Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Empty - and Emptying - Churches in Europe

By Ayamma Umanah
The Netherlands
May 31, 2009
A lot of times as African christians, we tend to believe that the things we hear about christianity in established market economies(EME's), or developed countries , ain't true. Sometimes its hard to comprehend the news that Europe, where christianity once had a powerful foothold, has rejected the concept of christianity! That may be a blanket statement that isn't totally evidence based, as there are still lots of Europeans who believe in God as we Christians know Him. Still, a growing majority of Europeans are refuting the essence of religion in any form - the need of faith and worse, the concept of God!
I'm in the Netherlands, and have had an oppourtunity to go site seeing in a beautiful town there. We were given a tour and one of the sites to visit was a beautiful medieval church. Imagine my shock on entering to find out that buying and selling was going on in the church auditorium, as we wil call it! Yes, I had read about cathedrals in Britain being turned into pubs and cinemas, but to be actually confronted with a live example was a bit too much! The other African with me was less shocked as he had already witnessed such scenes, he however took pictures - according to him, a picture is worth a thousand words. This will convince those back home that spending millions to build edifices as worship centers were not necessary as it may end up someday like this, a market place! He wished the money will be spent on human lives, things that directly impact people and will have eternal value.
Further forays into the surronding neighbourhoods revealed similar things, churches especially large cathedrals were of little use to these people. Its relevance now was in its tourist appeal! Its spiritual relevance was non existent. This mirrored clearly the spiritual state of most of the Dutch people.
I'm staying at a Catholic University here in the Netherlands. The centre for religious activity, in the University, is shared by free thinkers, muslims (who have a separate room with washing facilities), the gay community, catholics , anglicans etc. What was most amazing and distressing was that the gay lunch was presided over by the overall Chaplain. I know this will draw ire from some readers and I may be labelled as judgmental, critical unloving bigot. I however try to imagine a muslim cleric presiding over a gay lunch! In our bid to be politically correct, show a humanistic face to our beliefs, potray God as a loving father, we have lost our moral edge and I think that's one of the reasons, these people we are trying to win over have no respect for Christians. I maybe wrong.

Now back to my story. I did a little investigative research, to try and understand the mind of the average Dutch. I discovered they are exactly what we thought they were. The average Dutch believes the Church has done more harm than good. He believes that since science, which is evidence based, hasn't discovered God, so He doesnt exist. He believes religion makes morons(couldnt find a better term) of intelligent people. As far as He is concerned, science has solved - is in the process of solving - man's problems, so why factor God into the equation? He explains to you the fact that history has proven that religion only leads to schisms, sectarianisms, wars, backwardness etc. A lot of young dutch do not see the need for any religion, and as far as they are concerned they are doing just fine.

I query the " just fine". Maybe am being prudish, or a naive African, but a society were same sex marriage is legalized, prostitution is legalized and is freely promoted on air and none of these is seen to negatively impact on the future of that society? I dont know. But my problem is with the church, it was the fight for prominence that drove Christianity out of the Arab nations. The church schisms was what made people to question the truth of our doctrines and decide not to belief in any of these. The indulgences and hypocrisy made many part ways with the church, and gradually with God!

Truely, Christianity seems to be thriving in Africa, but we havent learnt the lessons worth learning from the history - of the empty and emptying churches of Europe. It's not in the edifices, its not in the amazing physical wealth or spread of the church. It isn't in the number of people attending church sevrices, of all the visible things, that proclaim our prosperity. The kingdom of God is - and should be - built in the hearts of Men. Then and only then will the church avoid a repetiton of the sitution in Europe.
God will build His Church if we only let Him do it His way and not our way!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Making Something Good Happen In Other People's Lives

Thursday, May 14, 2009
By Charlene Gubash,
NBC News Producer

CAIRO – The aisles were empty in Country Homes Furniture in Wilbraham, Mass., and owners Hazel and Nazih Zebian were sitting in their office doing what they described as the "usual whining and complaining" about how bad business had become and questioning how much longer they could last.

"Like so many people in these economic conditions, furniture has been hit hard," Hazel said. "It’s the last thing people want to buy."

Out of boredom, she began to surf the Internet and came across a story on about another man half a world away facing hard times: Abu Sayed in Cairo.

We reported on how Sayed had just lost his small herd of pigs, the only source of income for his extended family of 14. The Egyptian government began culling all pigs in a misguided attempt to prevent swine flu. But pig farmers, most of them living below the poverty line, lost everything when police seized their swine herds without any compensation.

Sayed was no exception. He was beaten by police when he asked what would happen to his herd. He had no idea how he could continue to feed his own children or help provide for his brothers and sister.

But after reading Sayed’s story, Hazel silently calculated how much it would cost to replace the 25 pigs.

"I read it to my husband and as I started reading it, multiplied in my head and all it amounted to was $1,125. I said, ‘I wish we could give that to him ourselves.’ And he said, ‘If that's what you want to do, just go ahead and do it.’"

Soon after, I received the following email from the Zebians: "I would like to know if there is any way possible I can make a financial contribution to this man and his family… I want someone to physically hand him the money on behalf of myself and my family so that he does not go without the income his pigs would have brought in for him."

A few days later, after a flurry of e-mails and a trip to Western Union, the grateful Egyptian family was given a fresh start. "I was astounded when I found out there are people who care and are still good," Sayed said. "They are good people. Human beings should support one another and they are a good example of that." Sayed plans to buy a flock of sheep with the money to replace his herd of pigs. "God willing, this will replace what I have lost."

He and Nazih, a Lebanese-American, spoke briefly by phone. "I thanked him and expressed my appreciation," Sayed said. "Nazih is a respectable person and he wished me luck." Nazih said he hopes to come to Egypt and meet him in person.

By giving Sayed a second chance, the Zebians gained a fresh outlook on their own struggling business.

"After reading the article, we just thought, ‘What are we complaining about?’ and felt really good after doing it," said Hazel. "We will never forget."

Find article here captioned "Americans Make Difference for Poor Egyptian Family"

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hidden Treasures in Earthen Vessels

By Akin Ojumu
May 6, 2009
By now, you must have heard of Susan Boyle. That 48 year old singing sensation, from Blackburn, Scotland, who wowed the judges while auditioning on the Britain’s Got Talent Show – yeah even the acerbic Simon Cowell.

Ms Boyle doesn’t look like much; she is fat and frumpy, frizzy-haired and squarely shaped. The youngest of nine children, Susan is a shy and solitary nobody, who lives alone with her cat. She has never gone out on a date, and never ever been kissed…….well almost never been. She is the type we walk by on the streets, but never take any notice she is there…… soon as she registers on the mind, she is immediately confined to the trash bin of inconsequential beings; deleted permanently from the temporary file of the memory hard drive.

But that would change the day she opened her mouth, to let out that beautiful voice of hers, in the process stunning a snickering world, and knocking the smirk off our cynical faces. And her life has never been the same ever since.

Modern society is too quick to judge people on their appearances," Susan says. "There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are. But maybe this could teach them a lesson, or set an example."

Scattered all over the landfills of life, are books that were never written, messages never preached, and…..almost certainly…..souls never saved. Broken dreams, unfulfilled potentials, unused talents, and unclaimed promises, lay waste among the rubbles – victims of man’s icy heart and vitriolic tongue.

If you care to look, you will find a Susan Boyle living in your own neck of the woods. It is that child, who at 3rd Grade, still struggles with the alphabets, while his younger sibling, in kindergarten, is already able to write love letters to their parents. Susan Boyle is the domestic help, sent by her parents from the village to become a hewer of wood and drawer of water in our homes. He is the brother in church who has asked for a loan in order to pay his rent. And she is also that sister, with thick tribal marks etched on both her cheeks, who at 35, is yet to find a man she can call her own.

From the beginning of time, men have fawned over the naturally endowed: the comely, the hairy, the strong, and the wealthy have often been regarded as the greatest of all. The poor, the weak, and the ugly, on the other hand, have not fared so well; they’ve been despised, shunned, and scorned since God knows when.

Nimrod was the first to be a mighty one in the earth (Genesis 10:8). Saul was the most handsome man in Israel – head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the land (1 Samuel 9:2). And then there was Samuel who took one look at Eliab, Jesse’s first son, and thought, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed!” But the Lord said to him, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:6-7).

In our own generation – the Gen X universe that we live in – all that glitters is considered gold and the glamorous things of this life are celebrated beyond measure. If you are fat and flabby in this world you’ve got yourself to blame, but for those who are lean and slim, you know no shame at all. The eloquent preacher, with the gift of oratory and the theatrics of a used car salesman, draws the largest crowd of all. However one that is slow of speech and slow tongue, like Moses, leads but no one follows.

It is the way of our world and we behold it daily on our TV screen – the burning of incense to the idol of glitz, style and sophistication. It is a world where drabness, dullness, and plainness have no place at all – or it is at best barely tolerated.

Yet we all possess this precious treasure in frail, human vessels that the grandeur and exceeding greatness of the power may be shown to be from God and not from ourselves.” 2 Corinthians 4:7 Amplified Version.

By sheer act of defiance, and a stubbornness that could only have come from on high, Susan Boyle stepped out of the shadows of obscurity, to teach the world a thing or two about meekness, and respect for the gift in each and everyone of God’s creation. She subjected herself to ridicule, and the offensive attitude of the whole wide world, just to prove the point, that we all are beautiful inside.

Do not let any man despise your youth, the scriptures say.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Christianity Early Developments

Christianity began as a Jewish messianic movement in Jerusalem in the first century of the Common Era. Enjoying the advantages of travel and communications afforded by the relative calm of the Pax Romana, missionaries carried their message of resurrection and salvation throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, including Italy and Rome, the seat of the empire.

During these first few decades after the death of Jesus, Roman law regarded the new Christian movement as a Jewish sect. Thus the Christians, like the Jews, were exempt from the legal requirement to worship the Roman emperor as a god-like figure. To acknowledge the emperor's divinity, a participant offered a pinch of incense on an altar to the emperor. Most educated Romans viewed this as a merely symbolic act, but in the popular imagination this token ceremony was thought to appease the gods who were responsible for the empire's peace and prosperity. Both Jews and Christians considered this an act of idolatry.

As Gentiles increasingly filled the ranks of these early Christian communities, Christians as a group lost their legal status as Jews. Their refusal to offer incense invited accusations that they were atheists and unpatriotic. By refusing to honor the gods of Rome, Christians aroused fears that the gods would punish Rome. This led to suspicions, rumors, and waves of persecutions. By the start of the 2nd century, being a Christian was punishable by death.

Nevertheless, Christianity continued to spread and attract new converts. Christians were known for their hospitality and philanthropy. They shared their possessions and established networks of care for the poor and for widows and orphans. Unusual in Roman cities and towns, Christianity's communal life and social generosity drew attention and converts to the movement.

Christians were also known for their care of the sick, including plague victims, and their respect for the bodies of the dead. The ancient world had little in the way of medical knowledge and treatments. It was commonly believed that sickness was caused by evil spirits, or demons, so exorcisms were common. The Christian practice of "laying on of hands" was one such form of healing.

Christians suffered several waves of brutal persecution, among those the notorious persecutions of the Emperors Domitian (81-96), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), and Decius (249-251). Martyrs were held in especially high regard by the churches, and the New Testament's Book of Revelation, probably written in response to Domitian's persecution of Christians, promised special rewards for those who died for their faith.

Early Church apologists, defenders of the faith, wrote extensively during these years. Justin addressed the validity of the Christian faith and its superiority to Greek pagan forms of worship. While he recognizes the contributions of Greek philosophy, he also argues for the superiority of Christian revelation and its mandates for human society. For these works, he was martyred in 165. Tertullian (c. 160) also contributed to the growth of Church doctrine and Christian practice. He addresses fundamental parts of Church experience, such as prayer and worship, and also challenged the growth of heresy. Athenagorus (late 2nd c.) had been a Greek philosopher before converting to Christianity. His works defended Christian practices to the Roman emperors. These writers and others sought to justify Christian claims to the Greek and Roman intellectual and cultural world.
Emperor Diocletian (240-311), another emperor fiercely opposed to Christianity, ordered the destruction of all church buildings and the confiscation of Christian books in 303. All Christians in the government and the army were dismissed, and the clergy were imprisoned. Many Christians were martyred, while others recanted and were accepted back into the faith after repenting.

In 305, illness prompted Diocletian's sudden abdication, thereby triggering a civil war from which Emperor Constantine I emerged victorious. He declared himself a Christian in 312, and in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which established equality among all religions. This legalized Christian worship for the first time. In 324, Constantine defeated the last of his opponents and became sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

Constantine hoped that Christianity would cement the stability of the empire, so one of his first actions was to encourage the church to end doctrinal debates, and clearly articulate Christian belief and identity. Doctrinal debates surrounded the incarnation, with contradictory interpretations and beliefs about the true nature of Jesus-human and/or divine-and his relationship with God. Questions had arisen about which Gospels and letters should be read in church. There was even contention about how disputes should be resolved.

In 325, Constantine convened the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in Asia Minor, the first council to include bishops from both the Eastern and Western regions of the empire. The Council issued a creed that affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed, which summarizes the core of Christian belief, is seen as authoritative by all main branches of Christianity.

Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) in 330. He consecrated the town to Christ and renamed it Constantinople. Indirectly and unintentionally, this set the stage for a series of events that would ultimately lead to a split between the Eastern and Western churches. While the split was not complete until the 11th century, the two sides of "Christendom," east and west, began to develop along parallel paths.

In 381, Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christian communities could be found as far west as the British Isles, south into North Africa and Ethiopia, north to the Danube and into modern-day Romania, and east from modern-day Turkey into Armenia and perhaps even India. Although the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire was only decades away, the Christian churches in the east and the west quickly assimilated the Empire's structures of organization and authority and experienced a period of profound growth and change.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Genius: The Modern View

May 1, 2009
By David Brooks
Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times

Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart, Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.

We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces hocus-pocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.

What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.
The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

The recent research has been conducted by people like K. Anders Ericsson, the late Benjamin Bloom and others. It’s been summarized in two enjoyable new books: “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle; and “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday — anything to create a sense of affinity.

This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. It would, Coyle emphasizes, give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group, Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another. This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.

Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused. According to Colvin, Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.

Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how many errors you detect.)

By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges. By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future problems.

The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It’s the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.

Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

Find article here: