Tag Archives: church

Choosing a Goodbye

 

 

I was 25 the first time I chose a goodbye.

I’d had plenty of goodbyes before. They were painful, but they seemed inevitable. For a third culture kid, I was relatively stable, which still meant moving: to Tanzania at age 2, to Illinois at ages 11, back to Tanzania at 13, to Kenya at 16, to Minnesota for college, then back to Kenya. Teachers, best friends, and family friends rotated out every two years.

I couldn’t do much about it, so I made the best of it. I made friends with the neighbors for the two years we lived in Chicago for my dad’s PhD, for the three months we staying at my uncle’s in the US, for the three days we stayed in a guest house going home. I was never going to fully fit in, but I dressed right and switched my accent. I became intentional about how I said goodbye, marking it with thank-you notes, scrapbooking, farewells, and poems. I learned to talk to my one constant friend, God.

Home. Stability. Belonging. Those weren’t things you had control over – right?

I’m sure non-TCKs can relate. Maybe it wasn’t international moves but switching school systems or states. Maybe it was the divorce of parents or the loss of a loved one. There are lots of ways that kids don’t get to choose all their goodbyes.

When I moved back to Kenya after college, I didn’t know how long I’d be staying. But I didn’t waste time investing. I poured into a new church, knowing I didn’t fully belong but determined to make it my community. I even ended up dating someone from church, and invested in that relationship too.

Although it wasn’t all these relationships represented, I think part of me wanted stability and belonging… even if I kind of had to force it, even if I had to shape-shift a bit to fit the mold.

Until I hit a breaking point.

I realized I’d fit in too much. This shocked me. Usually I’m a very stubborn person who refuses to compromise on my convictions and has no problem expressing my tastes. But I guess my longing to belong was deeper than I thought.

I would quietly notice differences and take note to hide parts of myself that might cause conflict or be judged. I’d tell myself it wasn’t the right time to bring up gaps that only I saw. I’d bring it up later if it persisted. This outsider wasn’t going to change them. I was the more adaptable one in cross-cultural situations anyway, right?

It hit me once when someone asked me a question that revealed they didn’t know me at all.

For several other reasons I won’t get into here – I chose a goodbye.

My church was a place where people knew my family and would ask about them. It was a place where I could interact with people of all ages. I was part of its inner workings and behind the scenes. I was in a position of leadership. It was my community, the one I’d invested in. There was a whisper that I could belong.

In my relationship we had discovered new sides of each other, formed selfie-worthy memories, and opened up our hearts. There was the possibility of permanence.

And I wasn’t leaving Kenya. I didn’t have to leave. The ending wasn’t inevitable. No external force was imposing these goodbyes. I chose it.

That meant I didn’t have anyone else to blame. The pain of the breakup, the long awkward transition period to find a new church, I was bringing all this upon myself.

The agency came with the weight of responsibility. Stubborn me was giving up after all I’d invested. Was I really sure?

But the choice also came with a sense of hope. Those glimmers of home had felt like they came at a cost. Like it was conditional on me being who they thought I was or seemed to want me to be. By choosing an ending, I was believing in a better future. That I wasn’t stuck just making the best of it. That I might not have to trade my authentic self for belonging. That there might be goodness in this goodbye to others if it meant not saying goodbye to myself.


It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Last year, when I was burned out by my church crisis, I really resonated with Elijah. I recently wrote a narrative sermon for a seminary class sharing what I learned from his story.

We’re going to watch a clip from the end of the movie Avengers: Endgame. For those who haven’t seen it, (spoiler alert!) ultimate bad guy Thanos wants to destroy the planet by snapping his fingers while wearing a glove with the all-powerful Infinity Stones. He finally has acquired all five stones, and he’s minutes away from snapping his fingers. The small team of Avengers superheroes are trying to stop him. In this clip, I want you to notice how every time it seems like the bad guys were getting the upper hand, the good guys came back with another surprise:

The good guys and the bad guys

Today we’re going to look at biblical bad guys and good guys in a contest. The story is in 1 Kings 16:29 through chapter 19. Yahweh, the true God, is trying to get back his people Israel’s allegiance, because they are worshipping Baal, the false God. The good guy is named “Yahweh is God”: Elijah. He realizes Israel is at risk of being sent into exile for their idolatry. He’s desperate to prove to them that Yahweh, not Baal, is worthy of worship. The leader of the bad guys is Jezebel. Her father’s name means “Baal exists”. She comes from Tyre, where they worship Baal. When she married Ahab, the king of Israel, she made it her objective to promote only Baal worship everywhere. They are fighting over the allegiance of Israel, represented by Israel’s king Ahab, who the Bible depicts as “limping” or “dancing” with one foot in each camp. They’re go to whichever campaign rally is giving out free t-shirts.

Yahweh challenging Baal on his home turf

The story starts with Elijah challenging Baal on his home turf. Baal is supposed to be the god of thunderclouds and fertility. Every year during the dry season, he dies by the god of death. Then during the rainy season, another god resurrects him, and he brings rain and crops. So Elijah says, “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). If what Elijah says happens, it will prove that Baal is dead and powerless for several years, but Yahweh lives. Sure enough, it happens.

But wait, will God let his prophet die in the drought? This is the first time we see: it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. God provides a brook and ravens to drop off fresh meat for him twice a day. In Israel back then – just like some Tanzanian villages I’ve visited – only a chief would eat meat twice a day. But Elijah was eating like this in the wilderness, in a drought being fed by the equivalent of carcass-picking marabou storks.

But then the brook dries up. God, will you let Elijah die? But – say it with me – it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. God tells Elijah to challenge Baal on his home turf again. He heads straight for Jezebel’s homeland, where he asks a widow in Zarephath to cook him her last flour and oil into mandazis. Imagine the drought we had in Kenya several years back and asking someone in Garissa region to cook you their last ugali flour. But unlike her countryman Jezebel, this widow obeys the prophet of Yahweh, even though it costs her everything. And God miraculously refills her oil and flour, so she and her son don’t die either. God cares for the widow and the needy and his prophets in Baal’s own territory. Ouch!

But then the woman’s son gets sick and dies. Elijah prays, essentially asking God, “Will you let this generous woman’s son die?” But say it with me! It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. And God performs what I believe is the first resurrection in the Bible! Baal can’t resurrect himself, but Yahweh is resurrecting a sick little boy!

Despite all these proofs of God’s power, the famine doesn’t seem to be winning Israel or Ahab over. So Elijah proposes a contest to challenge Baal on his home turf in full view of Ahab and all Israel. Elijah and the prophets of Baal meet on Mount Carmel, which archaeology shows was still a site for Baal worship until 200 AD. Since Baal is the god of lightning, Elijah says they will each built an altar, kill a bull as a sacrifice, and whichever god sends fire from heaven will obviously be the real god. Team Baal tries frantically all day and nothing happens. Elijah douses his altar with water, giving himself a handicap, and as soon as he prays, WOOSH, fire from heaven consumes even the water, the soil, and the stones of the altar! OH SNAP! TAKE THAT, BAD GUYS!

Israel worships Yahweh. They start chanting: “The Lord – he is God!” That’s literally Elijah’s name, remember? Elijah’s imagining he’s like Ironman saying “I am Ironman” [snap]. He’s thinking, “Mission accomplished. Baal is defeated. Yahweh is vindicated. Israel is saved. Peace out!” The false prophets are killed, the rains return. This is the happy ending, right?

Evil’s comeback

But Elijah forgot something: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Elijah may have won the people’s allegiance from Baal for a moment, but they are always dancing between two opinions. And evil lady Jezebel won’t go down without a fight. Furious, she calls in the big guns. She vows that her own gods can curse her if she doesn’t kill Elijah in the next 24 hours.

Elijah is totally blindsided by this plot twist. 1 Kings 19:3 says, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” Literally. His superhuman race was a bit longer than a half-marathon, but now he flees to the opposite side of the country, Beersheba, which is 173km away – that’s as far as Nairobi is from Nakuru, on foot!

Elijah ditches his servant and lays down to die in the desert: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4). What? Israel’s fearless prophet is suggesting that following God isn’t worth it anymore? The whole time we’ve been asking, “God, are you going to let your prophet die?” and now it’s like the enemy is playing mind games to make him self-destruct!

Like Elijah, I felt burned out when my former church was straying away from God. I felt like the only one pointing out these problems. God did something dramatic (not quite Mount Carmel). I was relieved, but after the adrenaline rush, I realized how wounded I had been in battle. Why did God ask so much of me? I felt disillusioned. I read Elijah’s story. And I realized the crucial moment is what happens next.

The Moment of Truth

Let’s read 1 Kings 19:9-10:

9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

Strengthened by God, Elijah travels forty days and nights to Mt Sinai. This is where the covenant all started, with Moses on this mountain for forty days and nights. Here, Elijah complains that Israel has abandoned the covenant. God responds.

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

During the Exodus, the wind blew and made a path through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21). There was an earthquake and smoke when Moses received the ten commandments (Exodus 19:18). Elijah had just seen fire on Mount Carmel. But none of these changed Israel’s hearts from their idolatrous ways. Elijah knows that much. “But Mount Carmel was the battleplan! How could the people not believe after that? I’m out of big ideas. And I’m not enough!” But then… there’s a whisper. But Elijah doesn’t seem to notice.

14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The people of Israel’s hearts were as stony as the first set of tablets Moses broke. But Elijah is surprisingly stubborn too. His encounter with God doesn’t change a single word of his answer either.

15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

Elijah has assumed that he and his battleplan were Israel’s only hope. If he died, Israel is doomed. God seems to correct him: “First of all, you’re not the only one left.” We already saw Obadiah in chapter 18 had saved some prophets from Jezebel. God says he’s about to raise up two kings and a prophet to succeed Elijah. Plus, there was a faithful remnant of 7000 believers. From this chapter, Elijah won’t be the star anymore. Two more prophets will confront Ahab before the end of 1 Kings.

Second, we learn that Israel is too stubborn to be saved from the consequences of their idolatry. Next time we see Elijah, he’s confronting Ahab for his worst sin yet. Jezebel has influenced him even more. Israel is spiralling downwards. Even Elijah is too stubborn to obey what God tells him. He never anoints either of the kings. He anoints Elisha, who finishes that task. Despite his superpowers, he’s not the ultimate hero. Before the end of 2 Kings, this northern kingdom of Israel will indeed go into exile.

Where’s my happy ending?

Where is our happy ending? Has evil won? No wonder Elijah was disillusioned. We are left with an unfinished work and an uncertain prophet, wondering, is God going to bring his people back into covenant allegiance to him?

But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Elijah missed the whisper. The Exodus and the law and the prophets hadn’t finished the work. But someone was coming to fulfil the law and the prophets. There where the old covenant on stone was broken as soon as Moses came down the mountain, God was whispering about a new covenant on fleshy hearts. In the New Testament, God would unveil his glorious new battleplan on another mountain to Moses and Elijah – the transfigured Jesus.

Elijah wasn’t the Saviour. But he didn’t have to be. There will another prophet who will be put to death, who will say “It is finished!”. There will be another widow grieving her dead son – not from Zarephath but Nazareth. And then – the son is resurrected! The word of God is vindicated.

Elijah got discouraged in the desert because he thought this was the endgame. He thought he was all alone in the fight and he wasn’t enough. But God was trying to tell him his story was only page 554 out of 2177. He wasn’t the star of Avengers Endgame. He was just Peter Parker in Spiderman 2!

Don’t Worry, You’re Not the Messiah

Can you identify with Elijah? When you turn on the news, perhaps you mourn how far your nation has strayed from God’s will. Powerful leaders like Ahab kill innocent people, steal their land, pocket the people’s inheritance. Perhaps you have been battling corruption where you study or work. Like Ahab, people will even sleep with the enemy if it is politically expedient. Perhaps you’re seeing people misled by false prophets, people trying to cry louder, dance harder, and shed more blood to get their miracle today. Perhaps you see so many people dying unjustly of famine, disease, and domestic violence. You wonder whether God is really sovereign over life and death. People keep ignoring God despite our prayers. We think there is a breakthrough, only for things to get worse. Maybe you just want to give up.

But remember: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. No matter how many comebacks evil makes, in the end, the good guys win. God resurrects even when it seems the dark powers death have won. Yahweh is God!

You, dear friend, are not. You are not the Saviour. You will fail, and you will leave things unfinished. You are not enough, but you don’t have to be. Because you are not alone.

That’s what I learned from Elijah’s story. When I was burned out, I left my leadership role in the youth ministry. As my friend used to say, “Jesus already died.” I didn’t have to kill myself in the ministry. I wasn’t the only one left, so I handed over to the Elishas there. God still had a very good plan for that church, but I had played my role. And I regained hope in God’s redemptive plan.

On your seats, you’ll find a prayer that has encouraged me when I’m overwhelmed. If this message resonated with you, consider praying this each day this week. For now, let’s read it together:

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own excerpt from homily by Fr. Ken Untener

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.


Finding “The Proverbs 31 Woman”: Published in Priscilla Papers

retro-fifties-lady-art-collage-1461614455kud

Retro Fifties Lady Art Collage by Venita Oberholster CC0 Public Domain

Proverbs 31:10–31 was never intended to be a how-to manual for becoming the perfect woman.

In the context of Proverbs, this passage is the parting mnemonic incentivizing young men to pursue wisdom and marry wisely. The poem’s word choice and genre extol women not for their erotic appeal but for their heroic work ethic and contribution to their communities. When read along with the book of Ruth, the poem inspires people to fear God and marvel at how God uses even the lowest members of society for his glorious plan.

The message of Prov 31:10–31 neither trivializes women’s work nor shames women trying to “have it all.” It is much more. It invites us all—men and women—to seek wisdom, celebrate each other, and rejoice in God’s grace.

Click here to read my full article, published April 30, 2018 in Priscilla Papers: an academic journal of CBE International.


The church in Africa deserves to be heard

IMG_0953

Africa Study Bible contributor Bishop Raphael Okeyo from Tanzania

I believe that the voice of the church in Africa deserves to be heard.

We don’t need imported sermon illustrations about “Prayer is not like a vending machine” – what’s a vending machine anyway?

We need stories from African pastors and teachers that give us a new perspective on familiar Bible passages. We need the story about trapping monkeys in the Kalahari desert. Monkeys know where water is found, but they want to keep the secret to themselves. So people catch a monkey and feed it salt until it becomes thirsty. Then they follow it to the water source. When we hear that Christians are called “the salt of the earth,” it can also mean that we lead people to the source of living water (Matthew 5:13).

Shigakogen_Yudanaka-Yaenkoen_2010_0824_Young_Monkey_Picks_up_rock_to_examine

Photo by Craig Shaw from ForestRescue

Pastors and teachers from 50 countries have written 2200 notes like the one I mentioned as part of the Africa Study Bible. On the page next to the Bible text, notes and essays connect Scripture to African contexts to help people live out their faith without rejecting their whole culture.

This is not your typical study Bible, written by about 50 American scholars. 345 people wrote notes, edited pieces and reviewed the theology and relevance of each piece.

These writers were dedicated. Some authors were dealing with civil war, persecution as Christians, malaria, or family funerals. All of them wrote alongside their normal work in churches, theological schools or businesses. Nearly all wrote in their second language – either English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili.

But as I managed the first half of the editorial process, I saw their commitment firsthand. They believed this was crucial work for God’s kingdom. As contributor Dr. Issiakia Coulibaly from West Africa Alliance Theological Seminary (FATEAC) said, “Like Philip explaining the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:31), so will the Africa Study Bible be to thousands and thousands of African Christians today.”

The writing is done, and the editing is nearly complete. The church in Africa is ready to speak – we just need to give them a platform.

If you want the voice of the church in Africa to be heard, this week is your chance! Invest here through Kickstarter. Your giving enables the writers to give everyone their “rich resource for the church in Africa and the world” (in the words of contributor Bishop Dr. Isaiah Majok Dau from South Sudan).

Then be salt and lead people to the water. The Africa Study Bible is published by Oasis International Ltd to satisfy Africa’s thirst for God’s Word. Would you join me in spreading the word about the Bible for the last 7 days of our fundraising campaign? Share this overview video on social media, email or in-person.

Inline image 2
Inline image 5
Instead of me telling you any more about the Africa Study Bible, listen to a Kenyan World Christianity scholar. Dr. Wanjiru Maggie Gitau shares how the Africa Study Bible reflects the exciting things God is doing in Africa today. Or, check out this sneak peek of the book of Genesis, where the authors’ notes speak for themselves!

Let’s hear what the church in Africa has to say to us.


Haggling with God

Shortly after my graduation from college, I posted a poem quoting Jacob’s prayer at Bethel: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (Gen. 28:20-22).

Untitled

Jacob made his vow after dreaming of a stairway to heaven – Untitled by Michael Keany (Own work). [CCo] via Flickr

Like Jacob, I was on the move and concerned about life’s basic necessities. I had debated between opportunities with Christians for Biblical Equality, InterVarsity and my multicultural church. But I didn’t feel at peace walking down any of these paths. God called me – over Skype in the person of my dad’s dinner guest – to join the team working on the Africa Study Bible. Since my parents live on the same campus as some of the Africa Study Bible reviewers, a few months later I found myself returning “safely to my father’s house.”

But like Jacob, my life after this bargain with God was a struggle. When I arrived in Nairobi, I started from scratch. I developed systems to organize and track 2000 pieces by 250 writers through the editorial process. With my high school friends gone and most of my work being over email and Skype, I had to start over with friendships as well.

I felt helpless – like I was unraveling. But when I stepped back, I realized God was weaving threads back into my life in a providential pattern. In addition to my sociology and English majors, old skills of French and technology came in handy. Christians for Biblical Equality contracted me to write a Bible study guide for groups of young adults. In Minnesota I had planned to help out with a church plant or youth group. Instead, two months after I moved back to Nairobi, my family’s church invited us to help with a church plant nearby. I was asked to co-lead the teens class.

Like Jacob, I gave God a tenth of what he gave me. It only multiplied my blessings. Living with my parents enabled me to save money. I was able to pay off all my student loans within a year of graduation. My contract writing paid for a Kilimanjaro summit to celebrate twenty years since I first landed in Tanzania. God went above and beyond providing food and shelter.

Instead of helping out with InterVarsity, this weekend in Nigeria I met with leaders of their sister movements in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. We were defining a partnership to create a Bible study guide compatible with the Africa Study Bible. I marveled, “How in the world did I end up in this room with international leaders working on a project that could impact the continent?”

Jacob thought he was driving a hard bargain by nailing down the specifics of God’s provision. But he hadn’t listened closely to God’s unconditional promise the night before: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying… All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land…” (Gen. 28:13-15).

When God told Jacob he would bless him and make him a blessing to many nations, Jacob haggled for clothes and food instead. But God didn’t agree to settle for Jacob’s meager terms. Jacob had no idea of the scope of what God was going to do for him and through him. I’m beginning to realize that I have no idea either.


Find rest: My childhood as an artistic pillow

Lately I’ve been processing what it was like growing up in Tanzania – in my school, family and Christian communities. In fact, if I do any more introspection, I’m at risk of turning inside out. I’ve discovered the power of a little word: “and.” It frees me to affirm the good memories and the difficult parts of my experience. In typical Hannah fashion, I memorialized what I’m learning by delving into a challenging art project laden with symbolism. I made a two-sided pillow. Like with this project, I hope I can make scraps of hard and happy times into something beautiful and useful to comfort myself and others.

(Click on the pictures to view them larger).Pillow art symbolism_01

Pillow art symbolism_02 Pillow art symbolism_03