Tag Archives: book review

A Light Shining in the Darkness

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted on His account. A Distant Grief by F. Kefa Sempangi displays the persecution of the author and many others at the hands of one of history’s most notorious men. This book provides meaningful insight into the history of Uganda, which is where I currently reside. It shares a gospel light which shone during one of the darkest times in Uganda’s history. With gruesome detail, the author tells his harrowing story of living under the evil regime of Idi Amin.

A heart wrenching book worth reading.

A heart wrenching book worth reading.

Kefa’s story is one of rags to riches to pastor to persecuted. The book begins with him returning to Uganda from Europe. He had been in England where he earned a graduate degree in Art History. International degrees for Ugandans are uncommon today, yet alone 50 years ago. This is especially a wonderful feat as the author’s parents couldn’t afford to send him to school until he was 12.

Not long before coming back to Uganda in 1971, Sempangi heard that Idi Amin had kicked the oppressive president Milton Obote out of power. Ugandans were happy and championed Amin as “the champion of liberty” (p 16-17).

Kefa began his work as a teacher at Makerere University in Kampala. The university is known as the “Harvard of Africa.” While there, he encountered some orphans and poor women who he felt needed love. This led him to start an orphanage as well as a church. His church would grow to 14,000 congregants. Soon after they had to begin meeting secretly because of Amin.

As the terror of Amin became more known to the citizens of Uganda, Sempangi began working more in his pastoral role. It was at this time that a witch doctor came up to him while he was preaching and asked for the power he had. The witch doctor knew of Kefa giving a general blessing the previous Sunday. Immediately after the blessing, a boy was healed, unbeknownst to Kefa. The witch doctor had tried for years to heal the boy but to no avail. Kefa then lead the witch doctor to trust in Jesus for salvation.

That very week the witch doctor returned to burn her hundreds of relics and idols with the support of Kefa and the elders. The artifacts were piled up and the matches were handed to Kefa. He quietly passed them to the next person. They were passed all the way around until they were passed back to Kefa. The people present were all brought up to fear this stuff and so the thought of directly confronting it was terrifying. But Kefa was able to light the match and start the fire to burn the evil relics of the witch doctor. The witch doctor sang for joy when the pile was reduced to ashes.

On Easter 1973, there was an especially large service at Kefa’s church. They had a normal length service. When it was over the people asked Kefa to continue preaching. They told him to go rest and come back when he was ready. He did so and then preached for 3 more hours. When it was over every one went home and Kefa went into the vestry of the church building.

Immediately, 5 Nubian assassins had guns pointed at his head. They said they were there to kill him. He told them, “I am a dead man already. My life is dead and hidden in Christ. It is your lives that are in danger, you are dead in your sins. I will pray to God that after you have killed me, He will spare you from eternal destruction” (p 119).

This turned the leader’s hatred into curiosity. The leader asked Kefa to pray for them. Kefa prayed and they bowed their heads. When the short prayer was over something had “changed in their faces” (p 120). They told him they showed up at the beginning of the service to kill him publicly. But the leader told Kefa that he saw widows and orphans, the very ones he made widows and orphans, praising God with joy and asked himself, “Why are they happy when death is so near” (p 121).

The author speaking at the Westminster Theological College and Seminary graduation in December 2013.

The author speaking at the Westminster Theological College and Seminary graduation in December 2013.


While this new believer would help protect Sempangi, the book ends with him on the run from Amin’s henchmen and attending seminary in America. He would return to Uganda after Amin was ousted and start planting churches and a denomination – the Presbyterian Church in Uganda (PCU). This is a sister denomination to the one I am ordained – the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). This must be the subject of his follow up book From the Dust.

The book really is a rollercoaster of a ride. It has wonderful stories of triumphs but also has grueling and disheartening stories. The author is open and transparent about his doubts and flaws. He does not mince words. Despite some of the grimmer stories, the book is quite encouraging. It’s stated purpose of witnessing “to God’s answer to the suffering and terror taking place in one small country” is certainly achieved.

I recommend the book to anyone wanting to read about how God can sustain in times of terror. It might also give insight to the slaughtering of Christians going on today in places like Syria. It is a must read for anyone working in Uganda. Surely the author is blessed by Jesus for all the persecution he endured.

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A Challenge to Love the Poor and the Orphan

Being challenged can be, well, challenging.  It can be a challenge that helps sharpen where you stand or it can be a challenge that is unfruitful.  The Urban Halo by Craig Greenfield provides the former kind of challenge.

Read this book and thank me later

Read this book and thank me later

This book seeks to challenge Christian believers in two areas.  The first is to live incarnational lives among the urban poor.  The second is to reevaluate how we do orphan care.  These challenges come at a very opportune time for me, as I am about to move to Kampala, the capital and largest city in Uganda.  I am moving there after spending time at a children’s center studying for 5 months.  So I am the perfect audience for this work.

Greenfield was a well to do New Zealander who gave up his plush job to live in a slum in Cambodia with his wife, Nay.  The book tells the story of this journey giving the rationale for his radical move.  It also depicts how he came to work with orphans.

The stories told make one lift his eyes to heaven and praise God for His power and His love.  The author’s heart to serve Christ was gripping.  The story of his wife’s childhood escape from the murderous communist regime in Cambodia was especially moving.  There is no doubt the author has striven to serve Christ with his whole life.

Greenfield also writes with an authenticity that identifies with the reader.  For example, when he had just moved to a slum in Phnom Penh, he was frustrated with some aspects of life there, and so he wanted to punch anyone who annoyed him.  This honesty can only come when you realize Christ is sufficient for you and you do not need to seem perfect to others.  Christ’s grace is sufficient.  This dependency on Christ’s grace is refreshing and encouraging.

The author’s quest began when the options he saw for ministering to the poor in Cambodia seemed insufficient.  The options he saw other missionaries attempting were:

  1. Ignore the poverty and “preach the gospel of salvation from eternal damnation”
  2. Combine preaching with ministering to physical needs and creating “rice Christians”[1]
  3. “Carry out social work. . .without using any words about Jesus”

He wanted a “more integrated spirituality where proclamation and demonstration went hand in hand” (p 12).

These observations led Greenfield and his wife to move into the slum of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  He had discovered a ministry, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, which encouraged missionaries to live among the poor.  So he joined their work in Cambodia.  This decision was also fueled by his view of Jesus’ incarnational ministry.  If “Jesus left his privileged position to join us in our human condition, suffering alongside us,” then this would be the model for ministry for believers (p 37).  I discuss the validity of his conclusions below.

While serving with Servants he became familiar with its ministry to people with AIDS.  He began to realize that the children of those with AIDS would soon be orphans.  So he thought he and Nay would start an orphanage.  However, as he researched the issue, he found that having an institutional orphanage was not the best model for caring for orphans.  His research included numerous studies of the various models for caring for orphans including community based orphan care.  Greenfield’s conclusion is that community based orphan care is the best for the child.  More on this model below.

So this book offers two challenges.  The first is helpful but ultimately falls short.  The second is a wake up call to all those working with orphans.

DOES LIVING INCARNATIONALLY MEAN LIVING IN A SLUM?

This is the premise of the author’s first challenge.  Certainly Jesus’ ministry was by definition incarnational.  Jesus did leave a position of privilege and came to live in a low estate.  However, does this reality merely describe Jesus’ ministry[2] or does it prescribe[3] how believers are also to minister.

Would you live here?  The author did.

Would you live here? The author did.

Greenfield asks this very question.  He answers that, in fact, it does prescribe our ministry methods (p 37-38).  He believes his living in a slum was “modeling a kingdom way of life that values the poor and underprivileged” and his prayer was others to follow him live like he did (p 53).  The author admits to having to repent for feeling superior to other missionaries not living in a slum (p 42).  If he is just presenting one model for believers then that is one thing.  However, he wants others to follow his example which he bases on Jesus’ example.  So this book serves as his challenge to most if not all believers.

But just what does incarnational mean?  Does it mean that you must find a poor[4] area and live there like those there live?  I think it does not for 3 reasons:

    1.      The criteria are arbitrary
It is one thing to say you should live among the poor.  I agree with the author that to ignore them would be sinful.  But how does one decide who are the poor and who are the not poor.  Where is the line drawn and who draws it there?  For example, why does the author not live as the homeless do?  They are surely poorer Cambodians than those that lived in shacks near him in Cambodia.  If Jesus’ ministry is a literal prescription then believers should also live without homes just as Jesus did (Matthew 8:20).

2.      The Bible’s view is for the rich and poor to live and serve together, not for all to become poor
Had it not been for rich and poor divides we would not have one of the two passages about the Lord’s Supper outside of the Gospels.  In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul chastises the richer Corinthians for hoarding and not sharing their food with the poorer brethren.  He does not chastise them because they are not living like their poorer brothers and sisters.  In 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Paul charges the rich of the world to be generous and ready to share.  He does not command them to live among the poor.

3.      It is a non sequitur to say that you must be like those to whom you minister
One of Greenfield’s arguments is that you must be like the poor in order understand and effectively minister to them.  His wife had a ministry to prostitutes in Cambodia.  Must she become a prostitute in order to understand and minister to them?  Of course not.  What it takes to minister is a willingness to understand where they are coming from and how the gospel impacts their life.  It would be helpful to listen to them, to be near them, to read about that lifestyle, and many other things.  But being exactly like them is not necessary.  Besides, he had money, a guest house to escape to rest, and many other accommodations that his neighbors would know nothing about having.

We Should Live Incarnationally!
I say all of this because I agree with the author that we should live more incarnational lives. I agree that the current ministries to the poor largely seem insufficient.  Too many people ignore the poor or just throw them a handout.  Instead, believers should engage the poor and live with them and alongside them.  They should bring the good news of Jesus Christ in a relational and holistic way.  But this does not mean Christians should necessarily become poor.

Incarnational living is being able to identify with others so as to bring the gospel to them in a way they will understand.  This is why Paul can say that he became as one under the law but was not under the law himself (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).  So we see Paul able to identify with some but did not actually become like them.

Rightfully, Greenfield laments that the problem is that the church is “preferring instead to keep the poor at arm’s length” (p 169).  This actually supports my view of incarnation.  Instead of keeping them at arm’s lengths we should invite them and welcome them with open arms.

With this in mind I concur with Greenfield that more should be done in ministry to the poor.  I agree with him that ministries of “word and deed are inseparable” (p 169).  I agree that there should be more interaction between the poor and the rich.  Churches should be intentional to invite the poor into their midst.  People should not consciously or unconsciously avoid the poor or distance themselves from them.  But this does not necessitate living as a poor person in a poor area.  To be sure it is more than drive by mercy ministries.  However, the biblical call is not to act poor but to be “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).

ARE WE HURTING OR HELPING ORPHANS?

The author’s second challenge is important for the care of orphans in the coming years.  The fact that the Bible commands the care of orphans is not in doubt (James 1:27).  But how does one go about doing this?  He answers this question well.

Greenfield goes on a mission to find out the best way to love orphans.  He scatters the research and findings throughout the second half of the book.  His conclusion, after sifting through copious amounts of research, is that no matter how you slice it, community based orphan care is better for children than institutional based orphan care.

This is a very helpful discussion for a novice like me.  I just assumed you put all the kids in a big building and call it an orphanage.  However, it is not quite that simple.  For sure, some orphan care works like that.    But the other end of the spectrum is to find a home for the orphan to become a member.  Usually this home is that of the nearest relative but could be someone else from the community.  There is a continuum of models between these two options.

Greenfield’s team in Cambodia oversees this finding of relatives and homes for the kids to live.  They also provide encouragement, training, and a little financial support to the adoptive families.  This model has several positive features:

  1. The child gets to know his family
  2. The child gets to know her heritage and culture
  3. The child has a lifetime support network and does not “age out”
  4. The cost is significantly reduced
  5. Studies show kids are better adjusted to life in this model

The research is impressive.  Being ignorant of the different options for orphan care this community based model strikes me as very biblical in that it emphasizes family.  It is also a low investment but high impact way to love orphans.

The author and his family left the high life to serve the poor

The author and his family left the high life to serve the poor.

Since reading this book I have come across two articles (this one and that one) arguing for something similar.  Greenfield takes a more graceful tact than the articles.  He praises God for those loving on orphans for the fact that they are at least doing something to care for those in need.  He even provides some steps for those wanting to move towards the community based approach and away from the institutional approach.

CONCLUSION

While I will not live in a slum when I move to Kampala, I will visit one and get to know poor people.  I will also know how to think about caring for orphans.  This book will help move the discussion forward on how to care for those without parents.  The call to live incarnationally should be heeded by all believers everywhere.  Besides being a good biography of a faithful servant of the King, the book is a must read for anyone working with orphans.  It serves as a good challenge to check our methods and our heart when we serve others.  I praise God for Craig Greenfield and thank him for his service to our Lord!

 


[1] Those that get “saved” in order to continue receiving the free handout
[2] And thus giving principles for believers to follow but leaving the methods open
[3] Giving not only principles but also the methods
[4] Poor is being defined here as those who have few material possessions and might not have all basic necessities met.
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The Myth of the Moral Compass

The Myth of the Moral Compass - Book Cover Pic

I love to listen to books when I drive long distances, heck even short distances.  I especially love action and thinker and detective novels by the likes of Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Lee Child, and David Baldacci just to name a few.  They are excellent writers telling fun stories.  Within these books are included snippets of the author’s worldview and how life should be.  Sometimes I agree with these snippets and sometimes I just shake my head.

***Semi-spoiler alert, I am on disc 4 of 10

In his most recent book The Hit, David Baldacci has Will Robie at it again.  This time he is hunting down a rogue CIA agent, Jessica Reel.  She had a stellar career in the CIA and why she has gone rogue is a mystery to all.  She declared her rogue status by killing a CIA man.  There are hints that she is on a just mission but that has not been clarified yet.  I haven’t finished the book yet.  But I was intrigued by a section where Reel is reflecting on her quest and why she has gone rogue.  She came to the realization that “the best arbiter of what was good and what was evil was her own moral compass.”

To hear someone say the best arbiter of what is good and evil is their own moral compass is troublesome at best.  First, the compass analogy denotes a northern pole that guides the compass.  When that pole is the holder of the compass, then the compass is useless.  Second, I hope Reel lets everyone else know what is good and evil because apparently she is the only one that knows.  Third, if she is the final arbiter then because she is flawed she will make flawed judgments. 

This thinking by Reel is very commonplace in the culture today.  Many people use the language of “I think it is right.”  In my experience this thinking is used by most people to justify previously prohibited behaviors.  This ultimately leads to anarchy and chaos because who can stop someone from obeying their own moral compass.  It becomes impossible to judge someone as evil if one subscribes to this way of thinking. 

Whether Reel is on a just quest or not is irrelevant by her own thinking.  If she turns out to be killing the most patriotic and philanthropic people, an evil quest to be sure, simply because she wants to, this must be ok because she is “the best arbiter of what was good and what was evil.”  However, if she does turn out to be on an evil quest and the main characters forgive her and give her medals for it then there would be outrage by readers.  Also people would quit reading Baldacci not only out of anger but because those values would not align with what most people find to be true of the world. 

If Reel turns out to be on a just mission then it is self-evident that she is not the “the best arbiter of what was good and what was evil.”  This is because others, based on outside criteria, would agree with her and would then award her medals.  What is good and what is evil would not be defined by her.  It would come from an outside source.  At a minimum we could argue for the law as this source.  However, the law is guided itself by an outside source.  More on this in a moment.

After she pondered her wonderful moral compass, not even a disc later, Reel had a conversation with a longtime friend about the people she was hunting.  He asked if they deserved her killing them.  She said they did.  She said she must finish the quest because otherwise she would not be able to look herself in the mirror.  That is to say that she would not be able to live with herself if she did not kill them and thus stop them from what they were doing.  To her this mirror looking is a test that if everyone did it then they wouldn’t do “three-quarters of the crap they end up doing.”

Unless her moral compass shows up in all mirrors, then she is suggesting there is something people know or can consult in order to do good instead of evil.  She, the pot, is calling them, the kettle, black.  She is passing judgment on them for following their own moral compass. 

Jessica Reel instinctively knows there is some outside source that people should follow.  What she might not know is that this source is God’s law.  It gives us His take on what is good and what is evil.  Fortunately, He has written it on the hearts of humanity.  Unless this is the best arbiter of what is good and what is evil then people will continue doing “three-quarters of the crap they end up doing.”

It is unclear whether Baldacci thinks as Jessica Reel thinks or put this conflicting view of morality in the book in order to make people think.  He is an excellent writer and I do love his stories.  Novels are great places to show how the world is and how it should be.  Where else can you control the ending?  Again, authors write from a worldview and include snippets of their worldview in every book.  This is especially true of fiction novels.  I mean who reads books where Darth Vader, Voldemort, or Javert come out victorious and are lauded as being good?

The Myth of the Moral Compass - moral compass I have aimed to show that the common mantra that everyone is their own moral compass is hogwash.    Instead we all answer to God’s Word.  This is the only alternative.  Otherwise people will still do “three-quarters of the crap they end up doing” and we will end up lamenting with the writer of the book of Judges, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

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