Global Connections, Deepening Faith

by Jeff Ritchie

This week a friend and former missionary to Ethiopia launched his first book. It is Paradox Lost: Rediscovering the Mystery of God, by Richard Hansen. This volume is serious reading but is well worth the purchase. However, today’s blog is not a review of Paradox Lost.

I met Richard and Marilyn Hansen in Ethiopia where they taught and served the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Both were dedicated workers serving the Ethiopians from several denominations who were studying in this graduate institution. I could tell that they were making a difference at EGST which itself is greatly impacting the Christian Movement in Ethiopia. But today’s blog is not about the impact of servant leaders like the Hansens.

What I do want to talk about is the way that interacting with the global church can deepen our understanding of, and experiencing of, God who calls us first to himself, and then out into the world he loves. The way Richard Hansen interacted with his students at the seminary in Ethiopia is instructive for us in our Christian life in several ways.

We Can Know God Truly, But Not Completely, and So We Need the Benefit of Those from Outside our Culture:  Through his classes, Richard Hansen met students who were ablaze with love for God and were zealous to make disciples. The Ethiopian Church inspired him as it inspires and humbles many of us who have walked with brothers and sisters who are turning their country to the Lord. At the same time Hansen found that they had blind spots in other parts of their understanding and practice of the Christian faith, noticeably in the theology of creation (pp. 155-156). For him and for his students, the encounter with each other was a way to enlarge their respective understanding and experience of God and God’s ways.

There Are Some Things about God That Will Remain a Mystery, a Paradox:  Not only through his missionary service, but also through his pastoral work in the United States before and after being a missionary, Hansen found that he could not explain all the ways of God to his or his parishioners’ satisfaction. Theological paradoxes like the Trinity and the Incarnation, the evils and calamities that come to us out of nowhere and alter our lives from the way they were going – these are the things that people can point to and say, “This is contradictory (Trinity),” or “Why would God allow this evil to happen?”

Rather than see the paradoxes, (apparent) contradictions, and other inexplicable aspects of Christian faith as “deal-breakers” for people to give up Christianity or not even try to embrace it, Hansen in his book calls us to look through paradox to the God who is still there, mysterious though he may be. I have found personally that knowing people from other cultures who have even more experience than I with the conundrums of life help me do just that – look through or beyond the paradoxes and see that God is still present, working to make all things new and inviting the church to be his instrument and sign. Although I cannot understand, much less explain some aspects of the Christian life to my own or others’ satisfaction, I can see a way forward through the experiences of my brothers and sisters around the globe. Here are two of the mysteries.

Death Precedes Resurrection:  I have met Christians persecuted for their faith from Iran, Ethiopia, China and elsewhere. Some of those have shared that they despaired that there would ever be church as they once knew it. But God has proved time after time that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” In all these countries and regions the growth of Jesus’ family is miraculous. In the Persian World, for example, the percentage growth (not sheer numbers) of new disciples of Jesus is among the highest in the world. 

Evil Is Deeper in All of Us Than We Realize, But God’s Mercy Is Deeper Still:  Some years ago a work colleague visited Ghana and toured a “slave castle” on the coast. These fortresses were holding places for Africans captured by other Africans then sold to Western slave traders for shipment to the Americas. My colleague, an African-American, was quite understandably incensed and became visibly agitated by what she saw. Seeing her so upset, her host, a dear Ghanaian Christian, reminded her that the slave trade was not carried on simply by Westerners; there was a chain of evil stretching across the continent of Africa as well as across the ocean to our shores. There was enough blame to go around for all to share, African and Westerner alike. He did not deny the evil, but helped her to hold her emotions in a larger framework so that she was not consumed by the anger she justly felt. For all he knew, some of his ancestors, Muslims in northern Ghana, might have been those who captured those who were then sold into slavery. Now, however, he had become part of a movement that shared the good news of Jesus in word and deed to every people group in Ghana. My colleague was also part of that movement through our partnership in Ghana. In that knowledge she could go forward.

Whatever paradox, unanswerable question, or personal wrestling you may have about Christian faith and living, I invite you to wrestle with God and God’s people as you read thoughtful books. I invite you also to learn from brothers and sisters from other cultures, sharing life with them and observing how they deal with the complexities of life with God and in God’s service. May we help each other enlarge our vision of God, hold in tension the things that defy easy explanation, and abound in the work of the Lord, knowing that our labor will not be in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).

Jeff Ritchie
Associate Director for Mission