Exactly a week ago, I finished two days of consulting for a flourishing company in Accra that was making two new hires. It wasn’t the first time I was coaching them through the hiring process and chairing the interview panel but this time there was an HR consultant who was excellent in putting everything together, literally setting the table for us all. Meticulous chap who knows his stuff! Because of a five-hour time difference between Montreal (where I’m currently based) and Accra, the 9.30am interview start on Zoom meant 4.30am for me. Well, whatever!
Everyone interviewed was a young, hope-filled university graduate, some as freshly minted as last year. I could tell the hope in their hearts and could see the fire in their eyes to ‘make it,’ here first and in the rest of life, of course! And in fact, they weren’t asking for too much. As usual, not everyone made it. Out of eight interviewees (and this was after whittling down several applications and getting the short-listed ones to fill out pre-interview questionnaires) we had room for just two.
Now here’s the kicker: the HR consultant’s drafted letter to this group who couldn’t be hired went like this:
Dear Candidate, many thanks for your patience and continuous interest in the role of __________ at __________. After thorough consideration, we are sorry to inform you that you were not successful. We take this opportunity to wish you well in all your future endeavours.
No. I couldn’t let that pass–precisely because of that phrase have made bold above for emphasis. Words matter. So I asked him, politely, if we could put “you were not successful” in a different way, in a more positive manner? Eg. “Another candidate was preferred?” And that is what we did.
Even the CEO was touched by this. She responded, “Thanks so much for the feed back Dr Perbi. True. We are working with real people’s emotions and lives.” She then went on to recount something I had done in a previous search for a C-level executive for the same company. She wrote, “ I remember the special messages you sent to each one of the candidates who did not make it, accompanied by a summary of their performance [so they could improve, work on themselves] and a prayer for them during the previous selection process. I was touched and l believe most of them appreciated the gesture.” Indeed they had felt so valued and encouraged, some wrote back to say thank you! It almost didn’t matter that they had not been picked for the role. With that buoyancy, I bet they went on to be and do great things elsewhere.
From time immemorial leaders have misjudged the capabilities and potentials of others; sometimes in an outrightly comical fashion (only on hindsight, of course!) When in 1898 Albert Einstein applied for admittance to the Munich Technical Institute he was rejected because (read this slowly) he would “never amount to much.” Consequently, instead of going to school he went to find work at the Swiss Patent Office where he was employed as an inspector and with his extra time, refined his theory of relativity. As they say, the rest is history.
Ask yourself: how would I act differently if I knew for sure this was an Einstein sitting in front of me? People are not just human ‘resources’, like cogs in a wheel. They are human beings. They have emotions, identity and purpose. Each bears the imago Dei (the image of God) and in the phraseology of Büber, must be treated as a ‘Thou’; not an ‘It.’ If for nothing at all, in respect for their Creator and in honour of their boldness to apply, to step into the ring, to do something with their lives. You certainly don’t want to meet them somewhere else in life and be ashamed of what you thought of them, how you spoke to them or handled them. They might even be in a position to hire or fire you someday. You may very well be disrespecting Einstein.
There are many commonalities between leadership in general and Christian leadership in particular. There are stark, even diametrically opposed, differences too. The primary source of power to influence is one of them; and it is everything!
My heart skipped a beat. Jerry, who has had enough of Christian leadership nonsense of late, was passionately shaming some unnamed pastors for preaching from Robert Greene’s 1998 bestseller The 48 Laws of Power. I began to wonder: were these pastors comparing and contrasting Greene’s ‘laws’ with biblical principles of leadership and telling Christ followers “not so with you” or were they actually promoting the former?
I own a copy of the said book, one of over 1.2 million copies sold in the United States alone and translated into 24 languages. Fast Company called the book a “mega cult classic.” You see, I have been a student of leadership for some 20 years, informally, semi-formally and formally. In fact, just this weekend I received in the mail my official Master of Arts in Global Leadership certificate from Fuller Theological Seminary after a transformational three-year journey.
My bookshelves are loaded with all sorts of leadership books: the good, the bad and the ugly. I search for principles, those timeless, universal laws that are true for any people in any sphere of life in every age. So in Physics, for example, the law of gravity holds true wherever you are irrespective of gender, race, religion, creed or social status. Similarly, there are leadership principles that are timeless and universal truths like the laws of influence, the requirement of vision and mission (picture of the future, destination, direction, objective, goals) and absolute need for clear communication.
“NOT SO WITH YOU”
These things just listed, if we were to draw a Venn diagram of A. General leadership and B. Christian leadership, will be found in the area of intersection (AB) as illustrated below.
Having said that, there are things that are characteristic of General leadership that cannot be true of Christian leadership and vice-versa. For example Greene’s Law 15 is “Crush your enemy totally” (2002, 57); “But I [Jesus] say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matthew 5:44) When I think of the guy who falsely accused me of assault and wasted my time, energy and $15,000 in legal fees there is no doubt I prefer Greene’s Law 15; leading Christ’s way is hard.
Jesus Christ himself minced no words that some things are different in His Kingdom. He once said about power, when Mrs. Zebedee came to lobby for his two sons James and John to hold key positions in His Kingdom: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28, NLT, emphasis mine).
THREE POWER BASES
“But among you it will be different.” It cannot be clearer than that: there are exclusives when it comes to Christian leadership and Christ followers shouldn’t fool themselves. Bobby Clinton’s extensive leadership research resulted in the observation that a person’s influence has three different sources or what he calls “power bases” which refers to “the source of credibility, power differentials, or resources which enables a leader to have authority to exercise influence on a follower” (2001, 439). The three different kinds of power bases are positional, personal and spiritual.
1. POSITIONAL POWER–this is influence exercised because of one’s position or title in society or an organization. It is extrinsic and only works because it has been granted by those with even greater authority eg. CEO appointed by a Board. People may submit because of hierarchy; but not because they have really granted the leader permission to influence them beyond that context. In his New York Times bestseller, The 5 Levels of Leadership, John C. Maxwell is unequivocal that “position is the lowest level of leadership–the entry level. The only influence a positional leader has is that which comes with the job title. People follow because they have to” (20011, 7, emphasis mine). This is is Level 1, ground floor. I worry when Christian leaders jostle for positions like bishop and archbishop and will kill over titles like ‘Rev. Dr.,’ ‘Very Rev.,’ ‘Major Prophet’ and ‘Apostle General.’ Christian leaders should examine their motives and check their shadows (a.k.a. false self) why they crave these positions and titles. The recent rush for cheap doctorates is a disgrace to Christ’s church! It is a sign of deep sickness which needs strong medicine. Only the true and pure Gospel fully applied by the power of the Holy Spirit can cure this.
2. PERSONAL POWER–this is influence exercised through a person’s mix of personality, charisma, connections, knowledge, character, skills, expertise, access to info, networth and behaviour. This is the bread and butter of the multi-million motivational industry. It’s mostly about increasing personal power. In summary, “this kind of power depends on the confidence and trust a person generates from the people he or she is attempting to lead” (Reese & Loane 2012, 116). Here, people grant you permission to lead them because of who you are, what you do (or have done), what you represent and how much you mean to them. So Maxwell’s Level 2 is Permission, Level 3 Production, Level 4 People Development and Level 5 Pinnacle (which is developing other leaders to Level 4). While all these elements of personal power are somewhat more intrinsic than positional leadership, and that may be the ceiling for the rest of the world, for the Christian leader even this will not suffice. I find many Christian leaders trying to better themselves and polish their craft to gain more influence. This is better than just positions and titles and hierarchy; but it still isn’t best. Even Maxwell’s Level 5 which he calls ‘the Pinnacle’ isn’t really the highest point for Christian leaders.
3. SPIRITUAL POWER–finally, this is influence exercised because of the perception of the person’s spiritual authority. Again, according to Reese & Loane, “The followers recognize evidence of a close relationship with God and see the leader as credible and trustworthy because of his or her apparent close relationship with God” (2012, 116). I find it curious that words like ‘perception’ and ‘apparent’ are used because people can fake this or even go for a false version of spiritual power from the occult. Again, the numerous emerging testimonies of ‘pastors’ going for occult powers to influence people is heart-breaking. It is pure evil; anti Christ. Effectual Christian leaders, whose being and doing counts on earth and in heaven, value spiritual authority as their primary power base. Again Reese & Loane say, “And this spiritual authority flows out of a deep concern for and commitment to intimacy with God and a life lived with integrity. Their influence does not exclude personal or positional authority, but these power bases become secondary. Over time, their communities increasingly recognize their lives as characterized by spiritual power and authority.” (2012, 116). We have a problem, a big problem, when Christian leaders and pastors depend more on positional and personal power than spiritual power.
It is no wonder then that “the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits“ (Daniel 11:32b, KJV, emphasis mine), including resisting the smooth talking of those who oppose Christ and His cause. They have spiritual power, and that is everything. Not everything leadership is great or even good for the Christian leader. O for prudence, wisdom and discernment to value what counts in Christ’s marking scheme! For the Christian leader, positional power is good. Personal power is better. “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” But the greatest and best is spiritual power.
Clinton, Robert J. 2001. Clinton’s Biblical Leadership Commentary Series, Commentary CD vol. 2. Altadena, CA: Barnabas.
Greene, Robert and Joost Elffers. 2002. The 48 Laws of Power. London: Profile Books.
Maxwell, John C. 2011. The 5 Levels of Leadership. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.
Reese, Randy D. & Robert Loane. 2012. Deep Mentoring: Guiding Others on Their Leadership Journey. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
In an April 15, 2020 memo to members, alumni, associates and partners of The HuD Group worldwide through the various country CEOs, the Global CEO bared his heart out regarding a paradigm and practice that is direly needed: deep mentoring.
“So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, NRSV)
“He [Jesus] appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.” (Mark 3:14, NIV)
BY NOW YOU SHOULD KNOW | If you didn’t, now you do.
COVID-19 or not, it is a function of leadership to cast and recast vision—clearly, creatively, constantly. But I dare say particularly in COVIDic times like these, it is suicidal not to cast and recast vision. Every year, The HuD Group runs with a throbbing vision, a focal theme for the season: 2017 (Family First), 2018 (Leading with Health of Soul), 2019 (Pursuing God’s Will Together). In 2020 our focus is Deep Mentoring.
By God’s grace I just finished (in December 2019) a three-year journey resulting in a Master of Arts degree in Global Leadership. One of the key mentors at the institution I studied at, Dr. Bobby Clinton (joined in 1982), after diving into thousands of historical, biblical and contemporary case studies came to a “startling conclusion—few leaders finish well” (Clinton & Stanley 1992, 11). Bad news. The good news, after further studies, showed that of the few who finish well, “other individuals helped most of these men and women in timely situations along the way” (11). But you know the best part? If you’re reading this there’s great hope that you will run your life and leadership well and finish strong because The HuD Group is committed to mentoring; not just mentoring, deep mentoring.
WHAT ON EARTH IS MENTORING? | One of the most used yet least understood words in our generation.
Simply put, mentoring is “a relational experience through which one person empowers another by sharing God-given resources” (12). Christian mentoring, in particular, is “a dynamic, intentional relationship of trust in which a mentor enables a mentee to maximize the grace of God in his or her life through the Holy Spirit, in service of God’s kingdom purposes, by sharing their life, experience and resources” (Lawrence 2004, 207).We have the rest of the year, indeed the rest of our lives, to learn about these different resources and the different types of mentors there are but suffice it to say it is deep mentoring that really matters.
By deep mentoring, we speak of a departure from what Eugene Peterson (writer of The Message version of the Bible) describes as a past half-a-century trend where “leadership … has been functionalized and depersonalized into programs that have steadily eroded the very core of the Christian life, which ought to be a life of trinitarian-shaped intimacy and community” (Reese & Loane 2012, 7, emphasis mine). He says this as part of the foreword to a book, ‘Deep Mentoring,’ which is our main study text alongside the immutable, living and active text of the Bible. While programmes, seminars, courses, workshops, books, videos etc. are all helpful in our discipleship and leadership formation, the essence of deep mentoring is “a leadership of companionship and a spirituality of relationship” (8).
The ultimate example of this is Jesus Christ himself who “appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14, NIV). A distant second will be the apostle Paul. In our other 2020 Deep Mentoring theme text, can you sense the depth of the relational experience the apostle had with the Thessalonians? “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, NRSV).
Only deeply transformed people are able to deeply transform the church and the world, by God. I see too many, far too many, untransformed people trying to champion change in the church and/or society. You know too well the names and faces of the countless casualties. People want to ‘microwave’ leaders into being and produce them en mass. It doesn’t work that way—if there ever was a ‘superman’ who could do that it was Jesus yet even he did not because “paying attention to the formation of others is a lifelong work, which holds in tension our growing with our serving—our followership [discipleship] with our leadership” (16, emphasis mine). I am convinced, like the authors of our core textbook for the year, that “leadership development in Jesus’ name is a slow and deep work” (16). We had better get going then—slowly but surely.
CONCLUSION | So what are you going to do about it?
Choose to intentionally journey with your various national HuD Group leaders and their designates poco a poco, day by day, here a little there a little over the course of this whole year (and even another 2-3 years) and see what difference deep mentoring makes in your life and leadership for the sake of God’s kingdom coming more fully on earth, as it is in Heaven!
So help us God! Amen!
Clinton, Robert J. & Paul D. Stanley. 1992. Connecting: The Mentoring Relationships You Need to Succeed in Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Lawrence, James. 2004. Growing Leaders: Cultivating Discipleship for Yourself and Others. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Reese, Randy D. & Robert Loane. 2012. Deep Mentoring: Guiding Others on Their Leadership Journey. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
So what is the paradigm shift we need, a totally different worldview, in order for us to embrace and love children as the ‘blessing’ that they are supposed to be? Those who are too smart to have/raise children will actually soon not be here anymore–and there will be little evidence that they were even ever here. But does this all even matter?
So because children are an inconvenience, suckers, an unwelcome reflection of our marred selves and a host of other pains, many postmodern people would rather have dogs and cats than ‘kids.’ If we do at all, two is the most ‘decent’, ‘smart’ and even ‘cute’ thing to do: “a boy for me and a girl for you, and praise the Lord we’re finally through!” as I heard one preacher humorously quip.
I’ll tell you why Anyele and I have three times the ‘ideal’ (so far) but right from the get go let me be clear what I’m not saying:
- I’m not saying everyone should have seven (or more) children like we plan to. Of course it’s your choice in the light of your calling and circumstances (that is the essence of family planning) but I cannot guarantee that you won’t be inspired to do better than two at the end of this;
- I’m not saying we shouldn’t have economic and ecological considerations of the society or even the earth in mind but I cannot guarantee you won’t drop the silliness being propagated that this world is overpopulated. The whole world’s population can fit into the state of Texas (I know we can argue about arable land, amenities for all etc. but that mathematical fact should shock us to reconsider the lies we’ve bought into);
- I’m not saying biological children is the only way to go. Once we truly understand the purpose of children, including the disabled, we are happy to love on them whether they are from our own womb or not. Even with our blessing of ease of conception, painless labour (did you know that?) and having half a dozen biological cubs already, my dear wife and I still have discussions about the possibility of adopting a couple of children. If you understand the purpose and promise of children you will raise some; even if not yours by biology.
FROM NOTHING TO NOTHING: A SERIES OF NOTHINGNESS
By now you probably know that everyone, irrespective of age or gender, ethnicity or era of history overtly or unconsciously asks themselves these seven questions: 1. Who am I? 2. Where am I from? 3. Why am I here? 4. What can I do? 5. Where am I going? 6. What’s wrong with the world? 7. How can it be fixed?
The answer to each question results in one child, thus our seven. LOL! No; seriously, our answers to these questions is determined by our worldview, which in turn determines how we see children and feel about them. I am happy to debate the (de)merits of postmodern human secularist answers to these questions in a different blog but suffice it to say that they don’t satisfy and are largely to blame for the inconvenience of children. For starters, there’s no God (or if there is he/she/it doesn’t matter) and if I’m just an advanced ape with less hair but more smarts who evolved from amoeba and is heading who knows where then what’s the point of anything, even of life itself, let alone the pain called children?
Who am I? Nothing. Where am I from? Nowhere. Why am I here? No rhyme or reason. Do you have the time for me to go through the remaining questions? Let’s pause briefly on the third question. “This culture basically says that there is no rhyme or reason, so we’re here to make the most of it. Consume. Enjoy. That’s why we’re here. That is the overarching mentality in our culture, both inside and outside the church, resulting in unquenchable materialism and causing us to look at children as a blight and a burden. … Why? Because they get in the way of our consumption and our enjoyment. They cost too much. That’s the fruit of postmodernism and secular humanism” (Voddie Baucham in The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World).
I first speak as a theist; then as a Christian theist. Somehow our generation has managed to divorce God’s mission from our life’s purpose and as Rob Rienow laments, also separated our purpose from marriage, separated marriage from sex, separated sex from children and well… children are left hanging.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and everything in between (Genesis 1:1–it doesn’t get more basic than that). Human beings are not nothing because God created mankind, male and female equally, in His own image and likeness and blessed us. The first thing God ever did for man is to bless us! Wow! We are blessed! And His first instruction to us was: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth…” We are happy to skip all of this and go to the part that says we should steward the earth, take dominion, lead, even be productive in other ways but don’t want to put first things first! To make babies is man’s first job description.
So why on earth will will Almighty God with bigger and better things to do (have you seen a picture of the Milky Way alone?!) make having children his first priority and man’s first job description, even a couple of thousand years before the 10 commandments? God is on mission to fill the earth with His glory (if you think he’s a megalomaniac feel free to take Him to task about that but remember He made all things and it all belongs to Him including your sharp brain and smart mouth). What the heck has that got do do with human reproduction? Human beings are the crowning glory of His creation! Being God’s image-bearers, every human being brought to life reflects the glory of God and extends it on the earth more and more.
So key is this God-glorifying mission to the Creator that he made marriage of man and woman as the context for this co-creation so that marriage isn’t purposeless, sex isn’t purposeless and the children that result aren’t purposeless either.
SCRIPTURE’S HIGH VIEW OF CHILDREN
Since Jews, Muslims and Christians make up nearly 60% of the world and mainly agree on the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. ‘Old Testament’), let me just highlight its high view of children throughout: its very beginning (Genesis), middle (Psalms) and the end (Malachi). Of course there are many other places in between but already this blog is much longer than I had intended! (By the way non-religious people, who also tend not to have children (or many children) will be dying out and shrink by 2060. They can keep insulting me for my stupidity of having so many children but they can read the Pew Research here).
Beginning: “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:28, emphasis mine)
Middle: “Children are a gift from the LORD; they are a reward from him. Children born to a young man are like arrows in a warrior’s hands. How joyful is the man whose quiver is full of them! He will not be put to shame when he confronts his accusers at the city gates [or when they contend with their opponents in court]” (Psalm 127:3-5, emphasis mine).
End: “Didn’t the LORD make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth” (Malachi 2:15, emphasis mine).
God’s purpose and plan for godly children from marriage is why the Malachi verse above is followed by the rather strong, “For I hate divorce!” says the LORD, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” (Malachi 2:16). Often that divorce scripture is quoted out of context. What’s so bad about divorce? Well, while God’s heart breaks alright when divorce tears two consenting adults apart (especially for the women 3,000 years ago who had no socioeconomic props unlike now) his sizzling hatred for divorce is actually because of what it does to the children; to His cosmic plan of filling the earth with his image-bearers. They are marred.
Yes, you probably knew Malachi was the last book in the Hebrew Bible but did you realize that the last verse of the last book talks about children too? The LORD speaks of the coming of a certain prophet (who then appears 400 years later in the New Testament) whose preaching “will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers.” Otherwise, disaster (see Malachi 4:15-16). How I pray this blog will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents!
PARADIGM SHIFT: PURPOSE OVER PAIN
A Christian theist view of life gives us purpose greater than the pain of having and rearing children just like many of us when we were in medical students would tell you that the glorious hope of becoming a doctor one day gave us the oomph to make it through a lot of manure in medical school. Purpose over pain. Even for the ‘superman’ Jesus Christ who we just commemorated at Easter barely a week ago, because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its pain and shame shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Party forever. We’re to fix our eyes on this pioneer and perfecter of faith (see Hebrews 12:1-2). Purpose over pain.
There are many people who are Christian in name but human secularist in their thinking (particularly the postmodernist kind). Surely this must give cause to “cognitive dissonance.” There are many things we do in life that are hard but we do them. Waking up is hard, taking our bath is hard (be honest! ), growing up is hard, school is hard; sports is hard, marriage is hard (if you don’t think so then you haven’t tried), work is hard, lockdown is hard… (heck, life is hard!) but we do them! Having and raising children is hard too but why separate that hardness from the rest of life? No, we do that too. And if you should ask me, it’s of much more value than most of these other hard things we do. There is a higher Being than our selfish selves that beckons; a higher purpose than the painful inconvenience that compels; and a deeper fulfilment of something (and someone) that outlives making merry today and just dying tomorrow.
Part 3/3 here.
Blah Blah blah… Okay, okay we hear you. Children matter. But is how many we have/raise of any consequence: two, seven, a dozen? God-willing, I’ll tell you about a certain 200-year vision and why we want seven.
We all know what is meant by the most popular phrase in the universe right now, ‘social distancing,’ but the term is unacceptable to me on at least three levels. I would rather go for the term ‘spatial distancing’ than ‘social distancing,’ and here’s why.
The world is in wartime mode, fighting a pandemic that hasn’t spared any country or territory on the globe and so this is not the moment to be squabbling over words. But for what it’s worth let me get this ‘social’ versus ‘spatial’ debate off my chest!
The COVID-19 formula to contain the pandemic locally and to ‘flatten the curve’ globally has mainly been hand washing (or sanitizing), masking up (depending on who you listen to) and ‘social distancing.’ The latter has meant anything from being six feet away from your neighbour to simply staying at home.
While the mode of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus calls for such a physical distancing from one another in order not to contract the disease or infect others (if you already have it) my problem with the term ‘social distancing’ is three-fold.
1. THE SOCIOLOGICAL FAUX PAS
First of all, we are social beings. We all know ‘No man is an island,’ a popular quote from the English metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631). Distancing ourselves from one another at anytime has harmful consequences let alone at such a time as this. My friends on Face Book and I, knowing what was meant by ‘social distancing’ yet unhappy with what it connotes, began this discussion a couple of weeks ago and tried to find another term. We initially landed on ‘physical distancing’ which is as clear as day yet doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘social distancing.’ As succinctly put by Nana Efua, “‘social distancing’ sounds more hip.” Theo Aryee even went ahead to take screenshots of dictionary definitions of physical (“relating to the body as opposed to the mind”/”involving bodily contact or activity”) and social (“relating to society or its organization”/”needing companionship and therefore be suited to living in communities”) for comparison online.
Some don’t mind the term ‘social distancing’; it’s no big deal to them. As Esi put it, “I personally don’t see the fuss… When in SOCIAL contexts, (as in, when with other human beings), keep your distance. “Same Difference”, and since the memo has been circulated already, we might as well not muddy the waters.” I was pleased to read in the Los Angeles Times that those of us fussing on Face Book were not alone. In an article entitled “Isolation is hazardous to your health. The term ‘social distancing’ doesn’t help,” the staff writer refers to a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Daniel Aldrich, who says, “The moment I heard public health authorities use the term, I thought they were making a mistake.” I was pleased to read that his preference, like my friends and I, was “physical distancing.”
“Aldrich fears the phrase “social distancing” suggests we should be turning inward and closing ourselves off from friends and neighbors in the outside world.” I concur. He hits the nail right on the head: “That’s the exact opposite of what we want people to do. You need to have as close social ties as possible when physical distancing is in effect.” As a medical doctor I know social connections affect many socioeconomic and health indicators and from Aldrich’s own post-disaster studies, actually directly affect death rates.
2. THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL FAUX PAS
I find the anti ‘social distancing’ reaction of experts from a generally individualistic Western society intriguing as anthropologically, they are more likely to come up with a term like that. For the West, especially since the Enlightenment with its “I think therefore I am” movement, autonomy and individualism are rife. As someone born and raised in the global south, where to be is to be in community, I would say if ‘social distancing’ sounds bad to a Westerner then it’s anathema to the Majority World.
For the Global North, generally, I am because I think; for the rest, I am because we are. The South African Bantu term Ubuntu, to wit “I am because you are,” encapsulates the idea that humans cannot exist in isolation. There is no personhood without the other and we depend on community connection, conversation and caring. For honor-shame cultures, which two-thirds of the world is, social distancing is synonymous with having a cause for shame. If you consider Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s definition of ubuntu in his 1999 book you will see how it’s the exact opposite of ‘social distancing’: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
3. THE THEOLOGICAL FAUX PAS
Finally as a Christ-follower, and a pastor at that, I always try to theologically reflect on the words, terms and concepts I use. ‘Social distancing’ (again while we all know what is meant) wouldn’t cut it theologically. The nature of the Triune God—one-in-three, three-in-one—of the Christian faith, as argued by Tertullian (c.155-220 A.D.) of Tunisia, is that “from all eternity God is one, but God is not alone.” Right from Genesis 1:1, Elohim (the Hebrew word for God) is a plural noun, most explicitly seen in Genesis 1:26 where God says, “Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness.” As another theologian put it, “at the centre of the universe is a relationship.” At the centre of the universe is a community: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Since this article is not an apologetic for the Trinity, suffice it to say that mankind having been made in the image and likeness of the Triune God who is himself relationship, family, community and social, cannot be ‘socially distant’ and remain human. In the above March 18, 2020 Facebook post I wanted to sound a caution, especially since churches were at the cusp of being forced to close for physical meetings, that the last thing anyone should do at this time is to lose not only the horizontal relationship with each other (as explained in the first two points above) but also the vertical relationship with God as well. God’s family, the ‘household of faith,’ is not referred to as ‘the body of Christ’ for nothing. There can be no social or spiritual distancing of any of the body parts.
So it was with utmost excitement on the eve of April Fool’s day that I posted the following on my Face Book wall (which has suffered a lot of graffiti since the COVID-19 broke out): “Eureka! I’ve found it! “SPACIAL DISTANCING”; that’s the word that does the job, doesn’t kill the socially and spiritually close beings we’re meant to be but still sounds as cool as “social distancing”!”
I’m on a personal campaign to kill ‘social distancing’ and replace it with ‘spacial distancing.’ Human beings can afford to be physically distant for a season but die in more ways than one when we become socially and spiritually distant, even for a brief moment. Off to keep up the fight with clean hands against the Coronavirus; spacial distancing it is while at it. Selah.
The time of the prophet Isaiah, in the eighth century BC, was a similar period of turmoil and change in the Near East just as the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered our world today. The people of God had a choice to make between the multitudes of tangible but false gods of the neighbouring states and the unseen but Almighty God of their forebears. We face a similar choice in a similar dispensation. Who/What will we trust in for salvation?
What a time to be alive! Our ‘Titanic’ has hit an iceberg. The worst pandemic in 100 years! Over half a million infected with COVID-19 in 199 countries and territories; over 25,000 dead. Nations are in lockdown; economies are heading into recession; healthcare systems are bursting at the seams… everything that can be shaken is being shaken!
The time of the prophet Isaiah, in the eighth century BC, was a similar period of turmoil and change in the Near East (Coogan 2016, 253). It wasn’t a viral microorganism stirring up the turmoil; it was a viral kingdom called Assyria! As Coogan puts it, “As the Assyrians moved toward Egypt in their ambition to control the entire Near East, the northern kingdom of Israel, like many other states in the region, was absorbed into the Assyrian empire, and the independence of the southern kingdom of Judah was curtailed severely” (253).
The other thing was that the Near East was rife with idols! Literally thousands of idols have been uncovered by archaeologists throughout the area. And Israel was constantly tempted to put their trust in these tangible but false gods rather than the unseen yet Almighty One. This is the context of the prophet Isaiah.
In the last couple of weeks my church family in Montreal, Westview Bible Church, began a series on “Selections from the Book of Isaiah” under the broad theme “The Glory of God and the Restoration of all things.” Today we continue that, and for the next few weeks… The book of Isaiah’s overall theme receives its clearest purpose statement in chapter 12: “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). This echoes the meaning of Isaiah’s name, which means the “Yahweh is salvation.”
Today’s message, PLAYING GOD, samples a number of passages in the Second of three parts of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, particularly chapters 40, 42, 44 and 45. My aim is to force us to take a closer look at our tumultuous world today (just like in Isaiah’s day), to see how everything that can be shaken is shaking right now. And to ask ourselves a piercing question: What shakey created thing are we putting ahead of, or even in place of, an unshakeable uncreated God? Who or what has been playing God in your life? How are they doing right now? Isaiah 42:6-22 will be our anchor text; but we’ll go back and forth in the Isaiah 40’s. Let’s go!
Playing God. There’s a sense in which we play God because we are made in His image and likeness and have the power to create, both hard ‘stuff’ and soft stuff like ideologies. But as Andy Crouch puts it so well, “Idolatry is the biblical name for the human capacity for creative power run amok” (Crouch 2013, 55). We then create stuff that now want to play God in our lives. We make idols and then they shape us!
We’ll examining this message in four parts (4C’s):
- Characterization | characterization of idolatry (Isaiah 44:1,2, 6-7, 9)
- Claims | claims of the gods (Isaiah 44:1,2, 6-17)
- Consequences | consequences of idolatry (Isaiah 44:10, 11, 18-20)
- Call, your call. (Isaiah 44:19-22)
1. CHARACTERIZATION | of Idolatry (44:1, 2, 6-7, 9)
Right from the beginning of Second Isaiah onwards (chapter 40 forwards) there is a series of verses targeting idols and idolatry, especially chapters 40 to 48. Introduction is right there in chapter 40:18
18 With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him? 19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. 20 A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.
Images in the ancient Near East were either cast (i.e. metal) or carved (out of wood). An idol is a cultural construct, hard or soft, that we treasure and that embodies a false claim about our ultimate source, sustenance and sense of identity and meaning. “The word ultimate is crucial …” (Crouch) because various things are our source( eg. the sun for light) and sustain us (eg. economy or science) and give a sense of meaning (like family) but none of them should ever be considered ULTIMATE! Then they become a god; a false god.
It is reported that someone said of the Titanic: “Even God cannot sink this ship!” That is the problem with idolatry. Crouch says Crouch, “an idol is a special kind of human creation, one that is not just mistaken in a superficial way. Rather, it advances a claim about the ultimate nature of reality that is ultimately mistaken. And since the Creator God is the ultimate meaning of the world, an idol is a representation of a false god. Implicitly or explicitly, all idols represent a challenge and counterclaim to the identity and character of the true Creator God.”
First of all, who are the PLAYERS in this ‘game of thrones’:
- Yahweh: “Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty” (vs. 6)
- If you back track to the beginning of the chapter (vs. 2), “This is what the LORD says…”
- Yahweh’s people: they are the ones he’s mainly speaking to in this passage
- Backtrack to beginning of chapter (vs. 1): “But now listen, Jacob, my servant, Israel,
- Repeats “Jacob, my servant” in the last part of verse 2 and adds a nickname for them “Jeshurun.” This was “an endearing name for Israel—see Deut 32:15; 33:5, 26” (Walton et al 2000, 628).
- Verse 7 talks about “what has happened since I established my ancient people“
- In vs. 8b, “you are my witnesses“
- Idol makers/Craftsmen: “All who make idols…” (vs. 9a)
- Idols: “…and the things they treasure…” (vs. 9b)
2. CLAIMS | of the gods (44:1, 2, 6-17)
GAME ON!!! Idols’ claim versus Yahweh’s claim. Both Yahweh and idols want to claim us; but only God is able to articulate and justify his claim in the Scripture! In fact, an idol can make no claim, except what we’ve attributed to it. God wants to play His role as God in our lives; but idols also want to play God. I’ll just compare the claims in terms of CHOICE, CREATION, CLASS, CONFESSION of these four players.
A. Choice | The One Who Has First Choice alone is worthy of first place!
- YAHWEH: He chooses first because he comes before all things!
- “But now listen, Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen.” (vs. 1)
- “Do not be afraid Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (vs. 2)
- PEOPLE & IDOL MAKERS: They go choose a what deity, design and material in nature.
- “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.” (Is. 40:20)
- IDOL: Cannot choose anything or anyone.
B. Creation | The One Who Creates alone is worthy of worship!
- YAHWEH: “This is what the Lord says—he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you…” (vs.2). “I have made you, you are my servant” (vs. 21) 18 For this is what the Lord says—he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited…” (Isaiah 45:18)
- PEOPLE & IDOL MAKERS: “Who shapes a god and casts an idol,which can profit nothing?” (vs.10) “People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings.” (v.11)
- 12The blacksmith takes a tooland works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. 13 The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. 14 He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.15 It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. (vs. 12-15)
- IDOL: Is created/shaped! “Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing?” (vs. 10)
C. Class | God is in a class of His own; all by Himself. He is worthy of our exaltation.
- YAHWEH: “This is what the Lordsays—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one” (vs. 6) In Isaiah 45: 18 God says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
- PEOPLE: “Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame” (vs. 9c).
- IDOL MAKERS: “All who make idols are nothing…” (vs. 9a)
- IDOLS: “…and the things they treasure are worthless.” (vs. 9b)
- 16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says,“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” 17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!” (vs. 16-17)
D. Confession | The One Who Can Speak for Himself (not spoken for) is to be heeded.
- YAHWEH: Who then is like me? Let him proclaim Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened [past] since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—yes, let them foretell what will come [future].” (vs. 7) “Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses.” (vs. 8) “I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness;I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right.” (Isaiah 45:19)
- PEOPLE: Nothing to say.
- IDOL MAKERS: Nothing to say.
- IDOLS: Say nothing. They do not because they cannot.
3. CONSEQUENCES | of Idolatry (44:10, 11, 18-20)
When it comes to idolatry, it’s a lost game. Heads, you lose; tails you lose.
- A. Lose Time & Money: Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? (vs. 10)
- B. Lose Honour/Face: “People who do that will be put to shame; … Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to … shame“ (vs. 11). But those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’ will be turned back in utter shame. (Isaiah 42:17) “All the makers of idols will be put to shame and disgraced; they will go off into disgrace But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you will never be put to shame or disgraced, to ages everlasting.” (Isaiah 45:16-17)
- Nana Bea story of idol in rain; beaten to pulp
- C. Lose Calm: “… they will be brought down to terror ….” (vs.11). Terror.
- D. Lose Sense/Smartness:“They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see… No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:18-20)
- We’re not even able to record at church anymore, hence this message is from my home office—which incidentally used to be a shrine for a number of idols. When we came to see this home in Pierrefonds to purchase it a little over seven years ago, this room was full of idols! Think about it, the former occupants of this house had to pack up what they worship in boxes and send them to their next house. How can something you can pack up and carry, carry you?! We lose our smarts!
- E. Lose Self (GOD IMAGE): BECOME LIKE THEM! Blind, deaf, dumb; heartless… “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:8). You become who/what you worship.
Bottomline, you loose all. I like how Andy Crouch puts it: “All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands, which initially seem so reasonable, for worship and sacrifice. In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands. …idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing” (56).
4. CALL | your call (44:19-22)
Today, God is calling us to Reflect, Remember, Repent and Return.
A. REFLECT (stop to think): “No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” 20 Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (vs. 19-20)
- Reflect (take stock) of what you A-D-O-R-E
- Who/What you ADORE –> affections
- gods out of celebrities (catching the virus); Sports (NBA has ceased; Olympics postponed)
- Who/What you DEPEND ON –> addictions
- gods out of our sexuality; gods out of science & technology; AI’s coming!
- Who/What you OBEY –> directions
- gods out of our autonomy, our intellect! Our appetites. “The god is their stomach”
- Who/What you spend significant RESOURCES on –> investments of time and money.
- gods out of business; our economies; our healthcare system
- Who/What you Elevate –> promotions
- gods out of human rights—“We’ve elevated our rights above the one who makes us righteous” (Ron Kenoly).
- All these things, are good servants but terrible masters!
- Who/What you ADORE –> affections
- Reflect (take stock) of what you A-D-O-R-E
B. REMEMBER: “Remember these things, Jacob, for you, Israel, are my servant. I have made you, you are my servant; Israel, I will not forget you.” (vs. 21)
C. REPENT: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.” (vs.22a)
D. RETURN: “Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” (vs. 22b)
GOD DOESN’T PLAY. HE IS GOD. He is either NUMBER ONE or NUMBER ONE! He won’t take second place. “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8)
IF you have an idol in your life, it is your full responsibility because you have ceded your power of creation and choice as a person made in the image of God with the ability to ‘play God’ to someone or something, hard or soft, to rather play God in your life.
We’re so nothing—but you know what’s worse—the things we create to PLAY GOD in our lives. Everything that is created—primary (i.e. created by God) or secondary (created by man from what has already been created by God)—can be shaken.
Let me ask you again: What shakey created thing—created by God or man—are you putting ahead of, or even in place of, an unshakeable uncreated God? Crouch says, “Like the serpent in the Garden, they all [i.e. all idols] raise the question of the Creator God’s truthfulness and goodness, subtly or directly suggesting that the Creator God is neither true nor good” (56).
But in times of crisis like now I hope you see how no one and no thing can save you but Yahweh! “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). All else you cannot trust for salvation; and you ought to be afraid! NOTHING WE MAKE OF OURSELVES OR MAKE OURSELVES CAN ULTIMATELY SAVE US! Do you want to be safe and saved? Come to Yahweh!
Coogan, Michael D. 2016. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible in its Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Crouch, Andy. 2013. Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Walton John H., Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
If we peeled the pandemic panic layer by layer what would we find lies beneath—what are people really afraid of? While not wanting to spread panic is there not a place for encouraging people to “be afraid”?
The tongue-in-cheek saying that everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die seems rather apt in these COVIDic times. But really, what’s so bad about dying? Most people don’t seem to care enough about how many are recovering but rather fixated on how many are catching the disease and especially how many are dying. At the time of writing this article, the number of COVID-19 cases in the world was nearing 350,000 in 190 countries with approximately 15,000 deaths. These are not just statistics, numbers; they are real people made in the image and likeness of God, with families and friends to mourn them. May their souls rest in peace.
Much of the world is gripped in fear. But I’ve been wondering what people are really afraid of: is it getting sick per se or dying or what happens when they die? It is good to pause and ask yourself the same question, peeling back layer after layer until you find the root cause of any iota of fear that you might have/have had during this pandemic.
There have been many scripture verses and motivational messages to calm people down. This is the time preachers remind us that “there are 365 ‘fear nots’ in the Bible, one for each day of the year;” except 2020 has 366 days. Even governments have used hashtags like #SpreadCalmNotFear. While I’m of the preachy and motivational stock and have done my part to share love, spread hope, shout “fear not!” and even generate laughter amidst the virus storm I want to take a sober pause and say BE AFRAID.
Being afraid can be a good thing (or we will all do stupid things). But we ought to be afraid of the right things. It’s a good thing to be afraid to break the law, for instance, or to go after someone’s spouse. Not everyone likes Jesus Christ but no one, not even his sworn enemies, can ignore the fact that he is a real historic figure (it would be as ridiculous as saying Napoleon or Hitler never existed just because you don’t like him), was a prophet and miracle worker (two things both Christians and Muslims agree on), lived a perfectly upright life (unlike every other prophet) and teacher par excellence. Even in a raging storm (like COVID-19 has become in our day) he questioned his disciples”why are you so afraid?” while he rebuked the winds and spoke to the waves and stillness came.
In his often paradoxical pedagogy, once upon a time this teacher par excellence said not to be afraid and to be afraid in the same breath: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). What did he mean?
DEATH ISN’T WHAT YOU THINK
The new Coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2 that causes the disease COVID-19 can kill the body (your hardware). Ask Italians; 5,500 of them hav died already (at the time of writing). But it cannot kill the soul (your software). Yes, death is “the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue” or “cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism,” and that is good Biology, but death is more than that (according to ‘Soulogy’).
Many equate death with total annihilation. In other words, that once a person dies they just finish; disappear into thin air. C’est fini. That’s it. But no. Death actually means separation. Or as Finis Jennings Dake would put it, “a cutting off from realizing God’s purpose for which he was created. One can logically substitute the word separation for death in every scripture where it is used” (Dake 1991, 619). Consequently being tripartite beings–made up of spirit, soul and body–there are three kinds of death:
1. Physical Death–this is when your spirit and soul (inner man) are separated from your body (outer man). That is where biologically all functions, including brain function, that sustain a person cease permanently, from the micro (cellular) level to the macro (systemic) level. This separation of the soul and spirit from the body is the kind that as a medical doctor I would sometimes (unfortunately) be called upon to confirm: no breathing, pulse not palpable, dilated pupils not reacting to light etc. This physical death is what most people think about when it comes to the subject or our mortality, especially in these COVIDic times. But there is more.
2. Spiritual Death—this is the temporal separation of your spirit and soul from your Source/Maker/God. Or as evangelists like the late Billy Graham would plainly put it, separation of man from God because of sin. According to a Biblical worldview, the moment our forefathers Adam and Even sinned against God in the Garden of Eden, at that very moment (as promised by their Maker) they died. As a little boy I always used to wonder whether God lied about them dying as soon as they ate the forbidden fruit because they were very much alive after that, even running away from God! Now I know that what happened to them immediately was death alright–they were instantly separated from God—spiritual death. Their physical death came later. Hopefully, this makes us understand why since we as Homo sapiens are all descended from that first couple, all of us have inherited the spiritual genetic disease of sin and are born dead. Everyone of us is born separated from God spiritually, thanks to the pandemic from the virus SIN-00.
Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Christ followers in first century Rome: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). He follows up with the consequences of this, three chapters later: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Logically, therefore, if we are all sinners by nature and the salary for sin is death then we are all the living dead, from pope to prisoner, separated from our Maker.
3. Eternal Death—this, finally, is being separated from God forever in the lake of fire (hell). This, in scripture, is sometimes called “the second death” because follows “the first death” (physical death). Unlike spiritual death, this is eternal, forever. But eternal death is not entirely unavoidable. This will only happen to those who continue to live in their state of spiritual death until they physically die or Jesus Christ returns. If you remain in your state of spiritual death and you physically die you will eternally die. But there is a big IF because Paul again says that inspite of our state of spiritual death, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God doesn’t just have love; God is love. He does not want anyone to be a victim of eternal death. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
Those who hear about Jesus Christ and believe in him as the Son of God who came to die in our place—beyond being a mere historical figure, prophet and miracle worker, righteous man, and great teacher as introduced above—receive his life in exchange; for the only reason he died as a perfect, sinless man was as a sacrifice for you and me. He died a temporal physical and spiritual death he did not deserve in order that you and I could receive eternal life rather than the death sentence on us because of our sinful nature (plus our own sinful deeds on top of that). To the legal luminary Paul, “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved“ (Romans 10:9,10).
HOW TO NEVER DIE | THE CURE
So back to COVID-19, fear and Jesus. There is a virus (SIN-00), infinitely more dangerous than SARS-CoV-2 because it has eternal consequences, that has caused a spiritual pandemic with a manifestation of physical brokenness for thousands of years. Jesus Christ says do not be afraid of SARS-CoV-2 and its resultant disease COVID-19 which can kill the body (physical death) but cannot kill the soul (spiritual and eternal death). Be afraid of (or have deep reference for) the One who because of SIN-00 will at the end of the age, as a result of your own choice not to accept the free gift of eternal life, hand you your eternal ticket to a place of eternal separation from Him. I think inasmuch as the fire described in hell is horrific, the real penetrating eternal pain is the forever separation from Love—for God is Love. This is eternal death.
Who doesn’t like cures? Imagine it were announced today that there was now a definitive cure for COVID-19, not just the Chloroquine being experimented with now! How quickly people will line up for it! Well, let me tell you how to never die, COVID-19 or not.
One day a friend of Jesus called Lazarus physically died (you may read the story here). When Jesus arrived at the scene four days later he uttered to his sister one of the most amazing words ever spoken: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:24-26). Understanding the three kinds of death finally allowed me to make sense of this profound scripture: the one who believes in Jesus will eternally live even though they may physically die; and whoever has overcome spiritual death (lives; now has eternal life) by believing in Jesus will never eternally die!
Then Jesus asked Martha, sister of Lazarus, “Do you believe this?” Her response was “Yes, Lord.” And she elaborated further, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” May I ask you too: “Do you believe this?” If not, be afraid.
Dake, Finis J. 1991. Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible. Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Bible Sales Inc.
For those not in my social media circles you wouldn’t know just how much faith, hope and love I’ve been pouring onto the world. I feel the global body of Christ has been very pastoral in this COVID-19 pandemic (much needed, of course) but we ought not to forget our other hand/arm to be evangelistic as well.
It was at the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Cape Town 2010, that I heard for myself John Piper passionately proclaim the two truths with such wisdom and clarity: “…could the evangelical church say—we Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering? I hope we can say that. But if we feel resistant to saying “especially eternal suffering,” or if we feel resistant to saying “we care about all suffering in this age,” then either we have a defective view of hell or a defective heart” (emphasis mine). Full script and video here.
God help Christ followers balance being pastoral and being evangelistic at this time; ambidextrously handling the rod and staff; flying with both wings of social concern and evangelism, “two wings of the same bird” for the blessing of all peoples of all nations and to God’s glory!
It’s never a good time to pitch religion and reason against each other but certainly not in a time of crisis, especially the kind of COVID-19 pandemic which requires “all [washed] hands on deck!”
Much of my time this morning was spent going back and forth debating on my Achimota School 1995 WhatasApp platform because one member forwarded what was purported to be a Tweet from a prominent Ghanaian journalist: “A country that invests in a $100 million cathedral, and not in medical research, can only pray in times of a global pandemic and hope to profit from the labs of countries that invest in science and technology.”
BLOW AWAY THE CHAFF
The last thing we want to be doing at this time is to pitch faith and science against each other, but before delving into that let me first quickly get rid of the disingenuity of the above statement which seems smart, even sassy, at face value. 1. The $100 million (if that is even accurate) is being raised by a Ghanaian Christian community that for the last 200 years has invested heavily not only in the faith of the Ghanaian people but in agriculture, schools, hospitals (including these supposed medical research centres) and the like. The government of Ghana isn’t raising the money for the cathedral–they gifted the land and seed money as their contribution but the body of Christ in the nation is doing the rest. 2. As I’ve stated elsewhere, nation building is complex: “We are building a nation here, a cohesive entity that must have spirit; not just a conglomeration of social services!” 3. Many of these countries that are being touted today as having ‘rather’ invested in science and technology have a rich faith heritage and foundation, including national cathedrals, that was part of the tide that raised them to where there are. Today they are becoming so secular to the point of amnesia! They ought to remember the rock from which they were hewn! 4. Throwing in a thorny issue at a time of national and global crises when the last thing we need is polarization is just not on; quite insensitive, actually. 5. To say one “can only pray in times of a global pandemic” is not only condescending and treating faith with disdain but unnecessarily pitting it against reason, faith and STEM. The last point is what I want to dwell on for the rest of this blog.
My immediate response to the said journalist’s statement is: The opposite is true also. A country that does not invest in the spiritual wherewithal of her people can only rely on science and technology, which evidently aren’t enough in the face of monstrous situations like the COVID-19 epidemic! Today, amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, doctors and scientists are using words like “hope,” “faith” and “pray.” Prayer is powerful; ask how I know!
Perhaps I’m in a unique position to speak to this issue as I am a medical doctor myself and a preacher. Double power! I prescribe medication but I also pray for people. Double power! The secular humanists only has science/technology; I have faith and science/technology. Double power! Why would anyone want to use only the right or left brain; one hand/leg instead of both (if they have them)? Why would any bird want to attempt to fly with only one wing? Why pitch faith against science when the same Lord God made both and wants everything in us and His world to be used for His glory? Double power, friends! That’s why I like the painting above that admonishes us to “wash and pray.” “Faith without works is dead,” said the apostle James. As my reverend minister likes to say, “Trust in God and lock your car.” God does miracles (the supernatural) on occasion and has also given us a bunch of principles for daily (natural) living.
Check out the double power response of Martin Luther (the Reformer) to one Rev. Dr. John Hess in a letter “whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague.”
I have watched with amusement as various world leaders respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Again, I may be in a unique position in experiencing both ends of the spectrum as a Ghanaian (largely religious) and Canadian (largely secular). Within the same 24 hours, the Canadian Prime Minister (whose wife has tested positive and who is himself in isolation) made a broadcast admitting he was as flustered as everyone else but generously offering practical measures to curb the debacle, the Ghanaian president called a number of church denominational leaders to the seat of government (Jubilee House) to pray! I am one of the 13,000 who joined in that prayer meeting via FaceBook Live and I loved his opening remarks. He said (to paraphrase), yes we have put health measures, travel advisories, financial resources etc. in place but we need more–to call on the God of Heaven as other leaders and nations have done throughout history and even now (we know the United States presidency also called for a national day of prayer on Sunday March 15). The Ghanaian president’s kind is an endangered species, one of few in the modern world who do not separate the physical and spiritual realms.
Consider Myers’ table above. How did we get here, to a place where the modern worldview is so dichotomous?! Pitching faith and reason against each other goes back centuries, perhaps peaking during the Enlightenment (17th to 19th century) in Europe. Yet we forget that Newton, Kelvin, Faraday and a host of other scientists were people of faith, specifically of the Christian faith. Does one’s faith make them a better or worse scientist? Of course not all scientists have faith–such is the beauty of the free will of humankind.
Faith leaders, this is not a time to be playing down rigorous reasoning and true science (for o yes, there is such a thing as pseudoscience) and flouting the basic public health protocols provided. Secular leaders, this is not the moment to look down on people of faith–who knows, their prayers may be keeping you alive!
I am right-handed but would hate to be only one-handed! I am a person of faith and reason, science and religion. I admit that Truth tends to be paradoxical and managing the tension between two ends isn’t a comfortable place to be but I’d rather fly with both wings than attempt to soar on one alone–impossible! Again, let’s not fall for the tyranny of the ‘or’ but embrace the genius of the ‘and’ (Jim Collins). Wash your hands and clean your hearts. Social distancing doesn’t imply spiritual distancing. Pray hard as if everything depended on God (it really does!) and work hard (especially those of us on the medical frontlines as well as in the background slaving away in labs trying to make vaccines) as if everything depended on you (humanly speaking, it does).
In many things, our world is polarized: female versus male, poor versus rich, secular versus sacred, spiritual versus material, church versus state, private versus public, evangelism versus social action… Please let’s not add science versus faith, especially in this time of crisis!
Myers, Bryant L. 2011. Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
COVID-19 TESTS: WILL THE CHURCH PASS?
By Thomas R. Bosomtwe
The Coronavirus pandemic has changed everything; including ‘church.’ This is the third in a series of random thoughts about the Church at a time when COVID-19 threatens to hold us all to ransom. Guest writer T.R. Bosomtwe examines the suspension of church services in Ghana and matters arising: a theological reflection.
On Sunday, 15th March, 2020, I listened to the president of Ghana outline the measures government has rolled out to curb the spread of the corona virus in Ghana. As part of the measures the president has directed that all church services be suspended for the next four weeks.
The directive, as would be expected, has been received with mixed reactions. On one hand, there are those who are of the view that it is discriminatory in the sense that if church services and other religious gatherings are being suspended, then activities at the night clubs, drinking bars, restaurants, supermarkets and lorry stations should all be suspended. In fact the Bishops’ Conference has raised questions about why they were not consulted on the matter and why night clubs and chop bars have been excluded.
On the other hand, there are others who have lauded the President for this directive. While they are not too happy that church services will not hold for the next four weeks, they believe that it is one of our surest ways of preventing any further spread of COVID-19. Many churches have issued memos to their congregants and adherents asking them to suspend all church activities until further notice.
While both sides have legitimate and very strong arguments to support their positions, I hold a neutral view on the suspension of church services. Among other things, I believe there is a lot more we have to do to curtail the spread of COVID-19. The bottom line is that individuals must seriously take personal responsibility for their own safety.
The suspension of church services however, is a test for the body of Christ. It is a test for the church as a corporate body, and it is a test for individual Christians This directive, occasioned by COVID-19, will reveal how robust or otherwise our set-ups are. The way we do church in this country will definitely not be the same during and after this pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 is testing many of the things we believe and many of the things we have been doing over the years. A few are discussed below.
1. TEST OF PRAXIS
First of all, the suspension of church services will test how we have been ‘doing’ church. The basic disciplines of the faith including personal and family devotion, personal prayer life, fellowship, commitment to holiness and evangelism we have cultivated are being tested. For the next 4 weeks, members will not be coming to church to listen to sermons. The question is will our church members survive? It depends on whether we have been ‘discipling’ our members, equipping them to live and serve Christ or we have reduced them to pastor-dependent Christians who depend on the pastor for almost everything. In the next four weeks the former will survive but the latter will tottle.
2. TEST OF LOYALTY
Secondly, the suspension will test the loyalty of church members. There are many Christians whose loyalty to Christ and to their local churches will be tested in the next four weeks. Some church members may see this suspension as a holiday and behave like school children who have been asked to go home because it rained. Others will really miss church! So, will you send your offering and tithe through ‘momo’ to church on Sunday? Would you want to know what your local church will do on Sunday and how you can support it?
3. TEST OF CITIZENSHIP
Thirdly, the suspension will test our practice of Christianity in relation to state authority. You do not need to be a prophet to predict that some ‘super spiritual’ churches will defy the directive of the President and hold their ‘regular’ church service on Sunday. Some are of the theological persuasion that it is an attack on their right to worship…and that…”they will obey God rather than man…” the real question is, how should the church relate to civil authority?
4. TEST OF SUBSTANCE
Fourthly, the suspension will make us know that people are more important than buildings. Many churches have invested huge sums of money into cathedrals, parishes, and auditoriums. Sometimes the very people who constitute the church are neglected, unattended to all because the church is building. Well, on Sunday, pastors will not have their regular members to preach to. What will become of the expensive chairs, supersonic gadgets and fittings? This is the time we need our members the most, but if we have not prioritized their needs and interests, then this time, they too will ‘show us.’
5. TEST OF TECH-READINESS
Last but not least, the suspension of church services for the next four weeks will test our preparedness for and how abreast we are with technology. I have heard with excitement some of the measures some churches are putting in place to reach their members on Sundays and all through the period when the suspension is in force; online streaming, facebook live, YouTube, radio broadcasts and the like. I also know some church leaders have no idea what these things are let alone what they are used for. It is time to embrace technology and use it to reach the masses for Christ.
Let me conclude by saying that God has a very interesting way of getting man’s attention. Sometimes “God allows the hurricanes of life to shake us into seeing that in a world of gigantic forces, we live by His permission, not by OUR good management.” Some things happen so that man will know that “there is a God in heaven who rules in the affairs of men.” By all means, let us observe the preventive protocols, but let us also pray for God’s intervention and while we are at it, let us learn the lessons that COVID-19 is bringing to all, especially the body of Christ.
The author is a student of Theology and Associate Pastor with the Assemblies of God, Ghana (Holy Ghost Revival Centre, Accra). The initial version of this write-up was first published on his FaceBook wall on March 17, 2020.
By Kwamena Bello
The directive of the State for a four-week cessation of church gatherings following confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ghana is NO ATTACK on the Church; rather, it is an opportunity to extend the frontiers of our outreach and impact.
I know some of you are so peeved by the directive and you reckon this as an attack on the Church, because whilst the Church cannot have its usual gatherings, apparently nightclubs and bars are allowed to operate.
I can agree that the exception seems irrational because people do not go to nightclubs to listen to a motivational talks, but mostly, to drink, bump, wind, and grind; a classic example, that is, of close contact engagement — very fertile ground for many to pick up the virus.
That said, and be that as it may, Pastors must now kindly and urgently, release the ministry to the saints; matter of fact, your assignment as a minister is to train the saints for works of ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
Let’s use this season to focus on developing care-cell (home-cell/house fellowship/home groups) system so that the saints can serve each other more intimately with God’s gifts of grace he has given each member of the body of Christ, and by extension, their communities.
In the meantime, let’s follow the various protocols as given by the State’s health officials, which protocols – with the exception of a few – must continue even when the outbreak is finally over.
Additionally, and equally importantly, let’s invest in technology and make good use of New Media. The drumbeat changed a long time ago, hence, we cannot afford to dance the same way as we’ve done. No, not anymore.
It’s time to wake up and seize the day.
The author is a Missionary Lead with the Assemblies of God, Ghana (Elevation Assembly, Accra). The first version of this write-up was made on his FaceBook wall on March 17, 2020.