationalism’ is a negative definition in the sense that it really aims to say, “We’re not like that church on the other side of the road,”- in fact in order to define itself as a movement, it needs to establish what it isn’t before anything else is done.

And yet the kind of distinctions that automatically give rise to denominations will always be there and many partners of the same mind on critical Biblical issues will find some form of consensus concerning soteriology, eschatology, polity, sacraments etc. These same parties may very well lock hands in ministry functions and inadvertently form…you guessed it…denominations! This may come as a surprise to you but guess what…HillSong, Calvary Chapel, Sovereign Grace Ministries…Mavuno, Nairobi Chapel are all denominations! At least functionally speaking and you know what? That’s not a bad thing at all. No one denomination will be the same as another and yet that’s fine. Even Jesus in Luke 11:23 recognized another as one of his own even though they weren’t traveling together with the apostles. Unity is not necessarily physical. But take notice…it is Jesus Christ who confirms who is on his team. It will do us well to go back to scripture and hear his voice giving us directions on who we can partner with or affirm as he himself would.

I do believe  that we need to start going back to the drawing board on absolutely everything as Christian ‘non-denominational’ congregations. We need to be as orthodox as scripture would have us be and leave the outcomes with God. The truth of the matter is that at the end of the day, we will always make up our minds about what we believe God is saying even if we only articulate our convictions in privacy, and it will be an expression of either true or false orthodoxy. Thankfully we can have certainty about what God has said because God has spoken and all things are measured against HIS orthodoxy not our preferences. If God can and does speak through his word, why remain silent concerning the things he has said? He alone can govern the consequences whether it means either turning into new Baptist or Presbyterian etc congregations or joining such presently existing churches. It ought not to frighten us. If anything, an act of obedience to God’s word will only ever ultimately lead to a fruitful life worth living.

That Eery Silence. (Or a Few Thoughts on That Pothole in the Sanctuary)

Sometime in early 2013, a Copernican shift began in my mind and that monumental revolution is hardly concluded. I began reading a rather popular book on the church (this book is actually very prominent in the ‘church growth’ sub genre) and I was startled in the end not by the objections themselves, but rather by the nature of my objections. Ever since, I’ve realised that my mind really does need to be shaped by scripture continuously because I had not expected it to be so negatively influenced by modern thought. Someday I’ll write a book review about it and then I won’t need to be so cryptic but till then, you’ll just have to wait.

For some reason I’ve been thinking about the theology of the church and by that I mean all those questions that deal with ‘what the church is and how it should be governed’ i.e. ecclesiology and I’m pretty sure those thoughts will still be streaming through my mind for some years to come. One of those many thoughts seems to have reached its conclusion and that is concerning the gaps/potholes in these sort of books and a rather specific pothole at that. In many of the books in the church growth genre, you will notice that there’ll be a great emphasis on what can be done to ensure numbers without compromising on the message and yet that ‘message’ i.e. the gospel is never defined. Sure you can say your message should be ‘Biblical’ but if say I started a church whose attempt at ‘relevance’ produced a vision statement that actually read: Delivering Blows to the Posterior and Taking an Inventory of Names for the Kingdom’ with a quotation stuck at the bottom from Psalm 3:7 to prove that our penchant for violence is in fact not as a result of a peculiar eisegesis, then who’s to say we’re not being ‘Biblical’?

Image

‘Could have, should have watched out for that pothole,’

Then again, that too is for another blog post. That’s not the one i’m writing about today. It seems to me that the very reason why books in this particular genre have fallen short at least to me, is due to a gaping hole in our ecclesiology; one that I’m surprised has not been noticed, and that hole goes by the name; the church triumphant.

Sadly, to many a modern Christian, pagan infringements on our understanding of what happens to us when we die have crept into the church. Whether it’s a notion of ‘soul sleep’ or the idea that we somehow become vapours akin to ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ once we die…..

Image‘Is that you Martin Luther?’

And yet, it wasn’t’ always this way.

The Westminster Confession of Faith drafted in 1646 says this of what the church is:

“The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that fills all in all,”

-Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 25.1

Joel Beeke in his commentary on this section of the Confession rightly points out:

“The word “catholic” comes from a Greek word meaning universal or international, and does not necessarily or exclusively refer to Roman Catholicism. Some of the church’s members are already in glory (the church triumphant). Some still fight the good fight of the faith on earth (the church militant). But all are one people called out of the world into holy union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). When we meet in local congregations, we join with saints in heaven and throughout the earth to worship God through Christ as one great assembly (Heb. 12:22-24).”

In the age of the pragmatic, the ‘results based’ and the relevant, we for the most part  engage in some form of collective navel gazing on the Lord’s Day and every other day besides it, sadly this hardly crosses our minds when we meet in our congregations to worship God. Sadly, we do not consider that the object of our worship; Yahweh has indeed saved his own, and that his own still do worship him. After all, is it not Jesus Christ who said that Yahweh the God of Jacob, Abraham and Isaac is the God of the living?

It is essential to not only know that the church triumphant IS, but to also know why the church triumphant is relevant for our day. I’ll give at least three reasons why we need an understanding of the church triumphant today:

1. To protect the gospel from heterodoxy and heresy.

As Jesus spoke to his questioners, we see that he is clearly confronting the mistaken notion that there is no resurrection for the dead; no eternal life. He is out rightly combating heresy and heterodoxy. The reason why we need to know the true composition of the church is so that we may realise that the salvation that we are given is a very real one and not a metaphorical one. For all the heresies and heterodoxies that may creep out of the materialist stew, our understanding and defence of the fact that there IS an eternal life that we are called into out of darkness will prove to be a great buttress to our defence of orthodox Christianity.

2. An Answer to the Question of the ‘Vacant’ Apostolic Office.

It seems too many of us, me included sometimes assume that what we produce with our effort, that which can be seen and felt by others immediately around us is what really matters for the church. And yet sadly we seem to forget the achievements of our brothers and sisters now in glory. True, they have been documented in scripture and elsewhere but because of so many worldly influences, we seem to forget that the church is compared by Jesus to a building with foundations. Our brothers the apostles and prophets have built foundations for us and as a result we continue to build upwards. Nowhere else is this seen clearly in scripture than in Ephesians 2:11-22.(N.I.V)

We are saved and united to each other. Not only that, but the foundation; built on the effort of the apostles and prophets is firm. Just as a wise builder works masterfully on the foundation so that the rest of the building may be built up splendidly, so does Jesus Christ build up his church. The fact that the church in all the centuries gone by has not fallen is because HE built the foundation. I exhort us to not commit to futility; trying to rebuild the foundation and all that is unique to it that Christ has built himself through the work of the saints gone by. Saints who now are parts of the church triumphant and a part of us as a complete church. Many a time, you hear of churches and individuals trying to work up miracles and signs to attract people to the message of Jesus Christ. If people could only see ‘wonder and miracles,’ they might say, all would believe. No my friends. It is through the foolishness of preaching that Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit has seen fit to build the church and the Holy Spirit in his wisdom grants us gifts necessary for building up the church appropriately till our Lord’s return. By disregarding the church triumphant, we inadvertently deem insignificant the efforts of our brothers and sisters now deceased and in glory, and we end up spending too much time on non-essentials when we should be preaching, evangelizing, serving and doing all that our Lord requires us; his church militant to do.

“If the temple of God’s truth is ever to be completely built, we must not spend our efforts in digging at the foundations which have been securely laid in the distant past, but must rather give our best efforts to rounding out the arches, carving the capitals, and fitting in the fretted roof. What if it is not ours to lay the foundations? Let us rejoice that that work has been done! Happy are we if our God will permit us to bring a single capstone into place!”

-B.B Warfield

3. Perseverance in Suffering.

This should be a no-brainer. Our light and momentary suffering as Paul puts it, are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs it all. Death is not the end! Hallelujah! And not only is it NOT the end, but what awaits us; eternal communion with God our redeemer and everything that will necessarily result from that communion will make all our anguish, all the terrorism, all the suffering PALE in comparison! Knowing that we will be sentient in heaven and that the saints long gone are now experiencing what we shall experience should be a great comfort to us. And yet, as we see in Revelations 6:10-11 their joy is not complete until we too are joined with them in eternal joy. If they; the church triumphant is waiting to be united to us shouldn’t we too anticipate eagerly to be united with them in the eternal worship of our God? Lord haste the day but let us enjoy you even today through our suffering.

It is my hope and prayer that someday, sooner than later, we may realise who we really are as the universal church and what our mission is so that we may forge ahead in the power of the Holy Spirit in the work assigned to us. To God alone be the glory for all the things he has done and will do for us, in us and through us his complete church now and forever more.

A New Year, A New Day.

Happy New Year folks! This should obviously have been posted on the 1st but hey, the week isn’t over right? And besides there’s that thing about African timing…

2014 came like a Concord jet (if you remember those) and frankly i’m not quite sure what it has in store. What i do know though is that we ought to make the most of every opportunity while we can. Seeing another day let alone another year is a providence of God we should not take for granted. Do we always get it right? No. We don’t. But we don’t stop trying to ‘redeem the time’ as the phrase goes.

I for one have many things planned for 2014. Lord willing, i will be sharing them with you.

All the best as you start a new year. 

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,”1st Corinthians 10:31 (N.I.V)

A Time to Mourn

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The 21st of Spetember. Many will remember where they were on this fated day. I was at church having a conversation with a friend concerning an event we were about to take part in. I got a call from my sister at the time of the siege – she was asking where i was. Westgate was being robbed…or so we thought. The 21st of September was the day the dreaded Al-Shabaab chose as the day on which to attack at Westgate Mall in Westlands. I’ve been there. It was surreal. It was shocking. My belief in this narrative i was now hearing was suspended.

Today is the third of October; 12 days after the attack and still we mourn. Yesterday was the day of national prayer as held every year here in Kenya and still we mourned long after the official days of national mourning were over. Somehow this event touches home more than any other story. This is a place i have frequented. My friend posted on Facebook how she was hiding under a table as gunshots and explosions rent the air. I could have been there that day.

Even as we mourn, many questions are being asked. Some questions are either being asked too soon to reach a logical conclusion, or too late to make amends: personal questions, theological questions, all manner of questions. What remains certain is that grief and suffering cannot be handled artificially; as though after the official days of mourning we would all go about our business as though we were ‘over it’ already.

When the dust settles whenever that may be we will need to ask ourselves some very important questions such as: what happened to our security apparatus, why do we suffer and grieve more when the victims are more like us and much less like ‘the other’, where was God in this, many questions indeed and i am yet to even scratch the surface.

We shall all have to ask the hard questions and seek the right answers. I choose to trust in Jesus Christ the sovereign Lord of all, the prince of peace, our ultimate comforter. Even in these times he is far from absent. He is there and he is not silent. HE will comfort and hold up the broken hearted as he always has.

Peace will come, comfort will come. That time will come, when it may and we will find that we were never alone even in this grief and suffering but for now, we rightly mourn because it is indeed, a time to mourn.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace,”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (N.I.V)