A Letter to Kenyan Pastors

What will you do when the politicians come knocking this Sunday?

Dear Pastor,

He will be visiting your church this Sunday, but he won’t be a stranger. You have seen him on television and read about him in the newspaper countless times. You have never met him, but you probably know him better than some of your congregation. He is your local political leader.

Perhaps he is the area member of parliament. Or maybe you are lucky enough to get a visit from the area senator or governor. The President? Whoever he is, Sunday service will be different today. Attendance will be in record numbers and your parking lot will host some of the most expensive vehicles to ever tread on that gravel.

There is going to be great pressure to modify your order of Sunday service because this politician is around. Perhaps the singing will be shorter, the sermon will be hurried. In the heat of the moment, it will make sense to include a slot in the service for the politician to greet and address the congregants.

It seems harmless enough. It is perfectly understandable to make an exception. Special circumstances sometimes call for special actions. But dear pastor, could I urge and remind you not to forget what the Bible says about some of those moments? The following considerations may help guide you.

1. Watch where the politicians sits

The Bible, that book that defines who you are and why your church exists in the first place, says something about where the rich and the influential members of society choose to sit in the congregation. I hope you will not forget to take the words of Jesus to Pharisees into account when that politician visits:

“Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
LUKE 11:43‭-‬44 ESV

As far as Israel was concerned, the Pharisees were like a rough combination of the legislature and judiciary today. They are the ones who were supposed to understand, interpret and implement the laws set out by God. They even enacted some of the ways the laws of God applied to specific situations. Jesus noticed how self-important they were; how they carried themselves in the marketplace and the places of worship.

How will the politician visiting your church behave? Will they seat in the best seats? Are you, in fact, the one arranging for this? Why are you doing something that the Jesus you claim to be the Bride of clearly frowns upon? Or is it actually not about Jesus?

2. Watch how the politician will give

I am sure the highlight of Sunday service will most likely be the offering. Come on, with such record attendance, and with people overflowing that some are even standing outside the building just to catch a glimpse of their leader, the offering baskets will be bulging today. It is inevitable.

Buy I am not concerned about that. My concern is something else Jesus said about the same Pharisees that are the parallel to today’s politicians:

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
MATTHEW 6:2‭-‬4 ESV

Is this what the politicians visiting your church will do when it is time to give? Or maybe I am being too critical. The truth is these politicians are human, like you and I. They are also sinners. It would be unfair of me to expect them to stick to a higher biblical standard than other people. What if they want to announce their giving to your church? Who am I to judge?

But my concern is with you, dear pastor. You know better. Will you give these politicians a platform to do what Jesus clearly frowns upon? Will you change up your service to allow the politicians announce his donation for your upcoming church project? Will you give your your pulpit for the man or woman to say a word about what he has done for the community? Would you rather please man than God?

3. The sheep are watching the shepherd

In the end, this is more than just a matter of personal preference and opinion, dear pastor. You have a responsibility towards us, your sheep. And you will one day have to give an answer to God. As the Bible clearly puts it:

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
HEBREWS 13:17 ESV

Clearly, God wants us, the sheep, to obey you and submit to you. When you allow God’s word to be disregarded and God’s name to be blasphemed by endorsing some of these actions in the church, we find it difficult to obey God. It is hard for the sheep to take their creator seriously when the shepherd doesn’t seem to be doing it.

Dear pastor, please consider God this Sunday and the coming Sundays as you navigate the rising political temperatures in the country. The pressure to fear man rather than God will be high. Your reputation before the world will be at stake. Would you rather please men than God? I hope you will do the latter.

If you care about us, the followers of the Jesus you preach, you would consider these things. It will be difficult. Money is powerful, and the love of it can be tragic. You cannot resist public opinion on your own. I understand that, and for this reason, I will be praying for you.

I hope you do the right thing. I hope you will fear God enough to keep His commandments.

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My Father

Have you ever thought about the meaning of the word Father?

You’ve probably never needed to, because it seems so obvious… so self-evident. I used to think so too, until recently.

I was going through a “dark-night-of-the-soul” period where I found it difficult to pray. For some reason, it just stopped making sense speaking to a God that was invisible and immaterial. Whenever I closed my eye to pray, I was overwhelmed by the whole absurdity of the act. It just felt like talking into the air, into nothingness.

That’s when someone suggested a rather cliche solution: that I read the Bible and look at the way the people in there addressed God. Most specifically, how Jesus prayed and taught his disciples to address God.

Jesus called God His Father.

“Our father who is in heaven,” he taught us to pray. It sounded straightforward enough, except my main challenge was in conceptualizing God as a Father.

Many Christian counselors suggest that people who have difficulties thinking of God as a Father usually had a bad experience with their earthly fathers. They don’t know what is so good about having a father, and so they struggle to embrace a God who approaches them as one.

But the situation seemed different for me. This wasn’t about my earthly father. Growing up, my relationship with dad was more or less “normal.” My problem was a more philosophical one: How can I address God as “father” with a straight face when I know that God is Spirit and not human. Isn’t the word “Father” just an anthropomorphism of a being that is beyond our comprehension?

Well, I was in for a great (and pleasant) surprise.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word father as: “a male parent” or “a man who is thought of as being like a father.” Another alternative definition is: “one related to another in a way suggesting that of father to child.”

Beyond these surface definitions, Mr Charles and George Merriam and Mr Noah Webster don’t tell us much about what is actually involved in “being a father”, or what qualifies a man to be one.

Stay with me now. When you consider every aspect of what it means to be a father, you will quickly realize tat no single human being perfectly fits the description.

Does biology make one a father?

It is obvious that many who have contributed the Y chromosome to the existence of a child cannot quite be called the fathers of the child. This is especially if they have not contributed in any way to the raising of the child. These men fail to fit the “father” description because something, a relationship, is missing.

Does nurture make one a father?

In fact, there are many children being raised by men who are not related to them biologically, men who are married to their mothers, men that they call fathers. Even so, many who have been raised by men who were not their biological parents often say of these men, “he is like a father to me” as if he is not quite a father. Something is missing in the picture.

Does the law make one a father?

Or is it the law? Does legal adoption qualify one to be defined as a true father? And if so, why do we still feel the need to qualify the father title with an adjective such as “my adoptive father”. Somehow, we instinctively know that they are not quite the true definition of father.

Is it all three?

But even in the now increasingly rare case where one is raised up by the father who shares the same genes, these fathers still fall short. You may be biologically related to your father, he may be the one that raised you and his name may even be in your legal birth certificate, but he still falls short.

Earthly fathers don’t always love their children and when they do it is never a perfect love. Earthly fathers don’t always provide and when they do it may not be the best kind of provision. Even when they try their best, their humanity is a guarantee that they will never be the 100% father.

The fact that they are fallen human beings means that they will inevitably not measure up at being fathers.

The True Father

So who is the true father? Who fits the bill? Who meets all the criteria? Who is the one we can look at for any idea of what it means to be a perfect father? In other words, where do we get the idea that there is something like a 100 per cent father and yet no single human being has ever fit the mold? How do we know that the kind of fathers we have here on earth are less than ideal?

I found the answer when I went back to the Bible with my struggle. In the Words of scripture, I encountered a Father who fit the description, who met the criteria, and never disappointed. In the God of the Bible, I found not just the true definition of a perfect Father, I found the embodiment of that Father.

In my confusion, I thought it more realistic to address a human father than to address an invisible spiritual father. Yet the reality is that the human father was a false reality. No human being deserves to be called father. Not the man who contributed to your genes, and not even the man who raised you up. Only God fits the bill.

In fact, our earthly fathers are poor imitations of the true Father. Even the best of human fathers are mere glimpses of the perfection that is in our glorious heavenly Father. In other words, there is no truer and realer illustration of a human being talking to his father than that of a man praying to his God.

I am no longer struggling to pray. In fact, it is becoming more absurd to take my troubles to human beings instead of to God. I have learnt that prayer is the realest and truest form of communication I could ever take part in. Because in prayer, I am speaking to the only one who not only hears my words, but perfectly understands my words and perfectly responds to those words.

Through prayer, I can, for the first time in my life, talk to my real Father.

Reading the Bible for the First Time… Again

Sometimes I wonder if the Bible we have is less divine than it’s often hyped up to be.

Like many of you, I grew up on the Bible. My family wasn’t particularly religious, but we weren’t that irreligious either.

As far as I can tell, my dad never stepped into a church, yet it seems he read the Bible more often than my mum, who took us to church every Sunday. Apart from the little blue Gideon’s New Testament bibles we were given in school, I never read much Bible. My dad owned a copy of the New World Translation Bible (given to him by some Jehovah’s Witnesses who frequented our home and debated him).

Nevertheless, I grew up believing the Bible was the Word of God —  whatever that meant. For years, I always assumed we got the Bible the way Muslims got their Qur’an, that is, as a single book with 66 chapters. I would later learn that this wasn’t quite the case.

Apparently, the process that led to the Bible we have today was a very “human” process, and could only be described as “divine” if we chose to look at it providentially. Many who have argued for the canon usually say God “guided” the actions and decisions that led to the canonisation of our present Bible some 300 years after Jesus died.

The arguments sound convincing, but sometimes I would come across some work of literature that casts new doubts on my mind. Sometimes I am not even so sure about the inerrancy of our current Bible, not with the kind of history it has. Many scholars try to get around this difficulty by saying that the Bible is inerrant in “the original manuscripts” —  manuscripts that we no longer have.

Then there is the issue of what some books of the Bible say about the Word of God. For instance, 2 Timothy 3:16 is often quoted to support the claim that the entire Bible is the authoritative Word of God:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

Seems clear enough, until you consider when this verse was written and what “scripture” it was referring to. At the time of Paul, scripture used to refer to the Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament) and perhaps the other writings of the prophets. So, was Paul talking about the 66-book Bible that would be compiled three centuries after his death when he wrote this verse?

Difficult questions, these ones. Or when Apostle John, in Revelation 22:19 tells us:

“If anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.”

Many preachers use this verse to speak against those who try to “edit” the Bible by either adding some books or removing others. But was John referring to the book of Revelation when he wrote these words or was he referring to the collection that will come to existence much later on —  our present Bible?

These are just a few of the many questions that sometimes make me wonder if we have not deluded ourselves concerning the “Word of God”. What I mean is, when we insist that scripture is the ultimate authority on God’s will and not our churches, preachers and religious traditions, what scriptures are we referring to?

Isn’t our current Bible compilation more or less a product of decisions made by certain preachers belonging to certain churches and following certain religious traditions some 1700 years ago?

I am sure I will come across some book that will convince me that the Bible we have right now is the real deal, without needing to add or remove or modify anything in it. But sometimes I am not so sure.

Now, this does not mean that I am doubting the existence of God, or the gospel, or the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Although I have learnt about these realities through the same Bible that I find shaky, my belief in them does not really depend on what constitutes the true “scriptures” and what doesn’t.

But I cannot help but wonder how many of us believe certain things about the Bible because of what the religious human authorities in our churches and inter-webs and denominational documents say about them. How many of us are suppressing our questions and doubts because we do not want to be sidelined as heretics?

And did you know that CS Lewis, that famous English apologist and “the patron saint of evangelicalism” had some quite unorthodox views about our current Bible? Many of us who love his writings do not like to consider this side of Lewis, but it is worth looking at. You can begin here.

Perhaps it is time we all paused and read our Bibles again, for the first time. Perhaps not. Some people may see these as just muses of someone who is on the way out of the church, on the way out of true faith and Christianity. Am I just flirting with the deceiver by voicing these questions? I don’t know. But God does.

May His will prevail. And I sure hope and pray that I am in it.

Why I am Not Praying for Haiti

It started after the first recent major terror attack on Paris. The Charlie Hebdo attack.

My social media timelines were riddled with slogans and memes of “Je Suis Charlie”. The phrase was a hashtag, it was a slogan, it was a prayer.

“Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) quickly became a way to identify with the victims of the attack. It was a way of saying that those who died could have been any of us; the dead cartoonists could have been our fathers, our uncles, our brothers.

So I retweeted. I shared the memes and stared at the photos of friends and relatives mourning their dead and holding vigils. I even read some of the stories about the amazing lives of the now dead men.

I cared.

My heart was moved by the images and the stories. “Je suis Charlie” was more than a slogan. It was a rallying call against terrorism. It was a mark of human solidarity in the face of the worst of humanity.

But I cannot say the same for Haiti. 

I first learnt about the devastating hurricane by accident. A friend who was visiting the country when the hurricane struck shared the news in a Whatsapp group.

Later on I saw the news headlines on CNN and the New York Times. More than 800 dead. Tens of thousands of homes destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

These are big numbers. But for some reason, they are just that, numbers. They don’t evoke any deep sympathy or grief in me. I don’t feel the compulsion to retweet the headlines when they show up on my Twitter timeline.

Why is this? Am I a hypocrite? Does my callousness in the face of such tragedy reveal something base about my heart? Or is there more happening here?

I think I have a theory. Just one among many out there.

There’s more to this phenomenon, and it has very little to do with me or my morality, and a lot to do with how stories are told.

Joseph Stalin, the man whose regime was behind the death of some 43 million people, famously said:

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

Stalin was onto something that has intrigued psychologists for decades. It is the curious case of diminishing compassion as the number of victims increases. It is as if we experience a “compassion fatigue” when the numbers are overwhelming. You may find numerous studies on this on the web, so I will not be going into it here.

But something happens when you put a name and a face to tragedy. It narrows your focus and at the same time magnifies your compassion. The death of one hardworking father of a two year old girl seems bigger than the death of a hundred faceless men.

And this is what is happening with Haiti. We have the numbers but not the names. Furthermore, the fact that this is a natural disaster and not an act of terror dilutes the passions.

It is easy to rage and rant at the human face of a terrorist. But who is crazy enough to lift fist at the weather?

The only thing that’s closest to a human face in the wake of the Haiti tragedy is not even a face, but a name, Matthew.

Matthew is the name of the hurricane. Some 11 years ago, hurricane Katrina swept over North Eastern United States and devastated homes and lives. The story was a bit more prominent than the Haiti one, mainly because it brought to surface the racial and class wars in America. These are perennially emotional issues.

Even so, it was nothing close to the emotions sparked by the 9/11 terror attack. Which brings to mind another important aspect in the Haitian tragedy. Haiti is a voiceless nation on the theater of global conversations. Few people care what Haiti has to say about anything. The country is only good for photo ops as a charity case.

It is where celebrities and corporations refine their images by going there to “help the victims”. Haiti is every Public Relations strategist’s goldmine. It also makes for a great topic for social commentaries… like this post.

That is why the recent devastation by hurricane Matthew has evoked a now all too familiar protest on social media. You may have already come across posts of complaints about why Facebook has not allowed users to put on the Haitian flag on their profile pages.

Ironically, there are more people complaining about the fact that the Haiti disaster is not getting enough coverage than the people actually covering the disaster. Few media organisations have bothered to interview possible faces of the tragedy.

We are content with the numbers. We have become too familiar with the incident that we barely notice it. We cannot wait for the next big news so that we move on from Haiti.

We don’t really care.

And this is why I am not praying for Haiti. The disaster is not close enough or real enough or human enough to move me. If I say a prayer, it will largely be due to guilt. I will do it because I do not want to appear heartless, yet deep down I know that I simply don’t care.

Not as much as I should.

This is the world we live in. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. What is trending is not always what “should” trend. What captures our attention is not always what should occupy us. And that’s just how it is. What can you do about it? What will you do about it?