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.