A Different Kind of Christmas

From my husband’s book,  Unfamiliar Territory I have decided to go down memory lane to our year in Kenya in 1990 and share the chapter that Jim wrote about our Christmas that year. I will share it on my blog each week in December. It is the account of 5 suburbanites from Wheaton, Illinois living in Kenya that year. God gave us experiences and memories that we still share with each other. Enjoy.

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A Different Kind of Christmas

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days.”

Charles Dickens

As December approached, it brought with it the realization we were in for a very different kind of Christmas. Because Kijabe is just on the other side of the equator, weather-wise, December is really more summer than winter. Day after flawless day, the same thing: 78 degrees and sunny, which I suppose works for you if you are from one of those places like Los Angeles or Phoenix or Orlando; places where people are supposed to visit, but never actually live.  But for those of us from the Midwest, Christmas arriving, unaccompanied by miserable winter weather, simply disorients us, leaves us feeling unsettled, off balance, like we’re about to get the flu.

The weather was just the beginning of what was going to be different about this Christmas. There wasn’t going to be any crowded stores with hurried shoppers, any Christmas music filling in the background everywhere. There wasn’t going to be any extended family or old friends.  There wasn’t going to be any familiar nativity set or special decorations or the usual church Christmas extravaganza. No, it was all going to be very different, very unpredictable, which was going to be a problem for me because I don’t view Christmas as a season well suited to surprises.  Except, of course, the pretend ones, like when we pretend we’re surprised by something we’ve had on our Christmas list for the last four months. As far as I’m concerned, Christmas is always supposed to stay the same: the same decorations, the same ornaments, the same lights, the same kind of tree, the same people, the same programs. I find something comforting in all this Christmas sameness. Maybe, if truth be told, something just a little anesthetizing.

Early on, it was evident that maintaining certain Christmas traditions in rural Africa was going to be a significant challenge. Starting with the tree. As one might expect, in Kenya, one doesn’t exactly find Christmas trees on every corner in December. That tradition, in fact, is one that is particularly suspect, because, as far as most native Africans are concerned, trees are a little bit sketchy to begin with. There is a widely held traditional belief that spirits live in trees, and therefore any thinking person would want to exercise caution around them. It’s not a good thing to park yourself or your house or anything else, for that matter, too close to one. Let alone cut one down and, horror of horrors, actually drag it into your house. I suppose today, most educated Africans would deny they actually believe there’s anything spooky about trees, yet certain beliefs do have a way of lingering in the background. It’s very similar to how most educated Americans, denying they believe bad luck results from walking under a ladder, would still take a wide detour into the street if they encountered one straddling the sidewalk. I am sure in colonial days, more than a few native Kenyans were left scratching their heads in disbelief the first time they saw an English missionary cut down a tree at Christmas, place it prominently in their home, get on their knees before it and give it water, adorn it with gold and silver and then, like offerings before an idol, place gifts beneath it. You can see how the whole thing might tend to blur the line distinguishing the Christians from the pagans.

But, culturally insensitive or not, it was Christmas, and we were going to have a tree. A group of families organized a bit of a safari… not looking to bag any big game, just a few evergreens. Missionaries tend to accumulate a whole wealth of little known, yet useful, information, like how altitude effects baking times for certain recipes, what to do for various bug bites, what snakes one should steer clear of (are you joking me?) and where to find evergreens in the forest that could serve as Christmas trees. So, the first Saturday morning of December, our whole family climbed into our “blue bomb” and joined the wagon train chugging its way up the deliriously twisting upper road that connected the mission station to the main highway at the top of the ridge. Singing Christmas carols in the sunshine, we turned left at the top of the hill and headed out toward a forested area many miles away.

Allow me here a brief aside on the subject of road kill in Kenya and its impact on the Christmas spirit. Whereas in the United States we bemoan rigor mortise afflicted varmints like skunks and raccoons and possums lying in the ditch, arms reaching skyward toward the great beyond, it’s a whole different thing when it’s a zebra assuming that same posture. Zebras, it turns out, are the possums of East Africa. The first one we passed, lying stiff on the side of the road, looked as if it was a life-sized stuffed specimen someone had accidentally tipped over. As we sped by, I had this overwhelming urge to do something, but for the life of me couldn’t think of anything more constructive than stopping and putting the poor thing back upright, which seemed little more than cosmetic. The volume on the Christmas carols would sort of drain away each time we approached one, then pick back up once it was out of site. Anyway, two or three zebras later, after about a half-hour ride, we came upon several acres of farmland adjacent to the great highland forest where there were a number of very, very, very, long needled pine trees that were fluffy and exotic looking and all wrong for Christmas. But, since it was a good seven thousand miles to the nearest Boy Scout Christmas tree lot, we decided they would have to do.

Everyone climbed out of the vans and, like GIs on a reconnaissance mission, fanned out over the unplowed field at the edge of the forest, trying to find that exact right, wrong-looking tree. The grass was chin-high on Jennifer, which made me more than a little nervous, as all the possibilities of what else, besides us, might be lurking in that field, started rolling through my head. This is what comes of watching too many programs on the Discovery Channel. As we made our way through the field, it wasn’t long before we encountered several mysterious areas, twenty or so feet in diameter, where the grass was smashed down flat to the ground. I could come up with only two plausible explanations: we had either just stumbled upon an alien-landing site or we were, at that very moment, traipsing through what was, in essence, some elephant’s bedroom. Worse yet, apparently in elephant etiquette, it is perfectly okay to poop in one’s bedroom because the other thing we encountered with disconcerting regularity was huge piles of fresh elephant dung. The word passed quietly between the dads to keep a lookout, because elephants were known to not take kindly to people tiptoeing through their boudoirs. Since they lack a full appreciation of the importance and meaning associated with the custom of the Christmas tree, they might just come charging out of the forest to express their outrage at the trespass. This definitely cut way down on my usual pickiness and significantly shortened the selection process. As we walked through the field, I tried to simultaneously keep my eyes on my three daughters, the edge of the forest, the pine trees and my next step. In record time we picked a tree, cut it down, paid an incredulous farmer for it and went hopping our way back to the car where we secured the prize to the top of our vans and headed home.

That night, with the Ray Coniff singers providing the proper, cheesy musical background (Cindy had remembered to bring the traditional tape from home) we decorated our hopelessly droopy, yet wonderful tree. Every year since Emily was born, the night we decorate the tree, we’ve given each of the girls a new ornament. It’s always a bird for Katie, a teddy bear for Jenny, a lamb for Emily. It wasn’t easy finding these items in Kenya, but we did our best. Kate’s bird was a kind of crazy, demented looking thing we had found in the big market in Nairobi. We drilled into its back and jerry-rigged it into an ornament. Jenny’s Teddy bear we had remembered to bring from home. But as for Emily…well, lamb ornaments were definitely in short supply. So Cindy got creative; she bisected a toilet paper cardboard cylinder, glued a piece of real lambs wool to it and then glued four sticks for legs and attached a forlorn cardboard head. It was truly the most pathetic looking lamb I’d ever seen, but Emily, the world’s most grateful child, saw only the love and effort, and declared it the best lamb she had ever been given. We laughed the night away, as we strung popcorn and berries, made paper chains, and put on the one string of lights we had brought with us. All our artistic efforts were, however, lost on our Kenyan house helper, Loyce, who would periodically over the next several weeks, give the tree dirty looks, cutting a bit wider path whenever she was forced to walk near it.

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Welcoming the Stranger?

Like most of us, the Central Americans’ caravan through Mexico is mind-boggling. The desperate families, rivers being crossed, the lack of food, the misery…all spell desperation and hope for something better. And then there’s the living quarters that await them, the long lines, and the “time-line” of years that await them all together overwhelm our sensibilities.

My small group (and some hubbies) attended a World Relief forum on this subject last week. We were asked to give, volunteer, or be an advocate to the cause of caring for the stranger. As Christians it’s about understanding, growing our heart of compassion, and living up to the themes of our Christian faith….in every book of the Bible, (practically every chapter) there is some encouragement to reach out to those who are poor, disenfranchised, lost, or wandering. As a follower of Christ, I ask myself, ‘am I accepting the challenge that the Bible gives me to really care for the “stranger”?

World Relief staff member and author of Welcoming the Stranger, Matt Soerens, gives a current look at the issue in his book. World Relief stands behind this conviction:

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Here is the follow-up email to those who attended the forum, full of links to what you, like I, may be curious about. A lawyer present at this forum reminded us that the law is the law….there won’t be any drastic changes in the processes at the border:

Last week World Relief sponsored an educational evening, “Spotlight on Asylum Seekers at the Border” at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Naperville. Thank you to everyone who attended to hear stories about asylum seekers at our southern border. We wanted to share some additional resources with you so that you can continue learning about asylum seekers and praying for them.

If you were unable to attend the Spotlight last week, we hope these resources will help fill you in as well.

Factsheet on Asylum Seekers: We shared this factsheet with those who attended the Spotlight. Here is a digital version you can share with friends and family.

Asylum in the United States: This is a very thorough explanation of the asylum process and key statistics from the American Immigration Council.

The Parable of the Caravan: This article by Kent Annan asks us to think about the migrant caravan in a way that allows it to “reveal areas of ours lives where we need discipleship in the way of Christ.”

Today’s Migrant Flow is Different: This story from The Atlantic explains the difficult situations that are causing Central Americans to flee their countries.

Advocate for Asylum Seekers: Consider contacting your Members of Congress, whether over the phone, by email, or on social media, to tell them that you want the U.S. to uphold its asylum laws and continue welcoming families who are fleeing persecution.

We hope these resources are helpful to you. If you have any questions or are looking for other specific resources, you can reply to this email to let us know.

One further addition here:

Many of us don’t have reason to pay attention to the Lausanne Movement. Lausanne, in my eyes, is a watchdog group that teaches and keeps our evangelical world committed to the Biblical orthodoxy of the Evangelical Movement in the world. I attended the Cape Town World Congress on Evangelism in 2010 when the 6,000 chosen delegates from around the world were introduced to The Cape Town Commitment which was agreed upon by hundreds of evangelical organizations and institutions of higher learning.

I was sent an email today that reminded me of the section of the Cape Town Commitment that is titled, 

7. We love God’s world.

B) We love the world of nations and cultures. ‘From one man, God made all nations of humanity, to live on the whole face of the earth.’ Ethnic diversity is the gift of God in creation and will be preserved in the new creation, when it will be liberated from our fallen divisions and rivalry. Our love for all peoples reflects God’s promise to bless all nations on earth and God’s mission to create for himself a people drawn from every tribe, language, nation and people. We must love all that God has chosen to bless, which includes all cultures. Historically, Christian mission, though flawed by destructive failures, has been instrumental in protecting and preserving indigenous cultures and their languages. Godly love, however, also includes critical discernment, for all cultures show not only positive evidence of the image of God in human lives, but also the negative fingerprints of Satan and sin. We long to see the gospel embodied and embedded in all cultures, redeeming them from within so that they may display the glory of God and the radiant fullness of Christ. We look forward to the wealth, glory and splendour of all cultures being brought into the city of God – redeemed and purged of all sin, enriching the new creation.[25]

Such love for all peoples demands that we reject the evils of racism and ethnocentrism, and treat every ethnic and cultural group with dignity and respect, on the grounds of their value to God in creation and redemption.[26]

Such love also demands that we seek to make the gospel known among every people and culture everywhere. No nation, Jew or Gentile, is exempt from the scope of the great commission. Evangelism is the outflow of hearts that are filled with the love of God for those who do not yet know him. We confess with shame that there are still very many peoples in the world who have never yet heard the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We renew the commitment that has inspired The Lausanne Movement from its beginning, to use every means possible to reach all peoples with the gospel.

C) We love the world’s poor and suffering. The Bible tells us that the Lord is loving toward all he has made, upholds the cause of the oppressed, loves the foreigner, feeds the hungry, sustains the fatherless and widow.[27] The Bible also shows that God wills to do these things through human beings committed to such action. God holds responsible especially those who are appointed to political or judicial leadership in society,[28] but all God’s people are commanded – by the law and prophets, Psalms and Wisdom, Jesus and Paul, James and John – to reflect the love and justice of God in practical love and justice for the needy.[29]

Such love for the poor demands that we not only love mercy and deeds of compassion, but also that we do justice through exposing and opposing all that oppresses and exploits the poor. ‘We must not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist.’[30] We confess with shame that on this matter we fail to share God’s passion, fail to embody God’s love, fail to reflect God’s character and fail to do God’s will. We give ourselves afresh to the promotion of justice, including solidarity and advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. We recognize such struggle against evil as a dimension of spiritual warfare that can only be waged through the victory of the cross and resurrection, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and with constant prayer.

D) We love our neighbours as ourselves. Jesus called his disciples to obey this commandment as the second greatest in the law, but then he radically deepened the demand (from the same chapter), ‘love the foreigner as yourself’ into ‘love your enemies’. [31]

Such love for our neighbours demands that we respond to all people out of the heart of the gospel, in obedience to Christ’s command and following Christ’s example. This love for our neighbours embraces people of other faiths, and extends to those who hate us, slander and persecute us, and even kill us. Jesus taught us to respond to lies with truth, to those doing evil with acts of kindness, mercy and forgiveness, to violence and murder against his disciples with self-sacrifice, in order to draw people to him and to break the chain of evil. We emphatically reject the way of violence in the spread of the gospel, and renounce the temptation to retaliate with revenge against those who do us wrong. Such disobedience is incompatible with the example and teaching of Christ and the New Testament.[32] At the same time, our loving duty towards our suffering neighbours requires us to seek justice on their behalf through proper appeal to legal and state authorities who function as God’s servants in punishing wrongdoers.[33]

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Let us believe in healing at Willow Creek

The Healing of Willow Creek

Misguided loyalty harmed this historic congregation. True loyalty can redeem it.
The Healing of Willow Creek

Image: JLM

In light of the resignation of its pastoral staff and elder board, it’s time to rally around Willow Creek Community Church with support and prayers. With those resignations, and the repentance they suggest, Willow has an opportunity to enter into a new fruitful season of ministry.

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Let’s ponder what has happened in the last few months and why, because a simplistic reading of the events will only tempt Willow—and any Christian institution in a similar crisis—to react in such a way that the fruitful season will wither away all too quickly. Many women have come forward and said Bill Hybels has abused his power and sexually harassed female colleagues. The current leadership, pastors and elder board, have failed early to take seriously the accusations being brought forth. We are wise to try our best to grasp the moral and psychological complexities of what has taken place, so deep redemption can take place.

Rediscovering True Loyalty

Given the number of troubling testimonies about Hybels’s behavior, it’s easy to forget we’re still dealing with allegations and not proven fact. Many are of the opinion—me included—that he is guilty. Hybels, however, continues to deny many of the most serious allegations. It’s not merely an American thing but is also required of Christian charity: The accused are entitled to their day in court. For independent churches in Willow’s situation, that court is the sort of independent investigation that Willow has at long last commissioned. An independent investigation will hopefully be able to bring to light the full truth of the matter. The choice of the organization to investigate, as well as its work, are certainly matters to keep in prayer.

The current pastoral leaders and the board have shown both courage and humility in resigning. That in itself is an act of repentance, and for that we can be grateful. Without excusing the leadership, we do well, however, to note why staff and boards who otherwise show signs of wisdom are tempted in a crisis to downplay accusations and protect their leader at all costs, for they do it often.

One reason for many is loyalty. Loyalty is an especially precious virtue in mission-driven organizations, especially in an age when missions are so easily undermined. We do not want to hire staff or form boards whose first instinct is to suspect the leader of the worst after every accusation.

And here is the rub, because loyalty is more complex than we first imagine. We tend to think that loyalty means always taking the side of the leader to whom we want to be faithful. Loyalty instead means doing everything in your power to make the leader not only a better one but a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s not unlike patriotism for one’s country. The true patriot loves his country; so much so that he will speak out when he believes the country is doing wrong, to call the nation to adhere to its deepest ideals.

In the face of substantive accusations, then, it is not a betrayal to look seriously at accusations in a way that the truth will come forth and not be covered up. It is an act of loyalty—for the sake of the leader’s integrity.

Loyalty to the leader continues and drives even deeper when it appears that the leader is guilty of a shameful offense. That’s when the leader needs the loyalty of a true friend. This doesn’t mean denying or excusing wrong behavior. At such times, it means standing with them, praying for and with them as they begin to wrestle with wrongdoing and hesitantly, awkwardly try to repent. Because it is inevitable that in such crises, leaders usually do not have the spiritual wherewithal to confront every aspect of their sins immediately. Repentance is a hard and fearsome thing. We need God’s powerful grace to repent, and that grace is often communicated by patient and loving counselors who can help lead us to a proper and deep repentance.

But loyalty is more complex still. Pastoral staff and boards are also called to be loyal to their congregations. This is one reason leadership at every level is so hard and why it tests the best of men and women. Staff and boards often feel they have to choose between loyalty to their leader or to their congregations they are called to serve, and they often end up choosing one or the other. This is what has happened at Willow, and not only with the board. People are either for the congregation, and especially the women who have come forward, or they have been for the staff, board, and Hybels. But loyalty and love require that we parse how and in what ways we need to be loyal to all parties, even when we believe one party has made grievous errors of judgment or has been immoral.

Of course, all these loyalties are grounded in our loyalty—that is, faithfulness—to Jesus Christ, who has demonstrated his loyalty to us, even while we were sinners.

Going Forward

Some have said that Willow staff and elders have been too loyal to Hybels, and some argue that boards should not be so loyal. As the argument above suggests, we beg to differ. Instead, we believe boards should be even more deeply loyal to their congregations and to their pastors—with all that loyalty requires.

One question now is who is going to be loyal to those who have just resigned? And to Bill Hybels and his family? And what does loyalty look like now for those who remain and those who will be called into leadership? Who will be approaching any who have erred and sinned and have wreaked havoc? Is there anyone offering them prayer and support, inviting them out for coffee and conversation, being willing to listen to their story—all the while prodding them to deeper repentance and righteousness?

Many are saddened and rightly angry at the way the initial accusers of Hybels have been either ignored or slandered. That is a terrible thing. But it would only make matters worse if those we believe who have acted disgracefully are shunned in turn.

More than anyone, of course, the accusers of Hybels—those women who have apparently been bullied or sexually harassed—need people to rally around them. This nearly goes without saying. But the gospel calls some of us to rally around the accused and guilty, as well. What loyalty and love looks like in each situation is different, but in the end it should be a combination of honesty and grace, tough love and tender mercy, that leads one and all into a deeper relationship with God.

In short, our love and loyalty must span the breadth of innocence and wrongdoing, of wisdom and malfeasance, if we are to discover a redemption that truly heals.

In this painful moment, Willow has been given a divine opportunity—that is, a chance to be born again. It is entering into a season of self-reflection and repentance, which begins with that independent investigation. If it allows it to be a season, not something to be rushed though, it will see the slow and steady growth of grace set deep roots. May our prayer simply be the promise of the Lord in Amos (9:14–15), when he announced he would bring his people back from exile:

They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;
they will make gardens and eat their fruit.

I will plant Israel in their own land,
never again to be uprooted
from the land I have given them.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

Church Leaders Fail and Fall

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I’m so glad it’s summer and we are happily engaged in vacations and family fun. This spring was a difficult one. Besides the political leadership upheaval that America finds herself in, I feel as though the U.S. evangelical world has considerably lost its way in many arenas.

One of the most devastating for me personally has been what has happened at Willow Creek, my former church. It was revealed in March that the pastor had been engaged in relationships that dramatically demonstrated abuses of power over many years.

My connection? For all of the 1990’s I was was in ministry roles at Willow as a high capacity volunteer. As a volunteer I had a desk, a team of volunteers, and we trained 25 short term global teams each year who served as servants around the world. I also was on the Board of International Ministries for 10 years. I rubbed shoulders with many in leadership and greatly respected the kingdom work happening through that place.

When the Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today revealed in March that one more celebrity pastor had abused his power, I was sickened. I had to stand aside from public media and sit this one out as one of the accused was once my pastor, Bill Hybels. It was all too close to home. Getting perspective on his failing has been devastating.

In the months that have followed the revelations worsened. Reading this article by Andy Crouch in the Gospel Coalition helped me get perspective. Crouch addresses the problem of power abuse with great care. It is a wonderfully vulnerable and Godly piece filled with wisdom for us. Crouch includes steps to take to prevent these abuses of power for any Christian leader.

In my opinion, there is a huge absence of wisdom and practical, disciplinary practices for leadership boards to implement in church governance. Why is this true at the church that invented the Global Leadership Summit that ministers to thousands of church leaders each year? I have no idea. I feel that the absence of this wisdom will be corrected in the not to distant future. Let us encourage good dialogue around this subject in our own churches and organizations. I am waiting for a book to be written on the role of Elder Boards in evangelical churches.

It’s Time to Reckon with Celebrity Power

MARCH 24, 2018  | Andy Crouch 

 CURRENT EVENTS

It was not a great week. In three separate cases in my immediate circles, a person with significant power at the top of an organization, each one a subject of flattering major media exposure during their career, was confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct and related misdeeds. In one case, the person resigned from his role and board memberships, accompanied by a direct and remorseful confession. In the second, the person resigned, but not without posting a defiant denial of all allegations against her. In the third, the person likewise denied all allegations in the strongest terms—at one point with physical force, banging on a table—and, as I write, remains in his position.

All three were, or at least had once been, seen as among the most exemplary Christian leaders of their generation, including by many who worked closely with them. While I wasn’t personally close to any of the three, I have experienced and benefited from their exceptional gifts in leadership and ministry, as have thousands or millions of others.

I am not naming them here. If you are in their sphere of influence, you’ve already had the wind knocked out of you by the week’s revelations, and there is no need to redouble the trauma. If you are not, then the desire to know their names, though understandable and human, is a prurience I will not indulge. And while I pray that such a tragic trifecta will not happen often in a single week, the truth is that I could have written this essay many times in the past few decades, and will have occasion to do so many times in the future. The names are actually not that important for my purposes—it is the system in which not just they, but we, are so deeply complicit.

Our Complicity in Celebrity Power

Two systems, actually. First is the one, almost as old as humanity itself, that gives the powerful the opportunity to exploit, plunder, murder, and—last, worst, and perhaps most common of all—rape. By direct command or by mere implication (“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”), those in positions of power have long been able to actualize their fantasies and grievances—no different in kind from what the rest of us indulge in without having the means to realize them.

Among the many dark gifts of power is distance—distance from accountability, distance from consequences, distance from the pain we cause others, distance from self-knowledge, distance from friendship, distance from the truth. The palace rooftop, the back entrance, the executive bathroom, the private jet, not to mention what Andrew Jackson’s critics called the kitchen cabinet and what C. S. Lewis called the Inner Ring—the accommodations that hide us from others’ sight, the adherents who are actually dependents if not sycophants, the accoutrements of plausible deniability.

In that privacy and at that distance, we become capable of acts we would never have imagined. (If all of this week’s allegations are true—which I cannot possibly know, and absolutely do not presume, to be the case—and these leaders’ denials are lies, part of the vehemence of the lies is their inability to truly comprehend that they have so completely failed to live up to their own ideals.) This has been true ever since human society became complex enough to grant some people the power to distance themselves in this way—and in a way, it was true even when human society was just two brothers in a field, just out of sight of the only kin they had in the world.

That part of the problem—the distance of power and its distorting effects on the powerful—is ancient and will never go away. But it is compounded by something genuinely new: the phenomenon of celebrity. Celebrity combines the old distance of power with what seems like its exact opposite—extraordinary intimacy, or at least a bewitching simulation of intimacy.

It is the power of the one-shot (the face filling the frame), the close mic (the voice dropped to a lover’s whisper), the memoir (the disclosures that had never been discussed with the author’s pastor, parents, or sometimes even lover or spouse, before they were published), the tweet, the selfie, the insta, the snap. All of it gives us the ability to seem to know someone—without in fact knowing much about them at all, since in the end we know only what they, and the systems of power that grow up around them, choose for us to know.

Celebrity combines the old distance of power with what seems like its exact opposite—extraordinary intimacy, or at least a bewitching simulation of intimacy.

For systems of power do indeed grow up around the modern phenomenon of celebrity, because in its way it is so much more powerful than the older regime of position, status, and coercion. The distance of that ancient regime gave those at its pinnacle a kind of power, without a doubt, but a kind of vulnerability as well, because the distance worked both ways. Out of the king’s earshot, the courtiers could mutter and the bodyguards could plot. In the lord’s field, the peasants could complain. The workers could make jokes about the Man, and kids on the corners could scatter long before the fuzz arrived. The new regime of intimacy is ever so much more powerful because it is based fundamentally not on fear and coercion and distance—at least at first—but on desire and imagination and indeed on eros, the desire for union.

Celebrities embody who we aspire to become and invite us—so it seems—into the inner circle of their lives. We are their kitchen cabinet, we are so close to being in their Inner Ring. They are so disarmingly transparent with us. They tell us so much of the truth. They live in our own imaginations, their faces more familiar to us than our neighbors’ or even some of those we call, loosely, in the American way, our friends. They inspire us, ordinary in their extraordinariness, assuring us that they are people like us and thus that we can be people like them. Above all, they beckon us to come closer.

Vanishing Institutional World

Over centuries, millennia really, philosophers and political theorists wrestled with how to tame the arbitrariness of distant power. At a glacial pace—taking different courses if you compare China after Confucius with the West after Plato and Cicero—societies gradually hedged in those at the pinnacle of power with what we conventionally call institutions, systems bigger than the powerful themselves that held the powerful in certain ways to account. None was anywhere near perfect, and the institutions themselves could be bent to terrible ends.

But nonetheless, over a long period of time and with countless fits and starts, we learned something about how to tame the worst of power. Coercion had to be justified and violence could be redressed; we came to believe in, and to some non-trivial extent came to be, nations of laws, not men. In the United States, where this experiment was in many ways carried to its furthest extent, the powers were separated across the land—not just in the three branches of government, but in organizations of many kinds, in the solemnly elected officers of countless clubs and fraternal societies, in presbyteries and elder boards, in the legal requirement for independent directors in publicly traded companies.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents built extraordinary institutions, of many kinds, along these lines, including the churches whose stately buildings still line many a town square and urban downtown street. Those institutions were nowhere near perfect and perpetuated all kinds of injustice. But at their best they preserved and gave expression to a profound and radical idea: that the best things human beings do together are bigger and more lasting than any person who may occupy a temporary position of power.

It is not wrong to be offended at the homogeneity of the faces of past presidents who stare down from portrait after portrait in institutional hallways (white males in some, black males in others, since African Americans so assiduously and proudly developed their own institutions in the years after Emancipation). But it is not wrong, either, to marvel at how anonymous they are to us, and to a great extent were to their own contemporaries; how much they saw themselves as stewards rather than sole proprietors; how much continuity they preserved even as they led necessary change; how peacefully and graciously they handed on leadership from one to the next.

Their world was an institutional world. It is now almost entirely gone.

It is gone because celebrity power has swept the stolid institutional buildings and stolid institution-building people of our grandparents’ generation before it like so much chaff before a tornado. In the Oval Office of our country sits a man with the apparent emotional age, based on his public persona, of an 8-year-old, albeit with the libido of a 15-year-old. He cannot keep faith with anyone, in all probability because he does not actually fully grasp the existence of anyone besides himself. And he is simply brilliant at manipulating the power of celebrity.

Celebrity power has swept the stolid institutional buildings and stolid institution-building people of our grandparents’ generation before it like so much chaff before a tornado.

He has colonized all of our imaginations—above all, one suspects, the imaginations of those who most hate him, who cannot go an hour in a day without thinking about him. He has always aspired to be, and now is, the ultimate celebrity—someone we know all too well but do not know at all because there is actually no one there to be truly known. He has never truly sought anything beyond the validation of fame and the uniquely modern power it brings, but having sought that one thing, in some demonic inversion of the gospel promise, all these other things have been added unto to him as well—including the fatal distance that still may allow him to do anything he pleases, up to and including total war.

At least that puts this week in perspective.

Road Less Traveled By

It could have been otherwise for the church. There was one and only one celebrity in Jesus’s world, one face on every coin, one name on everyone’s lips. And when Jesus was shown that face and that coin, he dismissively suggested the coin be returned to the one who had been so eager to imprint his image on every corner of the empire. Render back to Caesar the coin of his realm, Jesus said—and render to God whatever, or whoever, bears his image (Mark 12:17). The visible image of the invisible God left no portrait. The one time he wrote, he wrote in the dust (John 8:6). He had a different way of using power in the world, a way that turned out to outlast all the emperors, including the Christian ones.

He offered no false intimacy—his biographer John said that he entrusted himself to no one, because he knew what was in every person’s heart (John 2:24–25)—but he kept no distance, either. He let the children come to him (Matt. 19:14). He let Mary sit at his feet and let another Mary wash his feet with her tears (Luke 7:36–5010:39). Hanging naked on a cross, he forgave, blessed, and made sure that yet another Mary would still have a son (Luke 23:3443John 19:26). His power, truly, was not of this world.

As the power of celebrity overtook the power of institutions in the second half of the 20th century, we could have made a different choice in our churches. Indeed, some churches and some leaders did. The Anglican priest John Stott was an incomparably powerful figure, in the best sense, in 20th-century evangelicalism. He lived with a divine indifference to power. He spent long, unsung stretches of his life and ministry in what was called in the Cold War years the “Third World,” long before Instagram mission-trip reports. He was reserved, as almost all British men of his generation and class learned to be. He never married. Yet his life was utterly open to friends all over the world, to the assistants (always male) he invited into the most intimate place an Anglican rector possesses—his study—and to his personal secretary of 55 years, Frances Whitehead. The fruit of his life is incalculable.

As a young man I was impatient with some of Stott’s theology. I found it insufficiently creative, insufficiently imaginative in response to the creative image implanted in human beings and in God’s living Word. And in some ways I still do. But as I get older I am in increasing awe of the leaders he fostered, the institutions he built and served, and the legacy he left—even though, since he had the misfortune to live before social media, probably only one in a hundred people who call themselves “evangelicals” knows his name.

Likewise Billy Graham. I have never kept the “Billy Graham rule” that says a man must never be alone with a woman not his wife—it strikes me as unhelpful in countless ways, above all in the ways it can rob women of the chance to influence men and to be mentored and raised up in the formal and informal power they ought to possess by the gift of God’s Spirit. But most people have forgotten the context of that rule, which was a broader set of commitments, hammered out in a hotel room in Modesto, California, in holy fear that the abuses of power that had characterized several generations of “evangelists” would ensnare the young evangelist and his team. They made four commitments, not just that one—equally important were their commitments to financial transparency and simplicity, to utter honesty in their reports of numbers and conversions, and, perhaps most notably for our purposes, to always partnering with the local church.

Graham made grievous mistakes, as he admitted freely later in his life, above all when his celebrity intersected with the toxic distance, privacy, and paranoia of Richard Nixon. He was probably more of a celebrity than was healthy for him, his family, and the revival he sought to lead. But the way he tempered his celebrity with simplicity, accountability, and voluntary limits on his power is the road less traveled by, and in the eternal accounting of his life it may well turn out to be what made all the difference.

Stott and Graham are gone. The institutions they worked hard to build are fragile, though by no means doomed. There are still countless pastors, evangelists, and other leaders in American Christianity who live modest lives, submit themselves to others out of reverence for Christ, and are building something bigger than themselves. But the revelations of this week remind us that we are in a perilous position. Not because the allegations are necessarily true, but because many of our seemingly strongest institutions actually are weak in the most important way: they are not strong enough to be able to convince us that the allegations against their leaders are not true.

The transmutation of the power of intimacy into the distance of power is an inescapable feature of all too many of our churches and ministries.

The most damning facts in the disheartening emails and news reports that came across my desk this week are not about the alleged actions of certain leaders—which from my limited point of view cannot be treated as facts at all—but the uncertain and partial reactions of the systems around those leaders.

When boards are beholden to founders; when elders allow it to be publicly said that “no one person can replace” a senior pastor; when information systems can yield the number of emails exchanged between a senior leader and a given person but somehow the content is not recoverable—none of this means that any malfeasance has been committed. But it does mean that the sheer gravitational pull of those charismatic figures has nullified the institution’s ability to protect itself, and indeed its leader, from both legitimate and falsified allegations of misconduct.

And whatever the facts of any given case, anyone who has been backstage at Christian events knows just how distant, how untouchable, how buffered are certain celebrities who on stage seem so transparent, so natural, so unguarded. Even if not one of the allegations I read about this week can ultimately be proven, the transmutation of the power of intimacy into the distance of power is an inescapable feature of all too many of our churches and ministries.

Change Starts with Us—It Starts with Me

We need profound change, and it starts less with our public figures than with ourselves. We will, paradoxically, need to expect less transparency from our public figures, less alluring displays of intimacy and “vulnerability,” and more accountability from the systems around them. We will need to put more energy into building systems, including systems that account for the temptations of power, that will last for generations. We will need to somehow quell our lust to feel close to people who can charm the camera and hold the spotlight—recognizing that the half-life of such leadership has always been measured in years, not generations, and now is numbered in something more like months or days. We will need to commit ourselves to the institutions that have maintained their integrity, sometimes through painful episodes of public accountability. I serve on the board of trustees of two such organizations, and there are many, many more.

Meanwhile, those of us who find ourselves with a measure of public fame must make radical commitments to limit our power. I have tried to do this myself as I realized my public profile and influence was growing. Some of my commitments ought to remain confidential—so that my right hand doesn’t know what my left hand is doing, let alone my right hand Instagram what my left hand is doing—but I can name at least some of them.

I have served alongside, learned from, mentored, and promoted women, and the women of all generations who are my partners in the ministry of the gospel are among the great gifts of my life. I often have good reason to meet with them one on one (though I have also found that almost all work, ministry, and even counseling is more fruitful in groups of three or four than in dyads). For two decades now it has been my intentional practice that we meet in public places, and on the rare occasion when we meet over dinner it is early in the evening and in the front of the restaurant, not in the back. My wife, Catherine, knows of every such meeting ahead of time and hears about the conversation afterward. Catherine has all my passwords. I ensure that every woman who entrusts something deeply confidential to me understands that she is entrusting it to Catherine as well.

We need profound change, and it starts less with our public figures than with ourselves.

I have joined an organization I did not found, led by a CEO to whom I report, who in turn reports to a serious, empowered, independent board of directors, and I spent 12 years before that working for another organization. I have submitted all my travel and speaking decisions to my CEO as well as to Catherine, and was finally able, gladly, to shift from a freelance speaking career, with income flowing to my sole proprietorship, to one where all fees flow to the organization. I publish my speaking fees and terms online. I minimize my use of agents who would have a financial incentive to increase my celebrity and would interpose themselves between me and the churches and ministries that wish to engage me as a speaker. (I do have a literary agent, but she is eminently and unshakably sane.) At conferences that offer speakers a “green room,” I use it only for prayer and preparation immediately before I speak. The rest of the time, I sit in the audience like everyone else. At events that use name tags, I wear one.

Every Sunday I rest. Every summer I turn off my email, entirely, for two weeks. (My vacation message begins, “Unfortunately, I will never read your email.”) Every seven years I aim to leave my daily work and all the significance it gives me. Twice those sabbaticals have come because what I was trying to do had failed. They have been the most creatively fruitful periods of my life.

Every January I meet with seven other men who have similar positions of public leadership. We call ourselves “The Eulogists.” We aim to know one another so well, and for so long, that we will be able to give a genuine, honest, and complete account of one another’s lives at our funerals. We also aim to hold one another accountable to lives that would be worth a eulogy. We are relentlessly transparent with each other. I have told them everything of substance there is to know about my life, my temptations, my consolations, and my desolations, and we have wept and prayed and rejoiced together. That is all I will ever tell you about the Eulogists.

This is just what I do. The details are less important than the reason behind them. I have all this in place because, still and all, if you knew the full condition of my heart, my fantasies and grievances, my anxieties and my darkest solitary thoughts, you would declare me a danger to myself and others. I cannot be entrusted with power by myself, certainly not with celebrity, and neither can you.

But we don’t have to be entrusted with it by ourselves. We can constantly be pouring our power out, handing it over to others, reinvesting whatever power comes our way in a community that will last longer than our short lives, building something that will endure even to our children’s children—a community to which we are genuinely accountable, a community that will rescue us from ourselves and set us free to be the people we wanted to be, the people we knew we could be, when we first began this journey of life, full of heart and hope.

It is not too late—for the three names I’ve been grieving over this week, for the names you know and grieve over, for you, for me, for the church, perhaps even for our nation. It is very late, but in the goodness and grace of God, it is not too late.

Andy Crouch is partner for theology and culture at Praxis, an organization that works as a creative engine for redemptive entrepreneurship. Crouch served for more than ten years as an editor and producer at Christianity Today, including serving as executive editor from 2012 to 2016. His work and writing have been featured in The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and Time.

 

 

 

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My birthday prompted some ideas.

I am now 69 years old. I don’t know if my current ideas will wear thin or get stronger, but I have been thinking about something for days. I read a lot of great articles. I read things written by people I really respect. I listen to podcasts that are quite mind-bending.

I noticed over the last few years, I have played it rather straight and safe on my blog. Maybe it’s time to be a bit more myself. I don’t think in safe ways. I’m a risk-taker at heart. But I had not taken the risk of sharing some of my real feelings or opinions on this blog. I’m going to start this summer at this my 69th birthday.

This first article I am sharing isn’t that mind-bending, but it is a spiritual challenge. It’s written by Soren Johnson, the son of one of my dearest friends, Ginger. Soren writes for the Catholic Herald. This article reminds us about taking time to enjoy “spiritual retreats” along the way, maybe even daily.  Taking the time to seek God within the time we have each day. I love his writing and more, his challenge….and it was published on my birthday.

Stoplight as soulcraft

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“In the middle of life,” writes poet Tomas Tranströmer, “death comes to take your measurements. The visit is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is being sewn on the sly.”

In the lead-up to the day on which my measurements were taken, my 80-mile round-trip commutes had devolved into a monotonous blur. My head bobbed up and down with the newest email, text or call. Nearly every stoplight or stretch of 10-mph traffic was an occasion to glance down and check. One month’s phone bill indicated 4.8 GB of data use. I nearly rear-ended or sideswiped other cars a few times, and evaded traffic citations — barely. I was getting a lot done.

Then, came the visit. Acute abdominal pain left me hospitalized for two days. After I was discharged and the issue was resolved, all I could see were limping, bent-over people everywhere. I was newly sensitive to noise and media. Each day of good health was so bright with relief that the phone seemed largely devoid of power.

Silence stalked me as I left hospital Room No. 256B and got into the car; it enveloped me on the Metro; accompanied me to the office; surrounded me at unexpected moments of the day and night. After work one day, I went on my first office-to-home, 40-mile silent retreat, never touching the phone. Then another. And another. On these retreats, I called my wife and responded to calls from the kids — but otherwise, silence reigned.

First I began to hear my car’s engine. Then one day I caught the muffled voice of a homeless man talking with the driver behind me at a stoplight. I heard myself breathe for the first time in about a decade, and it was uninteresting.

The promise of those first retreats nearly flamed out. On the Metro or in the car at stoplights, the memories of old consolations returned: all the radio, podcasts, interviews, lectures, and audio books’ unfolding plots. The banter, the news, the learning: all of these worlds were a screen swipe away; these worlds were spinning forward without me.

The stoplight was becoming an unlikely place of soulcraft. I began to jam the phone under my pocket Bible on the passenger seat. On some 40-mile retreats, the phone seemed to pulsate from beneath the Bible and my thoughts slowed to a leaden sludge. On other retreats, the phone’s presence vanished in the face of a memory of my aunt who recently died; a Stevie Wonder refrain that came to mind; a prayer for my children. Faces and voices took turns hovering in the hushed cell of my car. Some retreats led me to brood, and again the phone’s screen flashed, newly suggestive.

Like a professor, silence began to instruct me. This pedagogue was at once faithful yet unpredictable; persistent yet mercurial. On some retreats, I was instructed to think about my deficiencies. On others, silence asked me to inventory the past day — in search of the good. On some days, prayer rose like a phoenix from the ash of my distraction, as silence told me to share in another’s heaviness or joy. Each retreat was unlike the one before.

On one early morning retreat, two pileated woodpeckers swooped in front of me. I braked, suddenly motionless as they began to play hide-and-seek on opposite sides of a nearby oak trunk. I lingered until they took their game deeper into the forest. In the still silence of another retreat, the phone rang. It was an old friend, calling from his morning commute a thousand miles away.

The inbreaking splendor of a pileated or consolation of a friend’s voice are exceptions. Most retreats, I am finding, are bare and unadorned. So far, the unruly zoo of my thoughts seems largely untamed by these attempts at stoplight soulcraft.

Life goes on. The visit is not yet forgotten. The suit is being sewn on the sly, but silence is measuring my life anew.

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

https://www.catholicherald.com/Opinions/Columnists/Stoplight_as_soulcraft/

A delightful Uganda and Kenya Trip

It is such a delight when God leads you to do something that you love to do. Spending 12 days with dear friends from the US visiting dear friends from Uganda was above and beyond a joy. For me it was wonderful to introduce my friends to Africa and to Robert and Sarah of Jinja, Uganda. My co-travelers were the donors of this beautiful playground, Betsy and Michael Riggan. The playground was installed while we were there at Fountain of Hope School. We and the children watched each day as this mysterious conglomeration of bright blue metal pipes and plastic cylinders turned into something they could play on. Robert told me he didn’t know what a “playground” meant when I first asked him if his school with 1300 kids could use one.

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The story includes much more than a playground, as we brought the teachers some great ministry training. Kids Around the World, the organization that refurbishes Chicago suburb playgrounds (that are being replaced by new ones), supplied this huge set for Fountain of Hope School, and also sent trainers (from Nairobi) who trained teachers in Bible story telling methods. In a world where the facts on this page pictured here are true, it makes good sense to teach the age-old art of telling a story well. That’s what we saw in a 6 hour session with 25 teachers. The were energized to do what they already love to do….see life-changing material be taught in their classrooms. It was a delight to see their enthusiasm.IMG_E8492.JPG

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Claudia Root, my dear friend of 30 some years joined our small team and as a teacher of  English to refugee and immigrant children in Glen Ellyn’s public schools for 20 some years, she gathered about 10 school teachers who teach English in this Ugandan grade school and middle school together to talk about teaching methods. They loved this time and will benefit from an American teacher sharing the craft of teaching English as a second language.

 

 

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Betsy and I were able to present a lesson from the It Takes Courage! Curriculum. My hubby Jim has traveled with Kerus Global Education and presented teachers with the It Takes Courage! Curriculum for 20 years both with Campus Crusade for Christ and Kerus Global and seen teachers and students relate well to this 16 week lesson plan about life skills, character development and AIDS prevention material. It was well-received by the 8th grade class where we presented a sample lesson on Forgiveness and by the faculty that grasped a vision for using this plan.

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Seeing the children’s lives in this school community was so encouraging. Robert and his wife Sarah had the vision to begin this school in this very Muslim populated area 14 years ago. It is an incredible testimony to God’s blessing the work of these two visionaries. They have hired great faculty and we know that there are higher paying jobs elsewhere so we pray that they will remain as they continue to feel God is using them so mightily here in Bukeeka, Uganda.

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The Islamic community where this school is located have persecuted them in the past as you may read in the story linked here, The school has seen hundreds of children from this community come to Christ and families that follow and come to the local church that Robert planted across the road from the school. It is a remarkable story.  They could use your financial help to put the sides of a new church plant on this pole church. We worshipped here on their first year anniversary and the church is already at 300 worshippers.

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It is so remarkable to be on-site and meet and see what God has done through Robert and his team who are training pastors, using evangelistic teams to plant 13 area churches, hiring fully devoted followers of Christ as teachers, and investing in the lives of children.

Partnering with faithful, gifted leaders in the majority world is one of the best thing for us to do with our mission dollars. If anyone wants to learn about how to do this well, there are resources available through Catalyst Services. Finding and developing a good partnership overseas is not easy, but this ministry will teach you what you need to know.

There are also kids you can sponsor at this school. About 100 of the 1300 kids would not be able to attend school without a sponsorship coming from the outside. I took two young girls, Florence and Jedidah for $30 a month each. If you’d like to consider this, visit this website.  

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We enjoyed a 3-day Kenyan Safari in Masai Mara on our way out. God’s creation is glorious. We saw a family of 9 elephants really close up and personal on the first day.

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I’m going to Uganda

On March 7th I am heading to Jinja, Uganda to help build a playground. The American- made playground and children’s Bible curriculum will be part of our gift to Robert Sityo’s school of 1300 students. Going to visit an East African national and the ministry God has blessed is a great privilege. We will watch a huge recycled metal playground (the container safely arrived from its 3 month Atlantic crossing last week) be installed on the grounds of a school that our friends, the Sityos founded in 2004. Check out Kids Around the World for the details. I believe that where these kids are standing posing for this picture, will be a playground by March 15.
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While travel to Africa is never an easy undertaking… flying in multiple planes, connecting to drivers that you hire online to take you to the places you need to go, finding hotels near the airport, getting 3-4 immunizations including Yellow Fever, (that somehow the USA is “out of”…how does that happen? Just got my European-made Yellow Fever shot last week). You can’t go to Uganda without a Yellow Fever Immunization since there are lots of kinds of mosquitoes to fend off in the Lake Victoria region where I will be. Yep, I’m taking anti-Malaria meds too.

I won’t go on because it will all be worth it. Since I’ve done similar trips, I know…beyond any doubt.

I have shared a few stories about Robert on this blog.  One story is connected to the school that God protected as the new high school dorm building was being built from a witchdoctor’s curse. God has been working here in awesome ways for over 10 years. Our small team of four will be going to the village where this impressive school, Fountain of Hope School, is flourishing and students are getting a quality education.

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We will meet Robert and Sarah’s 21 children and the two year old triplets, Sandra, Nathan and Chelsea. We will meet the many children who are sponsored by US friends. We will meet the hundreds of Muslim students who have found new life in Christ. We will visit a couple of new churches that Robert and his teams have planted and reached out to the Muslim families who send their kids to this school. (This Valentine’s Day week I told my two grandsons this incredible story and their mom tells me they can’t stop talking about it.)

What a sight it will be to have over a thousand kids watching the building of a playground just for them. We hope they feel God’s smile upon them in this small village of Bukeeka, Uganda. I’ll be sure to post some pictures of the Dedication Day event.

I am feeling so humbled to know a man who is spending his life reaching the unreached in his home area…many are his Muslim neighbors. He has planted 13 churches and trained dozens of co-workers in the basics in how to teach the Word of God and reach into the  community and serve their needs. He was a Billy Graham Scholar at Wheaton Graduate School in 2015. He has been the catalyst for scores of Muslims becoming Christ-followers. (Wheaton Bible Church has recently recognized this ministry with a grant to help build a new church building.)

The individuals going with me are the generous donors of the playground. They have shown their commitment to children around the world and you might be interested in getting involved as well. If you are interested in helping with the local shipping cost for this playground, we would still appreciate any gift to KATW.net (write Bukeeka, Uganda in the optional message box).

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For me, personally, it is always a joy to be back in East Africa, near where our family lived in 1990-91 in Kenya. I am still very attached to this warm and wonderful place on our beautiful planet. I won’t be able to visit Hope for Life Kenya this time, but we will go on a side trip to Masai Mara Game Park at the end of our time and see some of God’s lovely creatures. I’ll tell you lots more when I get back.

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February – a time to learn about race relations

Every year at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL the focus of Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday is about race issues in America… and in our hearts. Bill Hybels tells a familiar story. It is about himself growing up in a white community and not learning or understanding much about race relations in America or how Christians were doing with the challenges of bridge-building.

This past Sunday he did something different. After his similar introduction he told a story. It was the life story of Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had invited the hundreds of middle school and high school kids from the church to come to “big church” this week to learn and understand more.  Check out this service or sermon at Willow Creek by clicking here. If you have 25 minutes, share this with your children…at least those over 10 year of age (from the grandmother). Divided by Faith
It seems we can assume that we as Christians have a biblical perspective on race. Looking at our country these past few years, it is only too obvious that we may not as we are still in the deep waters of racial conflict and misunderstanding each other across racial divides. Bill Hybels calls his second conversion to understanding the depth of our responsibility in race relations came 17 years ago when a black friend gave him a book to read. He said it changed everything…it is Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson. 

We believers in Jesus Christ need to be challenged to take this seriously. Let’s make 2018 a year that we grow in this area.

 

 

 

 

A Child is Born

Nativity Scenes

My grandchildren will once again act out the Nativity this year. We won’t have a 6-day old actor in the manger this year like we did 2 years ago…Jesus will be played by a doll, and I’m not sure if Buzz Lightyear will show up this year, but it will be meaningful.

I’m sharing a devotional from today of one of my favorite Daily Devotionals from Ravi Zacharias ministry…

“A general position on December birthdays (particularly for those of us who hold them) seems to be that its proprietors are easily neglected. We are over-shadowed by Christmas decorations in November and over-looked in December by relatives busy with Christmas errands and office parties. And yet, I suspect that others, like me, have always secretly loved it. In the season of our births, the world was awake, decking the halls, and a great number of them were looking to the birth of another infant. The spirit of Christmas seems a part of our own, the birth of Christ reminding us each year that we, too, were born, that we were fragile, that we were held. For those born in December (and for any who remember their own beginnings in the scenes of Advent), the season offers a time of contemplating infantile beginnings, a lesson in what it means to be human like no other. Stories and celebrations of one’s birth are juxtaposed with a nativity story told long before we were born and one that will continue to be told long after us.

In fact, the story of Christianity is a story filled with nativity scenes. In these stories, we find a God present before we have accomplished anything and longing to gather us long before we know it is happening. Thus David can pray, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” And God can say to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” And those who witnessed the miracle of Elizabeth and Zechariah can rightly exclaim God’s hand upon the child before that child could say his own name: “The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.”(1)

Salvador Dali, Iesu nativitas (Matthew 1:20), 1964.

In a world where significance and identity are earned by what we do, by what we have accomplished, by what we own, by what we earn, and Christmas is about the lines we fought, the lists we finished, the gifts we were able to secure, the kingdom of God arrives scandalously, jarringly—even offensively—into our captive and often content lives. In this kingdom, a person’s value begins before she has said or done the right things, before he has accumulated the right lifestyle, or even made the right lists. In this kingdom, God not only uses children in the story of salvation, not only calls us to embrace the kingdom as little children, but so the very God of creation steps into the world as a child.

Children are not usually the main characters in the stories we tell, yet the story of Christmas begins and ends with a child most don’t quite know what to do with. Here, a vulnerable baby in a structure filled with animals breaks in as the harbinger of good news, the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, the anointed leader who comes to set the captives free—wrapped in rags and resting in a manger. Coming as a child, God radically draws near, while at the same time radically overthrowing our conceptions of status, worth, power, and authority. Jesus is crowned king long before he can sit in a throne. He begins overturning idols and upsetting social order long before he can even speak.

If truth be told, perhaps I feel a certain delight in celebrating births and birthdays at Christmastime because it is the season in which it is most appropriate—and most hopeful—to remember our own fragility, our dependency, the mystery of the cycles of death and life, and the great reversal of the kingdom of God: For God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.(2) Advent, like childhood, reminds us that we are in need of someone to hold us. It also reminds us that, like the baby in a Bethlehem stable, we too are somewhat out of place, homeless and longing to be welcomed home. The image of a tearful baby in a manger is a picture of God in his most shocking, unbefitting state—the Most High becoming the lowest, the face of God wrapped tightly in a young girl’s arms.

How true that to be human is to be implicitly religious, for even within our most deeply felt needs for love and refuge, we are reminded that there is one who comes so very far to meet us. Inherent in our most vulnerable days, whoever we are, is the hope that God, too, took on the despairing quality of fragility in order to offer the hope of wholeness. In our most weakened states of despair and weakness, Christ breaks in and shows the paradoxical power of God in an unlikely nativity scene. Glory to God in the lowest, indeed.”

 Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

 (1) cf. Psalm 139:13-14, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 1:65-66.
(2) 1 Corinthians 1:27.