A Saintly Sentinel: Guns or Prayers for the Nigerian Church?

IMG_8082From the time my Nigerian students first raised the issue, I have been struggling to formulate a response to the question of how the persecuted church should respond to repeated, violent attacks, especially when government does not intervene to protect it. Is it ever right for Christians to take matters into our own hands, to take up arms in defense of our families and communities?

The complexities to this question have left me in two minds, paralyzed by my ability to argue both sides of the coin. I have never been forced to choose between taking a life and passively watching a life be taken. And yet the relevance to our brothers and sisters for whom this scenario is not hypothetical demands a response. With the Nigerian elections coming up this weekend, this issue is at the forefront of thousands of Christians who may soon find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun.

The following statement was written by one of my students, a respected leader in the Nigerian Christian community and a senior-ranking civil servant. I wrote earlier about Ibrahim’s involvement in rescuing some of the kidnapped Chibok girls. His gutsy faith in the face of yet another potential outbreak of violence against himself and his loved ones inspires me each time I read this. May it call us all to greater faith as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and around the world.

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?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken 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 LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
…And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 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?”
1 Kings 19:9-13

This evening, I read the recommended passage of 1 Kings 19:9-13. My attention was caught by the last sentence: Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I stopped and a mental sheet rolled down and on it a written question: What is the future of the church in Nigeria after the 2015 Presidential election?

I said, “God, I do not know! You are all-knowing… You know what happened to the church (Christians) in Northern Nigeria after the Presidential election in 2011. You allowed the Muslim irredentists to attack the church—burning down church buildings, houses, and properties of the Christians and in many places slaughtering Christians like rams. Perhaps it was because Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from a minority ethnic group from Southern Nigeria, won the election. My God, Christians did not know why they lost their lives and properties, including the church buildings. Your command is to love them and pray for them, to not take revenge because vengeance is yours.

You allowed the Muslim irredentists to attack the church…

In 2015, Nigerians are still going to the poll to elect a President. The two major contenders are Jonathan from Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Muhammad from All Progressive Congress (APC). The Muslim leaders vowed in 2011 that if Jonathan wins, they would make Nigeria ungovernable. Jonathan won and Boko Haram manifested with all the subsequent attendant destructions. God, you allowed it and yet you said that I and my Christian brethren should love and pray for the Muslims.

“God, when I recall what happened to the church in North Africa and the present Turkey many years ago when the Muslims reigned, there was no freedom for the church and it was virtually destroyed there. What do you want me and the church to do in Nigeria after the election? As it looks, whether Muhammad wins or loses the church would be visited by the Muslim murderers. Should the church not prepare to defend itself from probable immediate attack by arming itself with weapons of war? God, if Muhammad wins the election, he would strengthen the Nigerian membership of Organization of Islamic conference (OIC) with the total goal of Islamizing Nigeria.

I need your strength and support for me to pray for and love Muslims.

Lord, it appears the best option to the church is to fortify itself with prayers, cast votes, and wait in your hands. We will not retaliate with carnal weapons but spiritual weapons (prayer and confession of thanks). God, I need your strength and support for me to pray for and love Muslims. The Church in Nigeria needs you today to face the task on hand – conflagration!

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

Father, I am overwhelmed with fear and sorrow. However, strengthen your church—your body. I will remain focused and faithful. My prayer is to believe you when you said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” This refers to all Christians and to the church in Nigeria.

My prayer is to believe you when you said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”

Finally, Lord let me go back to the question you asked me: ‘What are you doing, Ibrahim?’ Well, God, forgive me for the sin of unbelief and doubt. I realize that you are the creator and nothing happens without your knowledge and express permission.

You will win in Nigeria come 28 March, 2015. You have decided and we accept it with thanksgiving.”

by Ibrahim Bangalu

Running with Angels

Anyone who spends much time with me will quickly figure out that running is close to an addiction for me. A day without a cross-country run simply feels incomplete. That is my space to pray, to process, and to savor the sweetness of God’s presence. So when I began planning a trip to go teach in Nigeria, of course the first thing I worried about was whether I would be able to run there. Never mind about Boko Haram or Ebola. Would there be a culturally appropriate, safe space for me to get my daily fix?

I packed my most modest running clothes and my trainers, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t have to go two weeks with inactive limbs and a restless spirit. In between armed police checkpoints and makeshift military bunkers along the road from the airport, I managed to ask my Nigerian host if and where I could run during my stay. He agreed that it should be all right, provided I stayed within the walls of the heavily guarded compound in which our classes would be held.

This was an awkward situation at best, an international incident-in-the-making at worst.

I waited for the next evening, when the sun was low and the day’s work done. I was desperate to process the intensity of the day in the Lord’s presence. With much trepidation I set out, circling the inside of the compound walls and hoping that no one would notice me. But a white woman in Africa does have a way of standing out, especially when she is crunching gravel in fast-forward. The first evening I only encountered the armed guards and a few residents along my path. They seemed sympathetic enough to my cause. But the second evening was a different story entirely.

Hordes of people showed up for a conference in the compound, streaming through the gates and gathering in large knots right in the middle of my running path. Among them were many Muslims, the very sort of people that I had been afraid to run in front of. What would they think of a western woman behaving so brazenly? Given Boko Haram’s sentiments about women, education, and the West, would my actions incite anger or violence? I avoided eye contact as I worked my way around the crowds, doing my best to be invisible but failing miserably. This was an awkward situation at best, an international incident-in-the-making at worst.

And then a little whoop went up from a member of the crowd. A tiny girl was playing among the legs of all the sedate adults, swooping in and out of their dignified robes as they stood around in their pre-conference conversations. She eagerly ran to join me, delighted to find a playmate who would “run races” with her. She chattered excitedly with me as together we circled the compound, avoiding the most congested spots. Lap after lap, she stuck by my side. And as we passed through the crowds, scowls turned to smiles, disapproving glances turned to encouraging cheers.

If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my refuge– then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. Psalm 91:9-12

I never would have imagined a solution as sweet as this. On my own, I had felt insecure; but with this little girl by my side, the whole story was reinterpreted. Sure, her short strides slowed me down and her playful chatter broke my focus. But because she was with me, I could run through what had formerly seemed like hostile crowds with confidence. Their response to her contagious smile allowed me to respond with one of my own.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
Psalm 91:5-7

In a strange way, I feel like so much of life works in a similar way. The world is full of scary situations and overwhelming forces: terrorists and evil demons, unemployment and poverty, broken families and corrupt governments, disease and even death. But rather than remove the danger, God has also built into the system good, nurturing forces to carry us through suffering and protect us through peril. Sometimes they are seen, taking the form of friends and family; sometimes they are unseen, guiding our steps and preventing our harm as we trundle on unaware.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:1-4

And yet we have no cause for fear. It’s not that the threats aren’t real, but rather that our Helper is more so. The dangers all around make us all the more glad to stick by His side. Sure, His pace is not always our own, His voice often redirects our thoughts, and His plans rarely match up with ours; but in light of the imminent danger all around, there is no place I would rather be than by His side.

photo 3So each evening I looked out for my little companion, hoping that she would show up for my run. I saw her as a messenger from God, a physical reminder of His Spirit watching over me and providing for me even in my silly running obsession.

I rested under His wings as I ran by her side.

Oh, and her name was Angel.

A Place for Pleasure

IMG_8283A post on pleasure in the middle of Lent? The irony has not escaped me. And yet as my husband has astutely pointed out, the very messiness of theology done at the crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come demands a degree of irony. Sweetness in the midst of sorrow. Pleasure in the midst of pain.

For years I have only valued these conflicting experiences the other way around. My mind would resonate in agreement with Wesley’s pithy statement to his Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” Moments of mirth or passing pleasures seemed to me just that: temporary, trivial experiences that had little value in the overall picture of things.

But in His perfect irony, God has chosen this season of Lent to be the time in which He is calling me to make space for pleasure in my life.

The very messiness of theology done at the
crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come
demands a degree of irony.

Since childhood I have been trained in hard work, self-discipline, and kingdom living. As a young adult, I was profoundly influenced by John Piper’s analogy of adopting a war-time mentality in prioritizing my time, efforts, and resources for the work of God’s kingdom. But because my understanding of that kingdom was largely limited to the heavenly realm, I was left with little cause to invest in earthly pleasures. An expensive dinner out with my husband. An indulgent pamper-treatment at home on my own. None of these seemed worth the time or expense in light of eternity.

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–…who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Psalm 103:2, 5

But God has been showing me that pleasure is not just bookended on the front and back end of eternity. He did not put it on a cosmic hold once the perfection of the Garden was broken. And He is not waiting for the golden streets of Heaven to finally roll it back out as a godly part of our experience.

He makes …plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:14-15, 28

Pleasure is a part of God’s plan for the here and now, even if it is intermixed with tears and toil. He has created in us desires that He then delights in satisfying. He weaves pleasure into the fabric of our everyday lives: food that is intended to taste good, wine that is meant to make us feel giddy, faces that are designed to look beautiful, and sensory experiences that are supposed to make us stop in our tracks out of sheer ecstasy.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:31-33

Obviously God has much to say about not making a god out of earthly pleasures by overly indulging in or pursuing them before Him. But that does not negate their value in His estimation. If anything, His promise to add all these things to us when we seek first His kingdom reinforces the importance of their place in our lives. He gives us beautiful clothes and delicious food along with His kingdom and His righteousness.

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” …”My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. John 4:32-34
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Matthew 4:4
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ‘
Matthew 11:19

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the example of Jesus. He was all about the kingdom: eating, sleeping, and preaching it day and night. He certainly wasn’t overly attached to creature comforts, voluntarily going without them for long periods of time in His pursuit of God. And yet He also had quite a reputation for enjoying Himself at parties.

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
Matthew 26:6-7

Even in the midst of the intensity and passion of holy week, Jesus made space for pleasure. In between passionate temple cleansings and intensive final instructions, He found the time to hang out at a banquet table, savoring fine food and wine with His friends. He didn’t get the meal to go. And He didn’t rush the perfumed head and foot massage that came with it. He simply enjoyed it as a gift from God.

Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain,
I do it all as an act of worship.

And that is the point. Physical pleasure is a gift from God. Far from being a distraction from God, it is meant to be enjoyed with God. My stripped down, productivity-driven lifestyle may make more room for ministry, but it has crowded out the ability to enjoy God and His good gifts. I need to take a lesson from Jesus, knowing when to push through hardship and when to stop for pleasure.

If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
I Corinthians 10:30-31

So even in the midst of Lent’s austerity, God is punctuating my sobriety with mirth, my fasts with indulgence, and my focus with frivolity. While it all seems a bit unorthodox, I am finding great pleasure in enjoying both ends of the spectrum in His presence. Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain, I do it all as an act of worship.

God’s pleasure is my own. My pleasure is His.

Secondhand Sighs

http://stoneshout.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/bear-burden.html
http://stoneshout.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/bear-burden.html
I’ve been doing a lot of heavy sighing lately. I don’t mean to. Pathetic sounds just sort of escape my lips before I realize it. But I think they are a sound indicator of the state of my heart: burdened.

For me, life is good right now. I have much to rejoice and give thanks over. But for several of the people I love, life is a waking nightmare. The bottom has dropped out of their world and their dreams are dying a slow, painful death. As I walk with them through their dark valleys and listen to their anguished cries, I can’t help but absorb their pain. The question is, what am I supposed to do with it?

Of course these burdens have driven me to perpetual prayer, crying out to God day and night to put right what has been made so wrong. My emotional involvement makes my prayers for others fervent and passionate. But it is also weighing me down to the point where I feel I have little left to offer, and that just doesn’t seem right.

How do I love wholeheartedly without being consumed? How do I immerse myself in other people’s pain without being submerged by it?

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. … Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…
Isaiah 53:3-4

As always, God reminds me that He has walked this path ahead of me, not just as the transcendent God who reigns from heaven, but also as the fleshy mortal who wept here on earth. He knows what it is like to carry other’s burdens and be weighed down by their sorrow. He didn’t dodge the pain or distance Himself from the suffering. And yet somehow He managed not to be completely overcome by it.

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
John 11:3-5

When I read John’s account of how Jesus reacted to his friend Lazarus’ death, I am amazed that He got emotionally involved in it at all. Right from the point that He first heard that news of His friend’s illness, He told His disciples that it wouldn’t end in death. What’s more, He could already see the big picture of what was going on, that this was a cosmic play in which God was setting things up to put His glory on display. Jesus understood all this. He could explain all this. And yet when He came face to face with Mary’s grief over the loss of her brother, He burst into tears.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
John 11:33-35

Her pain was His pain, because He loved her. He didn’t stand at a slightly detached distance, maintaining professional control over His feelings and offering wise words of truth. Even though He already new the future outcome, He entered into her current reality. He allowed it to affect Him right down to the core of His Spirit, disturbing His serenity and breaking down His composure. He didn’t preach at her. He wept with her.

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
John 11:40-42

But Jesus didn’t get stuck there. Nor did He try to go it alone. He entered fully into the seeming hopelessness of His friend’s immediate situation, but then He lifted it up into the context of God’s ongoing story. This was not the end. He believed it not only for his own sake, but He clung to it for her sake. He carried her burden to God in prayer, exerting His faith in God’s good purposes for her when her faith was too weak for the task.

And, as He does, God showed up to finish what He had started: in Lazarus, in Mary, and in Jesus. The Father comforted His Son. And in turn, Jesus comforted Mary and healed Lazarus.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5

This ripple effect of comfort flows down through history to me. Like Jesus, Paul, and the many others who have gone before, I get to stand in the crossroads between earth and heaven, stretched between the colossal chaos of what is happening in this realm and the cosmic order of what God is orchestrating in the heavenly one.

I am realizing that I cannot bear this burden in isolation, from God or from others. If I try to carry it alone it will crush me. But thanks be to God, He has built His Church out of a community of suffering comforters and of comforted sufferers. As we each go to the Father in desperate, dependent faith on behalf of the other, He will supply the comfort we need to sustain ourselves and support each other.

Second-hand sighs. Second-hand comfort.

These are what hold me together. These are what bind us together.