Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Great Equalizer!!!

Social networking media has become the great global equalizer. It pits our best and brightest minds right alongside our…shall we say, suspect intellectuals. From blogging, to Facebook, from MySpace to twitter, from you tube to linked in, social networks have become the panacea for people who can’t bear to have an unpublished thought. At the click of a virtual key our ideas go viral for the world to see and validate… or not! Like democracy at its most functional, the “wheat is separated from the chaff” by how we “vote.” If we like what you have to say then you get tons of positive comments, tons of “…likes your status,” and tons of followers. But by the same token, if we’re bored stiff by your incessant soap box rants and raves, we’ll stop following you, “block” you, or remove you from our blogroll.

Sadly though, the very thing that represents the strength of social networking media is also its weakness. You see, some people haven’t yet learned that not every thought should be published. Do you really think I’m remotely interested in what you had for dinner last night? And seriously, why on earth would I want to “poke” you or “throw” a drink at you? If I don’t do that when I see you in person, trust me when I say that I’m not interested in doing it in cyberspace either. Besides, I don’t really know you like that! The unquestionable benefit of social networking media is found in its ubiquitous nature. You don’t even have to take your personal computer with you any longer in order to be able to access your relational networks anywhere in the world. Your cell phone will do just fine (if you still don’t have a smart phone you probably shouldn’t be on social network media anyway), and in the absence of that you can visit your local library where they have a stock of seldom used internet-ready computers.

Here’s what I love about social networking media: I love the fact that I can find people that I knew in the last century but had lost touch with. I love the idea that I can have a 140-character discussion, or get a 140-character life changing nugget of truth from someone I admire and respect. I love the fact that I can see your family photographs from thousands of miles away, and participate in your vacation as if I was there. I even love the fact that, on Facebook we can agree to disagree on certain issues that we feel strongly about, and still have a bible study together on twitter twenty minutes later, all from the comfort of our individual sofas. But here’s what I don’t like: I don’t want to farm, I don’t want to join your mafia family wars, I don’t want you to “ambush” me with a conversation the second you see me logged onto Facebook (I logged on for a reason believe it or not), and I definitely don’t want you to sell me Percocet, Vicodene, or any other salacious content through comments on my blog!

Oh yes, before I forget, stop “friending” me so I can see your “private pictures” on twitter, Facebook, or any other social network. Finally, in conclusion I’d like to remind you that while you’re enjoying the world becoming a much smaller space through social networking, remember that you’re quotable, and everything you say or do on social network media can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion. Leave a comment!!! :)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ancient Text, Present Context (Part 3)

Why is this notion of embracing an ancient text in a present context such a big deal for me you might be asking? A few years ago a friend of mine (the editor of a popular Christian magazine) visited Nigeria with me. We attended what were essentially the largest churches in the world and met with some of the most amazing people. Following our trip he did an extensive story on the move of God in the Nigerian Church and one of the most striking comments to me was the fact that he quoted a number of people as saying “The Church in Nigeria is a mile wide but an inch deep.” My initial response was to vociferously defend the Nigerian Church and question the impudence that would inform such a statement. Until I took a closer, more objective look!

After fifty years of independence, and an untold amount of oil wealth, Nigeria remains a nation that is unable to supply its citizenry with a consistent source of electricity. Corruption is rife at just about every level of society, and even in the Church (and I speak in generalities here) it’s often more important to be seen to be right than to display character and integrity. The common refrain is “It is well” -a direct reference to the fact that no matter what assails us, God will deliver us- and we continue to suggest that as long as we pray, God will deliver us and take care of us. We’ve ignored the fact that God has already delivered us by giving us all that is necessary to make our lives successful through the Scriptures. I’ve often heard it said that wisdom is the correct application of knowledge, and I’m convinced that this is where prayer may serve one of its greatest purposes: In teaching us the proper application of knowledge. The Scriptures actually challenge us with the question, “which one of you in building a house would not take stock of the materials necessary for the project before embarking on it?” (my paraphrase).

This idea that seems to suggest that “walking in the spirit” can only be accomplished at the expense of reason and wisdom, has engendered a hard-headed, myopic approach to Christianity. Sadly, it causes us to miss out on God’s work in and through a world that doesn’t even profess a relationship with him. Instead of making us more compassionate and loving, it’s made us judgmental and insensitive to others. Our unwillingness to embrace our humanity and to accept the fact that God is perfect while we are not, has left us living largely inauthentic lives under the guise of being led by the Spirit. The typical response to everything is, “I’ll pray about it.” Really! You need to pray about whether you should be loving, honest, kind, considerate, and compassionate? I thought the Scriptures already settled those issues a long time ago. After all, it was Jesus who declared that in order to inherit eternal life we must, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The seeming contradiction between walking in the spirit and using our intellect in our daily lives is spurned primarily because many Nigerian Christians think that they are mutually exclusive of each other. In reality they are not! Paul encourages us in his letter to the Romans, not to be conformed to the standards of the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our “mind” (intellect) so that we can demonstrate and prove Gods good, perfect, and acceptable will for our lives. Clearly the renewing of the mind is necessary only if the mind is a vital part of demonstrating God’s perfect will, otherwise that would be a redundant and unnecessary process. Christianity at its essence is not just for the benefit of the Christian. If your Christianity supposedly changes you yet doesn’t impact the people around you, then its veracity in your life must be called into question. I like the way Tony Morgan puts it in his book, Killing Cockroaches:

"Real faith is dynamic. It’s controversial. It’s dangerous. It’s constantly growing. It asks challenging questions. It involves mystery. You can’t put it in a box. You can’t keep it quiet. You can’t outgrow it. You can’t out-dream it. It’s more focused on others than it is on itself. Real faith gives me peace but makes me discontent to let things stay the same."

Having said all that, here’s my conclusion: There’s a new wave of “walking in the spirit” sweeping across many churches in Nigeria today. They eschew the old sacred cows and question their own methods and approach to living their faith out loud. For example, there’s a church in Lagos called, God Bless Nigeria Church that has an amazing and powerful outreach that reflects this “new” trend. They reach out exclusively to the armed robbers, homeless vagrants, “area boys” (violent street thugs), prostitutes, abused, kidnapped and neglected children, and the worst of society. They have a ministry to the deaf in their church (first time I’ve seen that anywhere in any church in Nigeria largely because our belief in healing precludes the need to have a sign-language ministry).

The lead pastor of this church is a medical doctor, and when I asked him why they have sign-language interpretation in their church, he explained that since there were deaf people who needed Jesus, and not all of them were being healed every Sunday in our churches, he felt the need to provide a safe place where they could “hear” the gospel, be embraced by the love of God through God’s people, and find a place to express their gifts and callings too. I was overwhelmed! What appears to be such a simple thought process in Western Christianity, is a huge hurdle for us to cross in Nigeria in large part because of the way we’ve chosen to interpret walking in the spirit versus being too cerebral in our approach to faith. Since God gave doctors the wisdom for medical sciences, whether He chooses to use that method to heal the deaf or not, I’m more than comfortable embracing that kind of healing as God’s power at work. I refuse to limit God’s power to my understanding of what I might believe to be the only way He expresses it, whether that is through medical science, divine healing, or miracles. But in the meantime, we will provide a safe haven for those who are deaf, blind, mute and suffer other ailments until such a time as they are healed, whether through prayer or by God’s sovereign intervention.

So, as for me and my house, we wholeheartedly embrace the supernatural. We fully subscribe to prayer and its ability to influence the heart of a loving God to divinely intervene in the daily affairs of men. But we also embrace and gratefully receive the gifts of knowledge and wisdom that He has graciously given us so that we can rightly divide the word of truth and govern our lives with brio and confidence. I’m convinced that the more churches in Nigeria we have like God Bless Nigeria Church (and I’m confident that there are many springing up), the greater the likelihood that true transformation will come to our great nation, Nigeria.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Ancient Text, Present Context (Part 2)

I might have seemed to get a little off point in my initial post but I think it was important to set a background for you before I addressed head on the idea of walking in the Spirit. If walking in the Spirit is a sole function of hearing from God and obeying His command, then it is impossible for flawed and fallible humans to do this 100% of the time. Proof? Have you ever done something that you believed was God’s leading and then later realized that you were wrong? If you answer in the affirmative then you haven’t walked in the Spirit 100% of the time. I contend that walking in the Spirit does not automatically relegate the value of using your brain to the sidelines of life. I don’t accept that one is mutually exclusive of the other, and this may be the major point of departure between Christianity in Nigeria and Christianity in the West.

As a young Christian in Nigeria, I was taught to think that God fixed anything and everything if I prayed hard enough. If it didn’t work then I was saddled with the unwanted burden of feeling inadequate and unspiritual. I can’t comment on how many people were left feeling that their illness or misfortune was somehow their fault because if they were truly spiritual enough they would have prayed and God would have responded. Unwittingly we reduced God to the functions of an ATM machine: His sole purpose being to “spit” out the necessary “currency” in response to our prayer “card” slotted into the heavenly machine. Rather than breed an authentic and honest approach to a relationship with Christ, this system merely fed the humanistic tendency towards a feeling of superiority over those who didn’t seem to be doing as well as you. It also fed the old maxim, “Fake it till you make it.” Now while many people may not have said that, that is exactly how they unwittingly lived, and called it FAITH!

Our teachers conveniently disregarded the fact that, “Faith calls those things that are not as though they are.” Instead they began to model the idea that, “Faith calls those things that are as though they are not.” While this may seem like a semantic difference, it is far deeper than that. You see, if you believe the Scriptures, then faith suggests that while your circumstance may seem dire at the moment, by faith you know that God’s faithfulness will prevail and you will overcome the circumstance one way or another. No where does the Bible suggest that if you deny the presence or existence of your difficult circumstance, then faith will make it go away! Ultimately I believe that the happy medium for the Christian lies somewhere between being pragmatic and being pedantic. While I don’t believe that prayer alone is what we depend on to get us through life, I can certainly understand the wariness displayed towards a completely cerebral approach to our relationship with God.

We must trust that the Scriptures are speaking truth when they tell us that God loves us and is at work on our behalf to do His good pleasure in our lives. This belief must form the basis of every prayer whether the results turn out as we expected or not. Having said that, it would be disingenuous to turn in a shoddy performance on your job, show up late and leave early, don’t study to improve your knowledge and skill at what you do, and yet somehow pray to God that you’ll be made the CEO of the company some day. That is not likely to happen as it won’t be in either yours or the company’s best interest. Similarly, as much as Shaquille O’Neal might pray to become an F-16 pilot, the likelihood of that happening is literally 0% since F-16 cockpits are not built to accommodate 7-foot giants. In other words, there are practical (pragmatic) considerations alongside of prayer that make life work.

If God chooses to bye pass the laws of nature and make the impossible possible, then that is His single prerogative and that is what the Scriptures refer to as a miracle. There is no formula or guaranteed recipe for how to make that happen. Prayer may or may not be the catalyst for such a miracle, but if indeed a miracle will happen, it will happen simply because God ordains it to be so. Miracles are God’s sovereign choice, but making wise decisions are ours. That’s why the book of Proverbs is replete with counsel on exercising wisdom in making our daily decisions. If prayer alone was all that was necessary to make life work, then the book of Proverbs would be redundant. I'll conclude my thoughts tomorrow, meanwhile please add yours.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ancient Text, Present Context

I haven’t blogged in quite a while so I decided that the best way for me to return to blogging would be to attempt to generate a discussion on something that I have strong feelings about: “walking in the Spirit.” I know, I know; before you tune out claiming that I’m speaking a foreign language, let me clarify my intent a little further. I recently had an intriguing discussion with a relative of mine about this very subject, and we appeared to be on opposing sides of the argument until the very end. Even then, it seems that without actually saying it, we both agreed to disagree on certain points of departure.

I don’t know about you, but as a young Christian I was fed an extremely confusing but steady diet of the notion that to walk in the Spirit meant that everything we did as Christians would be prompted only after significant and meaningful time spent in prayer followed by a clear and concise “word” from the Lord. This idea gave impetus to many a young man who desired a certain… shall we say, attractive young woman. He would walk up to her and tell her that God had revealed to him in prayer that she was destined to be his wife. Now before you get your knickers in a twist, I daresay God certainly makes known to you whom you should marry (He most definitely did to me), but it isn’t necessarily just because you prayed and sent out a fleece. It also isn’t a carte blanche cardinal rule that because you’ve supposedly “heard from God” your proposed spouse accepts without question that you must be right.

But I don’t want to trivialize the larger point I’m trying to make by reducing it to the overly simplistic idea behind a marriage proposal. You see, my relative suggested that all too often, Western Christianity takes far too much of a pragmatic approach to our relationship with God. In other words we tend to take a more cerebral approach to solving our problems based on present conditions rather than accepting and trusting the principles espoused by the Scriptures. I, on the other hand, contended that in Africa in general and in Nigeria specifically, we are much too pedantic – giving too much attention to formal rules and small details at the expense of the broader picture - in our interpretation and application of the Scriptures without making room for the cultural, human, and historical context. Our discussion cited some more personal examples, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll speak to some more general thoughts and ideas.

For example, many Nigerian denominations would suggest that for a woman to wear makeup, pants (trousers), or leave her hair uncovered in public worship is completely sinful and unbiblical. They contend that the Scriptures emphatically state that women should not concern themselves with the outward adorning of their bodies, and neither should they wear men’s clothing. They conveniently ignore the fact that back in the historical days of the Bible, men didn’t wear trousers, so how they make the historical interpretation that the Scriptures are referring to trousers when it talks about men’s clothing, is beyond me. In fact, in a rather gruesome and perverse interpretation of Scriptures, a Nigerian “prophet” who shall remain nameless, actually claimed that an amazing young female pastor who died in a horrific plane crash was killed because she wore mini-skirts and dressed too enticingly. Amazingly, this apparent prophet is actually blind!

That brand of theology, especially framed in language that suggests one is speaking for God, is not only unattractive but lethal! Culturally Nigerians can tend to be overly didactic in our interpretation of the Bible. We are given to extremely “eager” and unyielding convictions, without allowing for the fact that we might be wrong. Now I understand that this is a trait that is common with any thing that you become an expert at, and clearly as we grow in our faith we become experts at interpreting and understanding the Bible. When a group of software developers get together, they speak a language that is wholly foreign to the majority of us outside of that profession and consequently shut out any possibility of a useful interchange. The same may be said for a group of doctors, pilots, and whatever else you study and become an expert at.

Now, while this concept of experts speaking their own language may be useful for those professions when they are talking to one another, it is completely untenable for Christianity since our language and interpretation of the message must be designed to speak to the lives of people right where they are. This really strengthens the notion that we are experiments in translation trying to communicate an ancient text in a present context. I realize that there are those who will quickly suggest that I’m advocating a “dumbing” down of the message, but in actual fact all I’m saying is that we need to talk about Biblical concepts in a language that is understood by the people that we’re supposedly trying to reach with the message. I'll conclude my thoughts on this subject on Monday. Meanwhile, what are your thougths about this subject.