How to lessen your chances of being railroaded.

Sometimes in life, we make decisions that take an awful turn for the worst, and it is entirely our own fault. We can’t divorce ourselves from the blame, we messed up royally, and have to deal with the consequences as gamely as possible.

There are times though, when we are the unfortunate animal, that is crossing the train tracks when the 14:02 comes barreling into us at  90 mph. We heard it coming, we felt the rumble, and saw the leaves of the tree quivering. Still we thought – ” I’ll be across well before it’s even close,” but we were wrong, and horribly so. The impact is terrifying in its brutality, we breathe our goodbyes to life as we know it. A few minutes later we wake up, astonishing! We survived, we are still alive. So we pick ourselves up, and survey the damage – we are a bruised, blooded mess of arms and legs.

Image

I was recently railroaded. I should have seen it coming, but I assumed and inferred rather than establishing and confirming. If I had taken the time to double-check, I would have found out that the 14:02 is always three minutes early on Wednesdays.

So friend, even if you are sure, there is no harm double checking. Make the extra phone call, clarify the email, repeat the question. I won’t put a percentage on it, but I am sure that we could save ourselves at least 87.3% of life’s anguish (I guess I did put a percentage on it) by being thorough in our home work.

A good week to you, Peace!

Talking about bicyles

“It is the work of true education. . . to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought.”

– Education, Chapter 1, page 17

These are the opening lines of the revealing article “It’s complicated” written by Luke Whiting in Spectrum magazine 3 weeks ago. Luke traces his life as an Adventist from a student in a small independent Adventist school, to a leader in GYC, to a pastoral position in the Michigan conference and finally to San Francisco working for a tech startup.

As I read Luke’s article it occurred to me that his story in many aspects was the story of many Adventist children. I also realised that his story could fit well within a framework that charts human interaction with ideals, animate and inanimate.

The framework is found in C. S. Lewis’s essay “Talking about Bicycles,” which was first published in Resistance in October, 1946, and later collected in Present Concerns.

Lewis begins the essay with an apparently mundane conversation:

“Talking about bicycles,” said my friend, “I have been through the

1) four ages. I can remember a time in early childhood when a bicycle meant nothing to me: it was just part of the huge meaningless background of grown-up gadgets against which life went on.

2) Then came a time when to have a bicycle, and to have learned to ride it, and to be at last spinning along on one’s own, early in the morning, under trees, in and out of the shadows, was like entering Paradise. That apparently effortless and frictionless gliding—more like swimming than any other motion, but really most like the discovery of a fifth element—that seemed to have solved the secret of life. Now one would begin to be happy.

3) But, of course, I soon reached the third period. Pedalling to and fro from school (it was one of those journeys that feel up-hill both ways) in all weathers, soon revealed the prose of cycling. The bicycle, itself, became to me what his oar is to a galley-slave.”

“But what was the fourth age?” I asked.

4) “I am in it now, or rather I am frequently in it. I have had to go back to cycling lately now that there’s no car. And the jobs I use it for are often dull enough. But again and again the mere fact of riding brings back a delicious whiff of memory. I recover the feelings of the second age. What’s more, I see how true they were—how philosophical, even. For it really is a remarkably pleasant motion. To be sure, it is not a recipe for happiness as I then thought. In that sense the second age was a mirage. But a mirage of something.”

“How do you mean?” said I.

“I mean this. Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one’s first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false—even if all possible promises of it are false.”

hillclimber-bikeLewis continues in his essay by labelling these experiences the “four ages.” He makes a compelling argument that they represent a more universal human experience. The four ages titled: Unenchantment, Enchantment, Disenchantment, and Re-enchantment

I applied this to Luke’s story, distilling what I thought was the essence of each stage and filling in obvious holes.

Unenchantment: As a child he was unenchanted, oblivious to the worldview that his parents espoused, he went to church but was not yet capable of making independent spiritual decisions.

Enhancement: As he grew up he was sent to a 40 student self-supporting institutions that did their best to follow the “blue print” – the master plan of education supposedly left to us by Ellen White. He would spend his time in bible memorisation and hymn singing, and he would preach evangelistic campaigns, knowing the 2300 day prophecy by heart. He went to southern as a nursing major and because of his work for GYC he was hired by the Michigan conference to pastor. He was living the dream.

Disenchantment: It was then that everything begun to unravel. All his ideas, his bible studies, his pad answers that had worked so well in casual meetings, began to face challenges as they came face to face with complex and broken people. He had a friend who turned his life around on a mountain and became a buddhist. He met loving people who worshiped on sunday, hard-bitten atheist who gave sacrificial to orphans and volunteered their time, a was spiritually fed by a tattooed female pastor. He soon started to wonder if he was the one confused and not them? He studied mountains of theology, but the questions kept ringing. Soon he felt that he could not in good conscience continue drawing a pay cheque from the his conference and he wrote his letter of resignation and was left paid ministry.

Re-enchantment: Luke concludes his article with this paragraph “It’s been a few years since that turbulent year in Michigan, and I’m still navigating the implications. My Facebook relationship status with the church would read “It’s complicated.” I’m learning to embrace the tension and am realising that the questions are often more important than the answers. Life is nothing if not a mystery and adventure.” – I don’t consider this re-enchantment but he is coming out of the valley of disenchantment, and charting an upward course.

Those who responded to the article in Spectrum I would classify  for the most part as being “disenchanted.” They gave Luke virtual fists bumps, and hailed him as being enlightened because the scales had dropped from eyes. They all but coronated Luke’s disenchantment, but few held out any hope of the possibility of re-enchantment with the church and the message that Luke once was enchanted with. For them enchantment was naive and immature. There were others who fought back, and labeled Luke a defector of our faith. They stood upon the hill-top of enchantment and cast stones at Luke for his weak faith and fragility in ministry.

I have friends who have experienced cycles in their spiritual life akin to Luke, I have trodden a path with similar vistas and because of that I believe that Lewis’s fourth age is a reality. Re-enchantment can happen for Adventist like Luke. We can choose to accept that we are part of an imperfect church filled with imperfect people who serve a perfect God with a glorious message. For sure, there are those who have been maimed by church politics, dragged over the coals for divergent (but non-essential) theological views. Yet, there are many noble people, and life changing organisations that exist, and in the fourth age we accept the reality that thorns are part of roses. In my fourth age renewal, I came to a deep conviction that the fulcrum of Adventist theology, namely, “God is Love” is true. If it is true then all bets are off. If I can trust the heart of God, then I can wrestle boldly with Him when I don’t understand his actions, or am wounded by his people.

Do you think that these four ages can be applied to other areas of life? Can we simultaneously experience different stages of these ages in areas of our life? Would love to hear your thoughts.

“It’s only a joke” –

I have mainly been a bystander in the issue of race, but this week I was forcefully thrust from the green room to the main stage. It started out with a seemingly innocent question –

“do they have malls in England?”

I wasn’t paying much attention to his question, and I mentally swatted it away. Then my brain woke up and replayed the question in my mind,

“do they have malls in Africa?”

I was shocked at the crude ignorance of the question, and told the chortling teenage boy who asked

“you’re kidding me right?”

But he wasn’t. His purview of Africa had collapsed the entire continent into a single amorphous mass that was distinguished by one thing, poverty. To be fair I have dealt with my share of woefully ignorant people who have asked if I know their african friend in another country, or who have asked me if I speak “African.” It is annoying, it is ignorant, but there is no malice in their questions.

An hour or so later, another group gathered. And a question was thrown out about what I was going to name my child. I didn’t pay much heed to suggestions, but slowly the flight of the conversation went from blue skies to heavy turbulence in a matter of minutes. The dialogue was whirling in my mind as I tried to make sense of what was happening. It was like being in the twilight zone.

“you should call her simba, it’s better than other black names like sheneekwa.”

“no you should call kunta kente.” (laughing)

another person joins the banter

“oh isn’t that from the movie roots? I’ve only seen the first part. I remember black slave boobies that’s all”

(laughter, and smirking from the three talking.)

There were other comments made, and I don’t claim my recollection to be totally accurate, but my head was swimming. The same guys that I had shared conversation with, and could call ‘friend’ saw nothing wrong in spouting crass, bigoted, borderline racist comments about black people in general and my future child specifically. I collected myself, and steeled my voice. Right there in that public area that they had rotted with their verbal fungus, I rebuked them for their insensitivity, their ignorance, and told them  they had offended me to the core of my humanity.

As a Ghanaian who as stood in the oldest slave castle in the world (El Mina), and seen the  line, 2 ft high against a slave dungeon, that marks feces level of dysentery ridden, pox addled, dehumanized people, I did not find their jokes funny. As the future  father of a black child, I did not find it funny that she could be born into a world where she would have to impotently stand by as her heritage and race are torn apart in the slobbering teeth of rabid racist words. As a Christian who believes to the core of his being that “love thy neighbour as thy self” reflects the heart of God, and restores in man the broken image of God – I did not find their jokes restorative to my humanity.

I am still unsettled by this episode, and as a Christian I wonder how I can broker a redemptive space in this tangled world that casually transmits such rancid concepts. Have you ever dealt with a situation like this? I would love to hear your thoughts on how to turn something as bitter as this into a learning experience for all involved.

Biblical betrothal and Ghanaian marriages.

I am currently reading a fascinating book by Robert Alter “The Art of Biblical Narrative”. One of the many discoveries that I have made as a direct consequence of this book, is the realization that there recurrent narrative episodes attached to the careers of biblical heroes.

One of the ritual type scenes that occurs is the encounter of the main character with their betrothed. The average Jewish reader, being familiar with this particular archetype of prose, would expect the moment of the heroes betrothal to unfold in particular circumstances, according to a fixed order.

The expected convention would begin with the future bridegroom (or surrogate) travelling to a foreign land and meeting a young girl “na’ arah” at a well. Water would be drawn by either party, and then the girl would rush home bearing tidings of the stranger. Finally a betrothal would be finalized between the bridegroom and the bride after a meal has been shared. This repetitive compositional structure is repeated with deliberate suppression and omissions, to hint at the future lives of Moses & Zipporah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob & Rachel, Saul, Samson and finally Jesus Christ.

Flower

It was while digesting this intriguing information, that I suddenly realised I was born into a culture that loosely practices a betrothal framework akin to the biblical one. The traditional Ghanaian marriage ceremony similarly moves at a set cadence of ritual expectations. To begin with it is the bridegroom who must leave his home and travel to a ‘foreign’ land. When he arrives at the home of the bride, the groom has to partake in a knocking ceremony called (kookoo ko) by way of entrance into the house.

Then like Eliezer in Isaac and Rebekah’s story, an intermediary from the family of the groom, speaks stating the intentions of the visiting party. When the intention is accepted, the next step can commence. The spokesperson will then explain in the most dulcet and expressive language, that the groom, has seen a “beautiful flower” in the house of the brides family. The delegate will continue by stating that he desires to “uproot” that flower, not steal, and would like to know how to make his dream a reality.

If you have stayed the course thus far, hold on because it gets very interesting. Once the invitation is accepted by the bride’s family, the groom presents a dowry to the bride. A token both of his affection, but most importantly of the economic value of the bride to her household. When the dowry negotiations have been finalized, the bride is brought into public. Historically decoys were sometimes used to “tease” the groom, so the groom is asked to verify if this is indeed his bride (if only Jacob had been a Ghanaian :-)) Once he confirms, she is asked three times by her father if she agrees to marrying the groom. The conclusion of the preceding is prayer, breaking bread, and dancing until the small hours of the night.

I suppose my excitement at this hazy parallel of biblical composition and culture, with traditional Ghanaian customs might seem trite to some, but it is important for me. Most Adventist would agree with the assertion that when we read the biblical text our presuppositions must be neutered, so the power of the text is untainted and unimpeded. It made me wonder if there is place for reading certain narrative structures in the bible through cultural lenses (especially if it is perennially patriarchal culture) as an apparatus to better identify with the text.  I am not for a moment suggesting cultural impositions on the text that distort the message, but I think there are times when our culture can legitimately bring the text alive. Ultimately the bible is a predominantly middle eastern, Jewish work, and I look forward to unlocking more narrative keys as I encounter and am transformed by its depth and beauty.

Have you found any instances while reading the bible where your traditional or cultural heritage dovetailed with the text and enriched your experience?

Check out this blog if you are interested in learning how to study the bible. It is like getting free Mdiv level classes.

The Word

Sometimes you can study a biblical text for a long time and still miss the significance of a certain detail. This happened to me regarding Jacob’s wrestling match in Gen 32. I’ve preached on this story for years. I thought I knew the story. Yet, until recently, I never recognized the significance of v 28:

So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

A simple dialogue. Familiar. And therefore very easy to just pass by. Skip over. But wait! Think about it: Why would the author include this dialogue in his story? And why is the dialogue even necessary? If the mysterious stranger is in a position to bless Jacob why would he ask this question? Would he not know who Jacob is? And why would he ask this question precisely at this point? These are important questions.

As I was thinking about the story…

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