He gives and takes away

My classmate, Rev. John Shettima, is originally from Borno State in Northern Nigeria. This was the birth place of the militant group, Boko Haram. He is the principle of a Christian school in Kaduna but most of his family lives in Yobe. He is also here to study Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations in an attempt to understand his community better in the majority Muslim North.

Rev. John at a meeting in Eastleigh, the primarily Sudanese neighborhood of Nairobi where the CCMRE is located

A few weeks ago, Rev. John lost the 9th, 10th and 11th members of his family to Boko Haram (timeline of attacks). He has said of the 13 he shared in the joy of their coming to Christ, now 10 are dead.

His brother-in-law was a police inspector. He was killed in an attack on the police station.

A week after John’s brother-in-law was buried, John’s sister, who had suffered bullet wounds in her legs during the attack, was finally told of her husband’s passing. I don’t know the details, but during our Arabic class, John received the call that she had also died.

She was four months pregnant.

There are now 31 orphans in John’s family.

Violence like this does not make sense to me. I can’t comprehend the frailty of life around me. On top of militancy, there are fires, road accidents, misdiagnoses that end in untimely death, entirely preventable illnesses, maternal mortality and a whole slew of other crises we just don’t tend to think about in the West. Within this semester, our cohort of six has been affected by just as many deaths of close friends or family. “If I should die before I wake” is a weak prayer here. Every time we leave each other, every time a person is away from the group, we pray for safety and God’s grace and protection. There is reason to give thanks for every new morning, not because of sunshiny optimism, but because there it is ever present on the African conscience that one might not have seen it without God’s present hand while we rested.

My professor from the Netherlands asked me how I was doing with all of this tragedy. I stared at him for a moment, unsure what to say. How was I doing? Did it matter?

“I’m speechless. Truly. I don’t know what to do with all of this except pray, and ask others to join me.”

Shortly after this news, I was assigned a paper on Terrorism in Africa. I researched the major cells, including al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. I could list for your here a slew of political, economic and social reasons why I think violence is so rampant among these groups, particularly in Africa. If you want, I’d be happy to share my paper. That writing process gave me something to say, but it didn’t really give me answers.

I flipped through the Biblical texts of catharsis, lament and comfort, trying to reason through how or what I was supposed to feel. I finally settled on Habakkuk, a succinct book of the prophets. It opens as a plea from a man who feels like a single grain of sand trying to hold back a rushing downpour of oppression and injustice. Fitting for how I was feeling at the time. How I feel most days.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen!

“Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save.

-Habakkuk 1:2

But God replies to Habakkuk and basically says, “Don’t worry, I’m God. I will bring wrath upon the wicked and those that harm the righteous. But I’m doing in in my time and in my way. You probably won’t even see it happening. But don’t worry, I’m in control. I promise.”

And I realized something terrible yet awesome (in the true sense of the word). God is not just great because He creates, but also because He destroys. Destruction is an awfully difficult, but often necessary task. Wild fires have to burn to create the right conditions for new growth. The story of the great flood is a story of destruction, but it is also a story of new creation in the covenant with Noah. When He destroys, He will build again. But because only God can truly create, only by the directive of God can destruction be pure. It’s when destruction is done outside of the orders of God that it becomes sin. When humans try to play God in controlling the order of the world in a destructive/manipulative way that they become worthy of God’s wrath.

What good is an idol carved by man, or a cast image that deceives you?

How foolish to trust in your own creation -a god that can’t even talk!

-Habakkuk 2: 18

When that forest fire is started by a carelessly thrown cigarette butt, or a reckless arsonist. When children go hungry while the money sent to feed them lines the pockets of government officials. When a man is killed because he went to school to become a doctor, but Western education has been deemed apostasy. When an adolescent is recruited to blow himself up in the name of a war he doesn’t understand in exchange for protection for his family.

These atrocities, more often than not, are man driven, not God made. They occur because of and within worldwide, systematic sin. Yet the violence we see here in this world is just a single immeasurable point on the arch of God’s divine justice . And in the end, God will always bring justice.

Because you have plundered many nations,

now all the survivors will plunder you.

-Habakkuk 2:8a

Rev. John returned to class the next day, to all of our surprise. Our professor shook his hand, saw him to his seat, and patted him on the back. He said, “It is well, sir. It is well with my soul.”

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines;

even thought the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren;

even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD!

I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!

-Habakkuk 3:17-18

How do I feel? Inspired. Challenged. Encouraged. Overwhelmed with the courage of my classmates. Above all, in the midst of all this tragedy, I have been given hope that what we are doing here is truly work worth doing.

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Servants of God AND Humanity: A call to Christian action

I have a post in the works about the last week of discerment, time table mix ups and skyping with awesome 8th graders. But on Sunday night when I usually write my posts, I was asked last minute to preach in Chapel for Tuesday (today) representing the International Student Community. So I set to writing this instead and delivered it today to quite positive reviews. A Muslim student from Tanzania said it moved her to want to come to chapel more often and the president of the Student Association asked for a copy. I’m just glad it came out as coherent. 

James 2:14-18

“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing and you say, “Goodbye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”- but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing, what good does that do you?

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

I’ve chosen to preach on James today because I believe it to be a book of action. The traditional summary of the book is “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26). And in the last month, I have found St. Paul’s to be a place that is designed to balance faith and works. The mission statement of the University, “To serve God and humanity,” is very clear about this design. Especially with the bass note emphasis of “AND HUMANITY” in the school anthem, how could anyone ignore that part?

As faith without works is dead, service to God without the intention of affecting, or at the very least interacting with humanity, is an empty goal. As God came to earth in the human form of Christ to prove His love toward us, so too He designed mankind to be the instruments of His continued works of righteousness, mercy and justice on earth. WE, each one of us, is intended to be an agent of God to act within and for humanity.

I apologize if I’m getting too Christological. I have the infection of postgraduate theology and sometimes it’s hard to avoid using the big vocab words. In short, because God became human, His work continues to be done by humans.

 As Gary Haugen, the Founder of the International Justice Mission, said (paraphrased), WE are God’s plan A for the work of justice and mercy in this world.

I’d like to explore for a moment those two specific categories; Justice and Mercy. And to illustrate the two concepts, I’d like to share a story inspired by writings of the Mennonite scholar and preacher, John Paul Lederach.

Mother Mercy was standing by a river when she heard an unusual splash. She looked up to see a baby, floating in a basket. She waded out to the middle of the river and pulled the baby back in. As she climbed up onto the riverbank, she heard a cry. Another baby was floating round the rocks down the river. She waded out again and retrieved him. Halfway back to the bank, she saw another basket coming along. She called out to the fishermen for help. They called for people from the town. In a human chain, they caught the babies as they emerged from around the bend. The community formed a human chain to rescue the children from the rapids.

Brother Justice came upon the strange scene. Immediately he began running up the hill that lead to the other side of the river’s bend, away from the rescue mission.

Mother Mercy cried out, “Brother Justice!  Where are you going! We need your help!”

 “I am helping!” Brother Justice cried back,

“I’m going to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

Mercy is the action that answers the call of the needy. Mercy delivers food to the hungry, shelter and clothing to the cold and compassion to the suffering.

Justice dares to ask why these people are suffer in the first place, and seeks to stop the cause at the source.

As Christians, we practice often acts of Mercy. Food drives, hospital visits, volunteering at orphanages.  Kenyans, with the practice of Harambee, are far better at it than any community I have yet had the privledge to be in. I have watched already, in just a month, how seriously Kenyans take the communal bearing of burdens. It’s inspiring, and I intend to share it with many when I return home.

But as educated people of the church, here at St. Paul’s, we have been delivered the blessing to be able to understand the complex answers that come when we dare to ask, why are the babies in the river? And we’ve been given the resources to act.

When a bus rolls off the road, the BAC (Bachelor of Arts in Communication) students can craft an exposé on the bribery that allows old and overloaded vehicles to remain on the streets.

As scammers attempt to break into customer information in the bank, the BBIT (Bachelors of Business in Information Technology) students reconfigure the security system that keeps them out.

When rising costs threaten lay-offs at the company, the ingenuity of our BBA (Bachelors of Business Administration) students creates a new profit driving concept to keep them employed.

As children die unnecessarily of water borne illness, the community development students help install rain collection and purification systems and teach parents about sanitation.

When society struggles “to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God”, the students of Divinity prepare ourselves to offer encouragement along the journey, keeping the end in sight when others might have lost hope.

We have the staff and faculty to thank for fighting hard to create a safe and challenging environment in which we build these skills. They especially play a delicate balancing act of Mercy and Justice. Though they plead with and warn university students about the dangers of wandering into morally ambiguous territory outside the gates of this institution, they allow us to make our own mistakes and apply mercy or justice as appropriate after we have chosen to act, to be frank, quite stupidly.

Whatever vocation you find yourself in, when we choose to use our gifts with humanity in mind, instead of focusing solely on personal benefit, we are in fact acting on behalf of God. When we choose to ACT in ways that are Merciful and Just, we do so with the power of the Holy Spirit behind us. And as we challenge injustice, oppression, corruption and discrimination, we cause people to wonder, who are these Christians? What gives them such courage to challenge the status quo? Such compassion to give of themselves?

 Our faith compels us, our deeds further confirm us. And by being servants of God AND humanity, we grow deeper in that faith, and are given the opportunity to spread the joy of salvation provided by the sacrificial ACTION of our Lord, Jesus Christ, to all we may encounter.

May the security of His grace and unending love give you courage and go with you always.

Praise be to God. Amen.