Wednesday, June 13, 2018

She’s Still Sleeping...

Christine went to sleep on Monday, May 07, 2018 – she has not awakened yet. However, the following day she was pronounced dead. Some four years earlier, my sister-in-law Christine Baugh was diagnosed with colon cancer. She fought the curse with a variety of treatments, but eventually succumbed. Between my wife and I, she was the last sibling, but her youth was not enough to stave off the monster called death.

Although Christine will not be attending any more of our family gatherings, I will refer to her passing as sleep. Not because I do not want to accept the fact that she has gone, but rather, because the New Testament refers to her passing as sleep. Years earlier, Christine committed her life to Jesus Christ and was described as a Christian. Her faith informed her life.

Long before the New Testament writers were using sleep as a metaphor to describe death, Old Testament writers were doing the same. Death was associated with lying down to rest. From ancient history we learn that sleep was also used as a metaphor for death in Greek mythology.

Both Jesus and Paul would have been familiar with the ancient use of sleep as a metaphor for death. Jesus illustrates this in the story of Lazarus. Hear the gist of the story: ‘After Jesus had said this, He went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but His disciples thought He meant natural sleep. So then He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead …’ (John 11:11-14 NIV).

In using the metaphor of sleep, Jesus was teaching His disciples that there are similarities between sleep and the physical death of people of faith. As alluded to earlier, sleep implies rest. There is a discontinuation of the routine. Sleep is a naturally recurring physical and mental state of rest during which a person becomes inactive and unaware of the environment.

There is no doubt that sleep is good for you. Even the Bible teaches about the blessing of sleep (Psalm 127:2). After four years of fighting cancer and watching my sister-in-law change beyond recognition, it was good for her to experience a long sleep. The same could be said of the five other close friends who passed away in the last month. Eternal rest meant freedom from the pain and discomfort that ravaged their bodies.

Sleep is essential to our emotional and physical wellbeing. It is a time during which the body can rest, and the mind can sort things out. Each stage of sleep provides different benefits to our physiological and emotional health. Some stages of sleep help us to feel rested, whereas others help us learn or make memories. Some describe sleep as an opportunity for the brain to perform “housekeeping” tasks, such as organizing long-term memory, integrating new information, and repairing and renewing cells and tissues.

In essence, sleep prepares us for the next phase - it is a preparatory period. The period the Apostle Paul called the hope of the believer. Without this hope, Paul contends that the Christian life is futile (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Because of this hope we do not grieve like those who have no hope.

New believers in Thessalonica were quite concerned when they saw their loved ones dying. The grieving ones thought that the deceased were lost. Paul responded to that concern in one of his letters when he wrote: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

While attempting to inform and encourage believers, Paul was identifying a category of persons “who have no hope”. They do not share a worldview that believes there is a reality beyond passing away. They consistently refer to passing away as death, not sleep. For them, death does not only mean the cessation of life, but the cessation of opportunity and hope.

Paul further contends that the Christian worldview is not a mere philosophy of life. It is a reality rooted in the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is how Paul describes it – “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

That belief is what has enabled us to cope with the passing of our darling Christine. Agreed, there is a sense of loss in that she no longer shares our space. However, like Paul, we believe she is asleep and will rise again. How do I know she will rise again? Well, it happened to Jesus. According to Paul, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Birthday Worth Celebrating

Unlike Christmas, the birthday of the church gets little visibility in most churches. That is so unfortunate, considering that the church was birthed on a celebrative day. An occasion that brought together thousands of Jews for the Feast of Weeks.

The Feast of Weeks is the second of the three “solemn feasts” that all Jewish males were required to travel to Jerusalem to attend. To the Jews, this time of celebration is known as Shavuot, which is the Hebrew word meaning “weeks.” Shavuot marked the beginning of the new agricultural season.

Shavuot was a joyous time of giving thanks and presenting offerings for the new grain of summer wheat harvest. At times Shavuot was called the Feast of Harvest and the Feast of First Fruit. Whereas these titles reflect the agricultural nature of the celebration, the Feast of Weeks addressed the timing of the festive celebration.

The celebration started seven full weeks, or exactly fifty days, after Passover. In the Old Testament, we read where God commanded the Jews to count seven full weeks (49 days), beginning on the second day of Passover (Leviticus 23:15-16). For this reason, some refer to this festival as the Feast of the Fiftieth Day - from the Greek word pentecostes, meaning fiftieth. This is the same day referred to as the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament.

According to the New Testament, it was on the Day of Pentecost that the church was launched (Acts 2). Thousands of Jews were in Jerusalem to celebrate the start of another agricultural season. They approached that festival with thoughts of a new harvest, new beginnings and new hope. No one expected that that year’s festival would be unique. That festival, fifty days following the death of Jesus, coincided with the promise of Jesus – “do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised...”.

Acts 2:1 begins with the words, “when the day of Pentecost came...”. That simple statement is loaded with history and expectation. That was to be an occasion of thanksgiving and acknowledging God’s provision. An occasion when non-Jews could celebrate with Jews.

That was the context in which the church was launched. On that day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered simple fishermen from Galilee to speak in languages they did not know. On that day more than 3,000 persons were converted to a new faith, affirming that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. On that day the prophecy of Joel was partially fulfilled – “I will pour out my Spirit on all people...”

This weekend marks the anniversary of that festival. While Jews are celebrating Shavuot, some Christians are celebrating Pentecost. Sunday, May 20 is referred to as Pentecost Sunday. Some churches in Europe talk about Whit Sunday, from an old English idea of wearing white on that day. Both Jews and Christians celebrate the day, fifty days after Passover.

According to the Jewish Talmud, it was on that day, the Law was given to Moses. So, as Jews celebrate Shavuot this weekend, they will read portions from the Book of Ruth. They will be reminded of the Law that provides for the non-Jew, as in the case of Ruth. Some will gather at late-night study sessions to commemorate the giving of the Torah.

Christians on the other hand, will remember the birthday of the Church. Christians will remember the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. More liturgical churches observe this day annually on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Pentecostal churches within evangelical traditions also celebrate Pentecost Sunday.

Although my local church does not traditionally observe Pentecost Sunday, I intend to use the time to reflect on the rich harvest of converts at the launching of the church. I hope to reflect on the promise of the prophet Joel concerning God’s desire “to pour out His Spirit” on all ethnic communities. Pentecost Sunday is a great time to revisit our attitude to immigration – wouldn’t this be a wonderful opportunity to reach out to persons who are ethnically different from us?

More than anything else, this would be a great opportunity to experience the control of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Try to imagine a world with Spirit-controlled persons, infiltrating our communities with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Saturday, May 12, 2018

A Tribute To Women of Courage!

Sandra Green, a Florida mother turned-in her 18-year-old son to the police. She recognized him on surveillance video in connection with a home burglary.

Clearwater police released footage showing three teenagers breaking into a home. They were stealing headphones, sports memorabilia and a pair of Michael Jordan-brand sneakers. Days later, Sandra Green saw the video and said she was “heartbroken” to see that her son was one of the three people wanted.

“I was heartbroken because I know I didn’t raise him like that,” she told a television station. “I told him, ‘Come home, take your shower, get something to eat, I am about to take you over there to Clearwater, and turn you in." Clearwater police arrested the young man and charged him with burglary and grand theft.

The mother told a judge she wanted her son to be put on probation with the requirement that he get back on the path to graduate from high school. “He is not hardcore. I feel like he will break tonight. But I want to make sure that it sinks in.”

Throughout the life of a mother, she is confronted with difficult decisions. The difficulty often increases as children grow. For career women, many abandon career ambitions and accept the new challenges of motherhood. Others surrender economic stability and opt for developing character and value in their children. Simply put, mothers make huge personal sacrifices in attempting to nurture their offspring. Sometimes that passion to produce excellence in their children forces them to make tough decisions, all in the interest of their children.

That passion for character development prompted another mother to also turn her son in to the police. Lakesha Robinson was at her son’s school for a parent-teacher conference. She noticed his attention was on a cell phone that she didn’t recognize. She said, “what are you doing with this phone? Whose phone is this?”

He told his mother that the cell phone was given to him by a friend, but she wasn’t buying his story; therefore, she conducted her own investigation and uncovered the real owner of the phone.

The owner told the mother-of-three that his car was broken into and his cellphone, wallet, and credit cards had been stolen. He went on to say that his credit cards had been used at McDonald’s and Walmart. “Since my son had the phone, it’s obvious that he knows something about this theft.” But, when she asked her son about the burglary, he denied it – that’s when she continued her investigation. A McDonald’s bag, a Walmart bag, and a receipt were found inside her home and she called the cell phone owner to see if the amounts matched his statements.

The mother arranged a meeting with the owner and returned his property. Afterward, the Florida mother didn’t hesitate to turn her son in for burglary because of her own criminal background. She did not want her son to make the same mistakes she did before changing her life. Her son was arrested and taken to a juvenile detention center for 12 hours and charged with four counts of burglary.

As I reflect on Mother’s Day 2018, I am forced to recall experiences with the mothers I know best – my own mother, my wife who mothered three, and our daughter who is mothering four. These three women, representing three different generations have taught me much. Each of these women displayed toughness in their parenting. They sacrificed much, displayed tenderness, but never surrendered toughness. Thankfully, none of these women have had to report their children to the police.

At this time of year, I salute them – I salute each of them because, in their mothering, they cared more for the character than the image of their children. I salute these women because their passion for Jesus is greater than their passion for religion. The words of the Proverbs 31 woman ably describe each of them – “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all” (Proverbs 31:29). Happy Mother’s Day!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Laugh Out Loud!

When last have you had a good laugh? Did you know that laughter is good for you? When we laugh we stretch muscles throughout our face and body. As a matter of fact, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues.

Some psychologists believe, laughing is one way in which we express our true selves. We may learn how to walk, stand, sit, and eat properly, but when we genuinely laugh, we lay all pretense aside as our carefully polished image goes right out the window.

A researcher from Vanderbilt University, conducted a study in which he measured the amount of calories expended in laughing. It turned out that 10 to 15 minutes of laughter burned 50 calories. William Fry, a pioneer in laughter research, claimed “it took 10 minutes on a rowing machine for his heart rate to reach the level it would after just one minute of hearty laughter.”

The focus on the benefits of laughter really began with Norman Cousin's memoir, Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins, who was diagnosed with a painful spine condition, found that a diet of comedies helped him feel better. He said that 10 minutes of laughter allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep. The bottom line, laughter is good for you.

However, in affirming the value of laughter, I am not attempting to justify frivolity, vulgarity or even jokes at another’s expense. The biblical counsel must still be our guide – “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

In his book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (Penguin Books, 2001), Robert Provine, contends, “laughter has a social function. In the absence of stimulating media (television, radio or books), people are about 30 times more likely to laugh when they are in a social situation than when they are alone.” Indeed, people are more likely to smile or talk to themselves than they are to laugh when they are alone. Aside from the obvious implication that sociality can enhance laughter and perhaps one's mood, these observations strongly suggest that laughter is a social signal.

Laughter binds people together. It synchronizes the brains of speaker and listener, so that they are emotionally attuned. Provine believes that laughter establishes or restores a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people, who literally take pleasure in the company of each other. There is a sense in which levity can defuse anger and anxiety, and in so doing strengthen relationships.

I would tend to agree that laughter is a tool. It is the tool that is often used to build relationships. Professor Provine contends that "laughter is social, so any health benefits might really come from being close with friends and family, and not necessarily from laughter itself."

The Bible encourages laughter, when viewed as a physical expression of joy or cheerfulness. In the book of Proverbs we read, “a cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).

There is a healing effect when we are joyful, cheerful people. The word used for "joyful" here is the Hebrew word "sameah" which means, 'to be glad, happy, or joyful.' The idea behind this word is that someone is choosing to rejoice - to consider the good that God has done, rather than the misery and the opportunity to be sad and depressed.

Apart from the joy that the cheerful heart brings, the Proverbs text mentions “a crushed spirit as drying-up the bones”. This powerful contrasting imagery has been confirmed in research done by the American Medical Association - if you forcefully restrain a normally active rat, deadly frustration results. The emotional stress produces lethal results.

So, if laughter is a social signal of personal and communal joy, then the question needs to be answered – when last have you had a good laugh? In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, we are reminded that “there is a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). If you have not laughed for a long time, you might need to check-out a therapist – you need help!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Why Bother to Pray?

It is clear in every version of the Bible you read – God knows everything. Jesus went as far as to say to His disciples, “... for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” As Jesus continued teaching, He contended that prayer was not an attempt to inform God. Since that is so, then why bother to pray if God knows everything?

The question strongly implies that prayers are addressed to Someone who has the ability to hear and has the foresight to know the desires of the person praying. In other words, prayer is not simply a mere speech or soliloquy, an exercise in therapeutic self-analysis, or a religious recitation. Prayer would seem to be an attempt to communicate with an intelligent deity – not an inanimate object.

Elijah illustrated that very well in the Old Testament. He challenged the worshippers of Baal to call on their gods to provide fire. There is no evidence that those gods even heard the passionate prayers. For hours the prayer warriors met all the conditions of sincere prayer. What a contrast – when Elijah prayed, he used only sixty Hebrew words and his God responded.

Although Elijah knew that His God knew every detail of what was happening, it was still necessary for him to pray. It would then seem obvious, that when one prays, it is more than merely requesting something from God.

There are at least five reasons why Christians bother to pray. Firstly, because prayer is the channel God chose, for requests to be made to Him. My children can reach me using different means of contact. Prayer is different. Paul reinforces this point in his letter to the Philippians, “... but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Secondly, prayer is a response to God’s invitation. I pray because God invites me to do so. I find it much easier to respond to an invitation from someone who loves me. “Seek the Lord,” says Isaiah, “while He may be found; call on Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6).

Like Isaiah, Jeremiah quotes the Lord as saying, “Call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). When I pray, I am responding to an invitation from the Lord, to whom I am praying.

Prayer is a statement of dependence on God. It is an acknowledgement that I cannot handle this one by myself. When authentic, such statements call on us to maintain a posture of brokenness. As King David reflected on his arrogance and pride, and the ruin it brought to himself and others, he concluded, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Authentic prayer is always bathed in a spirit of brokenness.

In the fourth place, prayer provides me with an opportunity to be in contact with God. Jesus knew the value of this contact. Agreed, He was able to calm the storms, forgive sins and heal the blind, yet He needed to maintain contact with His Father. It was Mark who said of Him, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

Even as a leader in a theological environment, with Bibles all around, I need to create a solitary place. Such places provide renewal and tenderizes our tough dispositions.

And now for my final reason why Christians bother to pray – because prayer is the avenue that allows our passion to be expressed – our passion for the prayer-item. To whom do I go when overwhelmed with concern? Prayer is the most meaningful outlet for such passion.

Counseling centers would be overflowing with clients, were it not for prayer. Prayer provides an outlet for the overwhelmed. As he aged and became less impetus, Peter wrote, “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Agreed, God knows everything, including the answers to my concerns. Agreed, God could intervene and eliminate the need for my prayers. Most times, He chooses not to intervene in this way and leaves me with the opportunity to pray. That is why I bother to pray.

Monday, April 23, 2018

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS!

According to Tropical Storm Risk, a consortium of experts in tropical forecasting, the 2018 hurricane season will be another above average one. The season could see about 15 tropical storms, seven minor hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

Although the topic is still under debate, many people believe animals are also able to sense an impending hurricane. Sharks swimming out to deeper water, birds "waiting out" storms or animals moving to higher ground have all been reported before storms.

Some animals are believed to be sensitive to the low frequency sound waves emitted by hurricanes. They can also detect the slight drops in air and water pressure that signal a storm's approach. Researchers reported that they found birds were sensitive to the air pressure changes that accompany storms. As storms approach, the birds often land and wait for the storm to pass.

However, not all scientists are convinced that animals flee to avoid storms or earthquakes. The reason the animals are fleeing the storm, the sound, air pressure or water-pressure changes, may be in dispute, but it is a fact that some animals can sense an approaching hurricane.

Alan Rabinowitz, director for science and exploration at the Bronx Zoo in New York, says animals can sense impending danger by detecting subtle or abrupt shifts in the environment. Rabinowitz believes "earthquakes bring vibrational changes on land and in water while storms cause electromagnetic changes in the atmosphere. Some animals have acute sense of hearing and smell that allow them to determine something coming towards them long before humans might know that something is there."

Despite the scientific evidence that natural disasters are inevitable, it troubles me that many in religion ignore these clues and fail to prepare for disaster. Some believe disasters are forms of punishment from the gods and ought to be accepted as such. Hence, in order to avoid disaster, keep pleasing the gods. It is from this perspective, some refer to disasters as “acts of God”.

In the ancient spiritualities of many indigenous traditions, humanity is inextricably linked to nature. In these animistic cultures, nature is not merely respected, it is adored. Concepts of sun gods, and rain gods result from this thinking. In addition, prayers to the cardinal points, to wind, fire and water are also notions that can facilitate a deification of disasters.

Although Christians are not animistic in their worship, some unconsciously embrace animistic thinking when they see disasters as God’s way of punishing others. Such a view is fraught with prophetic arrogance. The view assumes insight into the mind of God to bring judgment on others. The view also suggests that the prophet has earned the right to be spared from God’s judgment and has even earned the right to experience God’s miracle of deliverance.

Such arrogance and pride are incompatible with preparing for natural disasters. Instead, we should heed the admonition of Proverbs 6:6, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its way and be wise... it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” In essence, ants know their vulnerability and prepare for disaster.

All summer, when food is abundant, they stockpile their goods in enormous storerooms – sometimes even in their own bellies – so they can thrive during winter, rainfall or flood when they are denied from foraging.

Simply put, ants think winter, all summer, and think summer, all winter. In other words, during the non-threatening season, they prepare for the storms. In addition, during the storms, they use their resources carefully. Ants live with an awareness that life has both good seasons and bad seasons. Neither season lasts forever – but we must be prepared for both.

For us, one of those bad seasons is the hurricane season – between June and November each year. Preparation will require much more than prayer. To expect a miracle, and not prepare, is irresponsible. Like ants, work with a plan – secure your shelter/home - work within community – purchase foodstuff – and pray.

Pray for wisdom as to how you can help others prepare. Pray for those who risk their lives to keep you informed of the danger ahead. Pray for the institutions who protect the less-fortunate and more vulnerable. Pray that the plans of those who prey on others will be thwarted. YES...PRAY!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

CARNIVAL: Fun or Farce?

Byron Lee was not the first to start carnival in Jamaica. Caribbean students at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus, held a carnival before 1990. There was also the Orange Carnival, organized by a group of Jamaicans. All these events mirrored carnival in Trinidad.

Despite being the first in the English-speaking Caribbean, carnival did not originate in Trinidad. There is no evidence of the festival prior to 1783, when the French-speaking planter immigrants and their African slaves arrived. Carnival finds its roots in Roman Catholicism and can be traced to the 12th century in France.

Then, it was called “The Feast of Fools”, and celebrated by junior priests who used the occasion “to make fun of traditional symbols and invent their own ludicrous symbols”. Fun characterized carnival then, as it does now.

Etymologically, carnival is believed to have come from two Latin words – carnus and vale – meaning, “good-bye or farewell to flesh.” It does seem apparent that both history and etymology concur that the essence of the festival is a fling of the flesh. Another word often associated with carnival is bacchanal – from Bacchus, a Roman and Greek mythical deity representing life and revelry. The term introduces the idea of revelry and drunkenness.

Masquerading is another feature in contemporary carnival celebrations. A similar feature was evident in the 12th century celebrations of the “Feast of Fools”. Author, Ingvild Gilhus, used the term “reversals” to describe the “contrary behavior”. This is what Loyd Brown referred to as “the element of play-acting which finds its most natural symbol in the mask of the road marcher and in the masquerade of the carnival bands – a fleeting mobility on its participants.”

The parallels between the contemporary and 12th century carnivals are amazing. For instance, “The Feast of Fools” focused on releasing tension to create arousal in the participants. It was as though the energy which kept the religious system together was let loose. There was a movement from the orderly to the ludicrous, from form to lack of form. The truth is, the quest for fun today, is no different than what was sought in the 12th century. Then, the festivities were referred to as asinaria festa, the “Feast of Asses.” The festivities brought much emotional relief to participants.

According to Darryl Barrow (Caribbean Journal of Religious Studies), “There are many people who regard carnival as a good escape releaser. People have been experiencing stress, strain and certain inhibitions – carnival allows people to release their pent-up energies and desires.”

Interestingly, what Barrow sees as an asset in carnival, Ismith Khan, in The Obeah Man, sees as symptoms of deep-seated social malaise. There seems to be an underlying irony of the carnival spirit. Derek Walcott may well be alluding to this in his poem Mass Man. Here Walcott exposes carnival as a kind of sham behind which we may discover images of pain and despair.

Much of this pain is reflected in the music. For Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, songs like Ragga Ragga and Tiney Winey might be entertaining, but the messages of the songs cannot be ignored. Pain is too often trivialized in order to solicit laughter. In Trinidad, Ash Wednesday, the day following carnival, is no laughing matter. The abandoned costumes, piles of garbage and inebriated bodies, paint a picture of gloom, so unlike the laughter that prevailed hours earlier.

As a Trinidadian, I have spent much time analyzing the fun promised by carnival festivities. However, it is not enough to say that that fun is illusive. Christians need to rediscover the celebrative aspects of life. We need to revisit our understanding of “the abundant life” Jesus promised. The Bible breathes a spirit of joy that is so lacking in our behavior as Christians. Jesus embodied joy and the New Testament makes more references to joy than to all of sadness, weeping, mourning, anguish, anger and distress put together.

In the Old Testament, both mourning and dancing took physical form from the sways and rolls of lament to the joyful bursts of dance. The Psalmist echoes the relationship between joy and dance in proclaiming, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to You and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever” (Psa. 30:11-12).