“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.

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Friends In Church. Do or Die

In 2007 I packed my bags and was driven to Keele University in the midlands of England. I arrived with no friends, zero. I didn’t know anyone who was going to the same university, much less anyone who was pursing the same degree as I was. I quickly started to interact with my suite mates, and faces that were nameless in my 200 strong Law class started to have stories and experiences attached to them. We also debated in labs made up of 15 or so students, and we rubbed shoulders in social activities that most remembered through the fog of a rabid hangover, “the morning after the night before”. I listened, slept, missed and suffered through dozens of lectures each semester with the same people. Yet our shared experience of listening to a talking head for two hours at a time, for two years didn’t magically draw all 200 of us into intimate relationships with each other. The same is true in church family, our shared experience of listening to a sermon, may lift our spirits, but it doesn’t magnetically draw us to each other.

Paul in Romans 16 is getting ready to “land the plane” as it were, he is no longer navigating heady theological concepts, rather he is wrapping up his book with greetings to friends and family. Paul’s greeting reveal the church in Rome consisted of units ( affinity groups if you wish) that he acknowledged and addressed : v16:1-5 Phobe, Priscilla & Aquila and the church that meets in their home, v14 Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, v15 Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints.

The church that Paul was writing to was not a single thumping entity, but rather an aggregate of families, and groups. There were congregations meeting in homes, and some were bound by blood ties as well as spiritual bonds. Additionally Paul mentions by name his relatives v7 Andronicus and Junia  v11. Herodian  v21 Lucius, Jason and Sosipater. Lastly Paul sends a heartfelt greeting to individuals that he was especially close to through shared experiences.

Acts 2:42-47 is sometimes hijacked to mean “the church must be a commune of people with no property rights, sharing daily potlucks and bank accounts.” Another train of thought goes like this: “if this church was really Christian then we would all be friends, one big happy family and everyone would know if I was sick and didn’t come to church. My church isn’t like that, therefore it is full of uncaring hypocrites.” I can understand the frustration of being a young person in a church, and feeling utterly disconnected with the larger body. I know what it feels like to debate going to your local church or visiting “bedside Baptist church” for the third time in a month. I get it, really, I’ve been there got the t-shirt, and taken the instagram picture.

The problem with this expectation of church being a grand perfectly connected organism of happy people is that it’s not even biblical. Paul’s greetings are to groups of people who constitute a body. It is not sinful to be drawn to people in church who share similar passions, interests or jobs, and we shouldn’t begrudge such natural groupings. Of course if they intentionally and systematically segregate themselves to the exclusion of others, that is a problem. So please, if you are a young person who is drifting from church to church, looking for the congregation that lays out the red carpet for you and where every family and group invites you home for lunch – good for you, keep looking. I mean that sincerely, we should aim for welcoming atmospheres for outsiders, but the day will come where you have to mourn for your dead expectations of homogenous friendship groups. Unless you intentional set out to make friends, connect, and attach you will be continually disappointed by your 11am Sabbath experience. On many levels if you want a satisfying experience on Sabbath, you need to cultivate the ground before you can realistically expect seeds to flourish. Do not begrudge those who naturally form groups within your church if they are loving Christian people, they have the right to do that, and they are not being “worldly” by doing so.

Friends

What can you do this week (at church and outside) to meaningfully connect and build a relationship with some one?

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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When Heart’s Burned!

Luke 24:13-35

New International Version (NIV)

On the Road to Emmaus

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke itand began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

The savior of the world, after rising from the grave. After staring death in the eyes and muzzling him, comes back in the flesh and meets some of his disciples. Imagine His emotions – excitement, trepidation, nervousness?

Yet in verse 28. we find the most remarkable thing happening. Jesus the GodMan, doesn’t assume that his proximity in distance to those he is with equals intimacy with them. Jesus doesn’t impose Himself on them, and He never imposes Himself on us. God is a true gentleman.

Wouldn’t it have been tragic if those two men hadn’t chosen to invite Jesus the risen Lord to stay a while longer and break bread with them? And yet, how many Emmaus road experiences do we have, when in our proximity to God we don’t chose to invite him to intimacy with us.

Every Sabbath is a wonderful opportunity to accept God’s invitation to a 24hr date and experience an awesome day that will leave us saying like those men  – “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Metacognition according to Marshmellows

You have heard about the marshmallow test right?

Check it out here:

I read an interesting yesterday that dug into the science of self-control. As a student, a pastor and a future parent this was fascinating to me.  Below is an excerpt of the article.

Psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place. In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer#ixzz1ylMtKSbG

  • It’s very humanistic of course, and metacognition has its shortcomings. For example how would it work when you are battling a character defect, or mental failings, and not a fluffy sugary corn syrup treat.
  • Nevertheless it shouldn’t be dismissed entirely out of hand. Being able to focus on positive things in life is better and more productive in general than entering a dialogue with negative things.
  • Reminds me of a story in Genesis 39:1-12

How you found thinking, and acting on positive things even in the midst of obvious negativity helps?

Locus of Control

In May 2009, I begun my MDiv at Andrews. I came  excited, expectant and full of optimism.

I battled classes from Aleph through to Omega. From Mabul to Timelessness. I was stretched beyond my physical, emotional capacities at times. But I had great friends, professors, and I didn’t snap. 107 credit hours, and by the grace of Jesus, I stand on the cusp of completion.

Some of the teachers that I initially dismissed as being too simplistic taught me some of my most important lessons. The ones that could exegete a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma  left me with wide eyed wonder, but I can’t repeat much of the material from their classes.

One of the most important lessons that I learnt is what is termed the Locus of Control. This term says that as the environment around you changes, you can either attribute success and failure to things you have control over, or to forces outside your influence. The orientation we choose has a bearing on our long-term success. 

Sometimes I chose to blame professors [for the grade I didn’t like] the awesome Michigan snow [for making me late, even though I left my house with exactly 37 seconds to spare] or sneaky deadlines [for making me pull an all nighter].

At times I neglected things within my own control, and then got eaten alive by my circumstances outside of my control. God’s grace is a very soothing balm, and so I finish full of excitement, expectation and optimism for the blank canvass of my future! And furthermore my biblical locus trumpets victory.

NIV – 1 John 4:4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.