Why can’t Christians love Lent like Muslims love Ramadan?

Bim-Adewunmi-007Bim Adewunmi says she loves Ramadan.

“I am not a model Muslim,” she admits, “but Ramadan is the one pillar of Islam I do really well. It’s my time to shine.”

In a July, 2012, article Bim writes:

I think I was 11 when I took part in my first Ramadan. I was at boarding school in Nigeria, and the bell prefect sent one of her minions to wake us up for the pre-dawn meal, the sehri. A few hundred sleepy girls got up to walk to the dining hall at 5am to queue up in front of older girls who dished out piping hot rice and stew. Afterwards, we’d trudge back to our dormitories to catch some extra sleep and/or pray. In the evenings, we slipped out of prep to attend the Taraweeh prayers in the assembly hall. During the day, we would go to class as normal, virtuously turning down drinks and food with exaggeratedly pious expressions. The Ramadans of my youth were brilliant – communal pre-dawn meals of cassava, yams, rice or bread, followed by evenings of breaking the fast (iftar) with fruit, cornmeal and bean cakes. There was alms-giving, introspection and a community feeling; moments that have made it my favourite Islamic month.

It is the reason I still fast today. I am not a model Muslim: I swear like a sailor, I’m not often “modestly” dressed and cannot ever see myself wearing a hijab. I fall down on all the other pillars quite regularly – my zakat is sporadic, I have never done the hajj, and I don’t make five prayers a day; I take heart in the Islamic view that sincerity in intention is the foundation of all actions. But Ramadan, I can do. I am good at Ramadan. I love every element of it – the not eating, sure, but also the long tasbih sessions, the contemplation, the meditation, the communal prayers, the hum of anticipation right before iftar. It is a month where the halal butcher puts a little extra into my bag when I’m buying lamb shanks. It is the time when I throw out “Salam alaikum!” to hijabis and they smile back and reply. It is the time where I overhear Yorubas, who have a greeting for every occasion, say “E ku ongbe” empathetically on the bus. Everyone is better during Ramadan, more patient, more kind.

Ramadan makes me feel connected. There’s a network of us all across the globe; more than a billion of us, all doing the same thing at the same time. However disparate our lives, whatever freedoms we enjoy – or otherwise – however different our experiences, someone else is probably feeling exactly the same way I am. I find that incredibly moving and life-affirming. At this point in my life, I’ve documented my various issues with organised religion – and I’m not entirely comfortable with everything I see. But I know I love Ramadan. I fast because I want to, and because I can.  I fast because it makes me feel good.

When I compare Bim Adewunmi’s enthusiasm for Ramadan with the groaning I sometimes hear among Christians who are giving up chocolate for Lent (smile), I feel that we haven’t embraced the rich possibilities of this season.

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying and being tested by the devil.  Why can’t we get a little closer to that in our observance of Lent?

None of us is Jesus, but we could fast a little more seriously, come to church a little more frequently, say our prayers a little more fervently during these 40 days, and, like Bim Adewunmi, we could throw out cheerful greetings to everyone we meet on the street.  Jesus said that when we fast we should anoint our heads and wash our faces (Matt. 6:16-18).  Wasn’t that a way of saying we should look cheerful instead of miserable?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say about Christians during this season: “Everyone is better during Lent, more patient, more kind,” instead of saying, “Those Christians sure do grumble a lot about giving up chocolate!”?

This is your invitation to a holy and happy Lent, one like you’ve never experienced before, and maybe one you will look forward to next year.

–Jim

 

Racism: Blame it on Linnaeus

LinnaeusIn my last post I mentioned that human beings are 99.9 percent the same, genetically. So where did we get the idea that the .01 percent that makes us different also makes us better, or worse, than our fellow humans?

In a paper called “‘Scientific Racism’ in Enlightened Europe,” Shah Aashna Hossain claims that “the concept of racism did not always exist.” He writes:

In General System of Nature, published in 1735, [Swedish biologist Carl] Linnaeus stated that variations within the Genus Homo sapiens existed as a result of varying cultures and climates. The four main categories of the Genus that he proposed were the following:

1. Americanus. Native American males were supposedly red; had black hair and sparse beards; were stubborn; prone to anger; “free”; and governed by traditions. Thus, this form of Homo sapiens was definitely inferior and uncivilized.

2. Asiaticus. The male Asian was said to be “yellowish, melancholy, endowed with black hair and brown eyes…severe, conceited, and stingy. He puts on loose clothing. He is governed by opinion.” Thus, like the aforementioned type of Homo sapiens, the Asiaticus could only be a mediocre prototype.

3. Africanus. The male of this subset, according to Linnaeus, could be recognized by his skin tone, face structure, and curly hair. This kind was apparently cunning, passive, and inattentive, and ruled by impulse. The female of this kind was also apparently shameless, because “they lactate profusely.”

4. Europeaus. The males of this subset were supposedly “changeable, clever, and inventive. He puts on tight clothing. He is governed by laws.”

In addition to these categories, Linnaeus also suggested there were some more miscellaneous ones that occurred: “‘wild men,’ dwarfs, troglodytes [cave dwellers], and ‘lazy Patagonians’ [South American hunter-gatherers].” Therefore, being the most civilized of the Homo sapiens, the Europeaus was obviously the most superior type in Charles Linnaeus’s view.

Before Linnaeus proposed the ideas mentioned above, “race” had been used to distinguish between different nationalities. But after he proposed the system above, Europeans began to identify themselves with a larger group: “white” people.

And so, because of the “scientific” classification proposed by Linnaeus, “white” people began to think of themselves as “superior.”

Have you ever wondered how things might have been different if an African, or Native American, or Asian scientist had proposed the system of classification?  Is it any surprise that we often end up believing that the “best” people are the ones who are most like us? (take a second look at Linnaeus’ portrait above).  And is there any way we can rid ourselves of more than 250 years of discrimination based on the .01 percent of the genetic code that makes us different from each other?

Hossain says the concept of racism did not always exist.  What would it take to get to the place where it no longer does?

A famous Virginian once wrote that “all men are created equal”–not the same, but equal.  And the Creator himself–after looking on humankind in all its diversity–said that it was good, “very good.”

Today, let’s try looking on all of humankind through His eyes.

My Heart Melts…

Harvest Moon

I got this email from Kai “Jay” Jing a couple of days ago.  Jay is a doctor from China who ended up at First Baptist through the outreach of our Radical Hospitality group.  He joined Michael Lipford’s Sunday school class, the Disciples, and soon became a disciple himself.  On August 18 of this year he was baptized in the James River, and ever since (he says) he has “understood everything” at church.

That’s almost a miracle.

I wanted to share his email simply because it is so full of grace, and gratitude, and generosity.  It makes me proud of those saints at First Baptist who reached out to Jay and inspired him to reach back.

Hi, everyone, 

Today is a Mid-Autumn day in Chinese lunar calendar, it is a important festival for gathering and reunion of a family, just like thanks giving day in U.S.

I just want to say, thank you, Ralph, Jim, and the disciples of the bible study class, thank you to keep me accompany when I am here alone in RVA, but I don’t feel lonely. 

Last Mid-Autumn day, I found my spiritual home—-FBC; and this Mid-Autumn day, I have melted in it, the Kingdom of Heaven in RVA.

In the day, we usually enjoy the beautiful view of the moon, which is the metaphor of the family reunion (share the picture above with the members & friends of FBC, please), and eat the moon cakes (I don’t have any here, I would share with you if you stop by my city in China, on the festival).

Have a good weekend.

Jay

When Regular Hospitality Seems Radical

Iraqi mother and childLouis Watts introduced me to three couples from Iraq on Sunday.

I had a hard time getting the story straight, but apparently they had watched the worship services from First Baptist on the Internet while they were still in their home country, and now that they were in Richmond (VCU students?), they wanted to visit the church they had only seen on their laptops before.

So they came, and they brought their children, and they left them in the nursery while they attended the service.

Can you imagine going to Iraq, and visiting a mosque, and leaving your children in the nursery?  That must have been what it was like for them, but they did it, and apparently it was a surprisingly good experience for everyone.

No surprise to me: Candi Brown, our Minister to Children, and her crew of volunteers are some of the most loving and caring people on the planet.  But I was still gratified to read this email Louis sent to Candi on Monday morning:

Candi:

Thanks to you and all of your nursery workers for your compassionate care for the Iraqi children attending with their parents at yesterday’s worship service. I can tell you through further conversations with the families at lunch yesterday that the parents were very pleased for their children to get such good care.

The family that had the two little girls have been through great difficulty. Their first child, a son was born in Iraq, but lived only one day; his lungs were underdeveloped and he could not breathe. The second child, the oldest girl yesterday, has significant brain damage and had some problem with her digestive system resulting in her being undernourished. They could do nothing for her in Iraq. Since being in Richmond, she was hospitalized at MCV for 17 days where they performed surgery on her stomach to correct some problems with digestion and installed a feeding tube. She has begun to thrive, at least physically, since that surgery. The third child, also a daughter, seems to be completely healthy. So all of this to say that they were at first hesitant to leave their children, but the husband told me that yesterday was the happiest his wife had been in a long time – seeing that her children were loved and cared for while attending the church service.

A little bit of heaven came to some Iraqi children while in your care yesterday! God bless all of you and all that you do!

Louis

There are times when regular hospitality seems radical, and Sunday was one of those times.

Let’s keep on opening our doors and our hearts, friends, for in doing so some have entertained angels unaware (Heb. 13:2).

Time for A Phone Fast?

My friend John Ballenger put me on to this YouTube video about us and our smartphones that makes me think it may be time for a phone fast.

Nick Bilton writes:

The two-minute video, which has been viewed more than 15 million times, begins with a couple in bed. The woman, played by the comedian and actress Charlene deGuzman, stares silently while her boyfriend pays no mind and checks his smartphone.

The subsequent scenes follow Ms. deGuzman through a day that is downright dystopian: people ignore her as they stare at their phones during lunch, at a concert, while bowling and at a birthday party. (Even the birthday boy is recording the party on his phone.) The clip ends with Ms. deGuzman back in bed with her boyfriend at the end of the day; he is still using his phone.

Ms. deGuzman’s video makes for some discomfiting viewing. It’s a direct hit on our smartphone-obsessed culture, needling us about our addiction to that little screen and suggesting that maybe life is just better led when it is lived rather than viewed (New York Times, September 1, 2013).

So, that’s what I’m planning to do tomorrow.  It’s my day off, and I’m going to switch off the little screen, get out there, and live some life.  I’m going on a phone fast.

I may tell you how it went afterward, but there won’t be a YouTube video.

I promise.

Again?

ShootingThere has been another tragic shooting in America. The headlines read: “Gunfire, then Chaos”; “Rampage at Washington Navy Yard”; “Gunman fires from balcony, killing 12, before dying in battle with police”; “Accused assailant, a former Navy reservist, said to have had anger problems.”

I read those headlines in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning, but a half-hour earlier I read this brief article in the Christian Century:

Scared of America

Following the killing of an Australian man studying in Oklahoma, Tim Fischer, the former deputy prime minister of Australia, suggested that Australians should avoid traveling to the United States. “Yes, people [who] are thinking of going to the USA on business, vacation, trips, should think carefully about it given the statistical facts you are 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the USA than in Australia per capita per million people,” Fischer said. He had championed gun control reforms in Australia nearly two decades ago. Gun control laws have virtually eliminated firearms crimes in Australia (CNN.com, August 20).

I know that gun control is a political hornet’s nest. I know that mentioning it in a blog post is an invitation to every reader with an opinion to post a comment (and believe me, there is no shortage of opinion on this issue). But if there is such a thing as an objective observer, would that person not ask why? Why is it that firearms crimes in Australia have been virtually eliminated? And why is it that I greet the news of another tragic shooting in America with a single word:

Again?

KOH2RVA: Day 260

old friendsIt’s Memorial Day, and it looks like a beauty. I just stepped out on the front porch to unfurl my flag and everything was so peaceful and sun-drenched—newspapers still on the front porches, absolute quiet on the street. Even now, as I take the first sips of my morning coffee, all I can hear is the birds singing in the back yard.

Lovely.

Yesterday I witnessed a Memorial Day moment that really was heaven on earth. Henry Kellam III (a member of First Baptist Church) invited me to his home where his father, a WW II veteran, was about to be reunited with an Army buddy he hadn’t seen since the war. Here’s an excerpt from the story that appeared in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.

————————————-

BY TED STRONG Richmond Times-Dispatch

Two old friends saw one another for the first time in 67 years Sunday.

In late May 1946, as seasoned veterans of the Burma front in World War II, they said goodbye at a New York train station. The pair had met at Army basic training in 1943 and been together, more or less, throughout the war, working on a road through the Asian jungle.

They planned to meet back up, but never did. Over the years, Henry H. Kellam Jr., 88, of Raleigh, N.C., and Preston Van Dyke, 89, of Pompton Lakes, N.J., were in and out of touch.

Kellam moved around before settling in Raleigh, where he worked at a Westinghouse plant for 35 years. Van Dyke became a New Jersey mailman.

The men’s reunion Sunday was arranged by their families, who recently got in touch with each other.

“You should have seen them crying when they first got together,” said Kellam’s son, Henry Kellam III.

Van Dyke was already headed to Staunton to meet a 4-month-old grandson, so the Kellams arranged for Henry Kellam Jr. to travel up from Raleigh, and the two men met at the home of Kellam’s son in Richmond’s Fan District.

“I just thought it would be a nice thing to do for him,” said Trudi Van Dyke-Simms, Van Dyke’s daughter.

The two veterans sat on a porch, had their photos taken, met each other’s families, swapped stories and looked through Kellam’s old scrapbook.

Old FriendsIt’s a treasure trove of a book, packed with photos taken with a box Kodak 620: temples, elephants, locals of all stripes, a cremation and suntanned soldiers.

Serving with an engineering unit, the two had been shipped across the U.S. and then across the Pacific. Van Dyke was also with Kellam at the U.S.O. function where Kellam met Thelma Hilbig, his future wife.

In Asia, they worked on the Ledo Road, which led from India across Burma to China, a U.S. ally in the fight against Japan. The road was intended to reduce the need for air supply across the Himalayas to Chinese forces.

Kellam, who ended his service as a technician fifth grade, is quick to say that he was never in combat. He did maintenance on machinery that was building the road and is modest about his contribution.

He recalled volunteering for duty guarding the stockade, because it meant he could get to Calcutta more. He was told to shoot the prisoners if they tried to escape.

“I told them I’d shoot them in the leg, maybe,” he recalled.

—————————————

It was truly moving to see these old friends together again for the first time in all these years. When I told them I needed to go Henry III asked if I would say a prayer. I did, and as I recall I said something about how reunions like these rarely occur this side of heaven.

But yesterday, this one did.