Sunday, May 28, 2017

HOW TO WALK IN FAITH

For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

These are the words of the Apostle Paul in describing the Christian life. We often hear about “living a life of faith” and “walking by faith,” and we are fond of calling ourselves, “people of faith.” These are all very pious sounding words, but sometimes we do not really understand what it means to walk by faith.

On the other hand, walking by faith is often misrepresented and ridiculed. Christians are sometimes accused of having a “blind faith” and placing hope on something that, deep down, they fear does not really exist.

Mark Twain, for all his whit and writing ability, did great damage in mischaracterizing the life of faith with the much quoted statement of one of his characters: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” (Pudd’nhead Wilson). Also in our culture, it is common to refer to a “pie in the sky” type of faith, which ridicules the life of faith by implying that Christians are placing all of their hope in some future promises of heaven that do not actually exist.

Both of these references have their elements of humor, and if we do not take them too seriously, we can laugh at them. But unfortunately, they have also mischaracterized what actually is a walk of faith. 

Two Walks

However, if these characterizations of faith are not true, then what does it mean to walk by faith? The Apostle Paul is quoted as saying “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Just what does this mean? What is it to walk in faith? Is it true that those of us who practice walking by faith, walk in blind trust, without sight and without any evidence whatsoever?

If it might help in your understanding, here is how I would compare a life of walking by faith in contrast with a life of walking by sight alone: 

Walking by Sight

Walking by sight can be likened to what a man or woman may do when they stand in a doorway of a room. They do not immediately enter, but only stand in such a way so that they can see all that the room contains. They are able to simply stand in the doorway without making any real commitment to enter. Finally, when they become satisfied that they know sufficiently what is in the room, they may choose whether or not to go inside. Their commitment to act only follows their sight. It does not go before.

This is walking by sight. In this world, this seems to be a reasonable way of conducting ourselves. There is much in the world that is not trustworthy, so we must be cautious in making commitments.

However, when it comes to matters of eternity, walking in this manner is not the walk that God tells us we should be doing. The reason, of course, is that there are many things with which we must deal that are not of this world. These things we cannot see or perceive with any of our senses. This is why God tells us that we should learn to walk by faith. 

Walking by Faith

Walking by faith is a little different than walking by sight. It is better explained using a different metaphor than standing in a door of a room. Walking by faith is better illustrated when we think of ascending a staircase that we must climb before we enter a room that is at the top of the stairs.

Standing at the bottom of the stairs, we are able to see very little of what is in the room above. It is not as if we can see absolutely nothing of the room before we begin to climb, it is just that we are not able to see things plainly. In addition to this of course, there also are many other items in the room that we cannot see at all. In order for us to be able to see more, we must make a commitment. We must step up on the first riser.

This is how walking by faith is different than walking by sight. When we walk by sight, we do not make any commitment beyond what we can see with our eyes. We do not take even one step until our eyes have confirmed that we should go forward.

When we walk by faith however, we find that we must make a commitment of sorts in order to be able to get a better vision to that place where we are going. Then, when we step up on the first riser, we learn that indeed, we can see just a bit more of what is in the room above. But in order to gain the next improvement of our vision, we find that we must again make another commitment. We step up on the next stair riser.

With each consecutive step, we may see a little more, but each one requires a step of faith on our part. In fact, our entire understanding depends more upon faith in the promise that we have about the room, than it does based on a decision about what we can see. As we continue to ascend the staircase, some of the questions that we had on the first step are answered, but many are not. 

It is Not New Revelation that Gives Us Confidence

But even if our vision may become a little clearer with each step, it is not this improvement in what we can see that gives us confidence to continue. Indeed, we may sometimes ascend several steps without really seeing anything new in the room, or in other ways anything at all that is different.

Rather than sight, what motivates us is a promise. We continue on because someone whom we trust has told us what is in the room. We know this person to be of good character and we believe what he or she has told us, so we continue up the steps with confidence. We are walking in the faith that we have in the promises of that person. It is true that our own perceptions remain a part of our walk, but even if we are given no further revelation about what the room contains, faith requires that our walk continues to take action, based only on the promise of what we have been told.

This is what the writer of the book of Hebrews was talking about when he said of faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NAS). 

Examples from the Ancients

The writer of Hebrews then continues by telling of men and women of the past who had received promises from God, and then acted upon those promises. Sometimes, as in the case of Noah, walking by faith meant facing constant ridicule of the people of his day as he began a massive building project. Noah dedicated his life to building a huge boat, not based on any climatic evidence, but only because God had told him that a great flood was coming, one such as the world had never seen nor could imagine.

For Abraham and Sarah, walking by faith meant leaving everything that they had ever known and relocating their entire lives to a strange and distant land. This new land was in some ways to be their “Promised Land,” but in their own walk of faith, the gradual realization came to them that the ultimate fulfillment of the promises of God would not even be realized there, in that land. God’s full promise was of such a marvelous nature that nothing on earth could measure up to its fulfillment. That fullness would come in another day and in another existence. It could only be fully realized in an eternal kingdom.

The writer of this book of Hebrews goes on to tell of more men women who had their own walks of faith. Some of their experiences had commonality with others, while other aspects of their walks of faith were unique only to them. Each one however, began their path with God by peering up into an open doorway at the top of a stairway and taking the first step up on the first riser. This first step perhaps was done with much trepidation and hesitancy, but they did it. It was their first step of faith. 

The Risk of Faith

We can see of course, that walking by faith in this way can be a dangerous act. If the object of our faith is not trustworthy, we will fall into deception.  As we ascend the steps, we are further committing ourselves to enter into the room.  It is possible that one ascends a staircase only to find that in the end, he had been deceived.

That is why I said that the life of faith is mainly based on a promise. However, our own perceptions nevertheless always also remain in play. Since our ascent of the stairs is motivated by faith in what we have been told, it is reasonable for us to assume that as we gain a clearer perspective of the contents in the room above, we should be able to assess the validity of those things that we have been told about the room.

Each step should further confirm the promise about the room. If it does not, then we know that we may be ascending the wrong staircase. 

Those on Difficult Stairways

This does not mean that each step will necessarily become brighter and easier. It is true that for some, it will. The writer of Hebrews tells of those, “Who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions…” and on and on.

But others, he said, were “stoned, sawn in two, tempted, put to death with the sword, went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, and ill-treated.”

These individuals, as they ascended the staircase, did not see their lives become easier. However, God had given to each of these assurances that despite the present circumstances, the walk that he had given to each one of them would indeed be worth any difficulty. In fact, the writer of the book says that when these individuals were offered their release, chose not to accept it, “so that they might obtain a better resurrection” (v. 35).

These were not men and women who had some sort of death wish or a perverted type of persecution complex, but men and women who simply refused to compromise their walks of faith for the easier walk of sight.

This was the choice of three young Hebrew lads when they were captives of King Nebuchadnezzar in the land of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had set up a large golden statue, some ninety feet high, and commanded everyone to bow in worship to this image. When the three Hebrews, given the names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to do this, the king told them, “I will give you one more chance to bow down and worship the statue I have made when you hear the sound of the musical instruments. But if you again refuse, you will be thrown immediately into the blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my power?”

The answer that the three youths gave to the king demonstrated that they were on the path of faith, and would not be led astray. Their response: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty.

“But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18 NLT)

Even Abraham and Sarah, although they both died at a ripe old age, did not consider their present circumstances on the earth as anything worthwhile, since they never even bothered building a permanent house. Instead, they “lived as aliens in the land of promise, as in a foreign land…for they were looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (vs. 9-10).

Despite the difficulties of the steps on the staircase, the three Hebrew lads and Abraham and Sarah kept their eyes on the room above. Of these and of all the men and women of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the writer pays a high compliment.

These were people, he said, “of whom the world was not worthy” (v. 38). 

My Own Walk

Each person has his or her own experience. My own experience is that I have sought to walk by faith based on the promises of the God of the Bible, the God of all creation. My walk of faith has been far from perfect, but I will say that I have been very slowly ascending the consecutive risers of the stairway. My vision is also far from perfect, but I will also say that it is much clearer now than it has ever been in the past.

All of this has required of me consecutive acts of commitment to a promise. Sometimes I have been asked to make this commitment based on agonizingly little physical evidence. In retrospect of those moments of commitment (some of them still very clear to me), I can say that in every case, the promise of God has proven valid. This has given me courage to step up onto the next riser.

I continue to climb. My faith is ever stronger. I know that the God who has been shown himself worthy of my faith as I have trusted him in the past, will be worthy of my faith in the future. His promise does not fail.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

STREET BOYS

An experience that I had in Addis Ababa reminded me of something that I wrote many years ago. When I arrived in Ethiopia, Levi told me that I needed to be careful of street boys who may surround me and try to lift my money clip.

As it turns out, this did happen from time to time as I walked alone. Only once did it get a little physical, but no big deal.

In our own country, we know that we have many adults that live on the streets of our cities, and I am sure that there are also many minors that are homeless and living on the streets. Nevertheless, in some cities of Latin America, and also apparently at least in Ethiopia, boys living on the streets can be a genuine security problem, even on a busy street in full daylight.

Our first reaction to being accosted by these young boys is understandably reactionary and negative, and I am not claiming that they are all misunderstood and misled adolescents. However, there may be some other factors that we do not know.

Hence the story from Lima, Peru. What I write below is not actually my story, but it was told to me by a man had opened a home for street boys and who shared with me some of the stories of the boys that had come into his home. (There are no real names in this essay).
 

THE STREET BOYS OF LIMA
 

Pedro is no longer a boy. He has grown into a young man and works as a janitor in a rescue home for street boys of Lima, Peru. He is married, has a child and is a believer in Jesus Christ – but this only after many years. And he still carries some scars in his soul.
 
When Pedro was born, his mother died in the delivery. He had an older brother and a sister, and for some years, the father kept the family together. Then, when Pedro turned four years old, his father called him into the room.

“Pedro,” his father said, “you are now four years old and for four years we have been waiting to tell you something. You are now old enough to understand. First, listen to your brother. He also has something to tell you.”

Pedro’s brother looked at him and said, “Pedro, the very first thing you did in your life was to kill my mother.”

Then it was the sister’s turn. She said to him, “The first thing that you did was to kill my mother and your own mother.”

After this, the father again spoke. “It is true Pedro. The very first thing that you did in your life was to kill my children’s mother, your own mother, and my wife. You are a murderer and an assassin, and we never want to see you again.”

With those words, the father put Pedro out of the house for the boy to tend for himself. So it was that when Pedro became four years old, he heard these words from his family and was turned out on the street. He has never seen them since.

The life of a street boy is deadly. Most never reach the age of 18. They die long before that age. Many, of course, die violently. A street boy who snatches a watch off of the wrist of someone on a sidewalk can be run down by a whole mob of people, who all join in the chase and then beat the boy to death. Or it might be with a bullet in the head from a policeman. Many simply die from pneumonia. Their bodies are so weak and they have no strength to fight infection.

The term “street boy” is really a misnomer. They do not live on the streets like an adult homeless person. These boys exist by hiding. They find a place in a drainage ditch or a sewer, a dark corner or a rooftop – any place that they can hide away in some relative safety. They only appear out of their hiding places when they need food. They do not come out to walk the streets for pleasure, because as they say, “El muerte me espera en cada esquina.” Death awaits me at every corner.

They are not street boys. The street to them is not their home. They have no home. They can only exist by hiding. When they need food, they will come out. They must do something to get food.

There are basically two methods by which the street boys can exist. They can steal, or they can prostitute themselves. They do not snatch a watch because they want a watch. They steal it because they can trade it for food. When they get food, they also try to buy some glue. They put the glue in a little piece of plastic and cover their mouths and nose so that they can breathe the fumes. “Con eso me borra,” they say. With this, I am erased.

Most of these street boys are the results of abusive homes. Almost none know who their father is. Most were turned out by their mother when a new man has moved into the house and did not want to put up with all of the kids around. It is the boys who are put to the streets. The girls are not so quickly turned out by the mother because the mother sees herself in her little girls. She knows the dangers that lie on the streets and she harbors a hope that her little girl can grow up to have a better life. If anyone can survive, she thinks, it will be the boy. So it is the boys who are rejected.

Strangely, the boys of the street do not blame their mothers for this. They blame themselves. Like Pedro, they have come to believe that they are bad people, and bad people do not deserve anything else. When asked what was the hardest moment of their life, they will not talk about being rejected by their mother.

“The most difficult moment is when I have to think,” they will say. To think is mental anguish and torture, so for this they get the glue. “With this, I am erased.”

Stealing is the preferred method of existence on the street. The other is far worse. It is by selling oneself for sex. To exist by stealing, however, a boy must be able to run. He must be old enough and healthy enough to outrun his pursuer. A boy of four who is turned out on the street has almost no chance of survival. It is no insignificant matter that Pedro was still alive long enough to grow into a young adult, but the price had been very great.

Most of us cannot imagine the depths of the horrors of this world. Pedro had been forced to do everything for every type of perverted and depraved creature (I cannot bring myself to call them persons). But somehow, he survived. Do we need to wonder why these boys are afraid to think?

Pedro came into the home for street boys when he was twelve. He did not come because he trusted the people in the home. He simply did not know what it was to trust. None of the boys do. That someone should want to help them is something that is completely foreign to them. They think that everyone must be some hidden motive. They stay in the home for a while, until they think it is getting too dangerous, and then they leave. After a time they may come back. This time they may stay a little longer and try to figure it out. Sometimes they leave and do not return. No one can know what has happened. Mostly it is assumed they have been killed.

***************

A boy named Esteban left the home and disappeared for a long time – two years. Then one day he showed up at the door. He looked very ill. “Can we take you to the doctor?” they asked him at the home. Mostly the boys will not let them take them to doctors. They do not trust the people of the home and they do not trust the doctor.

“Why should these people try to help me?” the boys say to themselves. “I am a bad person.” If the doctor should want to give him an injection, they are especially suspicious. “What is in the needle this doctor wants to inject me with?” The boys are always on their guard.

This particular boy, Esteban, finally said “yes,” they could take him to the doctor. He was very sick. The doctor examined him and then told him bluntly, “you have AIDS and you are dying. You have three days to live.”

The people of the boys’ home brought him back to the home. “Let us prepare a room where you may stay and please let us be with you when you die,” they told him. “You only have two or three days to live,” they said, “do you not want to trust in Jesus?”

Here again is the matter of trust. We cannot understand how difficult it is for them. “Trust” has never been anything to them but the enemy. It has left them vulnerable and it has betrayed them. There are the scars.

However, this time Esteban said, yes, he was ready to trust. He asked Jesus into his life. “Now stay with us,” the people at the boy’s home told him. “Let us be with you when you die.”

“No, I do not deserve this,” Esteban responded. “For many years you have been kind to me and I have never loved you in return. I do not deserve to stay here and die. That I will die and be with Jesus, of this I am sure, but all that I deserve in this life is the street.”

He left. Three days later, Esteban was found dead, lying on the street.

**************

But Pedro had survived. Somehow, (and I think that none of us want to imagine how) Pedro survived. He stayed at the home for a time, and then left. He came back, stayed a little longer, and left again. Slowly he began to allow himself to hope. Once he had left and was gone for a year or more. When he returned, it was with a young girl for a wife and a little baby. The people at the children’s home gave him a job as a janitor, so that he could buy food for his family.

Over and over Pedro heard the gospel. Over and over he heard the teachings of Jesus and was asked if he wanted to give his life to Jesus. He was never ready to do this. He was never ready to trust. One day one of the staff persons pulled him aside and told him, “Pedro, some day you are going to feel as if someone is pulling at your heart. Some day you are going to feel like someone is knocking at a door in your heart as if he wants to come in. Pedro, if that ever happens, it will be Jesus. When that happens, allow him to come into your heart and your life.”

Some time later Pedro was mopping the floor in the boy’s home, doing his job as a janitor. The staff person who had spoken to him about Jesus knocking on his heart’s door was sitting in his office. Pedro had a two-way radio that he could use to call the office and that they used to communicate between themselves. The man at the desk suddenly received a call from Pedro up on the 5th floor of the building – the top floor.

“Please come here quickly,” Pedro said. He was crying.

“Why? What has happened?”

“Just come quickly here.”

When the staff person arrived, Pedro was sitting on the floor crying. Pedro did not know what was happening to him.

“Look at me,” Pedro said. “I am crying! I never cry. I do not remember ever crying and I did not even know that I could cry. And what you said is happening. Someone is pulling at my heart!”

In that moment, Pedro received Christ into his life. He became a new person.

There are still some scars. Pedro still is dealing with many things in his life. But all is different now, and these are not scars that will remain forever.

Of the Lord Jesus, who came into Pedro’s heart that day, we read these words:

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5 NIV)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - Part 13

(scroll down for parts 1-12)
LALIBELA 3

Perhaps the best known of the churches of Lalibela is the church of St. George. This church is the best preserved, most likely owing much to the fact that it is the most recent of the churches to be sculpted. In some ways, it was surprising to me that a church was constructed in Africa that commemorates St. George.

Like many historical figures, St. George is not only a person of history, but also of many legends. As an historical figure, it seems that George was born in Lydda of Cappadocia (now central Turkey) to Christian parents. His father was named Gerontius, a name I kind of like because it means “old man” (I suspect that we get our word Geriatrics from this word). This Gerontius, the father of George, was a well-known soldier in the Roman army. However, despite his name, Gerontius died when George was only fourteen years old.

As in many military families, the son followed his father in this career. Gerontius had been one of the finest soldiers in the Roman guard. Thus, when George enlisted, the Roman emperor at the time, a man by the name of Diocletian, was happy to have George also join his forces.

However, after some time, things changed in the Roman Empire. Some time after George became part of the Imperial Guard, the emperor Diocletian suddenly became opposed to Christians and ordered that all the soldiers should offer up sacrifices to the Roman gods.

George, not only a Christian by name but especially by conviction, refused to do so. What was more, his refusal was not done in secret, but in front of the other soldiers and even in an audience with the king himself, before whom George strongly held to his conviction as a believer in Christ. Diocletian did not want to lose George as a soldier, and tried to convince him to renounce his faith by offering him many gifts of land and money and slaves if George would make a sacrifice to the gods of Rome.

After repeated refusals, the king then subjected George to many torture sessions, three times from which he had to be resuscitated only to endure more torture. Before his death, George had distributed his wealth to the poor. His end came with a public decapitation on April 23 of the year 303. Among the witnesses to his death was a pagan priest and a Roman empress, who thereafter also became Christians.

His body was returned to his birth place of Lydda. Almost immediately Christians from the area visited his tomb, recognizing him as martyr for the faith.

That is the story of St. George, at least the part that is at least
somewhat substantiated by history, but George’s story goes far beyond this. For instance, you have no doubt heard of how St. George slayed a dragon. This event is said to have taken place in a now unknown location, but one which had a small lake, in which the dragon lived. The dragon carried a plague that was ravaging the countryside, so in order to keep the dragon appeased, the townspeople would feed it two sheep every day.
Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

Eventually however, the town ran out of sheep. After that time, so the story goes, each day one of the children of the town was given to the dragon for his food, each child chosen randomly by lot from among the village children.

This was the case until the lot fell on the daughter of the king. The grief-stricken king offered the people of the town all of his wealth and half of his kingdom if his daughter could be spared, but the people would not have it. They demanded the king to feel the pain that many of them had already felt.

Reluctantly, the king complied with the decision of the people. His had his daughter dressed up as a bride, since she would never see her wedding day, and brought to the lake to be fed to the dragon.

However, as chance would have it, George happened upon the situation. As he was speaking to the girl, asking her why she was dressed the way that she was, the dragon emerged from the lake. George, instead of fleeing the dragon as the girl had told him to do, instead made the sign of the cross in the air and charged the dragon, seriously wounding it with his lance. After some additional dramatic details in the story, George then struck the final and fatal blow to the dragon.

So that then, is the legendary part of the story of St. George, at least the shortened account of it. It may seem incredible, but it is accepted widely enough that the image of St. George on horseback slaying a dragon is seen on many coats of arms, and the sign of his cross found on several flags of nations and cities. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill named his own personal aircraft after the name of St. George’s lance, Ascalon. I am told that there are several sculptures of Saint George battling the dragon in Stockholm, the earliest of these inside Storkyrkan (The Great Church).

And, as we see now, the image of St. George battling the dragon is also found in the town of Lalibela, Ethiopia. Not only is
the image of George on several wall hangings in some of the churches, but the cross of St. George elaborates many of the window openings. But King Lalibela did not stop there paying honor to the saint of old. The entire structure of the Church of Saint George is made in the shape of what we know to be his cross, patterned after the sign the saint made in the air before charging the dragon, while mounted on his steed and brandishing his lance Ascalon.

There are those of us who may question what we might see as the sometimes excessive veneration of past saints, but we should not be so harsh in our condemnation. After all, the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews also brings many of these saints of yester-year to our attention, calling them “A great cloud of witnesses that surround us.”

In our culture, wearing the football jersey to honor our favorite player, or a tee-shirt emblazoned with our favorite rock band seems always to be acceptable – even to church. Instead of this, why do we not honor some of these men and women of the past who teach us that true virtue is not that you can throw football, or hash out some mean chords on a guitar, but true virtue can be found in doing good, in helping people, and in staying strong in our Christian convictions in the face of great persecution?

Don’t know where to start?

Hebrews, chapter eleven.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Any IT people out there?

I received an email from G-Suite (which is not the same as Gmail) saying that my domain donaldrhody.com is about to expire unless I update my payment account.

The problem is, I cannot figure out how to sign in as administrator to the account. I am the administrator, but my signing into Gmail does not do it, although the blog site is also a google administrated account.

Has anyone else had this problem? I have gone around and around on the help sites and tried to contact google by various means, but to no avail.

I may just let the blog site expire, since I am simply tired of trying to figure this out.

Please write to me at donaldrhody@gmail.com if you have the solution

Sunday, May 14, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 12

(Scroll down for parts 1-11)

LALIBELA - 2

It was not until fairly recent decades that there has been a road to the town of Lalibela that has been better than barely passable. Before just several years ago, there were no vehicles in Lalibela, no petrol stations, and little to offer in regard to services for travelers. Lately however, much work is being done on the road. I believe much of this is owing to the fact that the church site of Lalibela was named a historic site by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 1978. Even with this, when Levi and I traveled to that town by backcountry bus, much of the road was still under construction.
 
It was largely a long and dusty ride of about seven hours from Dessie, with one stop to pee on the side of the road if you needed to, and one more stop later for lunch, or perhaps to look for a more discreet place to pee if you were too embarrassed the first time (if you had managed to hold it for the additional three hours). The entire way we crammed ourselves into school-bus type seats with our luggage on our laps.
 
As on my other bus rides in Ethiopia, the green plastic store bags were occasionally passed back to car-sick passengers in the bus, soon to be filled and then thrown out of the window. Thankfully after that first experience on the bus up from Addis Ababa, I had no further need for a bag to be passed to me. Seemingly I had made my adjustment to the bus rides over the mountains and around the sharp turns of the roads of Ethiopia (see part 7).

At the bus station in Lalibela, the manager there was somewhat surprised to see us. “Most foreign tourists come here on the airplane,” he told me.
 
I suppose that is true, but I was also told by someone that some Ethiopian pilgrims come even on foot to Lalibela as part of their pilgrimage.

******************
The eleven rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia remained largely unknown to the world for many years. I call them rock churches instead of churches made of stone, because they are not stone churches in the traditional sense. These are not the work of stone masons who began the structures by laying a foundation of stone footings, and then building upon the footing with succeeding courses of stone. This is the way in which we usually think of stone churches.

The churches of Lalibela however, are monolithic in structure. That is to say, they are chiseled and carved from one solid piece of rock. This is not done from the bottom up, but rather from the top down. Most of the structure of the churches was made by first chiseling straight down into the rock of the mountain, or perhaps into a side, leaving only the rock that was to remain as part of the structure. Any material that was chiseled away and not wanted had to be carried away. Only the rock of the building itself remained.
 
Thus, these churches were not of stones that were cut from the mountain of their origin, made into blocks, and then constructed into a building at another site. The churches of Lalibela were made from stone that was undisturbed from its origins. In this way, it is said that the churches are made from “living stone.”

The clearest example of all that was involved can be best seen in the Church of St George. Here, a nearly forty-foot deep cavity was chiseled straight down into the rock of the mountain, leaving only the middle intact. Until the cavity had been completed to its full depth, there was no entrance into the excavation except from the top. That means that all of the rubble from the removed debris had to be carried up and out the top. It was only when the cavity was dug to what would be the floor, forty feet down, that a cave-like entrance was added.
 
Then slowly and painstakingly, the inner church began to take form. The churches of Lalibela are not crude hollows cut out of rock, but are ornately designed, complete with door and inner supporting arches, elaborate windows and door frames, and interior and exterior columns. The builders very obviously exceeded far what was merely necessary to make their churches. This was a labor of love, and labor that held deep spiritual meaning for the people of that time.
 
However, despite the fact that these were magnificent structures that held deep meanings for their builders, and despite the fact that Ethiopia also had large communities of Christians in the early centuries, 12th century Ethiopia was not medieval Europe, and for hundreds of years the churches of Lalibela remained unknown to the outside world. It was not until the 1520’s that the Portuguese began to explore the area and came across the city. 
 
In the first of these expeditions to this region, the priest Francisco Alvarez who accompanied the group wrote of these magnificent buildings, describing them in some detail until finally concluding with these words:
 
“I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but I swear by God, in Whose power I am, what I have written is true.”
 
After visiting these churches, I will say the same. In an earlier post about Levi’s village I mentioned that there are some experiences that cannot be described with even a thousand words, and if a picture is truly worth a thousand words, then even a thousand pictures are not adequate. What I will tell you about the churches of Lalibela can never be adequate to describe them. The best that I can hope to do is to give you some sense of what it was like for me to see them.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 11


(scroll down for parts 1-10) 

LALIBELA - 1
The Christian Pilgrimage 

It was for two reasons that the Emperor Lalibela saw the need of providing a destination of pilgrimage as a necessity for the people of Ethiopia. The first of these reasons was the very great distances required for the pilgrims to travel to the original Jerusalem. So great was distance to Jerusalem of Judea that, for many Ethiopians, a pilgrimage to reach that faraway land would never happen. Also there was the fact that even if they could do so, the Jerusalem of Judea had suddenly fallen under the control of the Saracens. I wrote about these two reasons in the previous post. 

It was for these reasons that Lalibela began the construction on a city that was to eventually be so intimately associated with him that it also took on his name. The city was to be built as a representation of what the emperor experienced while he was in Jerusalem, and it was meant to become the object of Christian pilgrimages, especially for the Ethiopian pilgrims. 

We of the western Christian societies have largely gotten away from the notion of religious pilgrimages. It is unfortunate that we have allowed this to become so. A pilgrimage is indeed travel, but it is travel for a specific purpose not recognized by most modern day tourists. The reason most people want to tour a new place in these days is mostly self-centered. The modern day notion of travel is for personal entertainment, and little else. 

The religious pilgrimage is not the same type of travel. The religious pilgrimage is not for personal entertainment nor is it self-centered. It is instead God-centered. Certainly, as in any travel, there are new things to see and new things to experience. But the goal of the pilgrim is not to be able to snap a selfie of himself or herself in front of a cool building so that he can post it on facebook to see how many “likes” he can get. The goal of the pilgrim is to regain what has become lost in his relationship to God. 

From time to time, all of us need to regain what becomes lost. As we work in our day by day lives in this world, our personal relationship with God becomes soiled with the filth of the society in which we live. It is for this reason that daily Scripture reading and prayer are important, and it is for this reason that weekly gatherings of worship with other like-minded believers in Christ is important. 

Also, it is for this reason that on occasion, a Christian pilgrimage may also become important. Not only do we set the world aside for a few moments so that we can read the Bible and pray. Not only do we leave the world aside for a couple of hours so that we can go to church. In a pilgrimage, we leave the world aside for a more extended time for the purpose of regaining the perspective that we need to maintain in our relationship with God. 

We may even endure hardships in the journey, but these hardships also play a key element in a pilgrimage. They help us to reestablish the priority that our relationship with God is of greater importance to us that any personal comfort or enjoyment. A pilgrimage is in fact meant to show us that our relationship with God is everything.

The concept of the pilgrimage is given to us very early in the Scriptures. “Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me,” God instructed Moses (Exodus 23:14).

Psalms 120-134 are all what are called the “Songs of Ascents.” These were songs that were sung by the worshipers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem in their thrice yearly pilgrimages.

One of the few details that we have recorded for us about the childhood of Jesus was that every year his parents brought him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. It was on one of those pilgrimages that Jesus had stayed in the temple to ask questions and to learn of the opinions of the teachers. 

The city of Lalibela in Ethiopia was constructed for the purpose of pilgrimages. Thus, what I will describe to you beginning with the next post is not meant to be a travelogue. Rather, it is meant to be the account of a pilgrimage.
 

(I will finally begin to tell about the city in the next post)

Friday, May 12, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 10

(scroll down for parts 1-9)

In the year 1187 AD, the Saracen commander commonly known as Saladin laid siege to the city of Jerusalem of Judea, causing its surrender to him in early October of that year. At the time of the siege and sacking of the city, there were some Ethiopian pilgrims present in Jerusalem who witnessed all that had happened to this destination of their pilgrimage.

In fairness to Saladin, in his conquest of Jerusalem, the Muslim warrior attempted to take control of the city with spilling as little blood as possible. This was in great contrast to the methods of the Crusaders of 1099, when they had captured the city at that time. The history of that specific siege by the Crusaders is written with great quantities of the blood of the victims.

Saladino,
Cristofano dell'Altissimo, ante 1568
 

But Saladin, with his own capture of Jerusalem, did not slaughter all whom he found within the city gates. He instead granted conditions of surrender for those inside. Part of these conditions included a provision for any who wished to leave instead of remaing under his command. These people would be required to pay a ransom, with which they could earn their own release.

When it was found that some of the residents could not pay the price of the ransom, Saladin allowed the amount to become negotiable. Still other ransoms were paid from the city treasury (which, one could say, Saladin could have easily seized anyway). Yet other captives were simply given their freedom without any payment at all. Some of those set free under one of these conditions were apparently the pilgrims from Ethiopia.

When these Ethiopian pilgrims returned to their homeland, the brought with them the news of the fall of Jerusalem. Again, to repeat the year that this happened, it occurred in 1187 AD.

I repeat the year because that also is the year that Lalibela the man began his reign in Ethiopia: 1187 AD. You may call this a coincidence of history or you may call it providence, but that was the year that the then Emperor Lalibela began his work on the city that was to become known by his own name – the worship center of Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Of course, there is much about when the actual construction of the churches began that is unknown, and much of it open to the interpretation of historical evidence. However, it was at that time that the Emperor Lalibela saw the great need for a center of pilgrimage, and it was at that time when the development of the city was initiated in earnest.

I will begin to tell you a little about the city as it was when I visited it on this trip to see my son Levi, who is living in Ethiopia, but that will be in the next post.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 9

(scroll down for parts 1-8)

LALIBELA Part 1

The town of Lalibela is in northern Ethiopia, and is one of the oldest of Christian pilgrim destinations in the world. It was somewhat with this same sense of pilgrimage that I also traveled to that place. Before I tell you about the city however, I need to go into a little of the history of how it became this center of worship.

Very early in history, even before the birth of Christ, there were established communities of people in Ethiopia who had converted to Judaism and practiced thier faith according to the Mosaic Law. The exact origins of these communities are unknown and shrouded with many theories, but there even remains those of the Jewish faith in Ethiopia today, although many had emigrated to Israel in the 20th century under Israel's Law of Return.

When we move ahead in history from the Old Testament times to the second century after Christ, we come also to the time of the establishment of the city of Lalibela. Even a great deal of this history is unknown to us, and much is open to the interpretation of whatever historian one cares to read. However, the general consensus is that the city began its role as a site of pilgrimage for Christians during the reign of the King of the region of that time, one Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. The first two of these names literally mean, “Servant of the Cross,” for Lalibela was born into a Christian home in the year 1162.

At that time, Ethiopia was not an established nation as it is today, but the region of Ethiopia has been well recognized from ancient times. We have in the Bible, for instance, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was a court official to Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians (Acts 8:27). This Ethiopian had been to Jerusalem to worship, and apparently at the point of the story in the Bible, was on his return trip to Ethiopia. As he traveled in his chariot, he was reading from the book of Isaiah, but could not understand the meaning of the Scripture. It was then that God called the early evangelist Phillip to explain to him the meaning of what he was reading.

This and other stories give us an indication that there was an early Christian community that began in Ethiopia, a community of whom we have little written history. By the second century, the Christians seem to have become well established in Ethiopia. As a result, the man Lalibela was born to Christian parents.
15th Century painting of
Emporer Lalibela

As with any well-known man or woman of early history, the accounts of the life of Lalibela is are a combination of fact and legend, and it is often difficult to differentiate between the two. However, even legends are often based on true events, so there is benefit in learning even the legends. One of the legends concerning Lalibela, is that at his birth, a swarm of bees descended and surrounded the infant. If this would happen to you as a mom, you may scream in terror, but Lalibela’s mother interpreted it as being a sign that the boy would one day be the Emperor of Ethiopia. It was because of this that his mother bestowed upon him the third name, "Lalibela." This name means, "the bees recognize his sovereignty."

It is also widely accepted that Lalibela lived part of his youth in the Holy Land, and had visited and come to know the city of Jerusalem during his younger years. So deeply moved was he by his experience there, that it became his desire to build a spiritual replica of Jerusalem in Ethiopia when he would return there.

Part of his motivation for this was, knowing most of the Christians from his homeland could not realistically ever travel to Jerusalem, he wanted to establish somewhat of a replica of Jerusalem, or perhaps better said, a spiritual representation of the city, so that the early Christians of Ethiopia could instead make their pilgrimage to that place.

The result is a city unlike any in the world. The buildings of this portion of the city are actually churches, eleven in all, that are each cut from one single block of scoria basalt rock. Each one in some way is said to represent humility and the spiritual life of the Christian faith.

Many of the patterns of the buildings and their names are also said to be representations of the spiritual life that Lalibela the man is said to have observed in Jerusalem during his youth. The names of the buildings have mostly Biblical names, and even the river of the town became known as the River Jordan.

But there was yet another event that was to happen at that time in world history that made the founding of the town known as Lalibela even more critical for the time. I will write about that in the next post.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 8

(scroll down for parts 1-7)

At times an impression might come to me, or I may experience some sensation, that I cannot describe in even a thousand words. And if one picture is truly worth one thousand words, then even a thousand pictures are not adequate.

Last evening, in the still moments when the sun was setting, I walked along the edge of the gentle ridge in the village where Levi’s house is located in north central Ethiopia. The evening was perfectly still. A light rain had fallen just an hour before, and now the sun was sending some rays through the breaks between clouds that billowed high into the air. The air, fresh with the recent rain, was just cool enough for a light jacket.

I paused from time to time, so that I could watch the way that the night slowly descend upon the African landscape. Levi’s village is named Abejale. It is a small village when measured in population, perhaps two thousand inhabitants. However, the land it occupies is quite large. That is because the village is not a single large gathering of homes, but is a scattering of small groups of homes gathered in various places in the shallow valleys and on the ridges immediately surrounding the ridge where Levi’s own home is located. His home is in yet another of these groups.

As I walked along the ridge, the vantage points that it offered me provided a broad view of much of the area. The terrain is mostly all divided into small fields, with some eucalyptus and acacia trees growing on the edges of the plots and around and in the house groupings. Some of these groups of buildings are the several homes of one extended family, and others are of various families. In a certain way, each group of homes is their own little community, united by their proximity to one another, and also by other matters that they hold in common.

In the quiet evening air, the voices of the people calling their evening greetings to one another extended also up to me. The way that they have of calling to one another is perhaps not unique in Africa, but since this is my first experience on this great continent, it is new to me.

“Hooooo,” they called. First it was the name of the person they were calling, with the “Hooooo” added to the end of the name as a suffix. It ended in a high pitch. Almost a yodel. 

To call the boy name Gitacho - “Gitachoooo!”

The sound is difficult to describe, but believe me when I say that it was a very pleasant ending to the call.

Perhaps they were friends seeing each other coming in from the fields. Perhaps the moms calling their children. It was a variety of voices that called out: men and women, old and young, as well as the small children. It was these that I could hear the clearest. What followed the call were words that I could not understand. Of course they were speaking in Amharic, but even if I could understand that tongue, I doubt if I would have been able to make out the words. They were all very far away.

But it did not matter that I could not understand their words. I felt that they also called out greeting to me, and that their voices also called their greetings to this expansive continent.

I know that my impressions of this experience are accentuated because this is my first and perhaps only visit to Africa. These are a people I have not before known, and in all likelihood will not know again. Nevertheless, it is great privilege of mine to share with them, if for only a few moments, the special aspects of their culture.