Christianity in Ethiopia

ethiopian_crosses

Ethiopia is one of the most fascinating countries in the world, historically speaking, but especially in its unique Christian heritage. The Christian church there dates to the 1st century A.D., only a few years after Christ’s resurrection: the Bible recounts that Philip converted an important Ethiopian court official, a eunuch, in Acts 8:26-38. According to the Christian historian Nicephorus, Matthew the Evangelist journeyed there to preach and convert after his early efforts in Judea. In the fourth century, a missionary named Frumentius (Saint Frumentius) traveled there and, around 340 A.D. (almost the same time as Constantine), convinced the monarch to declare Christianity the state religion.

It is the only pre-Colonial church in sub-Saharan Africa, and has remained, with immense effort and faith, an island of Christianity in a sea of Islam. The country’s population of Christians is estimated at 60%. The Ethiopian Church, with @ 45 million members, is the largest Oriental Orthodox church; there are also about 14 million Protestants and half a million Catholics.

One charming tradition is that every baptized person, upon confirmation, buys a personal cross to wear: silver if possible, or wooden for the very poor. They are ornate and handmade. The variety and beauty of these crosses defies description. (A selection is pictured to the left.)

Once again, we remember with praise and humility how vast and varied is Christ’s church, outside the English-speaking world. There are almost as many Christians in Ethiopia as there are total Protestants in the United States!

Rest for Your Soul

find_rest_in_my_soul_alone

We are getting into the holiday season already — how fast time flies! I’m sure some of you (like me) have already started thinking about Christmas presents, Thanksgiving dinner plans, perhaps parties or family gatherings. Perhaps you feel, as I do, some element of dread or anxiety in addition to the wonderful celebrations of God’s love for us that give us so much joy.

But God has given us a way to simply dissolve away the stress. He has given us the words that show us the way; for example, the line from Psalm 65 — “Find rest, oh my soul, in God alone” — and again, right on this page, a line from our memory verse, Matthew 11:28-30 — “you will find rest for your souls”

These words can so easily slip our mind when we are focused on a task. Let’s all agree that we will not lose a great benefit of our belief: The ability to find peace in a chaotic and unpeaceful world. It is a miracle cure and so easy to do! Close your eyes for 30 seconds and just think or pray the words, “Find rest, oh my soul, in God alone.”

If you do this ten times a day — which at first blush sounds ludicrous — that is a total of five minutes. If you do it thirty times a day (!!) for 15 seconds, that is 7 1/2 minutes.

People spends hours each week and thousands of dollars solving anxiety problems; but the best treatment is free. Once our faith has reached a certain point of maturity, peace is ours for the asking. Those of you who have prayed through a great tragedy, or a great anger, to the point where you felt that glorious peace from the Holy Spirit, will know exactly what I mean. And if you don’t, it is a wonderfully rewarding goal to set.

Dry Bones, Zombies, and the “Son of Man”

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When I was listening to the music for today – George Yount and the Cathedral Quartet singing “Dry Bones” – a light went off in my head. The quote from Ezekiel 37 has been nagging at me for weeks, for some reason, and it took a song that we put up as a bit of silly fun to really make the connection between Ezekiel and Christ. There is a lot of what you might call crypto-prophecy in the Old Testament, and this is one of the best examples. Ezekiel gives us an early model of what the Messiah would ultimately be and do, even though it is not directly as a messianic prophecy.

I realized that Ezekiel calling on the Lord to turn the skeletons into living people was exactly how I feel about having Christ in my life, and having the Holy Spirit breathed into me. I’m not talking about an academic recitation of the many times Christ says “I am the life”, but a real personal, emotional experience of becoming someone new and more alive.

Moreover, Jesus often referred to himself as the “Son of Man”, something that my Bible study group has been talking about in connection with John 9 recently. It really connects him even more closely with Ezekiel and the dry bones story.

You can easily think in terms of people who have not found God as lifeless skeletons, who become fully alive, who realize their own humanity only by the breath of God that comes from the Holy Spirit. I wonder if the popularity of zombies — in books, movies, tv, etc. — has something to do with the increasing prevelance of atheism in the world. People are searching for meaning in life and realize they are missing something important, and yet, they reject Christianity. They are like zombies who seem to be wandering aimlessly, searching endlessly for something but not even knowing what it is they are searching for.

Gentle Words

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A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

~ Proverbs 15:1

Authors have made millions from books about the “Habits of Highly Successful People”, but here’s a tip that you don’t have to buy a book to learn.  Don’t say mean things to other people.  No matter how righteous you feel or how clearly right you are, and especially, no matter how angry you feel.  What, exactly, do you think telling someone “go f*** yourself” or telling him he’s a “moron” accomplish?

What it accomplishes is to ensure that he isn’t going to listen to anything you have to say. You will have successfully destroyed any chance of changing what he thinks or how he acts.

Then, you get the secondary benefit of being in a fight and having made someone like you less. Do you ever wonder how the people of 20th Century Europe managed to kill each other by the tens of millions, destroying their economies and land and ruining any chance of anyone having a good, happy, life?  Well, you recreate it in miniature every time you vent your anger at someone.

Let’s make a deal.  At least once in the next week, in traffic or in a political discussion, or some other time when you want to inform someone what an idiot they are, instead, smile or wave and say, “You are a beautiful person, have a great day.”  Or, “okay, you’re right, we’ll do it your way.” Or, “I see your point, I’ll have to think about that.”

And here’s the kicker: We are going to do this where someone has done something really rude an inexcusable, or said something completely ridiculous.  We aren’t going to take an easy way out here.  The idea is for us to prove to ourselves that it causes us no lasting damage.

Because, you know what terrible things are going to happen to you, because you smiled and waved at the person who cut in line in front of you, or cut you off in traffic?  Nada. Zero. Nulla, nunca, niente. The only tangible result is that your blood pressure is going to drop.

But you’d better be careful.  Keep it up, and your doctor will start wondering why you haven’t been coming to see him as much.

The Wedding of St. George

 

Rossetti_The_Wedding_of_Saint_George_and_the_Princess_SabraThe Wedding of Saint George by Gabriel Dante Rossetti, ca. 1860. After slaying the dragon, St. George gets the girl! A bittersweet tribute to the beauty of marriage, in a time when it was revered, as a young flower girl hands him a white flower of chastity. On the left, a saintly figure beckons to an earthy couple cutting grapes, to cross the wall and join them.
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Relying on God, Not “Stuff”

Ave Maria, devotional painting by Grunwald

 

Whatsoever we have over-loved, idolized, and leaned upon, God has from time to time broken it, and made us to see the vanity of it; so that we find the readiest course to be rid of our comforts is to set our hearts inordinately upon them.

              ~ John Flavel

 

People get attached to the things in their lives. A photograph, a plate, a car, a house, a piece of clothing. Or it can be something less tangible, like a way of doing something.  The place where we live is very commonly something we get attached to.

But it is important to remember that these are just “stuff”. Once we trust God with “all our hearts, and all our mind, and all our soul”, the innate fear we feel at being separated from things is not necessary. Change is an absolute rule in life, and to fear change is to fear life itself.

But we have nothing to fear, if our trust in God is strong enough — not even death itself. How many times have we been fearful and anxious of a change in our lives, only to find that what we have is better than what we left behind?

Let your faith in God dissolve away your fear of change and your fear of loss. Have every confidence in your future, for you have the protection and love of the greatest thing in the universe.  And remember the lilies of the field; they toil not, neither do they spin.

If you are facing change, or loss of any kind, turn to God and ask Him to fill you with faith, and read the end of Matthew 6. For change will always come, sometimes as loss, sometimes as gain. But it will never affect the important thing in your life, which is your future in the Kingdom of God.

Love is Patient

Painting Love Bible

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

~ 1 Corinthians 13:4

Patience is defined in the Bible as one of the elements of love.  We may have difficulty defining the word “love” or “charity” — the Greek word is agape — but we surely know, from Paul’s epistle, that patience is an important component.

Being patient can be difficult. We focus on getting a task done and we often are overwhelmed with all we have to do.  Patience seems impossible.

But think about the rewards that come from patience. When we are dealing with one of God’s precious children, it is an act of love to be patient with them.  (Many times, it is we ourselves with whom we have to be patient!)

And love, Paul tells us, is the most important thing. John tells us, “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (1 John 3:11) So being patient with others is important, and it holds a great reward for us.

Let us all remember today, at least once, when we are exasperated with somebody else, to be patient.  Let us think, “this is God’s child and I will show patience, because he or she is important to God.”  I promise you, the reward to yourself will be immediate.  The love you show by your patience will be reflected back to you, and you will feel a moment of the peace that God intends us to enjoy.

Women of the Bible: Lydia

Lydia is mentioned only twice in the Bible, in Acts 16; but her importance is greater than the length of her story would indicate. First, let’s read the text:

On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 16:13-15

So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.

Acts 16:40.

This occurs during Paul’s second mission journey. At this point, he has traveled with Silas, by land, from the great city of Antioch across the entire length of Turkey.

Lydia, dealer in purple goods

They have crossed the Aegean sea to northern Greece (Macedonia) and made their way to the Roman colony of Philippi, a “leading city of Macedonia”. Here we meet Lydia. Although Paul and Silas had been in Philippi some days, the first detailed incident recounted is Lydia’s conversion.

We can tell quite a bit about her from the short description. She was not Jewish. Women gathered at rivers for two reasons: to bathe and to wash clothes, and a devout Jew would have done neither of these on the Sabbath. (Lydia may actually have been there working — more on this below.) Instead, she is one of those odd Greeks who worship the God of the Hebrews.

Her home town, Thyatira, was in the Province of Lydia from which, no doubt, she took her name. This town was located in western Turkey (in fact, Paul and Silas might have stopped there) and was famous as a trade center for indigo and other dyes.

She is described as a dealer in purple goods, a trade she no doubt learned in her home town. The “goods” would have been almost exclusively dyed cloth. In her day, cloth could be dyed purple by two methods. The most famous today is the Tyrian purple of Rome, which could be worn only by members of the Emperor’s family and senators; any other person in Rome or its colonies who wore purple would have been fined and possibly jailed. Tyrian purple was made from a rare saltwater snail and was extremely expensive.

Lydia and Paul by the River

Lydia and Paul by the River

The second method of making purple dye involved combining two plants, indigo (a dark blue) and rose madder (red). This would have been a natural for someone from Thyatira, because it was known for its indigo. Making it required a lot of fresh water and was enormously malodorous; among other things, it required fermenting the source in urine! You can see why it was not produced inside towns. Production was done only by rivers or lakes outside town walls — so this might easily be the reason Lydia was found by a river outside Philippi. The inferior purple thus produced could be worn by commoners; people were as vain then as they are now, so even imitation purple, the color of the emperor, would have been in demand.

Lydia’s name, being the name of the province from which she came, indicates low origins. Generally, people named for places were slaves, or had been born to slaves. On the other hand, she appears to be at least somewhat prosperous — a person who knew how to make fake purple, and had an industrious nature, could make a living. We also know she had a decent-sized house and a household.

The composition of her household is not specified. No husband is mentioned; likely she was a widow with children, or even a single woman with employees or slaves, since she appears to be in charge of her household. A married woman would have needed her husband’s consent to invite men to stay at her house.

There seem to have been a fair number of people who were “worshippers of God” or “God fearers”.

Paul Converts Lydia and Her Household

These were Gentiles (“Greeks”) who worshipped the God of the Hebrews. Actually becoming a Jew by conversion was difficult and sometimes inconvenient; Philippi did not even have a synagogue. But Judaism was an ancient religion even in 50 A.D. and the only enduring, well-established monotheistic religion. So many people who were called to worship God were, like Lydia, non-Jewish worshippers of the Jewish God. Another famous one was Cornelius, whom Peter baptized in Caesarea. (Acts 10) In fact, Job was called a “righteous gentile”.

This is the first reason Lydia was both remarkable and important. Her calling to worship the one true God was remarkable under the circumstances. She lived in a place where Jews residents were quite rare. She would have been exposed to Jewish merchants, but the contact would be brief. A Jew would not have taken a meal or entered the house of a Gentile woman. Her chance to receive meaningful instruction would have been minimal.

So Paul and Silas struck pay dirt when they met her. She was thirsting for God and ready to give her life to Him. For her to meet important disciples who could teach her and baptize her, telling her the good news about Christ, would have been a momentous occasion. And, by this time, the Council of Jerusalem had decreed that Gentiles could be full members of the new religion. She no longer had to live as an outsider to her chosen religion.

Thus, Lydia became the anchor of one of the great churches of the Apostolic Age. Paul would later applaud the importance of this church: “you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.” (Philippians 4:15)
Certainly, she was included as one who had been “sharing in the gospel from the first day”. (Philippians 1:3)

Philippi was hostile to Paul and Silas; they were publicly beaten and thrown into prison soon after their arrival. (Acts 16) Yet Lydia took them into her house; she fed and housed them, both when they first arrived and later, after they had been told to leave town. She had her entire household baptized, and her house became the meeting place and place of worship for the converts in Philippi. Public preaching and worship were inconvenient and dangerous; the availability of a house to potential converts is certainly one of the reasons the church at Philippi prospered, while the churches in other Macedonian towns struggled.

Lydia, in short, was instrumental in making the great church in Philippi. The importance of this church, as the seed church for all of Greece and Macedonia, was enormous. She was truly one of the great Christian pioneers.

The United States is too optimistic about Middle East democracy

Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have given many countries, formerly nominal or actual dictatorships, the opportunity to move towards freedom. The United States’ reaction is that democracy will equal individual liberty. I’m not blaming Obama necessarily; this has been the naive attitude of the U.S. for decades.

A democratically elected government can be just as oppressive to some individuals as a dictatorship. This is why the United States adopted the Fourteenth Amendment. It requires equal protection under the law to all people. Lacking such protection, we can guess who the first groups to be oppressed under a Muslim democracy will be: Christians (also Jews and women). The United States, as part of its support for the budding regimes in the Middle East, must emphasize a strong provision to guarantee the rights of freedom of religion and equal protection for all people within these countries’ borders. Without a specific constitutional clause, Christianity will continue to suffer oppression. Even where official state policy is such freedom, countries can wink at mobs harassing Christians and Jews, and the imposition of extreme oppression to women.

Egypt, which is the farthest along in creating a new government, has adopted “Sharia”. Sharia requires the national governement to follow Islamic law, both civil and criminal. It regulates both the actions of individuals, the use of Islamic (rather than impartial) courts, etc.

Let’s be realistic. Retaining Sharia as official government policy guarantees harsh treatment of Christians, Jews, and women. The hazy term “democracy”, so touted by the United States, ignores this reality. For example, while the U.S. expects a “fierce contest for power” in the Middle East, it ignores the likelihood that the winners of the contest will want to hold onto their power, including the oppression of Christianity that many individuals in Muslim states believe to be the will of Allah. Already, the strongest unified political party in Egypt is the “Muslim Brotherhood”, a fairly fundamentalist Islamic organization.

Egypt Muslim Brotherhood

Muslim Brotherhood Poster

Have the recent governments of the U.S. completely forgotten what happened in Iran, after the revolution in 1979? Moderate forces, after helping to depose the Shah, were cast aside in favor of an Ayatollah who rid Iran of all dissent against fundamentalist principles. Egypt is not Iran; however, we must always be mindful of the possibilities of militarism, religious oppression, and destruction of personal freedom that is possible in these circumstances.

The United States has a history of naivete when it comes to foreign affairs, and the blind optimism we have shown to Arab politics reflects this Pollyanna state of mind. The current government seems to think that the death of Bin-Laden, which did hurt Al-Qaeda, means the necessary death of Islamic extremism. But even Bin Laden’s death may work against us, providing a martyr for extremists to hold up and drive a wedge between the concept of individual freedom — a Western concept — against their local values of Christian repression.

This is not to condemn all Muslims. There are many, in Egypt and elsewhere, who value individual freedom and are willing to let Christians (and Jews) worship in peace. But what we have seen is the burning of Coptic Christian churches, the beating, arrest and even of their adherents, and attacks on women not wearing the stifling clothing demanded by the more fundamentalist citizens. Although much has been made of the public sexual attack on Lara Logan, similar treatment of Egyptian women has gone almost completely unreported.

We must not make the mistake of thinking the Mideastern revolutions are headed by Mahatma Gandhi. Where we are headed, currently, is towards support of “democracies” that are hardly better than the dictatorships they replace.

Daily Devotional

Islam Gets More “Freedom of Religion” than Christianity

“Burning the Koran is Worse than Burning the Bible”

If you think that Christians are not still being persecuted in the U.S. and Europe, you only have to look at the hypocrisy of the news media when it comes to religious freedom.  Christianity is a second-rate religion and does not rate the same degree of freedom as Islam, according to some of the media and even government officials.

For example, in a published interview between Bobby Ghosh of Time magazine and NBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd, they agreed that burning the Koran is “worse” than burning the Bible.  Their reason? The Koran is the word of God, whereas the Bible is not!

Bobby Ghosh (Time Magazine): The thing to keep in mind that’s very important here is that the Koran to Muslims, it is not — it is not the same as the Bible to Christians. The Bible is a book written by men. It is acknowledged by Christians that it is written by men. It’s the story of Jesus.

Chuck Todd (NBC Chief White House Correspondent): Yes.

Ghosh: But the Koran, if you are a believer, if you’re a Muslim, the Koran is directly the word of God, not written by man. It is transcribed, is directly the word of God. That makes it sacred in a way that it’s hard to understand if you’re not Muslim. So the act of burning a Koran is much more — potentially much, much more inflammatory than —

Todd: Directly attacking — directly attacking God.

Ghosh: — than if you were to burn a — burn a Bible.

And this phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. As stated by David Simpson, a member of the British (UK) Parliament:

In the United Kingdom, the policy seems to be that people can do whatever they like against Christianity – criticise it or blaspheme the name of Christ – as long as they do not insult Islam.

The UK controversy arose when a public employer, who allowed Muslims to keep religious artifacts on the dashboards of their vans. When a Christian driver, however, put a small cross on the dashboard of a van, he was threatened with termination if he did not remove it, because it might insult Muslims.

I hate to point out the obvious to these people: Muslims, in the name of Islam, are murdering the citizens of your countries. Of course, this does not apply to all Muslims, but to “extremists”. Unfortunately, these extremists appear to be in charge of a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East, where Christians are regularly arrested for “blasphemy” and, in some cases, murdered.

One can only wonder what our Founding Fathers, who wrote the First Amendment, would think about this.

(April 4, 2011, from a story copyright by MSNBC.)