Sermon: Ascension – 2017
7 hours ago
As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God
Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.
It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.
But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.
We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.
This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.
It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.
I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.
Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.
How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.
To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.
And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.
Have you ever been frustrated trying to juggle multiple books as you attempt to have a daily, structured, time of prayer and meditation on the Word of God? Have you ever wondered why it is that Roman Catholics and Anglicans have such fine books for daily prayer, called breviaries, but that Lutherans kind of/sort of do, but don’t—almost, but not quite there? Have you wondered why most one-volume prayer resources that are now out there are so complicated, complex and vexing to use, requiring you to turn pages until you are dizzy? Are you looking for a resource that will allow you to dwell richly in the Word, and engage in the ancient practice of lectio divina (divine reading)? Have you been looking for a daily resource for a full, complete life of prayer and meditation on the Word that reflects the rich heritage of Lutheranism with its keen focus on Christ and His Gospel? Well, your wait is over.
1. Reason has its sphere: In temporal things and human relations man is rational enough; there he needs no other light than reason. So God does not teach us in Scripture how to build houses, make clothing, marry, wage wars, sail on the seas, and the like; for there our natural light is sufficient. But in divine things, that is, in those which pertain to God and which must be so performed as to be acceptable to Him and obtain salvation for us, our nature is so star-and stone-blind, so utterly blind, as to be unable to recognize them at all. Reason is presumptuous enough to plunge into these matters like a blind horse.
2. Reason is a candle: Reason is also a light, and a beautiful light. But it cannot show or find the way or the path that will lead from sin and from death to righteousness and to life; it remains in darkness... Thus God's Word is a real sun, giving us an eternal day to live and to be glad. We find this Word very richly and beautifully given in the Psalms. Blessed is he who delights in it and gladly sees this light, for it loves to shine. But moles and bats, that is, the people of the world, do not like it.
3. Everyone knows that he is right: Because of sin everyone of us is, from the days of his youth, accustomed to think that he is right, that his head is the best, and to dislike giving way to another person.
4. You may reason in non-religious subjects: the Holy Scriptures requires no controversialist. God has given other branches of learning: grammar, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, jurisprudence, and medicine. Be wise in these subjects; controvert, search, and ask what is right and wrong.
5. Wrong methodology of reason in religion: We find many who have never heard Christ preached, coarse and wild people, who curse and swear as though they were full of devils; yet they begin their religious thinking by trying to determine Why God does this or that. With their blind reason they rise to the light and measure God by their reason. But we should adopt as our mode of procedure the method which God gave St. Paul and should begin at the foundation. The roof will then take care of itself. Let God rest with His hidden counsel, and do not climb up to the roof with your reason. He does not want to have you come up there; He comes down to you. He has made a ladder, a way, and a bridge, to come to you, and says: I descend from heaven to you and become a man in the body of the virgin Mary. I lie in the manger at Bethlehem. I suffer and die for you. So believe in Me, and have the confidence to accept Me as Him who has been crucified for you.
We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heros; not just ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job.
The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks,
when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.
Not as of old a little child, to bear and fight and die,
but crowned with glory like the sun that lights the morning sky.
Oh, brighter than the rising morn when Christ, victorious, rose
and left the lonesome place of death despite the rage of foes.
Oh, brighter than that glorious morn shall dawn upon our race
the day when Christ in splendor comes and we shall see his face.
The King shall come when morning dawns and light and beauty brings.
Hail, Christ the Lord! Your people pray: come quickly, King of kings!
Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
erwarten wir getrost, was kommen mag.
Gott ist bei uns am Abend und am Morgen,
und ganz gewiss an jedem neuen Tag.
Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben
behütet und getröstet wunderbar, -
so will ich diese Tage mit euch leben
und mit euch gehen in ein neues Jahr;
Noch will das alte unsre Herzen quälen,
noch drückt uns böser Tage schwere Last,
Ach Herr, gib unsern aufgeschreckten Seelen
das Heil, für das Du uns geschaffen hast.
Und reichst Du uns den schweren Kelch, den bittern,
des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand,
so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern
aus Deiner guten und geliebten Hand.
Doch willst Du uns noch einmal Freude schenken
an dieser Welt und ihrer Sonne Glanz,
dann woll´n wir des Vergangenen gedenken,
und dann gehört Dir unser Leben ganz.
Laß warm und hell die Kerzen heute flammen,
die Du in unsre Dunkelheit gebracht,
führ, wenn es sein kann, wieder uns zusammen!
Wir wissen es, Dein Licht scheint in der Nacht.
Wenn sich die Stille nun tief um uns breitet,
so laß uns hören jenen vollen Klang
der Welt, die unsichtbar sich um uns weitet,
all Deiner Kinder hohen Lobgesang.
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen aus einer Wurzel zart,
wie uns die Alten sungen, von Jesse kam die Art
und hat ein Bluemlein bracht mitten im kalten Winter
wohl zu der halben Nacht.
Das Roeslein, das ich meine, davon Jesaja sagt,
hat uns gebracht alleine, Marie, die reine Magd;
aus Gottes ewgen Rat, hat sie ein Kind geboren,
wohl zu der halben Nacht.
Das Bluemelein so kleine, das duftet uns so suess;
mit seinem hellen Scheine, vertreibts die Finsternis.
Wahr Mensch und wahrer Gott,
hilft uns aus allem Leide, rettet von Suend und Tod.
O Jesu, bis zum Scheiden, aus diesem Jammertal,
lass dein Hilf uns geleiten hin in den Freudensaal,
in deines Vaters Reich, da wir dich ewig loben;
o Gott, uns das verleih!
Lo, how a rose e're blooming from tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming as prophets long have sung,
it came a flow'ret bright, amid the cold of winter,
when half-spent was the night.
Isaiah 'twas foretold it, the rose I have in mind;
with Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
to show God's love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
when half-spent was the night.
This flow'r, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very god, from sin and death he saves us
and lightens every load.
O Savior, child of Mary, who felt our human woe;
O Savior, Kind of glory, who doest our weakness know:
bring us at length we pray to the bright courts of heaven,
and to the endless day.
Who needs Vampires when You've found God?
Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice. In her first non-fiction book, the 67-year-old creator of the vampire Lestat traces her journey from Catholicism, through atheism, the death of her daughter and, in the '90's, back to God. Atheism, it turned out, was for her not a true expression of logic and reason but an emptiness, even a torment, and rice now thinks her vampire series was a spiritual response to her loss of faith. Atheism, she declares, is "a more strenuous path than the religious path, because... there is no reason for anything.... Rice is candid about her past and her failings, as any confession requires: She describes the chaos after the death of the Rices' young daughter, Mechele, and the importance of their son's birth and the pain that church laws caused her. Three years ago, she shocked some with Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, a novel about Jesus. A sequel, The Road to Cana, was published to good reviews this spring.
A multitude come from the east and the west
to sit at the feast of salvation
with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the blest,
obeying the Lord's invitation.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!
O God, let us hear when our Shepherd shall call
In accents persuasive and tender,
that while there is time we make haste, one and all,
and find Him, our mighty defender.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!
All trials shall be like a dream that is past,
forgotten all trouble and mourning,
all questions and doubts have been answered at last,
when rises the light of that morning.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!
The heavens shall ring with an anthem more grand
than ever on earth was recorded.
The blest of the Lord shall receive at His hand
the crown to the victors awarded.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!
For anyone interested: Today I learned the stickers with codes on them found on fresh produce, or on the bags, or ties around greens contain information:
If the PLU # begins with a 4 then the produce is grown conventionally ie. pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, etc.
If the PLU# begins with an 8 the produce is genetically modified
If the PLU# begins with a 9 the produce is organically grown ie; naturally, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
I have checked a couple of internet sites that confirm this. As of yet have not been able to locate official gov't information on this yet.
“Dr. Patrick supports the Canadian Registry of Hippocratic Physicians. The objective of which is to provide a mechanism for identifying practitioners who practice or are preparing to practice Hippocratic medicine, and to bring together practitioners who have an ethical consensus. It also enables practitioners to group together in order to have more influence and impact in their practices, their hospitals, and their communities.”
Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, 1 I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle; and my reasons follow.
In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works. It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac; though in Romans 4 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15. Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation 2 devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works of Moses' statement in Genesis 15. For Moses is speaking here only of Abraham's faith, and not of his works, as St. Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. This fault, therefore, proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.