First-World Theology, Third-World Reality

Despite my jitters, I feel our class time went really well.

I’m teaching New Testament Survey.  The course utilizes a textbook which I find personally helpful and informative. Nevertheless, I am not sticking too closely to it, for several reasons.

First, the students will have the book available for future reference. Our time is limited and it really makes no sense to me to spend that time pouring over material they can read later whenever they wish.

But my primary motivation is this. The textbook contains lots and lots of information on the latest New Testament scholarship—the evidence for authorship of each book, various theories about its date of writing, its intended audience, the circumstances behind its writing, etc. As the saying goes, those are first-world concerns. It’s nice we have the time to debate whether Mark really wrote the Gospel According to Mark, and what the early church fathers said on the subject, and how Theologian A counters the arguments of Theologian B, but honestly …

What does a Kenyan pastor care about such things?  These aren’t theologians.  These are pastors.  Real world pastors.  Third world pastors.

More to the point, what does all this matter to the Kenyan in the pew? Or the hospital bed? Or the street?

So I’ve basically said to the class, “This is great information, and you have it available for future reference. But I want to spend our class time focusing on this question: What do you need to know that will make you a better pastor in your real-world setting?” In the same vein, I’m not giving a final written exam, but rather a final project, designed by the student and evaluated on completion by Pastor Moses, in which they put their newfound knowledge to some practical use.

Now I have to be honest, this is uncomfortable for me. I like esoterica. I like minutia. I like using (even inventing) words like esoterica and minutia. It’s so much easier, so much safer and more sanitary, than trying to figure out how to be a good pastor to the poor or how to faithfully extend the gospel to someone who is HIV positive. But this isn’t Staples, this is the Church of Jesus Christ. And in the end, I don’t want to hear, “That was easy!” but rather, “Well done.” And somehow, I just can’t imagine that Jesus will ask which theory I held about the author of Hebrews.

These Dreams, Though!

Many people have told me of recurring dreams they experience under certain circumstances.  These dreams may have slight variations, but the central theme remains.  I have several of those.

While in college, I dreamed often (at least once per semester) that during finals week, I would realize I had registered for a class, but never attended it.  Now I had to take a final in some subject I’d never studied. Or sometimes I dreamed I had driven to school, the exam was in five minutes, and I looked down to find I wasn’t wearing pants. Exactly how does one take a final exam in boxers?  Or get to class without being arrested?

When I practiced law, I dreamed regularly that it was the last day of the month and I had not billed a single hour. Strangely enough, I still have this dream from time to time, though I haven’t had a time log since entering ministry 24 years ago. Time sheets scar for life!

My recurring nightmare in ministry takes one of two forms. In the first, I am a guest speaker in a church I don’t know well.  I know the service has started, because I hear the singing.  But I absolutely cannot figure out how to get to the sanctuary. I meander down halls trying every available door, but I discover only a library, a broom closet, or a bathroom.  The time to preach is drawing closer … but I am not!  The music is fading as I get farther from where I need to be.  I’m panicked, lost in a labyrinth of corridors, the navigational equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube.

Or, in the even more horrifying version, I am in the pulpit, I announce my text … but I can’t locate it in my Bible.  I discover to my horror that I accidentally brought my chronological Bible, and can’t remember whether Jude was written before 1 John.  Or I forgot my Bible altogether.  I grab a pew Bible, but for some reason this church doesn’t include the Book of Job!  Or some kid has ripped out the minor prophets entirely. Oh, no, this isn’t a pew Bible, it’s the hymn book!

I realized last night that I now have a new stock dream for when I am teaching.  It’s the night before class begins, and I suddenly realize … “Wait a minute! I can’t teach _____ (fill in course title).  I don’t know the first thing about _____ (fill in course subject). I’m a student, I’m not a scholar!”

Fortunately, that frightful fit of a dream occurred in conjunction with the earlier-described jet lag.  Who knew God could use jet lag for His good purposes?  So I awoke in a cold sweat at midnight, and spent the night reviewing my notes and doing my Evelyn Woods impersonation with my Bible and textbook for the next 7 hours.

New Testament. That comes after the Old Testament. Check.

Matthew first, then Mark, Luke and John. Check.

Paul was an epistle who wrote thirteen apostles. No, wait …

OK, it’s class time. Let’s do this!

Rest and Preparation

As I went to bed last night at 8:30, I knew I’d never stay asleep past 3 a.m. In fact, I woke up at 2 a.m. I used the time to finish yesterday’s blog. Then I got another hour or two of sleep before breakfast.

Today is meant to be a day of rest and recovery from jet lag. The only item on the agenda was a tour of the premises here at Echoes of Mercy. There are several buildings in various stages of completion. A large and beautiful hospital has been built. It was sponsored by Casting Crowns, the Christian musicians. Though the building is complete, the hospital is not yet operational. Pastor Moses wants all of the money necessary to keep the hospital staffed and stocked before opening, as he doesn’t wish to open for a few weeks only to have to close. Then there is Echoes of Mercy Church, which during the week provides additional classroom space for Echoes of Mercy School. We are staying in a fully functional 3-BR mission house, and another is half complete next door. The downstairs rooms are set up to accommodate mission teams, with lots of bunk beds in the sleeping areas. The upstairs has only the brick skeleton. More money is needed to complete the building. There are a few small two-room structures to house various people in the ministry here. And there are also a few utility buildings for storage, the well house, etc. All of this on roughly six acres, and all built in the past six years.

Then Pastor Moses showed us two tracts of land he hopes to purchase for Echoes of Mercy. One is rich, fertile farmland. If he can add this tract, it will enable them to grow much of their own food and also to train the children in more modern agricultural practices. The second tract is where he hopes to locate an orphanage. It was interesting to hear him explain the building of the school before the orphanage. It comes down to prioritizing the future. By providing top-notch education, they expect 200 of their 320 students to go to college and become leaders, and then to invest in the ongoing work here. If they had built the orphanage first, they would have reached a much smaller number of children, some of who would already be HIV positive, and the trajectory of their futures is simply not as promising. They care deeply for these children and want to minister to them, but having a real impact in Kenya requires these kinds of hard, real-world choices.

My afternoon will be spent reading and finalizing lesson plans for tomorrow and Friday. I already know the effects that sixteen hours straight of teaching will have. Physically and emotionally, I will be drained. Spiritually, I will be so fulfilled. It may be something of a paradox, but it is a sensation that I wish for everyone I love, to find complete satisfaction in doing what I believe God designed me and put me here on earth to do.

Things As They Are, Things As They Shall Be


After breakfast we loaded up and headed to the airport for the quick flight over to Kisumu. On the trip, I noticed how much Kenya and Uganda look alike. The same markets set up along the roadway. The same buildings with the same vendors and the same advertisements. Much of this seemed like familiar ground, with the exception that Kenyans drive on the left side of the road, though they insist it is the right side.

At the airport, I got a chuckle out of one of the airline names: JamboJet. Brilliant! 🙂

The flight was only 30 minutes. They served the best package of mixed nuts I’ve ever eaten, but we had to wolf it down because the flight was so brief. One attendant passed out the snack and another came right behind him to collect the trash. The sun was bright and the clouds were large and billowy, casting dark shadows on the ground below. As we descended, I noticed the sun reflecting off the new metal rooves like a thousand diamonds on the ground.

Landing in Kisumu, we met Pastor Moses. I learned that Emily is his wife. He is gracious and good, clearly a man of many gifts and abilities. He serves as Executive Pastor of a church in Nairobi and is the administrator of GRASP International here in Kenya.

We stopped for lunch, not so much because we were hungry, but because there is a great deal of civil unrest in Kisumu and the mall where we ate was secure. The presidential elections in Kenya are in a state of flux. The Supreme Court nullified a previous election for irregularities, and new elections were set for Oct. 17. Those were later reset for Oct. 26. As we were arriving, one of the major candidates has withdrawn entirely from the election, and under their laws, that may necessitate rescheduling the election yet again. People who have been out of power and feel oppressed are seething, and unrest has spilled over into the streets. Demonstrators show up en masse and fill the roads. They will also throw large rocks and debris into the streets, set tires and brush piles ablaze, and generally do whatever is necessary to block passage. So Pastor Moses had hired a driver who was from Kisumu and who was well-connected to drive us from Kisumu to Nyamira. Our driver and Pastor Moses stayed in constant contact with others over the phone to determine which streets were passable. Based on these communications, they determined it was best to stop. We stretched lunch out for a couple of hours to allow some hotspot to subside. It was all a bit disconcerting, of course, but Pastor Moses and the driver calmly assured us that we were completely safe. I take some solace in knowing we are under the care of these good and knowledgeable men. I find ultimate peace, however, knowing I am here to do God’s will, that not a sparrow can fall from the sky apart from His notice, and that we are worth more than sparrows in His sight. There is no place safer than the will of God, no comfort greater than a reliance on His kind providence.

Within 30 minutes of leaving the secured mall, we were out of the city and travel was much quicker and more obviously safe. We stopped to buy sweet potatoes from three ladies who had many children between them. I spoke to the children and shook their hands. The oldest was a boy of 8 or 9 years. “How are you?” I asked. He gave the standard answer, the same one I hear uniformly from Ugandan children no matter their condition – “I am fine.” “What is your name?” I asked. The answer made me chuckle. “Frankly Obama.” I was reminded of how excited Kenyans were by the election of President Obama and how they rejoiced for his visit here. And I could not help but reflect on the sharp contrast between that spirit of hope and optimism and the current state of political fear and uncertainty.

In talking to Pastor Moses at the restaurant, I asked what was behind the political turmoil. In a word, the answer is tribalism. There are 43 tribes in Kenya, some large and some small. The large tribes gain power and use it to enrich themselves. There is no incentive to share power. To the contrary, the tendency is to hold on to power by whatever means necessary, including the suppression (even oppression?) of others, political corruption, fear-mongering and maintaining absolute solidarity within the tribes. Now, if you’re like me, you just had a succession of thoughts: 1) How primitive! 2) Wait minute, this sounds eerily familiar. 3) Isn’t this the logical progression/outcome of identity politics? 4) Aren’t lock-step voting blocs just “tribes?” 5) If we don’t straighten up our act in the U.S., this movie being acted out in the city streets of Kenya could be coming soon to a theater near you. Sobering to me, truly.

Within just a few minutes of meeting Frankly Obama, however, the Lord provided what is for me the ultimate relief from all those harrowing thoughts. We pulled into the more rural grounds of Nyamira and onto the site of Echoes of Mercy, a ministry overseen by Pastor Moses. I knew we would be staying here, but I didn’t realize that Echoes of Mercy operates a school with 320 children, who were all assembled (well past school hours now) to greet us. Being welcomed by the sweet serenade of African school children is an experience that must resemble what it will be like to be welcomed home to heaven by God’s angels. It is impossible to think of the world’s politics and turmoil, and impossible to feel anything but love, joy, peace, hope, humility, thanksgiving. When they sing, all is right, and the world is at it should be.

An on-site mission home will be our residence for the next week. We settled in, and I enjoyed getting to know Pastor Moses better. In my experience, Americans tend to think that Africans are somewhat backward, perhaps a bit lazy. It isn’t so. Pastor Moses is typical of what I find here. He is wise and good, clever and creative. He simply lives in a world where resources are scarce and opportunities scarcer. And still they work on, building a ministry out of nothing more than a vision and a determination to fulfill the call of God. I am in awe of these people. Absolute awe.

As we talked, a storm passed over us and we experienced a torrential downpour. The rain on the metal roof was a beautiful symphony. Pastor Moses grabbed plastic washtubs to gather the water. “I blessed the rains down in Africa.”

Betty, a ministry helper here, cooked supper for us. Chicken soup and spaghetti with meat sauce, all prepared to accommodate American tastes. How thoughtful. As we ate, I got one good reminder that I was in Africa. The power went out. I laughed heartily for this wonderful, humorous reminder of God’s goodness in bringing me to this place I love.

Louder Than a Freight Train

In younger days, I seemed oblivious to jet lag. I simply stayed awake while traveling and then would go to bed at night in my new place, sleep through the night, and wake up the next morning on a new schedule. Now … not so much. Of course, back then I was also oblivious to the effects of caffeine, arthritis, and hair growing in my ears, so jet lag should come as no surprise.

Here in Nairobi, I’m 7 hours ahead of home. So at 2 a.m., it was only 7 p.m. to my body.  I tried to stay awake en route, napping only for an hour on the plane to Amsterdam and another from there to Nairobi.  Having had only 2 hours sleep in the previous 36 hours, I thought I should be able to drop off easily last night. Umm … no!  I had almost pulled it off when I heard a terrifying noise that woke me and kept me awake most of the remaining night. It wasn’t loud like pealing bells or the tree frog in Stone Mountain that sounded like a screaming woman, but I heard it like a roaring freight train. It was the simple “bzzzzzztt” of a mosquito landing in my ear. That’s a nuisance in SC. That’s a nightmare in East Africa.

I finally drifted off about 6 a.m. That makes sense, since it would have been 11 p.m. at home. What did not make sense was then waking up at 7 a.m. Well, I’m sure my circadian rhythm should equalize over the next 9 days … just in time to reverse the process. 🙂

OK, off to breakfast.  Or is it supper?

A Little Cheese, A Little Whine


In my 3-hour layover at Amsterdam, I met a fascinating young man, Emmanuel. He is a Kenyan marathoner returning from Chicago, where he had competed. He was quite modest, so it was hard to pin him down on just how good he is, but he’s good enough to be sponsored by his nation and flown all over the world to run for Kenya. This was a bit of irony for me, because when I have told people I was headed for Kenya, the response was often to associate Kenya with long-distance runners. The stereotype didn’t sit well with me, but I let it pass. I suppose it’s good I did, or meeting Emmanuel might have been the source of a lot of ribbing when I return. Emmanuel told me he was Presbyterian, and asked me how that differed from Catholicism. Since I have been focused on Reformation doctrine as we near its 500th “birthday,” I was happy to have that conversation.

Note to Self: KLM gets 1 out of 5 stars. The flight attendants were helpful, professional, and kind, but that is the only category in which I’m handing out praise. I was not allowed to pick out a seat online, and was assigned seat 60J. I didn’t know planes had 60 rows. In fact, the 747 has 68. It’s long and slender, a flying foot-long hot dog. The movie and music selections were extremely limited for English speakers. And the meal? Note to KLM (I know you’re reading!) – chopped cabbage is not salad, close quarters is not the place to serve strong Dutch foot cheese, and you can’t make enough brown gravy to remedy chicken offal. Oh, and every 20 years or so, change the padding in your seat cushions. Other than that, I have no strong opinions.

My views may be skewed, however. I started feeling a bit queasy on the flight, and even a bit jittery. As Paul Simon would say, I was “twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun.” I wondered momentarily if I were coming down with something, or maybe in for another airline-chicken-induced bout of what my friend Greg Chambers diagnosed as “diflucous of the blowhole.” Then I remembered. This is how I feel when I’m taking malaria meds. This antsy shakiness will be with me for the next couple of months. Mefloquine also gives me vivid dreams. Not necessarily bad dreams, but vivid, almost psychedelic, dreams. Like Saturday night, when I dreamed a met Robert Redford in a park as he twirled like Julie Andrews in the Alps and shot photos with a camera disguised as a suitcase. Apparently, Bob and I are old friends.

My seat mate was a university-aged young man from Rome, Francesco. Soft-spoken and genteel, he was also quite handsome in that chic Italian curly-haired and 5-day-beard way. I suspect there were a number of young ladies (and maybe a few old ones) who would have gladly traded seats with me. I should have thought of that sooner … I could have scored an upgrade!

My most interesting conversation, however, was with Mohammed, a young accountant. He is Somalian by birth, but now holds dual Canadian citizenship.  We encountered one another as I was stretching my legs while we flew over his native land. We both stared out the window at the vast expanse of the Sahara. He said nothing and no one could live there. “Not a single tree!” he assured me. He, like most Somalians, came from Mogadishu. He had fled with his family some 12 years ago during their civil war, but is proud to report that the situation there is improving now “in every respect.”

Mohammed is a Sufi Muslim. He is well-versed in his religion and quite sincere. He wanted to ask me about the sharp rise in the number of Americans who have no religious affiliation. I said I thought the number of sincere Christians was probably constant, but that social norms had changed, so that whereas it was unacceptable to claim atheism 50 years ago, it is now somewhat en vogue, especially among the young. He told me of his understanding of Islam, and it gave me an opportunity to tell him about Christ in a civil and respectful way. As the conversation ended, he wished me God’s blessings, and I wished him peace.

Soon after, sixteen hours of air travel came to a (rather hard) landing. It took longer than normal for me to get through immigration and customs (so much for my George Clooney delusions), but Skip Ferron was there with his wife, along with Pastor Ezra and Emily who head up the ministry in Nairobi. I wish I could tell you how beautiful Kenya is, but all I saw was the ten minutes of street-lit highway between the airport and Melili Hotel. It’s quite modern by East African standards (wait … is that a Mariachi Band in the restaurant!?!?), unlike it’s more rundown and utilitarian neighbor, the ironically named Hotel Beverly Hills!

I’m grateful to be here. I’m already comfortable. I already feel home.

You’re So Sweet …


Though she is producing her magazine, Debi was good enough to take me to ATL, and David was good enough to ride along for good company. I meant to arrive at ATL 3 hours early for my international flight, but ended up losing an hour. Then I had to repack my two checked bags. I’m transporting textbooks, and they caused one suitcase to tip the scales at 64 pounds. I took out 12 books, and traded for some shirts in my second suitcase. Voila! They both came in at 49 pounds on the first try! Still, it knocked 10 minutes off an already crowded schedule. Not to worry – I breezed through check-in and security faster than George Clooney in Up in the Air.

I made the flight over seated next to Tom and Robin, from Baton Rouge. They are retired and traveling to Italy, where Tom is from. They both grew up Catholic, but now are Episcopalian. And beside our faith, we discovered another commonality – firstborn sons named Ben! Tom taught German for many years at LSU. Being a linguist, he was interested to learn the name Benjamin means “son of my right hand.” A delightful trip.

I watched two movies, The Beguiled and My Cousin Rachel. I would give neither of them better than a “C.” And I listened to some Neil Diamond songs I’d never heard before (and I thought I’d heard them all). My favorite title (though the song didn’t live up to his normal standard of brilliance): “You’re So Sweet, Horseflies Keep Hangin’ Round Your Face.” True story. Look it up!

3 hour layover in Amsterdam, then it’s off to Nairobi!

Glorious Day with Sarah D’Attoma


God’s Peace to My New Sister

It has been an incredible 24 hours.

It began last night at our group for young adults, FLIGHT 1939.  After enjoying some pizza, Kevin McCormick gave a powerful testimony.  He said he had been so busy working to build his farm that he never felt he could go on a mission trip.  Then recently when his farm was struck by a tornado, some 70 people showed up at first light the next day to help his family.  He didn’t even know many of their names.  He was overcome with the thought, “I’ve never gone on a mission trip. But now the mission trip has come to me.”

Kevin recalled the various devotions over the last few meetings of FLIGHT 1939, and spoke of how they all came together to challenge him to be more intentional in sharing his faith.  He spoke of one young man to whom he had tried to minister, but said “that was a total failure.”  The young man had suffered through a bleak childhood under an abusive father.  When Kevin tried to offer words of kindness in the Lord’s name, the young man said, “I don’t think there is a God, and if there is I don’t want anything to do with him.”  Our hearts broke for the pain behind those words.  We committed to pray for that young man, wherever he may be now, that the love of his heavenly Father would overwhelm the tormented cruelty of his earthly father.

Then we had a time of prayer.  We have a covenant of confidentiality, so I will not give details.  I will only say that the matters of prayer were deeply personal and moving.  They involved the agony of loved ones who seem trapped in dissolute lives or patterns of self-destructive behaviors that alienate us from the very people and from the God who love us best.  Those who were not in tears were on the verge as we bore one another’s sorrows.

When the meeting ended, no one seemed in a hurry to leave.  It was as if this time had been sacred and we all sensed it.  Indeed, I learned later that one member of the group had just gotten a new job.  When I asked why she had not shared it with the group so that we could all celebrate, she responded that she had been so caught up in what others were saying, that it had not even occurred to her.  In short, it was a holy moment.  I said at lunch today that last night was the kind of moment for which I took up ministry.

Which brings me to the rest of the story.

I was sitting at lunch with Debi and David, Bob and Kaye Pattillo and Dan Brown, our student pastor.  I was recounting the incredible experience from last night.

At the end of lunch, Kaye, who was looking toward the entrance, said, “What beautiful flowers.”  We looked to see a lady carrying a lovely bouquet, then realized she was headed right toward us.  To our surprise, she presented the flowers to Kaye.  She said she had overheard our conversation and was so moved that she felt she had to come speak to us.

She sat down and told us a bit of her life’s story.  It involved the same kinds of heart-wrenching issues we had been discussing.  Bad decisions and the long shadows of consequence.  Family dysfunction.  Hurt for loved ones.  Hurt from loved ones.  The shame for things done.  The despair of not knowing what to do now.

I asked if she had ever come to a point of surrender when she realized that only the Lord could offer her forgiveness and peace, cleansing and a new beginning.  She said that she had faith, but had never really given her life over to the Lord in that way.  She wanted to try to clean up her act a bit more before she presented herself to the Lord.  So I was happy to tell her that the Lord wanted her to come now and let Him do the cleaning up.  In the words of the hymn Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy, “If you tarry ’til you’re better, you will never come at all.”  And we prayed with her and for her as she sweetly gave her soul into God’s care.

God’s peace to my new sister.


Why I Will Support President Trump

During the primary season, I stated publicly that I would not vote for Donald Trump, and I explained why.  In short, I felt he had done nothing to overcome the concerns of my conscience about his previous boorish behavior and his lifelong support for abortion on demand, and a Christian should never violate his or her conscience.

Now I want to state with equal clarity that I will support President Trump.

Why the change of heart, you ask?  Well, to a fair-minded reader, it is not a change of heart.  In my previous post, months before the election, I wrote, “I will pray for the next President of the United States, as Scripture teaches me. If that should be President Donald Trump, I will even pray that he proves me wrong, and that I look back years hence to realize that my crisis of conscience was unwarranted.  No one will ever be happier to discover he was wrong.”

And that is where we are.

Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as our next President, and I will pray for his success as a President.  I will pray that he grows into the office he will assume.  I will pray for his family.  I will pray for those who advise him.  I will pray for a less partisan Congress.  I will pray for a more civil nation, a more honest media.

Why do I feel compelled to pray for our next President, to seek his good?  Please understand that this is something more than the pragmatism I derided in my original post.  This is even something deeper than wanting the good of the country.  This is precisely the point of Biblical conviction for me.  I will pray because the Scriptures teach me to do so, and my conscience is captive to the word of God.

It is also important for me to note that in my previous post, I acknowledged that other Evangelical Christians saw this differently, and that I understood how they came to their positions.  I was under no delusions about the stakes in this election, especially when it came to judicial nominations, including the Supreme Court.  Many people have said to me that they weren’t thrilled with Donald Trump as a candidate or as the Republican nominee, but they were utterly horrified by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency and a continuation of left-leaning policies.  I got that then and I get that now.  The fact that I could not clear the hurdle of my own conscience does not mean I had or have any ill will toward those who could.  There is something right about speaking one’s mind concerning a candidate, and something wrong about painting his supporters with the candidate’s flaws.

Between now and Inauguration Day, I want to present three Biblical passages and some thoughts or reflections on each.