Tag Archives: peace

Come, Lord Jesus?

I’m not sure if I am ready for Christmas this year. 2020 has overindulged me with food for Advent, the period of preparation leading up to Christmas. Never have I found it so natural to enter into this season of watching for God to come as in the midst of this year’s political turmoil, social unrest, cataclysmic weather, and global loss of stability, community, and life. A weary world cries out for a Savior, whether under the guise of a vaccine, a candidate, a policy, or a donation. And my soul joins the cry: Hosanna! O save us!

But my longing is tempered by the sobering thought that we may not be ready to receive what we ask for. If God showed up on earth today, would we welcome His coming any better than those who failed to receive Him 2020 years ago? Would we be willing to have our lifestyles, our our social structures, and our economic interests overturned by His radically different ways? Am I ready (and willing) to turn over my personal plans, my property, my time, my relationships, and my body to His way of doing things? 

Such radical relinquishment of control rattles what little sense of security I have left at the end of this destabilizing year. It forces the question: Who do I really want to be in charge? Whose rule would I truly welcome in my life and my world?

As our family has worked our way through Advent readings from the Prophets and Gospels, our Christmas warm fuzzies have been replaced with sober self-reflection. Their message repeats: God does not show up on human terms. If we invoke His presence in our world, we need to understand what it is we are asking for. We are inviting the Refiner’s Fire to burn away our dross. I am asking the Judge who sees my hidden agendas and petty indulgences to lay them bare. This is the process through which He makes all things new. He exposes what is wrong and then catches it up in His merciful arms to change it until it is right. 

Am I ready to receive what I am asking for? 

And yet can I afford not to ask for it?

As I sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” images flash through my mind of Covid patients fighting a losing battle for breath and landscapes devastated by wind, fire, and flood. I see communities divided by mistrust and anger, individuals torn apart by mental illness and addiction, and families separated by conflict, war, politics, quarantine, and death. We have done our best to rule the world under our own steam, and 2020 has shown us how well that goes. 

I identify with the rich young ruler, wanting to receive the gift of God’s kingdom and yet vacillating on the threshold of what it will cost me. I’m not sure I am ready for Christmas this year. But I am sure that I can trust the One whose coming I anticipate and hasten. His arm is strong to save and gentle to restore. His ways are not like ours, and for that I am increasingly grateful. 

So yes. Come, Lord Jesus.

Repent: The Gospel Message to Racism, Policing, and Me

John the Baptist, Cameroon

In a rising tide of fists and voices, the path of righteousness is increasingly difficult to find. Whose opinion do I trust? With whose grievance do I side? How do I even think about the events that are taking place around us? Whose narrative is right?

A nuanced understanding is necessary, and I think it is fair to say that no movement or group is going to get everything right. Rather than take sides in yet another polarizing shouting-match, or follow my algorithm-generated news feed (which scrupulously selects and reinforces the slant towards which it knows I lean), I am drawn back into the oddly stabilizing message of John the Baptist, which somehow managed to step on everyone’s toes with leveling conviction.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

No racial group gets to claim special status or immunity from John’s scathing social commentary. In order to be “in” with the King, each had better start by examining where their own life fails to line up with His way of love. This gospel of peace works as an objective, outside perspective, enabling me to first look into it to remove the log from my own eyes, and then to look again to see where others might need to change too.

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

The fruit of repentance looks like sharing whatever I have with those who don’t have it. No discussion of who they are, what they deserve, or whether they align with my particular perspective. No discussion of whether I am an oppressed minority or a privileged majority. We share. We tend and keep. We look out for each other. Why? Because as Jesus would highlight in the racially charged parable of the Good Samaritan, our core identity is as neighbors, not ethnic groups, religious affiliations, social classes, or political parties.

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Luke 3:7-14

But John also had some pointed gospel applications for those “neighbors” with particular forms of power. To their credit, tax collectors and soldiers had come in humility, openly asking how they might align themselves with the way of the Lord. To those with financial power, John applied the law of love to taking only what was right rather than what they could get away with. To those with policing power, John applied the law of love to treating everyone fairly, which includes being careful to find out the facts before accusing anyone. Whether or not these soldiers saw themselves as powerful, the people whose lives hinged on their right use of law and careful use of force certainly did.

I am grateful for the police. I am grateful for the many officers who have corrected me, protected me, and helped me in times of need. They used their power for my good, to the extent that when I see a uniform, I feel safer. But not everyone shares my experience. The children in the community where my youngest child will be attending school tell of how the sight of a policeman strikes them with terror when they are playing in the street. Will this officer accuse them of something and take them away, as they have seen happen with their friends? Will a simple inquiry escalate into a violent arrest that costs them their life, as they have seen through their media feed? Fear and distrust breed reactive behavior, conditioning these children to a fight-or-flight response to the approach of any police officer, whether gentle or aggressive.

“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.”

There is a talk African-American mothers have to have with their sons, the talk in which they plead with them to avoid any encounter with police and, if approached, to avert their eyes in deference and answer with a simple “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” I have never had that talk with my son, both because he has the experience of being unafraid of the police and because he has the luxury of likely being given the benefit of the doubt if caught in a questionable situation. I cannot imagine the crushing effect a talk like that must have on a young, budding soul. Howard Thurman commented, “There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 39).

What change does the gospel require of me?

What is the gospel for these young people? What is the gospel for their mothers, for police officers, for you, for me? What answer would John give each of us if we were amidst the throng asking, “What should I do, then?” I suspect the general idea would be, “Stop fighting to protect your own way of life and start looking out for the interests of others!” That’s universally hard, both because it involves death to self and because it involves waking up to the “other.” It involves being willing to admit where I have fallen short, even when I feel I am being unfairly treated or belligerently accused. And it involves loving people whose agenda may be damaging to my identity, my status, and my way of life. Whoever my neighbor is and however much it might cost me, I don’t get a pass on love.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
Luke 18:18-23

The privileged young ruler came to Jesus with a similar question: What change does the gospel require of me? His unwillingness to pay the price for change led him to retreat to the safety of his own home, community, and newsfeed. But in so doing, the price he unwittingly paid was entrance into the Kingdom, where Jesus seeks to bind all people together in the radical way of love.

Advent: Kissing the Peace Child

kiss the sonDespite how consumerist Christmas has become, there is one thing about it that the world gets surprisingly right. Hallmark specials and feel-good commercials repeat the story of reconciliation, of estranged friends and far-off family members being brought near through unexpected twists of fate. Cliché references to the true meaning of Christmas inevitably point to restored relationships and random acts of kindness.

What used to strike me as distracting perversions of the gospel message I have now come see as beautiful retellings. Meditating on the final Old Testament prophets through this advent season, I have felt the angst of post-exilic Israel. Finally restored to their land but still estranged from their God, they had to be wondering if they really wanted to Him to show up or not.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Exodus 20:18-19

From their first real encounter with Him as a nation, God had been a terrifying enigma. He had thundered at them from the top of Sinai, causing them to quite literally quake in their boots. His commands had seemed rigid, His demands overwhelming. Out of fear they drew back, wanting relationship with the God who took care of them but feeling the distance between His holiness and their all-too-human selves.

Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11-12Exodus 20:18-19

Throughout their history as a nation, they had consistently failed to live up to His standards. And though He proved His long-suffering temperament and His merciful nature, He had also followed through with His promises to punish their persistent disobedience. Who knew the extent of His wrath better than these survivors of famine, war, deportation, and lengthy exile?

“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…
Malachi 3:1-3

Perhaps a cold, distant relationship with their God was safer than an up-close, fiery-hot one. But the souls of the faithful longed for more. In response to their cries for His intervention, God promised the day of His return. But would it be a good day or a bad one? Would they survive His purifying fire or be consumed by it? The Old Testament closes with a mixed-bag of prophecy, anticipating the coming King with equal portions of hope and fear.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

Who could have known that the King they both desired and dreaded would come so gently? The clenched jaw they expected would come instead with soft, kissable cheeks. The unapproachable Judge would arrive wrapped in a blanket, irresistibly lovable and anything but intimidating. The lamb-like bleat of His newborn cry would beckon those both nearby and far away to come adore Him.

This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…
Luke 2:12-14, 22

When God finally returned to His temple, He came as a peace offering. His flesh-and-blood presence brought laughter and rejoicing, not fear and trembling. Yes, His broken body and spilled-out blood would purify the sons of Levi, enabling a priestly nation of believers to offer up acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. But His tiny, cuddly presence was in itself an invitation to restored intimacy. Prophetess and priest held Him in their arms. Lowly locals and pagan kings made the trip to gaze on their God.

Though the world may not know why, the core message of its advertising campaign is dead accurate. Christmas is about receiving an unexpected gift, about estranged people being drawn into the warmth of long-lost relationship. Some of us may more keenly feel our estrangement than others.

Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:4-5

Whether like the wise men you have never known this King or like the shepherds you have fearfully co-existed with Him, Jesus is God’s gift to you. His tiny form alleviates your fears, beckoning you closer to the God you have wanted but dreaded.

Come home to your Father, whose love outlasts His anger.

Kiss the Son. Embrace peace.

Bridging the Gap: Confessions from a Member of the White Race

attachmentConfession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

These words scroll endlessly down my screen as I read my Ugandan and Rwandan students’ essay submissions from this month’s Spiritual Formation unit. They have been asked to write about the people they find it the hardest to forgive and about situations in which they need to take steps towards reconciliation. My screen is full of stories of betrayal, slander, violence, and theft. But many of these stories are not just about individuals; they involve whole tribes or communities who carry complicated, time-accrued grudges towards each other.

I can sit at my less-than-tidy desk miles away from East Africa and try to mentally untangle the cause-and-effect web of historic animosity between these conflicting groups, but one thing is abundantly clear. At some point, someone from one of the groups has to stop pointing the finger and start admitting where their people have been wrong. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. And leaving it as it is will only result in further segregation, mistrust, and retaliation.

It’s crazy what I can see so clearly in someone else’s country but am blind to in my own! As I read the headlines about ongoing race conflicts in the U.S., I am struck with the fact that the same dynamic is at work. As a white member of the American middle-class, I am wired to think individualistically, to think of my status as something that I alone determine and am responsible for. But my individualistic mindset has blinded me to the fact that I am part of a race, a group of people from whom, for better or for worse, I have inherited my appearance, my social position, my identity, and my worldview. I may not be overly conscious of my race (looking for the Caucasian box on application forms always strikes me as a bit odd), but that is more a testimony to my having grown up with my race being the dominant one than it is to my being color-blind. I can afford the luxury of not thinking about it!

But for American blacks, especially in my beloved South, race is something they are never allowed to forget. The days of slavery and legal segregation may be past, but (often not-so-subtle) snubs, derogatory comments, and biased treatment from people of my color serve as daily reminders that they are not only different but also despised. Media-coverage of incidents of unfair police treatment and spiteful hate-crimes has only recently brought to white awareness what has been the ongoing reality for American blacks: that they are still treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and that even the “nice” whites hold pre-judged assumptions about the intentions and moral character of the black race of which they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

I could throw up my hands in defense and exclaim: “I’m not a racist!” But even if I could honestly claim that I have never avoided the seat next to a black stranger in a subway or clicked my automatic-lock button as I drove by a hooded black man at night, the inescapable fact is that people of my color have perpetuated the ongoing divide between whites and blacks. I may not condone their actions, but they still represent my “kind.” And until enough people from my race go out of their way to demonstrate a message to the contrary, their message of hatred, mistrust, and division will stand as a representative banner over us all.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, …then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Philippians 2:1-7

As uncomfortable as it is for me to suddenly discover myself on the side of needing forgiveness rather than being the one asked to give it, I recognize that this is exactly the position I need to adopt if true reconciliation is ever to take place. If a few people can represent my race with their hateful comments and violent actions, then can I not step into the gap they have created and verbally acknowledge the wrongs of my people, both past and present? I may not be guilty, but we are. And beyond guilt, I feel a profound shame over this aspect of my cultural inheritance.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, …. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 2:14-16; 3:17-4:3

So it’s my turn to practice what I teach. Lay aside my rights. Promote others’ interests over defending my own. Take up Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and humbly do what it takes to break down the barriers of hostility between groups of people for whom He died. If that means listening sympathetically to the hurt and frustration of my black brother, then I consider it a privilege that he would be willing to open his heart to me. If it means confessing the ways in which racist assumptions have influenced the way I think and asking my black friends to help me see life through their experience, then I can only pray that they will find me worthy of their trust.

Confession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

We’ve got long way to go. But thanks be to God, we’ve got a great Mediator already on the job. May His Spirit reign in all our hearts, bringing peace that defies history and love that surpasses human understanding.

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

Kingdom vs. Empire

“Isn’t it right for us to take up arms and fight back against the enemy?”

In November a suicide bomber detonated just outside this college building in Kontagora, barely missing the targeted crowd of students (especially girls) gathered inside for their exams.
In November a suicide bomber detonated just outside this college building in Kontagora, barely missing the targeted crowd of students (especially girls) gathered inside for their exams.
The passion with which my student asked his question hinted at the enormity of the situation it represents. For Christians in Nigeria right now, this question is more than just theoretical. In the last week I have heard it come up in casual conversations, Sunday school lessons, and master’s degree classes.

Why? Because Christian churches and communities have been increasingly frequent targets of Muslim attacks. Because Nigeria’s mixed population of Christians and Muslims has become polarized by rivalry, violence, and fear.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Matthew 5:38-39

For the decades now Nigerian Christians have turned the other cheek. But their collective wounds have accumulated with each additional bombing, each raid on their communities, and each restriction on their rights. The cry I have been hearing from this young pastor and from many others like him is one of frustration and angst.

This community of refugees  was forced to flee tribal warfare in their region. The Bishop of Kontagora has advocated for their rights to land and a place of worship. A local pastor regularly treks out to their settlement to lead them in worship.
This community of refugees was forced to flee tribal warfare in their region. The Bishop of Kontagora has advocated for their rights to land and a place of worship, and a local pastor regularly treks out to their settlement to lead them in worship.
“We have turned the other cheek so many times that there is no cheek left to turn!”

I feel for their dilemma, and the red-blooded American part of me wants to pick up a gun and join them. I was raised on stories about the Alamo and slogan’s about fighting for our rights. I have no problem with the use of arms to protect the vulnerable and oppressed. In fact, I think that is one of the core responsibilities of any government.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:43-45

But what about church leaders encouraging their people to shoot Muslims who threaten or harm them? Apparently this is what happened in one region of Nigeria, and such a bloodbath followed that leaders on both sides were appalled. The police ran for cover as Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other until their hatred and their ammunition were spent. In the end, those Christians gained the fearful distance of their Muslim neighbors, but they lost their testimony.

My spirit recoils from the violent outcome of this sort of pragmatic solution. Didn’t Jesus forgive His enemies and offer His back to His oppressors? If I were living here, shouldn’t I be more concerned with ministering to my Muslim neighbor than with killing him? But for these Christians, the tidy categories of “ought to” have been blown open by the painful reality of kidnapped sisters and demolished churches. Being passive is no longer an option.

But is being aggressive the solution?

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Romans 12:12-18

This morning I witnessed a very different sort of solution to the crisis, one so subtle that I almost failed to recognize it. Here in the north central region of Nigeria, Muslims outnumber Christians. They control local government policies enough to be able to stop Christians from running orphanages, building new churches, or even renovating existing ones. In light of the mounting opposition and the upcoming elections, many Christians have left this region. For understandable reasons they have taken their businesses and their families to the less Islamic areas of the country, further depleting this area of its Christian presence.

Bishop Jonah Ibrahim and his group of Anglican pastors.
Bishop Jonah Ibrahim and his group of Anglican pastors.
But a dedicated band of pastors led by their tenacious bishop have courageously stood their ground. They have neither given in to their enemies nor attacked them. Instead they have patiently toiled with minimal resources to advance the presence of the kingdom of God in this place. These pastors oversee three churches each, often going without their monthly salary because it simply isn’t there. Their bishop doggedly works the socio-political system, making the necessary compromises and outlasting the opposition until he finally gets things done. An orphanage built and government permission relentlessly pursued to take in the area’s many needy orphans. A tiny, open-air church established for the community of refugees who immigrated here last year. A clean water project and sustainable animal husbandry developed to help to support local pastors.

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Romans 12:19-21

But of all the work these Christians are doing here, the project that spoke the loudest to me was the school that I visited today. Initially I was most moved by the sight of teenaged girls sitting in a classroom, refusing to relinquish their education to the threats of Boko Haram. But when I heard that both Christians and Muslims have been welcomed as students in this school, I was dumbfounded. Such an audacious move speaks louder than any number of guns or grenades ever could. This is taking love for enemies to the next level.

Courageous school girls, undaunted by Boko Haram's threats.
Courageous school girls, undaunted by Boko Haram’s threats.
Refusing to retaliate against enemies takes a massive amount of courage. But refusing to quit loving them takes even more.

I am humbled by what I have seen here, and am still processing the difference between how governments should respond to violent oppression verses how churches should. This much I can say:

The empire may strike back, but the kingdom of God will advance one act of mercy at a time.

The Singing Exorcist

images

Our first October back in the US brought great consternation to my children: skeletons dangling in our neighbors’ front yard, images of witches and evil spirits plastered on storefronts, and little shrines filled with plastic symbols of death, demons, and sorcery set up on reception desks and public entry ways of homes, businesses, and schools. My children kept turning to me in shock, searching for an explanation.

Idols, shrines, and spirit worship were an integral part of the world they had grown up in. They understood the reality of the spirit beings that those “cute” little symbols were representing. And our recent encounters with overt demonic attack in South Asia had left us all shaken and hypersensitive to the presence of the spirit realm. Our impulse was to look away as we walked past, to avoid eye contact with evil lest we invite further attention.

Our careful avoidance of the spirit realm
betrays our underlying fear.

This is the same posture I notice in many Western Christians when the topic of spiritual warfare is raised. Furtive glances. Lowered voices. Subject changes that switch to more “edifying” thoughts. Excuses that the Bible doesn’t give much attention to it and neither should we. But our careful avoidance of the topic betrays our underlying fear.

So what is an appropriate posture for Christians when confronted with evil?

Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.
1 Samuel 16:23

A theologian-friend once pointed out to me that young David was the first exorcist we meet in the Bible. Called in to play his harp for the demon-possessed Saul, David was brought face-to-face with unmitigated evil on a daily basis. But rather than hide in terror or play around as if these ghosts were merely a figment of Saul’s superstitious imagination, David confronted them with singing.

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:1-2

He sang songs of praise to God’s superior power and glory, songs of thanks for His love and protection. He sang songs of petition for God to stop the evil oppressors and songs of triumph celebrating God’s victories, past and future.

And when that child played and sang, the evil spirit tormenting Saul shut up and left.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers…, what is man that you are mindful of him…? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
Psalm 8:3-5

David thumbed his nose in the face of demons, not because he underestimated their power, not because he overestimated his, but because He rightly understood God’s. God’s exalted position over all of creation provided the basis for David’s humble confidence in confronting spirit powers.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves…. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Colossians 1:13-16

David recognized what we too easily forget. God created and rules over spirit beings just as He does over all human beings. They are the work of His hands, seen and known by Him even if they are scary and alien to us. And we as Christians no longer live as captives to their dark purposes. Yes their power is real and they are at large wreaking havoc in our world, but we have no cause for fear.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Colossians 2:9-10, 15

Jesus has already taken them on and unmasked their charade for all to see. Their knowledge is limited. Their power is restricted. And best of all, their days are numbered.

So how do we carry on in the meantime, aware that the serpent is contained but still has fangs?

We can afford to be neither flippant nor fearful.

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
Ephesians 6:11

The powers of darkness are present and active, and we are called to be vigilant and proactive in resisting them. To play around with demonic symbols and magical games is as smart as toying with a venomous cobra. But to avert our eyes and pretend like they aren’t there doesn’t make them go away. If anything, it gives them permission to carry on their work unhindered.

Christ’s exalted position over all of creation emboldens us to humbly confront the spirit powers.

We have a role to play in freeing our world from demonic rule. It involves neither violent aggression nor cowardly hiding, but rather a bold faith in the victory Christ has already won.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
Colossians 3:15-16

So we join in with the singing exorcist. We sing songs of praise to our triumphant King. We speak words of truth, proclaiming His victory over our demonic foes and rebuking their false claims on those He has delivered. And we tune our hearts to the grateful chorus of the redeemed, fixing our gaze on the One holding the basket as we sing down the serpent.