Someone once said that life is what happens to you on the way to something else. There is an element of honesty in such a reflection, which I discovered while in Kenya to my regret.
On Wednesday, January 18th, I stepped into a good sized meeting room from the second day of a two-day seminar on preaching and theology. Rev. Jim Monroe from the Oregon-Idaho Conference was my co-presenter. We had shared the material the week before at KeMU (Kenya Methodist University) in Meru located in the north central part of Kenya. Now we were making a similar set of presentations in Nairobi (the capital of Kenya and its major city). In attendance were clergy from approximately 5 synods (their term for what we would call a District), plus the Synod Bishops (our equivalent to District Superintendents) and the Presiding Bishop (which is the person who has oversight over the whole Church; the equivalent of our bishops). Meanwhile the rest of the combined Oregon-Idaho/Central Texas Mission Team were at a Methodist elementary school and church in one of the most impoverished areas of Nairobi.
On arrival in the room, I was not feeling well. Nonetheless, with people having sacrificed to be present for a period of mutual sharing and learning, I was determined to see it through. At the request of the presiding Bishop, Joseph Ntombura, I offered the morning devotional on Colossians 1:15-20 about Christ being the head of the church. Afterwards we stood together for a lengthy time of prayer led by one of the Kenyan Synod Bishops. Partway through the prayer I felt myself losing it. I leaned over and whispered to Jim Monroe, “I’ve got to sit. I might faint.” He helped me to my chair and then got some juice for me to drink. Bishop NTombura called for a “tea” break (which was actually next on the agenda anyhow) and I was led into another room. The nurse was called and after her examination I was headed for a local clinic.
Diagnosed with a serious infection, I was given the first of three antibiotic infusions. Dr. Randy Wild on the first day and Rev. Dawne Phillips (our CTC team leader) on the days following accompanied me to the clinic for treatment under the watchful tutelage of a marvelous nurse named Ruth, who worked for the MCK (Methodist Church of Kenya). Loaded with antibiotics and other pills to take, Saturday I was freed to board the plane for the long flights back to the US. (5 ½ hours from Nairobi to Dubai and 16 hours – with a three hour layover – from Dubai to DFW.) It is wonderful to be home! To embrace Jolynn after emerging from Customs was both a joy and relief far greater than Christmas morning! On firm instructions from the doctor in Kenya to see my family physician immediately upon return, I spent a good part of Monday at the doctor’s office going through further tests and a checkup.
This unexpected “check” in my activities gave me time and pause for some deeper reflections. It is both easy and dangerous to exalt in the emergence of African Christianity. While experiencing exciting growth both missionally (love, justice and mercy) and evangelistically, they have their own set of problems, struggles and challenges. To some degree, they are in the early front edge of an emerging Sub-Saharan African Christendom. (Phillip Jenkins award winning book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity is now published in a revised and updated version. It is probably the best way to get and overall read on this worldwide trend.) An emerging Kenyan Christendom is evident in the common signs plastered around the community praising God and giving thanks to the Lord Jesus! Here surely is a learning from Kenyan Methodism which we need to incorporate. They find it incomprehensible that explicit evangelism is separated from explicit missions (deeds of love, justice and mercy). For them it is obvious that the two go together. They are puzzled by our attempts to separate them.
Even in the context of a Christendom setting, one of our questions in the first set of presentations at KeMU was from a pastor who lives and leads a small emergent church on the northeastern edge of the country where Islam is the major religion. He sought insight on remaining faithful and evangelistic in a conflicted and even dangerous setting. I don’t know for sure what he learned from us. I know we learned from him. The sense of gracious, firm clarity about the boundaries of what makes up Christianity (Jesus is Lord!) is a lesson we need to learn and relearn. He was (many we met are) gracious in response to other religions especially competitive non-Christian religions. But (Hear the shout from them!) they never gave into the temptation to be syncretic. The Lord Jesus Christ was the leader. They avoided vague talk about God and embraced a strong understanding and language about God in action through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power. The full dimensions of the Trinity were readily, even enthusiastically, embraced, proclaimed, and advocated.
Third, we spent a lot of time praying. The second day of my illness Bishop NThombura came by at 9 pm to check on me. He apologized for the lateness of the hour but he had been in an important all day meeting. Later I learned the meeting was a full day of prayer spent together by the “Cabinet.” They take prayer seriously! Cautiously here, many of us also take prayer seriously. Nonetheless, we can learn from their diligence and earnestness.
The fourth lesson for me ties to the third one on the seriousness of prayer. I have written before about how prayer among most of us moves quickly if not almost immediately to prayers of petition. We instinctively pray for those who are ill, for people who are suffering, for the end of violence, racism, and hunger, etc. We spend far less time on prayers of joy and thanksgiving. I have speculated that the rise of contemporary Christian praise music is an unconscious (sometimes very conscious) sense in the younger generation that something is seriously missing in our prayer life, i.e. praise and thanksgiving! When the Kenyans pray, they spent the bulk of their time praising God in the fullness of the Trinity (that is, praising each person of the Holy Trinity) and lifting up, exulting God in action through Christ and the active power of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Psalms entered their corporate prayer life in an explicit way. For instance, Psalm 46 speaks of the Lord as “our refuge and strength,” “a help always near,” a place of safety.” Verse 11 is specific and concrete. “The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!” (Psalm 46:11). Thus the Kenyans would teach us to engage in believing prayer which stresses praise, thanksgiving, and the active presences of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our/their lives.
I have asked myself why we spend so little time in praise, thanksgiving and calling on God’s active intervention. Some of the reason resides, I think, in the theological weakness of the current American mainline Protestantism. But, in a more profound way, I suspect it has to do with our typically American sense of self-reliance. We have so much in terms of resources (financial, institutional, educationally, etc.) in America that we tend to subconsciously seek to move forward on our own strength. The Kenyans lack an excess of resources. They are more readily thrown back on the strength of the Lord. They instinctively know they can’t make it on their own. Our (American Methodism’s) instinctive response is more “we’ll call in God if we need extra help from God.” They (Kenyans) are more inclined to listen for the Lord’s guidance.
A word of caution is in order. Kenyans and American Methodists alike succumb to the idolatrous temptation to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves. Alike, we are tempted to challenge the Lordship and leadership of Christ. Together we are inclined to insist on our own will over the will of the Holy Spirit. Sin is alive and well in all of us. Together we recall, “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).