Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Fall

Christians don’t take the doctrine of sin seriously enough. We say that we believe in Creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We say that we believe in the Fall, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” We say that we believe in sin and redemption: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” 

But somehow we don’t take sin seriously enough. We don’t really believe in the Fall. Except as words on paper or answers to a catechism question. 

Here’s what sparked these thoughts. Every so often one or another of my friends goes off on a rant for or against Climate Change (anthropogenic global warming, if you like). Or on a rant about scientists (untrustworthy). Or on a rant about Christians in Texas pressing to include the Bible’s influence on the US constitution in history texts. 

In the rants a fault line becomes evident: Christians believe (or are thought to believe) that God is in control of this world, so we don’t have to worry about what will happen to it. Non-Christians believe (or are thought to believe) that science is God, and that they will pervert any scientific research in order to get more grant money. Now this is a silly fault line I know. Caricature on caricature, so that neither side can see themselves in the other’s descriptions. 

But the rants sparked a puzzle for me, thinking and living (or trying to) as a Christian. If sin is real, then everything we do is influenced by our pattern of self-will. (By sin, I mean simply that we want to order our lives for our own benefit, with ourselves at the centre, and without reference to God—or anyone else if possible. Sin is finally simply selfishness and pride.) 

Now if sin influences everything we do, why would we expect Republican lawmakers to be any less selfish than Democrat lawmakers? (That’s another part of the caricature: That somehow Republican and conservative equals “Christian” and that Democratic and liberal equals “non-Christian”. Of course that is nonsense. Christians are followers of Christ, not of any party or party line.) 

If selfishness and pride influences everything we do, why would we assume that the business-owners pressing for business-friendly legislation have anyone else’s interests at heart? Why would we assume that my desire for cheaper gas prices at the pump is anything other than simple selfishness? If sin is real? 

The same concern applies to scientists: Certainly we can expect that they will routinely skew results to make themselves look good and benefit themselves. Or would, if they could get away with it. But the scientific community is such that others are ready to pounce on discrepancies and falsehoods. More than any other purely human community, I suspect that scientists compel honesty of each other as a matter of survival. Willful blindness (sin) continues in the whole, but with more checks on it than in many other areas of life. 

That’s the core of my rant. Here’s the application. If God is real, I can have confidence in the future of the planet, which God cares for constantly. But Christian belief is clear in this area: God made us the planet’s gardeners or caretakers. The Fall of humanity from the original Garden includes the Fall of the whole planet: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 

Is the planet warming because of human activity? If sin is real, it just might be. God tells us that our self-centredness has placed the whole of creation in bondage—the very creation God gave us to be caretakers. God made us gardeners, and we have made trash heaps for ourselves instead. 

Okay, I’m preaching, and my tone is overdone. I’m just trying to take the doctrine of sin seriously and ask what it means for the whole of life. I can listen and learn from anyone who pushes back against my rant.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Confessions of an African Mennonite

I am an African Mennonite. It happens that I am also White—my grandparents moved to Zimbabwe in 1921, and my parents moved back to Zambia in 1946. I grew up in Zimbabwe and was baptized into the Brethren in Christ Church (the part of the Mennonite family I come from) in 1964. I went back to Zimbabwe in 1972 as a young man just out of college, and then again from 1988 to 1992 with my family. I have lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe for about 22 years. It is the place I came to faith in Christ and the place where my heart is at home. We have Paraguayan Mennonites and we have Mexican Mennonites in our church—many of us now Canadian. Well, I am an African Mennonite, white skin and all. This morning I speak on behalf of my Mennonite brothers and sisters across Africa. My experience is limited to Zambia and Zimbabwe, and even there I speak from only my perspective; but I will say what I can as clearly and honestly as I can.

1) To be an African Mennonite is to come from the largest Mennonite family in the world. A few examples (taken from Mennonite World Conference’s web page):
·         The BIC in Zimbabwe has roughly 50,000 members and the BIC in Zambia roughly 20,000.
·         The Mennonite Church in the Congo (DRC) has about 235,000 members.
·         The Mennonite Church in Ethiopia has almost 240,000 members.
·         Not to mention East Africa (another 100,000)
Compare these numbers to Canada (just under 140,000) and the USA (about 390,000).  There are roughly 530,000 Mennonites in North America and roughly 700,000 in Africa. We are certainly a major part of the Mennonite family.

2) To be an African Mennonite is to be proud of my African heritage. I remember listening to the wife of our bishop in Zimbabwe after she attended Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg in 1990. She described many good things about Canada and the USA, and then said, “But those poor people. Their old people have to move to special homes because their children cannot take care of them. I am so glad that God has blessed us so much in Zimbabwe that we can take care of our old people until they die!” This sense of community is captured in the well-known proverb: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” A person is only fully human in and with and through community. 

3) At the same time as we rejoice in our heritage, to be an African Mennonite is to be profoundly broken.  This is what most people think of when they think of Africa. That’s why I mentioned my pride in Africa first. We are more than our brokenness; but we cannot escape from our problems. In Zimbabwe about six years ago, the economy had become so bad that prices in the shops doubled from one day to the next. Finally the government abandoned our currency, and today shops use whatever international hard currency the customer has, most often US dollars. 

The roots of such dysfunction include corruption and tyranny. To be an African is to know that my people have done and continue to do such things. As a White Zimbabwean in my roots, I know how the Whites set the stage for the problems of the present government. So deep are our problems that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring the depth of change needed to overcome them. 

4) To be an African Mennonite is to know that the whole of life is completely integrated. Physical and spiritual always go together. So we know that when there are physical or political problems, the solutions include the spiritual as well. And we know that when there are spiritual problems, the solution includes physical changes in the way that we live with each other. Life is an integrated whole, not compartmentalized the way that we often do in Canada.

I remember a youth gospel team from Lobengula Church. They travelled into the Matopos to preach to people in the villages. The people refused to listen, saying, "we have to plant our fields!" The young people agreed and helped them cultivate the ground and plant their fields; then the villagers were ready to listen. Life is a whole, physical and spiritual together.

5) To be an African Mennonite is to belong to the larger body of Christ represented in many different churches. When Mennonite World Conference was held in Zimbabwe, we invited the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Matabeleland to greet the assembled body, because we know that Catholics and Mennonites, Methodists and Baptists, Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans and Pentecostals are all part of the body of Christ. 

That same Archbishop visited the University of Winnipeg shortly after Mennonite World Conference, where he was invited to address the university community on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. I was invited to have lunch with him, and when he learned I was BIC, he said, “I could have been a BIC minister, but the Catholic school was about a mile closer than the BIC school.” As I listened to his presentation after our lunch together, I realized he was right: He could have been a BIC minister! African Mennonites are very much part of the whole church of Jesus Christ. 

6) To be an African Mennonite is to be deeply grateful for God’s work in and through our part of the global Christian family. Just as we connect with other churches in Zimbabwe and the whole of Africa, we connect intentionally with the worldwide Mennonite family. The current president of Mennonite World Conference is Danisa Ndlovu, my bishop from Zimbabwe. Twenty-five years ago, the then bishop from Zimbabwe, Steven Ndlovu (no relation to Danisa) was the Vice-President of MWC. We are proud to be Mennonites, at the same time as we are one part of the whole Christian family. 

7) Perhaps most importantly, to be an African Mennonite is to be deeply committed to following Christ in this world. Because we live in a broken world, we carry our cross daily, even as Jesus called us to do. Although we have not always lived up to it, our commitment to peace and justice is firm and unwavering, rooted in the very nature of the Christ who saved us. 

Bishop Danisa Ndlovu has written up the story of his own father’s death. As he visited his father in the hospital, where he lay dying from wounds inflicted by Mugabe’s soldiers during the early 1980s, Ndlovu tells how he was filled with a desire for revenge on his father’s tormentors. His father, lying on his deathbed, managed to whisper his last words to Dan, “Don’t, Dan. Don’t.” Don’t hate; love. Don’t seek revenge; seek peace and justice. Don’t be overcome by evil; overcome evil with good. 

Often we have failed; the stories of our failures are there. But at our best, we witness to the power of God to transform everyone. Africa gave me my own gift when we left Zimbabwe in 1992. I was struggling to come to terms with leaving, as I attended my last conference at Wanezi. Shadrack Maloka preached the closing sermon at the conference, calling on us to follow God’s will in our lives always. Then he started to sing, “Mayenziwe intando yakho.” Soon the whole congregation was singing with him, and I sang along: “Let your will be done.” Africa’s parting gift to me was to embrace God’s will on that day and always, so that I am grateful beyond words to God for his good gifts to me through my life as a White African Mennonite.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Bees Won’t Stay by a House Where There’s Hating

Revelation 7:9-17—The Great Multitude in White Robes
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12—The Beatitudes

These are familiar passages. I have worked with them often enough before, and I am sometimes tempted to think that I know what they are saying. But in fact in every new reading we hear God speaking in new ways, so we walk through the passages together in order to see where they take us.

Revelation 7 is one my favourite chapters. As the angel shows John the truth behind the daily events he knows in the world around him, we get a glimpse of where history is going. In Genesis we see the way that God scatters the nations and then begins to work in one people (Abraham and his children) on behalf of all peoples (Genesis 11-12). Pentecost shows the grace that was present in the destruction of Babel, gathering people together and revealing the gospel to them each in their own language. But it is left for John to portray the full glory of Babel restored:
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 

This is a wonderful picture, although the elder’s explanation of the vision reminds us of the suffering they experienced in their lives:
These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

We have here both the glory that waits for us, and the pain within which we live. For John’s audience, this was the torment of bitter persecution. Christians were led into the arena and given a choice: Sacrifice to Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord”, or die. One such was an old man named Polycarp. On account of his advanced age, the officials did not want to kill him and pleaded with him to renounce his allegiance to Jesus. He replied with these words (as told by F.F. Bruce), “The old man made his noble confession: ‘Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my Saviour and King?’” He was burned at the stake.

We do not suffer this kind of persecution. Indeed, there is a general feeling in our culture that no one should ever suffer. Often we hear someone who has walked through great loss say something like this: “We need to take steps so that no one ever has to face what we have experienced again.” I appreciate the compassion of such people, and they have done great good in our lives. But there is a basic problem in what they say: Life is such that we will always suffer pain and loss. Indeed, pain and loss are vehicles through which God brings us grace and strength.

1 John 3
Turn to John’s letters. You know that these letters are concerned to show that true Christian faith is fully in Jesus, the Son of God. The way that John begins the first letter, deliberately echoing John 1, shows his concern to lift up Jesus. The way that he does so focusses especially on God’s love, so that the verse, “God is love” is found in John’s letters. The verses we read express John’s thoughts well.

In these verses, John lifts up a series of ideas that lead to glory.
·         God’s incredible love for us is visible in our identity: “children of God.”
·         This identity places us at odds with the world. This recalls John’s consistent position that “the world” means “whatever in this world is opposed to God”. Because it is in continued opposition to God, the world—seen also in the cultures in which we live—also is against us.
·         Being children of God means that we become like God.
·         We are not always like him now because “we see in a mirror darkly”, but when he appears we will be like him fully, because we will see him clearly.
·         This hope leads us to seek purification, cleansing now, to be like him. 

Purification requires pain. It is hard to take the impurities out of metal, and requires great heat and purification. It is hard to train the athlete to reach the highest levels, and requires great stress and the pain of strict training. It is hard to purify our very selves, and requires the presence of Christ leading us through the training grounds of this life. 

Matthew 5
So we come to the beatitudes.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

We will not go into these in any depth, except to note the inversion of all that we might expect. The source of power is weakness. The place we find joy is mourning. The righteous are those who know their spiritual poverty. Most importantly, the source of peace and joy and greatest blessing is the experience of persecution. We come closest to God when we are forced to hold this world lightly and accept our inevitable movement beyond this world. In short, the path to experience the power and glory and greatness of God is to embrace the weakness and fragility of the cross. 

The Myth of Redemptive Violence
A Christian Peacemakers’ Team member recently was present near the battlefront, as American air power drove back the forces of IS(IS) from the Azridis and Christians huddled together in the mountains near Kurdistan. He observed his own internal conflict at rejoicing over the success of a military response to the devastating fighting in Iraq and Syria. It is deeply ingrained in us that violence in the right cause is good. We respond to pain by fighting. 

But even in this situation, where violence is most easily justified as response to evil on a scale we rarely see, even in this case we see the limits of our ability to fix what is wrong in our world by fighting it. Consider the actions of the Islamic State. In the years following Desert Storm, the forerunner of the present Islamic State had trouble gaining traction in Iraq, especially as many of its leaders were killed in continued fighting. One result was an influx of new leaders in about 2010, so that now the primary people who have led the current fighting are old officers from the Iraq military. In a sense they are secular Muslims who are using a militant movement to pursue their own agenda of revenge against the West. 

The truth is that you can never bring lasting peace by crushing someone. The seeds of World War 2 were sown by World War 1. The second war in Iraq (Desert Storm) grew out of the first invasion of Iraq more than 20 years ago. Repeatedly we experience the way that violence gives birth to violence. 

The same pattern is true on a personal level. You know the pattern that people have often observed: the boss at work shouts at an employee; the employee goes home and argues with his/her spouse; the spouse turns the bad feelings into excessive discipline of a child; the child kicks the family dog; and so it goes. Similarly we notice the way that abused children grow into adults who abuse others. Violence gives birth to violence. As a beekeeper in a story I’m reading puts it, “Bees won’t stay by a house where there’s hating.” 

We want peace and harmony. We like the song:
I’d like to build a world a home and furnish it with love.
Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
I’d like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company.
I’d like to see the world for once all standing hand in hand,
And hear them echo through the hills for peace throughout the land.
It’s somewhat clich├ęd, but we want peace and harmony. The passages we read show us the way. The way to peace and harmony, the way to the world that we want is following Jesus on a path of persecution and hardship. The way to peace is to accept violence without returning it or passing it on. This is hard to do! 

The Path of Peace
In Revelation 7, those who stand before God in victory are those who accepted the violence of this world into themselves. In 1 John 3, those who become like God are those who keep their eyes firmly fixed on Jesus and imitate him. In Matthew 5, God’s blessing comes to those who embrace the peace and love of Christ, even when the world is against them. 

Even those who are committed to peace can be surprisingly militant. Recently I wrote a review of a book in which an OT scholar named Eric Seibert works with OT passages that embrace violence. He argues that we need to read such passages resistantly and not accept their call to violence. While affirming his basic thoughts, I wondered what grounds we use to evaluate these problem passages. This past week I received a response to my review. The responder basically questioned my own commitment to peace so vigorously that I felt attacked. Even we who are committed to peace can sometimes be combative. 

I want to be careful in my response to follow the path of peace. I want to curb my own tendency to fight or run away. I want to engage in a lifestyle that embraces the way of Jesus. I know myself well enough to be quite sure that I do not and cannot live this way consistently. So I look back to the passages. 

Revelation 7 encourages me to embrace conflict in my life with the presence of Christ, whether it goes well or not.
1 John 3 reminds me that I can live with God’s love when others speak or act against me only by keeping my heart and mind fixed firmly on Jesus.
Matthew 5 makes clear that the life God blesses flows out of engagement with God.

Even more than I want to follow the way of peace, I want to follow Christ. Only as I am filled with the Spirit of Christ, am I able to walk in the way of Christ. 

Today is All Saints’ Day. I think of the saints throughout time and around the world. I think of my bishop (Dan) from the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe. In the 1980s Zimbabwe went through a time of real trouble. It was after their Liberation Struggle, to gain their freedom as a country, had ended; but the new government chose to inflict violence on those who had not voted for them. As part of this crackdown soldiers were posted in the area where Dan’s parents lived. His father owned a store there, but a curfew made it impossible for him to restock his shelves. Then one day some soldiers came by and demanded beer from him. He had none. So they filled his mouth with bottle caps and beat him around the mouth with their rifle butts. Because of the curfew his family was not able to take him from their home to the hospital for several weeks. By the time they were able to move him, gangrenous sores were eating away his mouth, and in fact he died in the hospital from the results of his injuries. Dan was finally able to visit his father in the hospital, and he told me that he was filled with rage against the soldiers who had beaten his father so badly. “I imagined myself standing with a machine gun and lining their children up against a wall and gunning them all down.” His father could hardly speak, but saw the anger in his son’s eyes and recognized the revenge he wanted to take. He spoke his last words to his son: “Don’t, Dan. Don’t” 

Don’t hate. Love.
Don’t kill. Give life.
Don’t return violence for violence, but accept even other people’s pain into yourself, seeking the peace of Christ for them and for yourself.
I know that this counsel is idealistic, and the experience of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria shows how difficult it is to live a life of peace. I do not try to reconcile these problems, but simply affirm my desire to embrace the triumph of suffering we find in Jesus. At the end of all things I want to be in that wonderful multicultural crowd singing before the throne of God.