TURKEY, VENEZUELA AND THE SEPARATION OF POWERS

A few days ago I was at the gym. I looked up at a large screen TV to see a news report on the Mother of All Protests taking place in downtown Caracas, Venezuela. The political opposition had mobilized thousands to protest the regime of President Maduro. Below the images from Caracas and the subtitles for the silent screen, a ribbon reported on the statements of President Erdogan concerning changes to the Turkish constitution that will result from the referendum on April 16th.

I am intrigued by developments in both these countries. I was also somewhat amused to see the stories competing for attention across a CNN broadcast. I’ve been in both nations within the last few weeks and have thoughts about how they and the wider world are being impacted by government. At the same time, a friend wrote in response to my post on the Malatya Martyrs – https://thefullerreport.com/2017/04/18/malatya-remembered/ – asking for any comments I have on what is happening with the Turkish government.

In an Easter Sunday referendum the Turkish people approved by a slim majority measures that will significantly increase the power of the Turkish presidency. Current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, served as Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 until 2014, and was widely hailed as the leader who turned the Turkish economy around, causing substantial growth in many parts of the nation. Since becoming President, Erdoğan has pushed for changes to Turkey’s constitution that would change the government from the parliamentary one that originated in the 1923 creation of the modern Turkish state to an executive presidency. The prime ministerial role would be abolished and much more power would be vested in the presidency. Proposed changes would also make it possible for the political independency of the presidency to end. Erdoğan would thus be able to return to the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which he co-founded in 2001.

It is often the case that it is difficult to get the full facts of news events. There has been plenty of news in the USA about so-called ‘fake news’. However, it does seem that the current president of Turkey has been pushing for changes in Turkey’s constitution for several years. During the two parliamentary elections in 2015 the AKP was endeavoring to gain the kind of majority that would enable them to make constitutional changes. This was impossible in the June election because for the first time in more than a decade the party lost its majority and the Kurdish party gained seats in the Parliament. The AKP failed to form a coalition government so called new elections in November. Conveniently, violence in some Kurdish areas broke out, resulting in a reduced vote for the Kurdish party and a renewed majority for the AKP.

The coup attempt last year has been blamed by the president on the Gulenist movement, an Islamic transnational religious and social movement led by the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen[i], who was at one time an ally of Erdoğan. Thousands of Turks in government, administration, education, military and police have been detained. Some have been jailed, many have lost their jobs. Our family befriended a Turkish administrator and his family when he was studying in Richmond. We visited him in 2015. He was one of several Turks who drew my attention to the writings of Fetullah Gulen. He is one of those who lost his job as a result of the failed coup attempt.

Erdoğan has stated that: A presidential system would ensure confidence and stability in Turkey[ii] He has stated that it would bring Turkish government more in line with the Presidential systems which operate in France and the USA. The previous figurehead role of President, for which he is the incumbent, would become the central executive role. The recent referendum has therefore been an opportunity to consolidate power as Erdoğan argues that an all-powerful presidency is a guarantee that the political instability that used to plague Turkey will not return[iii]. Among the proposed changes are the following:

  • Prime minister role scrapped, new vice president role created
  • President becomes head of government as well as state, and can retain political party ties
  • President given sweeping powers, with ability to enact laws by decree and dismiss parliament
  • Parliament no longer able to scrutinise ministers
  • Parliament given limited powers to investigate or impeach president [iv]

Critics argue that by voting in favor the country will get rid of all the checks and balances that keep the government in line[v].

On April 26th in a further post-coup purge: 1,009 covert ‘imams’ in 72 provinces have been taken into custody so far [vi] in what was reported as a further important step in purging the nations of the Gulenist element. It was widely expected that the post-coup purge would accelerate once President Erdogan achieved the victory he wanted in a referendum on expanding his powers. He feels emboldened and there’s no longer a risk of jeopardising potential referendum votes, states BBC correspondent in Istanbul, Mark Lowen[vii]

I believe President Erdoğan is exhibiting the kind of paranoia that those in power for a long-time often exhibit. They are concerned for their legacy, they want what they believe is the best for that which they have led and created in their own image, and that vision limits their ability to work with those who see things differently.

 

The Venezuelan situation communicates a similar idea. Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998 as a Socialist seeking to alleviate the poverty of many Venezuelans. He was elected several times more with a strong popular mandate as his social reform programs, funded by high oil revenues (Venezuela is one of the top ten oil producing nations in the world and has the largest proven oil reserves of any nation[viii]), resulted in improvements in areas such as poverty, literacy, income equality, and quality of life[ix]. The proverbial good times ceased to roll however when the oil price collapsed in 2009.

My contact with colleagues and friends in Venezuela and my visits in 2012 and 2017 have shown me that the nation is not an easy place to live. There are shortages of basic food and medical supplies. Venezuela’s lack of foreign currency means that they have directly traded oil for meat from Uruguay and toilet paper from Trinidad. During my recent visit, rice and wheat flour were in short supply. Plenty of packaged bread was available but not the flour to make the traditional bakers loaves. A shortage of corn meal in Caracas meant that ordinary households resorted to grinding their own corn to produce the flour for the traditional arepas. I stayed in a nice apartment with a beautiful modern kitchen, however faucets in the kitchen and flush mechanisms in the bathrooms did not work properly because of a lack of parts to repair plumbing.

The flight of money from the nation has caused the government to implement increasingly strict currency controls, and inflation is operating at hyper levels[x]. During my visit in March the official exchange rate for the Venezuelan Bolivar was around 10 to the dollar, however black marketeers were offering over 4,000 for the dollar. At the official exchange rate a kilo of rice, when obtainable in a supermarket, cost several thousand dollars.

There have been weeks of intermittent protests against the current president, Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded to the presidency upon the death of Chavez in 2013. His government has imprisoned opposition leaders, endeavored to have the Supreme Court nullify the powers of the legislature, and blamed the USA and other western governments for encouraging chaos in Venezuela[xi] . On April 7, the government banned opposition leader, Hector Capriles, who ran a very close second to Maduro in the 2013 election, and planned to run again in next year’s election, from political activity for 15 years.

I believe Maduro is unfit for office. He certainly does not have the experience or track-record of his predecessor. Unlike Erdoğan he cannot claim credit for economic and social advances in his nation. However, Chavez followers faithfully adhere to him as Chavez’ appointed successor.

The insecure will often lash out at anyone they can blame when the things they value go wrong, or when former supporters turn against them. When this happens at a national level, dictatorships emerge and chaos ensues.

In both these modern cases leaders are meddling with the balance of separated powers which has previously benefited the good governance of their nations. In the USA, powers are clearly separated. The Executive, Legislature and Judiciary are designed to operate independently of each other and thus provide checks and balances upon overreach. I believe that this characteristic of the US Constitution lies behind the peaceful transition of power between presidents that has been our history since 1797 when George Washington retired to Mount Vernon. In his farewell address he made clear the value of a constitutional separation of powers as a defence against ‘a real despotism’[xii] I have written further on this subject in my post entitled The Inauguration at https://thefullerreport.com/2017/01/26/the-inauguration/ .

Good leadership requires the leader to listen to all his constituency. He may have gained a majority in an election, however he still has to lead all the electorate. The passage of the referendum in Turkey was by a slim margin. The election of President Trump in the United States was not by a majority. The slim margin of the Brexit vote in the UK was a democratic mandate for exit from the European Union but not a mandate to ignore the interests of the minority. All of these votes give a mandate. However they also carry a responsibility to handle the mandate with care. Every elected leader and every appointed leader, regardless of style has a responsibility to listen to the opposition, if their leadership is ultimately to win hearts and minds to their vision for leadership into the future. I fear for the futures of Turkey and Venezuela under the current leadership, and encourage you to pray for peaceful change.

 

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%BClen_movement (accessed 4/26/2017)

[ii] Anadolu Online – http://aa.com.tr/en/politics/erdogan-calls-on-all-parties-to-back-charter-reform/755857 (accessed 4/22/2017)

[iii] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13746679 (accessed 4/18/2017)

[iv] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/Erdogans_Turkey (accessed 4/26/2017)

[v] Esra Ozyurek,Chair for Contemporary Turkish Studies at the London School of Economics – quoted from http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/15/europe/turkey-erdogan-referendum-politics/index.html (accessed 4/26/2017)

[vi] Suleyman Soylu, Turkish Interior Minister, quoted at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39716631 (accessed 4/26/2017)

[vii] ibid

[viii] http://geab.eu/en/top-10-countries-with-the-worlds-biggest-oil-reserves/ (accessed 4/26/2017)

[ix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugo_Chavez (accessed 4/26/2017)

[x] “Venezuelan consumer prices rose 800 percent in 2016 while the economy contracted by 18.6 percent, according to preliminary central bank figures seen by Reuters, the sharpest contraction in 13 years and the worst inflation reading on record”. http://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/20/venezuela-2016-inflation-hits-800-percent-gdp-shrinks-19-percent-document.html (accessed 4/26/2017)

[xi] See for example https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/14/venezuela-president-declares-60-day-state-of-emergency-blaming-us-for-instability (accessed 4/26/2017)

[xii] “It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power and proneness to abuse it which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield.” George Washington, Farewell Address to the American People – SENATE DOCUMENT NO. 106–21, WASHINGTON, 2000 – p. 19

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Malatya Remembered

One day in April of 2007 I was sitting in my office in Richmond when I received a call from a friend. “Some guys have been held hostage and we believe they may have been murdered. We don’t know who they are, but they are in Malatya!”

Malatya is a city in Turkey where friends of mine were involved in Christian ministry to the local community. I have known one of them, from England, since the early 1990s. The others are from the United States. As further information began to emerge from the events of that day in 2007, I learned that a German translator, a Turkish pastor and a Turkish Bible student had been brutally murdered by five young Turkish nationalists who stated that they did what they did for the sake of the Turkish nation. One of them carried a note which said in Turkish: “They are trying to take our country away, take our religion away,”[i]

My friends and their families were physically unharmed but the impact on their lives was devastating. During the following weeks they moved to Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. There the growing community of young local believers and international church-workers has developed several successful initiatives that are discipling Turks, and ministering to the large Iraqi and Syrian refugee community. One of the families that was displaced from Malatya eventually moved back there and established a worshipping community among the local deaf population.

In the weeks following this tragedy, I found myself doing a lot of soul-searching. A long history of Christian martyrdom has become an integral and essential part of the experience of the church. Despite this I still found myself asking the Lord why such an event had to happen in Turkey, a modern nation, keenly endeavoring to find favor among Western liberal democracies.

I was led to the book of Revelation and the words:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.[ii]

It seemed to me that these words placed the three men who died in Malatya, firmly in the category of “The Awaited Ones”. I don’t find this to be an encouraging idea, however, cast against the backdrop of an eternity that only the Lord God understands, the idea of a pre-determined cast of martyrs can be appreciated even when not fully understood.

The New International Version of the Bible translates Paul’s well known words in his first letter to the Corinthians as he speaks of the present state of the believer: For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.[iii] The mirrors of Paul’s day were of polished metal, not glass, so any reflection would be darkened and clear only to the extent of the perfection of the metal surface. However, the Greek word here translated as reflection is better translated as obscurely, because it has the same root as the word for riddle or enigma. Paul is conveying the message that our present view of God is far from perfect; it is shrouded in mysteries.

We have just passed through the season of commemorating the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the moment of his death we are reminded that the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. We understand this to mean that God was tearing down that which symbolized the separation between himself and man created by the sin of man. In all our imperfections, I believe there are times when we get glimpses of that other world where God dwells in unapproachable light[iv]. We cannot know what the three men in Malatya saw as they experienced the moment of their deaths. However, we do know that Stephen, the first martyr, had such a glimpse of eternity as he stood before his accusers and said: I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.[v] For a moment, two worlds came together, and one who was about to die could describe what he saw in that realm of unapproachable light. Unlike John’s revelation, Stephen did not see souls of those martyred dwelling below the altar, because he was yet to take the first place there.

Torn and mangled and covered over in our own blood, we cry out as loud as we are able that we are worshippers of God through Christ,[vi] are some immortal words from the pen of the second century writer Tertullian. He understood that martyrdom played an extricable role in the advance of the Kingdom of God. The idea that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church is a further thought ascribed to him when he writes: the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more[vii]

In March I was visiting in the city of Ankara and attended Sunday worship at a Turkish church. During the preaching a young woman leaned forward behind me and my traveling companions and began to translate into English for us. At the end of the service we turned to thank her. She introduced herself as German-born but raised in Turkey. The more she spoke, the more I realized that she was the daughter of the Bible translator who died ten years earlier. I had heard her mother speak in an American church in 2011. She had said that after her husband’s funeral she had gathered her children together and asked what they should now do. Her husband and their father was never coming back, they were still living in Malatya and she was unsure what they should do next. Her older daughter, aged thirteen at the time, and who now stood before us had replied with words to the effect that: Daddy came to live among these people and to share the love of Jesus with them; How could we possibly leave? The family stayed. She herself had come to Ankara to study and is a full part of the witness of the local church in the city.

The martyrdom of God’s servants will not slow the advance of the church. I am convinced that the church in Turkey today is stronger than it was ten years ago, and the blood of these three men was not shed in vain.

 

Necati Aydin, Tilmann Geske & Uğur Yüksel died for their faith in Jesus Christ in Malatya, Turkey, on April 18, 2007. Ten years on we remember, with gratitude, their lives and witness to the Gospel.

_____________________________________________________________

[i] Quoted in Christianity Today – “Finally: Killers of Malatya Martyrs Sentenced to Life in Turkish Prison”- 9/28/2016

[ii] Revelation 6:9-11 (NIV)

[iii] I Corinthians 13:12

[iv] I Tim 6:16

[v] Acts 7:56

[vi] The Apology of Tertullian – trans. William Reeve – (The Ancient & Modern Library of Theological Literature, vol. 31 – Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Welsh – London) – 1889 – p.68

[vii] Ibid – p.144

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The Inauguration

A few days ago a new president was sworn into office. He is a wealthy property developer with no previous political experience. He has been married several times and has five children. He was elected on a slate of goals that will bring changes to the nation over which he aspired to preside. His election was a surprise result for the people who elected him.

The similarity with President Donald Trump ends there, for I am not speaking of an American inauguration, but of a Gambian inauguration. Unfortunately for Adama Barrow, his transition to power in West Africa failed to live up to the promise of a smooth transition expected in the days immediately following the December election.

Once again an African leader clings to power despite the democratic process. Yahya Jammeh, the defeated incumbent, had held power since leading a military coup against his predecessor, Dawda Jawara, in 1994. Serving as only the second President in Gambia’s history, he had taken power from a man who, like many post-independence African leaders had led the nation for more than thirty years. In Jammeh’s case, it was not a coup that deposed him, but a democratic election resulting in fewer people voting for him than his main opponent. Although he initially conceded defeat, on December 9th, he rejected the result citing “unacceptable abnormalities”[1].

A few years ago our family visited Pope’s Creek on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the birthplace of George Washington. The National Parks guide who narrated the story of the plantation and its famous son told us that the greatness of George Washington established a principle that has been fundamental to the American republic from the inception of the presidency. At the end of the War of Independence, after the British had been finally defeated at Yorktown, Washington surrendered his military command. Professor Gordon Wood in his essay on the example of George Washington states: It was extraordinary, it was unprecedented in modern times—a victorious general surrendering his arms and returning to his farm.[2] Furthermore, George Washington did not do this once, he did it a second time when he stepped down from the presidency after his second term. Many expected him to serve for life, but he inaugurated the smooth transition of power to his successor John Adams. That the chief executive of a state should willingly relinquish his office was an object lesson in republicanism at a time when the republican experiment throughout the Atlantic world was very much in doubt.[3]

The character and the resolve of one founding father laid a foundation for an unbroken chain of four-year terms in office, which recently inaugurated its fifty-eighth term as Donald John Trump raised his right hand and solemnly swore to uphold the constitution of the United States of America

As President Ronald Reagan stated in his first inaugural address: The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every 4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.[4]

Contrast that with post-colonial Africa, a continent now made up of more than fifty nations. By the end of the 1980s Africa was known for its enduring presidencies. In the words of Martin Meredith, they were: dictators who strutted the stage, tolerating neither opposition nor dissent, rigging elections, emasculating the courts, cowing the press, stifling the universities, demanding abject servility and making themselves exceedingly rich … By the end of the 1980s not a single African head of state in three decades had allowed himself to be voted out of office. [5] Leaders cling to power until they either die, or are replaced in violent circumstances. At the end of the millennium of one hundred and fifty Heads of State who had led in Africa since independence, only six had voluntarily relinquished power.

Zimbabwe has become an economic disaster in recent years. Once a major food-producer in the southern part of the continent, much farmland now lies underutilized and drought hinders the fruitfulness of active land. Yet Robert Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, stated early last year that he would remain until God says ‘come’, when former U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged African leaders not to cling to power.[6]

Fortunately Yahya Jammeh eventually agreed to leave Gambia, opening the way for his successor to return on January 26th. Meanwhile, as Europe continues to deal with fleeing African flotsam, rejected by a conceited continental oligarchy and washed up on its shores, the American experiment will survive the Trump presidency, however long it lasts.

As Bobby Clinton states: A leader ought to want to finish well.[7]

 

[1] “Gambia leader Yahya Jammeh rejects election result”. BBC News. 10 December 2016. Retrieved 2017-1-20

[2] The Greatness of George Washington – Gordon Wood – Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1992 p.3

[3] Ibid p.5

[4] Ronald Reagan First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981 – http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=43130 (Accessed January 21, 2017)

[5] The Fate of Africa – Martin Meredith – Public Affairs, New York 2005 – pg. 378

[6] Until God Says Come – http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-zimbabwe-mugabe-idUKKCN0VR0L6. Retrieved 2017-1-25

[7] Finishing Well – Dr. J. Robert Clinton, 2007

Posted in Culture and Politics, Nations, Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON

Reflections on Matthew chapter 2: 13-23

The Escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”     14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [Hos. 11:1]

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” [Jer. 31:15]

The Return to Nazareth

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

 

Our family, like many, has Christmas traditions. A few days before Christmas we go to the Phifer houses in a neighborhood not far from ours to view the Christmas lights – part of the Richmond Christmas Tacky Light Tour[i]. There we see Christmas lights so concentrated I am sure they can be seen from the moon, and the greatest density of plastic nativity sets anywhere in Henrico County, including the one in which Santa Claus bows down to the baby in the manger.

On a subsequent day, we go to the living nativity hosted every year at the Richmond Metro Zoo. It’s an opportunity to get closer to the real thing than anywhere else. Actors stand in for Mary and Joseph, but there is a real donkey. There are fake shepherds, but real sheep; and there are fake wise men, but real camels. Silhouetted against a night sky, with a fake star and cloud of fake angels, nothing could get closer to the childhood image of the commercially packaged Christmas card scene.

But beyond the silent, holy, night, the image does no justice to the Biblical reality. As with all things earthly, the Christmas story cannot be neatly packaged. The gospel writers who are our main sources; Matthew, writing to the Jews and Luke, for a wider audience, give us a sequence of events that ensure the shepherds and the wise men could not have been together in the same scene. They also give us the opportunity, right from the very beginning of their narratives, to marvel how every point in the life of Christ, reveals a thought about the redemptive plan of God.

In this part of the story Jesus is rejected as a baby, he becomes a refugee, and then he becomes a returnee when his family come back from Egypt. He is identified with the experience of God’s creation right from his earthly birth. Just as the writer to the Hebrews tells us: we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way.[ii] The message is clear: whatever our experience in life, Jesus has been there before us, because it was His Heavenly Father’s plan to identify him with the human experience.

Shepherds have gone out from His birthplace and told everyone of the amazing things they have witnessed. How fitting that shepherds be the first to tell the Good News of the coming of the one who would be known as the Great Shepherd of His Sheep. Jesus has been circumcised according to the Jewish law, and His parents have taken Him up to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfil the required sacrifices for purification following the birth of a child. There, wise, old Simeon has spoken over him: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel [iii]. Later, Magi from the east have sought Him out and presented Him with their gifts. Mary and Joseph have wondered at all of these amazing things but then comes the moment when the earthly parents struggle with the realities of life and the political circumstances of the world around them.

Jesus the Rejected One

In a dream, Joseph is warned of the threat to his newborn son. The neat world of this special family, preparing for their return to life in Nazareth, is suddenly disrupted.

We’ve just begun the year 2017. Americans have watched the ball go down in New York. A couple of millennia ago no one was watching a ball go down over Temple Square in Jerusalem, and certainly nobody was wishing a Happy New Year 4! BC!, to their neighbor in Israel. If anything, they were celebrating the beginning of 750 Ad Urbe Condita (from the foundation of Rome) or the Jewish New Year of 3758. Be that as it may we are presented with the intriguing idea that the events subsequent to Jesus birth are recorded for us on a calendar that seems not to exist.  For these events happen in a time which consequent to an error of historical calculation could be counted as never having existed. Because of the mistake of a sixth century monk in Rome, who was determining when Anno Domini actually began, Jesus was most probably born in 5 BC according to our modern calendar.

How fitting then, that the Jesus who was born into insignificance and rejection is also born in a moment of time as missing from the calendar as the remembrance of all those who have lived and died in complete inconsequence. Much has been made in the media recently of the lives of a few ‘stars’ who faded out in the last week of December. All of them have neatly recorded dates of birth and death – if not a tombstone, certainly in the obituaries of the news media and the details of online encyclopedias. But those who get their names in lights or on the list of Time Magazine’s most influential are few, compared to the multitudes down the years who go unremembered, unnoticed, remaining insignificant to all but a few around them and only then, for a brief moment. Apart, of course, from their unique value to the God who made them. For a moment, Jesus Christ is with every one of the unknowns, the unrecorded, the insignificant. The calendar could dictate the moment never happened, but the story tells us something else.

Jesus is the rejected Son of God right from His birth. His parents have come to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, to be recorded in a census. What better time than a census for a King to identify all the newborn baby boys? Jesus does not get the soft landing of an Isaac, longed for and awaited by Abraham and Sarah. He gets the threatened arrival of a Moses, a much earlier redeemer who also nearly fell victim to the murderous intentions of another King.

Kings in Israel in these days lived a precarious existence, threatened from above and below. They held their authority at the pleasure of the Roman Empire, and before that, under the oversight of Greece. If they did not please the empire, and ensure a flow of revenue in the direction of Rome, they suffered. At the same time, Jewish fundamentalists and revolutionaries threatened from below, seeing the kings as agencies of the alien, occupying authority.

Pretenders to Messiahship, and potential usurpers of the throne had threatened, and in turn been brutally suppressed. Any new word of one ‘born to be King of the Jews’ would arouse concern for the authorities. The authorities don’t want a pretender to the throne and so, totally involuntarily, the Christ child, this manifestation of “God with us” demonstrates from the very beginning of his life an identification with all of those whom he came to seek and save.

With faith in the words of an angel, just as Moses parents hid their boy child because they were not afraid of the King, he takes his family to Egypt.

When later they make their way back from Egypt, Jesus is rejected from Judaea again because his parents fear the intentions of Herod’s son Archelaus. Josephus, the Roman Historian, records Archelaus as being responsible for the slaughter of 3,000 Jews in the Temple, when he cancelled Passover, in an endeavor to eradicate Jewish worship[iv].

For anyone who feels rejection – Jesus was born into rejection!

Jesus the Refugee

Joseph and Mary were already away from home when they had to flee. They would have had nothing with them to take for their journey to Egypt, let alone to support them when they arrived in a strange land. Jesus becomes identified with so many who have fled along the refugee roads of history. Whether an Afghan or Syrian fleeing a modern war, or a Polish Jew fleeing a holocaust in an earlier generation, refugees have been seeking sanctuary in what we call the West. Maybe for them Europe or America are lands of opportunity, but for Joseph and Mary, Egypt was not a place of promise.

The first readers of Matthew’s words would have been aware of the significance of Egypt and of a flight there. Even before the journey of the sons of Jacob into Egypt which led to the captivity of Israel, Abraham the father of the Jewish nation had unpleasant experiences there. In the mind of the first century Jew, Egypt was the place of captivity and of slavery. Egypt was also mostly, as it is today, a desert and barren place. It was also an enemy, responsible for inflicting damage on so many towns and villages of Israel during the reign of the kings immediately following Solomon.

Western Henrico County, where we live, has become the second largest area for refugee resettlement in Virginia. Over the last twenty years we have welcomed refugees from the Yugoslav civil war, from war in Somalia and Sudan, ethnic discrimination in Myanmar, and more recently from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Church World Service and other charities, along with the Federal Government provide huge support to refugee arrivals. An Arabic Christian Ministry, has wonderful ministry to Arabs, particularly Egyptian, arriving in the city.

But we can only wonder at the divine provision that made room for the Jesus family in Egypt, providing a place of sanctuary for the months they would have been there. Could Joseph find work, contracting out his carpentry services? In a world that had no social support beyond the family – no United Nations High Commission on Refugees; no refugee resettlement services – there is no doubt that existence for this family would have been tenuous at best. Maybe gold, frankincense and myrrh were the divine provision!

For the Refugee in today’s world the message is strong. Jesus was born into the same experience, and in His experience of redemption there is hope and opportunity.

Out of Egypt Jesus is called! Just as with the Israelites many years before, God calls his own son. Just as the prophet Hosea foresaw, the experience of the Israelites was a prophetic precursor to the experience of the Christ. And so, thirdly, Jesus becomes a returnee.

Jesus the Returnee

Maybe you have seen the Arabic letter NUN or N, depicted here.

After the Islamic State took over the city of Mosul in Iraq, thrNunee years ago, they went through the city painting this symbol on the homes of all Christians, forcing Christians to flee or face death, and confiscating their property. We know some living here in Richmond whose families have had that experience. You see NUN stands for Christian, or Nasara. In the area of the Syrian and Chaldean churches Christians are identified with the Nazarene. The word is also applied to Christians in many other places in the Arab world.

Luke tells us that Jesus’ family was from Nazareth. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ family’s return to Nazareth in Galilee was so that Jesus could be known as the Nazarene. It was obviously not a significant place because Nathanael, confronted by Philip’s encouragement to come and meet the one about whom Moses and the Prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, exclaims ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’[v]

Furthermore, it sets the scene for a further rejection in the life of Jesus. Having read from the scroll in his hometown synagogue, announcing Isaiah’s good news of freedom for captives; sight for the blind and a day of the Lord’s favor[vi], and stating that these words have been fulfilled in the hearing of the assembly, the crowd only want to throw Jesus off the cliff. [vii]

It is to Nazareth that the family return. Mary’s family; parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, are all there. Presumably Joseph has a shuttered workshop. Can we imagine the rejoicing and the celebration that takes place when finally, the family get to see the new baby? Maybe they have had no news as to what has happened! Maybe they heard of Herod’s edict and the subsequent slaughter, and, not knowing whether a baby boy was born, wonder whether Mary’s child has survived.

But that is what Jesus experiences in his very young life – rejection, refugee status and then a welcome return into the arms of His earthly family! Identified from the beginning with each one of us, before ever his own volition and his own ministry can shape further that work of identification, his experience is the same as that great rejoicing which the heavenly Father offers to all who return to Him.

At Easter of 2009 I was sitting in an apartment in Cairo, Egypt with a couple of medical doctors; husband and wife. I listened as the lady told of her experience just two weeks earlier when she and a female colleague had made a return trip to one of the refugee camps in the Western Sahara in disputed land between Morocco and Mauretania. They had made trips before to provide medical care and education to Sahrawi women living there and had been well received as Christian doctors in a Muslim community. She told me of the incredible welcome they received as their taxi made its way from the airport into the desert sands of the camp. Dozens of women, their black veils flying in the wind as they ran alongside, shouting Nasara, Nasara, Nasara! Not only is the Gospel welcoming, but it is welcome Good News for all who have never before heard.

The Heavenly Father called His Son out of Egypt, having made of him a nobody in that land. Today God is calling His people out of Egypt to serve. Out of the land that is the spiritual home to the Muslim Brotherhood, missionaries are going out to serve in the nations.

I know a couple from Alexandria who are now members of a team in Turkey ministering to Syrian refugees. They have been called out of Egypt to minister in Arabic to Arabic speakers in Turkish-speaking Turkey.

Just a month ago, I was in my hometown of Luton, England. I was with long-time friends who were married in Amman, Jordan, the same day my wife and I were married in Richmond. After years of service in Spain among North African immigrants, they moved to Luton to do similar ministry. Little did I know when I left many years ago, that I would one day return, to share in the story of an Egyptian guy and his English wife, sent by a church in the Middle East to minister to the large Muslim population.

Lastly out of Egypt I’ll mention a ministry that goes by the name of Al Massira – The Journey[viii], birthed in that land and now operating worldwide. This ministry, through video, presents a narrative journey with the Old Testament Prophets to discover the Messiah. It is rich in a Middle Eastern understanding of Trinitarian theology and unashamedly presents the Good News to peoples from a Middle Eastern worldview.

Wherever you are on your personal journey; feeling rejection, wondering how you missed the party, even feeling like there’s no place to call home, this season, this scripture, this message is about the one who, whether you have known it or not, has experienced it all. Immanuel, the God with us, is with you through every circumstance; rejection, suffering, pain, grief, whether you have known it or not.

As we begin this New Year of 2017, be encouraged that Jesus, who has experienced all that life has to throw at you, who is the Immanuel, the With You God, invites you to continue on that return towards the great celebration of life

[i] http://www.richmond.com/holiday/tacky-lights/ (accessed January 1, 2017)

[ii] Hebrews 4:15

[iii] Luke 2:34

[iv] Josephus – Of the War: Book 2 Chapter 1.3

[v] John 1:46

[vi] Isaiah 61:1,2

[vii] Luke 4:29

[viii] http://www.almassira.org

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The Chef’s Challenge

It all started several years ago with the alphabet game. We get the kids working their way through the alphabet following a theme. So, one child names a fruit that begins with ‘A’ – Apricot; the next child names one that begins with ‘B’ – Blackberry, and so it goes until hopefully you complete the alphabet and move on to another category.
One day at the kitchen table one of the kids pointed out that chicken, chocolate and cheese all begin with the letters ‘CH’. I asked them to think of other foods that begin with the same letters. We compiled quite a long list, both of individual food items, and of specific dishes. As we did so it got me thinking about producing a gourmet meal in which every ingredient began with those same letters.
Every year when my mother-in-law’s birthday comes around I make a celebration meal for her. In case you wonder why I don’t do this for my own mother I’ll just say that she passed away thirty years ago. She was an excellent cook, and I think she would approve.
After nearly two decades of meals for mom, I’m always looking for new and creative ideas. So, this year the ‘CHef’s CHallenge’ is to make a five course meal using only ingredients that begin with ‘CH’ to make recipes that themselves begin with ‘CH’. Well, not quite: certain basic staples are admissible. In this case I have chosen to use cream, flour, oil, sugar, and of course, salt and pepper, and water.
the-ch-meal
The meal begins with a Chowder. I love a good New England clam chowder. The combination of clams, bacon, potato, and onion in a creamy soup, is an excellent comfort food on a cold winter day. There are of course other varieties of chowder including ham and potato, whitefish, and corn. For my chowder I have chosen to use Char, an Arctic freshwater member of the salmon family, along with Charcuterie, a fancy French term for a variety of smoked or cured pork meat. Thinking about vegetables that fit the criteria led me to Chayote, a green member of the gourd family. Chayote has a shared quality with potato in that it tends to take on the flavors of the other ingredients it is cooked with. I found a Puerto Rican seafood chowder recipe that uses Chayote as the vegetable complement to shrimp and mollusks, so I figured I could use it in my recipe. A cream sauce and Chive garnish completes the Chowder.
I continued with a Char-grilled salad. Salads are usually served cold, however there is no reason why they should not be served hot. I love Chard. This leafy green vegetable with a red stalk is not only colorful, but delicious served steamed and doused in a cream and nutmeg sauce. For this recipe I grilled the chopped stalk over a high heat with Chickpeas, Cherry tomatoes, and sliced Chestnuts, along with some very finely sliced Chorizo and Chilies. I added the shredded Chard leaves at the last moment to wilt them and give a vivid green contrast to the red. To complete the Char-grilled medley I contemplated using a champagne vinaigrette but, scouring the supermarket salad dressing aisle, I came across a Chipotle Cheddar sauce which added a smooth but tangy addition to the vegetables.
For my entree I thought about a chuck roast, but settled on Chicken Chasseur, made with Chibols, the white bulbs from scallions; Champignons, another fancy French word naming a blend of mushrooms and other edible fungi; Choncasse, or, in other words, Chopped tomato flesh; simmered together with the Chicken, in a Chardonnay cream sauce flavored with Chervil. I served the dish over Chow mein noodles to create a fusion of French and East Asian cuisine.
Dessert was easy. Going south of the border I fried up some Churros, added some Cherries and topped the dish with Chocolate Chantilly cream sauce.
Of course the meal would not be complete without a Cheese board. I put together an aged New York Cheddar with English Cheshire and French Chèvre for a hard and strong through to creamy and sour combination. I served Cheddars, the English cheese flavored crackers with the ensemble.
For bread with the meal I chose Challah, the sweet Jewish Shabbat bread, and of course to drink we had a choice of Chicory coffee and a Chamomile Chai. And lastly for those who would like some wine with their meal, Chardonnay, Chablis and anything beginning with Chateau fulfill the criteria.
If the above five courses are not enough to satisfy the appetites of your guests, you might consider some appetizers along with the Chosen wines as aperitif. Anything with Cheetos, Cheezits, Chex mix, Chips (the American potato snack), Chipstix, Choc-Chip cookies could be made available.
Of course there were plenty of ingredients remaining on our list that did not make the cut: Chalupas, Champ, Chana Dahl, Chapatis, Chat Masala, Cheeseburger, Cheesecake, Cheese curds, Cheese fries, Cheese grits, Chelsea buns, Chilchen, Chili, Chimichangas, Chimmichurri sauce, Chine of beef, Chinese leaves, Chipolatas, Chips (the English fried potato variety), Chitterlings, Chokeberries, Chop Suey, Chopped steak, Chops (pork or lamb), Choux pastry, Chow Chow, Christmas Cake, Christmas pudding (indeed, anything Christmas), Chrysanthemum leaf, Chub, & Chutney. I am sure there are others.
EnCHoy!
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THERE WERE TWO TREES IN THE GOSPEL

There were two trees in the garden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Our understanding of the significance of these trees is important for an understanding of God’s purpose for His creation. The first, that of the knowledge of good and evil, is the one from which Adam and Eve were not to eat lest they die[1]. They were free to eat from all of the other trees including the tree of life. Think about it. Choose life and you have all that you need. Good and evil become irrelevant. But choose good and evil and suddenly you become conscious of the law. Adam and Eve chose the law, and with it, death. Banished from the garden, they were denied the opportunity to eat of the tree of life, and sentenced to death. Thus began the long journey of mankind from the garden to that other tree of life: the cross of Calvary, where new life was bought for each one of us.

There are also two trees in the gospel which Jesus uses to illustrate the plans and purposes that he has for us in the living of the new life. Firstly there is the mustard tree, of which I wrote in a previous entry[2]. Jesus gives an illustration that likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows to be a spreading tree. The mustard tree, one of the larger, and more beautiful trees of the old Middle East, stands strong and separate. It becomes a place of attraction such that birds come and perch in its shade and even build their nests in its shelter. So, the Kingdom rises up alongside and among the systems of the world, offering a radically attractive, secure, and nourishing alternative to those systems. We, the people of the Kingdom, are encouraged to let our light so shine before men that they see our good works and worship our heavenly Father[3]. In the same way, the mustard tree illustrates the radiant Kingdom that shines in the world.

Secondly there is the fig tree and the multiple times which Jesus’ interactions with it teach us something. Jesus even says: Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.[4] He uses this illustration to encourage us that there are signs that in their precedence indicate an event is near. In this case he is speaking of his second coming, however we could equally point to the budding of the new shoots on any tree and say that they illustrate the growth of new life in our endeavors on behalf of the Kingdom of God.

It is this thought that I believe is worth connecting to the story of the call of Nathanael, found in John chapter 1. We read:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”                       “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.                                               “Come and see,” said Philip.                                                                                                                              When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”                                                                                                                                                            “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.                                                                                                  Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”[5]

A fig tree figures in this story, although it could have been any tree. Nathanael was sitting under it when Jesus first saw him. I have always been drawn to the personal nature of the call narrated here. Jesus saw Nathanael, before Nathanael knew him. And he saw enough of him to know that here was an upright man, an Israelite in whom there was no deceit. Jesus knew Nathanael just as our heavenly Father knows each one of us. It is a wonderful privilege for each one of us that God saw us before we even knew him. Just as He knew the prophet Jeremiah before he was in his mother’s womb[6]. I believe He has known each of us, and prepared works in advance for us to accomplish[7]. It becomes our responsibility to seek Him for His will for our lives, so that we may discern and then accomplish those works.

Nathanael then acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Lord has seen each one of us, and as we recognize Him, we acknowledge His Lordship over our lives and step out into the works of the Kingdom that He has prepared for us.

Jesus’ response to Nathanael indicates that he believed because Jesus first saw him. However He also tells him that he will see far greater things than that. The fig tree is a place of shade and, in season, a supply of fruit. Yet it also becomes a part of a story that illustrates the magnitude of the things that God wants to do through His people. It becomes inextricably linked to the mustard tree which illustrates the scope and size of the Kingdom.

Elsewhere, Jesus curses the fig tree[8] for not being fruitful, even out of season, but here the promise of fruitfulness in the Kingdom flows from an encounter with a future follower who was sitting under the fig tree.

May we always appreciate the lesson of the fig tree, and that of the mustard tree. May we also always choose the tree of life.

[1] Genesis 2:17

[2] https://thefullerreport.com/2016/09/09/kingdom-transformation-a-reflection/

[3] Matthew 5:16

[4] Matthew 24:32

[5] John 1:45-50

[6] Jeremiah 1:5

[7] Ephesians 2:10

[8] Matthew 21:18-22

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KINGDOM TRANSFORMATION – A REFLECTION

In Luke 17:20 we find Jesus saying: The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst, in response to a question from the Pharisees about when the Kingdom would come. Many around him, his closest disciples included, were anticipating the establishment of a kingly and earthly rule, along with an overthrow of the tyranny of Roman occupation.

Elsewhere we find Jesus likening the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows into a tree so large that birds come and nest in it, and to yeast mixed into a large quantity of flour until all of the flour is affected (Matt 13:32,33; Luke 13:18-21). The seed needs to be planted in the ground so that it will grow. The yeast needs to be worked into the flour so that the resulting dough will rise. In both cases something which is already in the midst, is activated to accomplish its purpose.

Some time ago a short animation was a popular evangelistic tool. It depicted a cartoon character going about his every day life, doing whatever he wanted and thinking that all was well with him and his world. Almost unnoticeable in the background, but visible in every frame, was an ill-defined blob. As the story progressed and its subject encounters several of life’s challenges, the blob becomes more and more an unwanted and embarrassing presence. Toward the end the cartoon character begins to realize he cannot live life without help. At that point the blob resolves into a form of the cross.

In the same way this is what the Kingdom of God is like in the world. It is the presence and power of God waiting patiently to be activated by His redeemed creation. It is also the presence and power of God intended by the power of His Spirit to convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgment. It is the presence and power of God lived out through one such as the early twentieth century Pentecostal pioneer Smith Wigglesworth who once took a seat in a railcar when a man seated across from him blurted out: Your presence convicts me of sin.[i] Wigglesworth then led him to the Lord.

Some would tell us that the Kingdom comes about because God’s people take power, redeem the institutions of state and then use them to bring the Kingdom into reality. This approach has been seen in the activity of some Christian political movements from both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Outside Christendom a present example would be the Islamic State, which through the establishment of an Islamic hegemony, exerts absolute authority over the people in an endeavor to establish Theocratic rule. But surely a top-down approach to Kingdom building like this does no more than repeat the mistake of the early church in its alliance with the State following Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Others working at grass-roots level would liken the Kingdom to a type of fifth-column.[ii] They want to found a movement, which grows to encompass and overtake diverse aspects of a society transforming them into the Kingdom of God.

Whether by imposition or by insinuation both of these approaches endeavor to change something already existing into the Kingdom of God. I don’t doubt that human institutions can be changed; indeed throughout history some have been changed. However the idea that the Kingdom of God results merely from the transformation of humanity’s corrupted history, flowing into the present shape of the nations, seems to me somewhat limiting of the power of God. Just as Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to a radically different lifestyle, not to be equated to the lifestyles of rabbinic followers of contemporary Jewish leaders, so the coming of the Kingdom of God extends a possibility radically different from the redemption of human institutions. The mustard seed grows to become a huge tree, not dependent upon the support of surrounding structures. It becomes so large, lush and fruitful that birds come and nest within its security. The tree offers a radically attractive alternative to all the other trees the forest has to offer. In the same way the yeast works through inert flour to grow fresh dough that can be used to bake bread. If the flour is corrupt to begin with the yeast will not restore it. Bad dough will result, and with it, bad bread.[iii]

Wherever we find ourselves in ministry – whether church-planting in a modern city, or sharing Jesus’ love among nomads on the edge of desert; whether growing a business that expresses the values of God’s Kingdom, or engaging a community through the power of the creative, let us remind ourselves that the Kingdom is within our midst. Let us live our lives so that through us, and through the community of believers to which we belong, the light shines strongly, people see our good Kingdom works, and they are thus drawn to praise our Father in heaven.

The Kingdom of God is present in our midst, because God is present with His people, desiring for them to offer the world the kind of alternative that is embarrassing in its simplicity, convicting through its presence, and radically secure in its demands. May His Kingdom come!

[i] Quoted in Chapter 14 of Derek Prince – Transformed for Life: How to Know God Better and Love Him More – Chosen Books 2002

[ii] The fifth column is a term originating in the Spanish Civil War and applied to those inside the siege of a city, allied to the besiegers who could bring about its downfall from within.

[iii] Research into a cause for the strange behaviors that led to the 1692 Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts colony explored the possibility of members of the community being poisoned by bread produced from a crop of rye contaminated with ergot. See Linnda Caporael – Ergotism, the Satan loosed in Salem – http://www.physics.smu.edu/scalise/P3333sp08/Ulcers/ergotism.html   – accessed September 5, 2016

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