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Eid Mubarak!

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

Last week I had the joy of being in Blantyre, Malawi, alongside of my brother Josh, some sisters from other misters (Mandy, Andrea, and Deb), and some brothers from other mothers (Wanangwa, John, and Bob)—all from Indiana. Wanangwa Kamwendo arranged for his home church of Second Presbyterian Indianapolis to meet his other home church of Michiru CCAP Blantyre. I took a week to join this beautiful delegation, see the mountains of Malawi, do a tiny bit of manual labor, practice some Chichewa, and spend time with some of the people I love most in this world. 

You can check out their blog here: https://bridgestomalawi.wordpress.com/

The Brothers Orem + Chikonde after hiking to a waterfall on Mt. Mulanje

One of the nights we were there the Michiru CCAP youth and young adults graced us with a welcoming ceremony which included some challenging back and forth about church and society in our various contexts as well as musical and dramatic performances. There was a skit that specifically stands out in my mind. It was written, directed, and even performed in by the one and only Foster Bulla, a member of the youth. Let me detail my experience of this skit and why it was so profoundly moving.

Bear in mind that this was the evening before Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast of Ramadan.

As the skit began, actors portraying two Christian evangelists from Nigeria were walking around Blantyre, exhausted from journeying for a long time without food. We could also see an actor portraying a Muslim man praying at a mosque off to one side. (At this point I was already groaning in anticipation and anguish that this would be a skit about converting Muslims during this high holiday season). As the evangelists approached the mosque they were strategizing on how to get food from the place. One suggested that they change their names and started listing some names common to Islam. (Again, I groaned). The other evangelist, however, disagreed. When they came to the mosque they were greeted by an imam who asked their names. The former said something along the lines of Ishmael Muhammed. The latter said his real name, something like John Moses. The imam proceeded to invite John in for a feast. To “Ishmael,” though, he said, “Ah, my brother, this is still the month of Ramadan. We will be breaking our fast when the sun goes down.” The evangelist was horrified and began protesting, finally revealing that he was a Christian. The imam then rebuked the evangelist, telling him that if he is a Christian then he should stand firmly and boldly in his Christian identity, just as he himself would stand firmly and boldly in his Muslim identity.

I was stunned. Here I was expecting the worst in terms of Christians doing a skit that involved Muslims on the evening before Eid al-Fitr. Instead, I witnessed the best portrayal of authentic interreligious dialogue and life I had ever seen. The religious “other” was shown offering great hospitality even during a time of fasting. There was no encouragement of conversion. An evangelist was shamed for appropriating an aspect of Islam for his own personal gain. The religious “other” encouraged the Christians to stand firmly and boldly in their own beliefs and identity. I realize now that in expecting the worst from the CCAP youth I was projecting my own experience of white U.S. American Christianity. I was expecting my Malawian brothers and sisters to treat the religious “other” as I have seen so many white U.S. American Christians treat the religious “other.” In short, I was allowing a single, power-majoritarian strand of Christianity to control my perception of other Christian identities.

Wanangwa Kamwendo, Andrea Kamwendo, Bob Neary, and Foster Bulla (Photo by Wanangwa Kamwendo)

Then, as I was flying back to Zambia, I was seated next to a Muslim man originally from Malawi who was living in the UK. It was from him that I first learned of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the latest massacre via assault rifle in Dallas. Having told him that I am a pastor, he asked me how it is that white U.S. American Christians can paint all of Islam as evil based on the actions of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah when it is white U.S. American Christians who most vocally support the proliferation of guns, the militarization of an institutionally racist police force, the mass incarceration of Black Americans and immigrant Americans, and the continued bombing of Muslim civilians via drones. In other words, how could we claim that Islam is the religion of violence when so much of the violence in this world is perpetrated by Christians. We proceeded to talk about many things, including the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, and even the inadequacy of Christian and Muslim responses to the theodicy.

As with the skit, his first question has stuck with me. For, it points to the truth that the face of Western Christianity that permeates the world is that of violent oppression. It is the same face that I was projecting onto the Malawian youth with my negative expectations. With these two experiences in mind, then, I have had to deal with the truth that I have allowed this violent, white U.S. American Christianity to control my own perception of Christianity. It has caused me to be jaded and cynical. It has made it so that I use it as the starting point of understanding all modern expressions of Christianity, even in Malawi and Zambia. It has made it so I do not stand firmly and boldly in my own Christian identity because I fear that doing so just spreads more violence and hatred.

I believe that I have seen some of the best of U.S. American Christianity in certain congregations and gatherings of the PCUSA, at McCormick Theological Seminary, at ecumenical events, and while marching in protests. I have also had the privilege of being fully immersed in the vibrant Christianities of India and Zambia.

AND YET the power of dominant (in terms of power, not numbers), violent, white U.S. American Christianity still holds sway over my very understanding of Christian identity. With this truth, it is very difficult to follow the profound conclusion of the skit. It is difficult for me to stand firmly and boldly in my Christian identity when my understanding of it is that it is fundamentally violent and oppressive. It is so hard for me to get away from this because I benefit fully from this dominant (again, in terms of power and not numbers) version of our faith. I am a white U.S. American Christian male. My continued acceptance of the power and security inherent therein leads to the continuation of that very Christianity. By letting it be the default Christian identity, I give it more power.

I am learning everyday that this simply CANNOT STAND. I have to be an entirely new creation in Christ, as Paul exhorts in 2 Corinthians. All of us who occupy the space of this world with our privilege but are awake to the damage caused by that privilege must become new creations. Only then can we make white U.S. American Christianity a new creation. I and we must do the work of learning from the best of Christianities that are there in the U.S., in India, in Zambia, and across the world. I and we must use existing privilege and power to eliminate future privilege and power. I and we must live out a Christianity that embraces the following truths that are the basis of our faith:

-All humans are created in the image of God and thus continue to carry the sacredness of God.

-Jesus, the Son of God whom we worship as part of the Triune God, was a person of color who was executed by the State.

-Jesus sought radical community, meaning justice-based redistribution of wealth and power. He defied an empire to do so.

-The prophets Isaiah and Micah promote destroying weapons of murder and using the materials to create instruments of life.

-God exercises a preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the orphaned, and the widowed. If we look at rates of incarceration, economic indices, access to political and social power, and orphanhood and widowhood forced by State violence, this means people of color in the United States. God is declaring, “Black Lives Matter!” 

-Above all, GOD IS LOVE.

These must be the foundations of our faith. These must be the rallying cries we shout in the streets with Mother Wisdom. These must be our rebuttals to the voices we have allowed to take over our narrative of belief. These must drive us to flip the tables of the power brokers that control both the doors of our sanctuaries and the laws of our land. These must push us as white Christians to stand up as barriers between the guns that shoot and the black lives that are targeted. These must give us joy. These must give us hope.

It is these truths that I have witnessed being proclaimed by communities of color across the U.S. and across the world. It is these truths that have survived and persisted in spite of the false prophets and prophecies of imperial Christianity. It is these truths that we should see as our reason for evangelism. It is these truths that white U.S. American Christians need to rediscover, reclaim, and proclaim. It is in these truths that I can firmly and boldly proclaim my identity as a Christian. 

Eid Mubarak.

In one of those full circle moments life has to offer, I had the joy of meeting up with Susan and Joel Rembert, whom I met at New Wilmington Mission Conference just before coming to Zambia.

Posted July 11, 2016

 

Posted by Tyler W. Orem with
in Faith

Visions of the Kingdom

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

This past Sunday I had the joy of preaching at St. John the Baptist Anglican Church, here on the MEF campus.  It is a tiny congregation with Zambians, muzungus, and Malayalees.  In other words, it is a coming together of the various contexts in which I have lived!  They have been doing a study of Zechariah, taking on a hefty two chapters per Sunday.  The following is the Sermon I preached.

This carving of Jesus is the same carving that welcomed me everyday at the Mundakapadam Mandiram Society Chapel in Kerala.  Again, talk about my contexts coming together!

 

Visions of the Kingdom

Zechariah has been having a lot of visions at night.  These visions have been metaphorical, difficult to understand, in need of interpretation.  Now, a year later, the LORD of hosts is speaking more directly to Zechariah so that the prophet can give a clear message to the Israelites: “They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.”  

The Israelites had been in exile under the Babylonians for generations and now were subjects of the vast Persian empire.  Their temple had been destroyed, and in an all-too-familiar repetition of history they were forced to wander far and wide away from their homeland.  As the major prophets make clear, this time of exile was not good for the people.  For, as they wandered into the hearts of these empires they wandered away from their foundations as the people of YHWH, the LORD of hosts.  They no longer had the temple with the holy of holies at their geographic center, and this time around they did not have the column of smoke, the column of fire, and the tabernacle in their midst as they traveled.  Neither the Babylonians nor the Persians were necessarily bad or evil.  The problem, though, was that in these other lands and cultures many Israelites had lost their identity.  They no longer saw themselves as God’s people, following in faithfulness and righteousness.

It is a terrible prospect to be forced away from one’s cultural and religious identity!  We have seen this happen too many times in our world—with the trans-Atlantic and trans-Arabian slave trades, colonialism by the Western world, and continued human trafficking across tribal and national boundaries for the purposes of labor and rape.  This wiping away of identity across a population is rightly called cultural genocide.

Yet, Darius, emperor of Persia, finally allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem.  In the books of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and now Zechariah, we see a new generation coming back to the homeland.  For the first time in a long time the Israelites had that rare and precious phenomenon: HOPE.  OH THE JOYS OF HOPE!

The difficulty, though, was that this was a generation that had never known Jerusalem.  This was a generation that had been raised in an entirely different context with an entirely different cultural identity.  This was a generation that was not anchored to home.  So, even though they had made it back to the geographical homeland, they had not yet made it back to their true identity.

Oh, they were trying.  Or, as we would say in the U.S., they were going through the motions.  We see this when the LORD of hosts rebukes their fasting, saying, “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?  And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves?”  The situation on the ground was not good.  Again, we hear the LORD of hosts saying, “For before those days there were no wages for people or for animals, nor was there any safety from the foe for those who went out or came in, and I set them all against one another.”

This situation is very familiar to us.  There are no wages for people.  Look at the levels of unemployment here in Zambia and really across the world, especially for young people who most need to enter the work force!  There is no safety from the foe for those who go out or come in, and people are set against one another.  Look at how people with different political ideologies are treating each other!  Look at the ever-growing levels of violence across this world!  Look at the ways in which refugees fleeing violence and poverty are being treated!  The world is in crisis.  Zambia is in crisis.

AND YET we must not forget that rare and precious phenomenon.  HOPE.  For, in the midst of this new generation the LORD of hosts started speaking loudly and clearly to the prophets.  “But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days,” says the LORD of hosts.  “For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew.”  God promises an abundance of those resources most needed for the thriving of life: PEACE, FOOD, AND WATER.  Indeed, God gives a glimpse of what we Christians today call the Kingdom—“Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age.  And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.”

People will live long and happy lives!  Children will not only survive, but they will have the God-given right of being children—of playing, exploring the world around them, and experiencing joy!  The old and the young shall share the streets with each other and enjoy each other in harmony!  HOW WE NEED THIS VISION OF THE KINGDOM TODAY!  Zambia needs this vision of the Kingdom today, when children and old alike are dying of poverty, malnutrition, and AIDS.  The city of Jerusalem needs this vision of the Kingdom again today, as Palestinian children are being murdered in the streets by Israeli security forces.

The LORD of hosts, however, will not bring this vision to reality without the work of God’s people.  God requires that the people rebuild the temple.  Let’s take a moment to explore what this means, to rebuild the temple.  This was a generation that had not known the original temple, that building of beauty and power commissioned by Solomon.  They had no awareness of a place that God called home amongst the people.  As we saw earlier, this was also a generation that had not known the tabernacle, the vehicle of God journeying alongside of the people in their wandering.  In other words, they only knew God through stories.  They did not know the living, breathing God.  Rebuilding the temple, then, would mean making the living, breathing God a home back in their midst.  It would mean making this God the CENTER OF LIFE.  It would mean reclaiming their identities as the people of God.

This passage is remarkably relevant for us today!  Not only are we experiencing the difficult and unjust situations listed before, but we are also in dire need of reclaiming our identities as people of God.  We need to make God the CENTER OF LIFE.  

How do we do so?  How do we rebuild the temple?  Again, the passage is remarkably relevant.  For, the LORD of hosts provides us with the timeless answer: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”  Let me repeat that.  “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

Friends, the Zechariah generation did indeed rebuild the temple.  They constructed a building in order to give God a home once again at their center.  If you go to Jerusalem today, though, you will not find that structure.  Another empire and colonial power—Rome—destroyed the second temple in the first century of the Common Era.  Many people, especially Christians, want the temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem once again.  For, they think that the rebuilding of the temple will hasten the coming of Christ.  

I have talked to Jewish friends and colleagues, though, who absolutely DO NOT want the temple to be rebuilt.  They have come to realize that a return to the temple would only lead to a return to the levitical laws of sacrifice and purity.  It would also mean that they would have to see Jerusalem as the centralized home of God.  When we look at the world today, we can see why this would be a problem.  Jews and Christians are ALL OVER the globe.  How could we restrict the presence of the living, breathing God to a single geographic location?  What these Jewish friends have taught me is that God can be the center of life no matter where we are or the situation in which we find ourselves.  For, to rebuild the temple really means to follow that command to render justice, eliminate oppression, and destroy the evil we have in our hearts that turns us against each other.  This is how we make God the center of our lives!

Friends, hear the Good News!  We Christians have a unique understanding and offering of what it means to rebuild the temple.  We believe in a messiah who declared, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up!”  We believe in a messiah whose mission was to bring about true justice, to give new life to the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor, and to turn people’s hearts from evil!  We believe in a messiah indeed rose up again from the dead, meaning that God is living amongst us no matter where we are!  We believe in a messiah who is making that vision of the Kingdom a reality!

Our reading today ends with Zechariah proclaiming HOPE.  At the beginning he rebuked empty fasting, but now he calls the people to have fasts that are seasons of joy and gladness, cheerful festivals.  We are to celebrate the love of truth and peace.  And, as we do so, let us open our hearts, arms, and doors to those who are seeking the LORD of hosts.  Chapter 8 closes with a final vision of the Kingdom: In those days people from nations of every language shall say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”  May we make it so.  May people of every nation and tongue join together and declare in the fullness of truth, “God is with us!”

Amen.

 

Posted November 5, 2015

 

Posted by Tyler W. Orem with

Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8