The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

Only a few works of art carry on in the minds of people from one generation to the next. The majority end up forgotten in the dust of history. The number of memorable art decreases even further as you increase the amount of time. For a painting to continue to impact people almost 400 years after it was created, testifies to its status as a masterpiece.

Rembrandt was born in the Netherlands to a Dutch Reformed father and a Catholic mother. He created The Return of the Prodigal Son, in 1669, towards the end of his life. At this point, he had lived a tumultuous, roller-coaster existence. He had experienced great wealth and financial bankruptcy. He knew deep loss through the death of his first wife and betrayal on the part of a spurned woman. He was the target of criticism from colleagues and church leaders.

Looking for extra reading? check out Henri Nouwn’s The Return of the Prodigal Son book. 

This painting captures the moment when the prodigal son returns to his father to beg forgiveness. The tender hands of the father rest gently on his kneeling son’s shoulders. The father leans forward with a posture of acceptance and love. It is clear that no matter what the son has done, no matter what mistakes he made, no matter how his choices hurt the family reputation, the father welcomes him home.

Rembrandt’s famous painting depicts more than a simple family reunion. To be sure, the viewer recognizes that something significant and life changing is taking place among the cluster of family members. The emotion is unmistakable and made even more emotionally full-bodied by its display of quiet dignity. As we gaze at the face of the father, we discern the visage of God.

One person who was deeply moved by this painting is Henri Nouwen. He first glimpsed a poster-version of the painting on the back of a university’s colleague’s office door. During this period of his life, he was going through emotional restlessness and spiritual dryness. What he discerned as he reflected on this painting was home. “The tender embrace of the father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment. I was, indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.”

Home. Aren’t we all on a journey towards home? We all long to be embraced by our father. We all yearn with a deep desire to be home.

Although we don’t know much about Rembrandt’s personal faith, few of his writings survive, we can piece together a picture from his life’s work. His drawings, etchings and paintings give a good sense of what he held to be most important. His art focused on biblical themes more than any other genre. There are at least 500 drawings, 100 etchings and dozens of paintings that bring the Bible to life. In fact, his first major painting was a depiction of the stoning of Stephen based on the book of Acts.

It is worth noting that Rembrandt, unlike most of his contemporaries, always wanted to honour the Biblical text in his paintings. He always desired Biblical realism and built his art on the text of Scripture. This indicates that he not only was an avid reader of the Bible but that he relished the small details of the text. At a time when anti-Semitism was common, he read the works of Josephus, consulted with Jewish rabbis and often used Jewish models in his attempts to be authentic.

Over the course of his life, Rembrandt also painted countless portraits of Christ. He blazed a new trail in that he portrayed a Christ who is serene and introspective. The images are not so focussed on the divine power of Jesus as much as they balanced both his humanity and divinity. Rembrandt brought a unique perspective to the life of Jesus.

Kenyan Urban Development Neglects the Poor

From Quartz:

Residents of Kenya’s biggest slum Kibera started their week on a bleak note: government cranes and bulldozers demolishing homes, schools, and businesses in certain sections of the slum to make way for a new $20m dual-carriageway in the capital Nairobi. Over 30,000 dwellers were rendered homeless in the process on Monday (July 23), a move Amnesty International Kenya said, “betrays the public trust and violates our laws.”

As Kenyans watched the shanties being removed, one image by Reuters’ photographer Baz Ratner captured the farcical nature of the evictions and the dire ways in which road construction and urban development habitually neglect poor city populations. In the photo, a golfer tees in the background while people stand opposite watching the destruction site—both groups separated by only a short bricked and burnt wall.

The photo is not only an exemplar of the stark inequalities that define Kenya’s capital but is also indicative of how unequal land access, poor urban design, lack of political will and public accountability, besides prioritizing road construction and expansion instead of investments in mass public transport converge in an increasingly urbanizing and fast-paced city.

Over the last decade, economic growth in Kenya has created a rising middle class in tandem with increasing rates of urbanization. With its property boom and shiny new skyscrapers and malls, Nairobi has especially been at the heart of this transformation, attracting both global tech companies and wealthy investors looking for second homes. And given the lack of public transport infrastructure, this has meant wealthier residents move around in private cars, leaving the city congested and one of the most dangerous places to be a pedestrian.

To ease this, the government has taken to expanding roads and building new highways—often with the help of Chinese firms. But as much as these new roads are welcome, new research shows that prioritization of road construction without consideration for the consequences of urban mobility and safety has had a dire impact on the city’s majority population: slum dwellers. A report from the Overseas Development Institute and funded by the FIA Foundation shows that within Nairobi, over half of all road traffic fatalities occur on new high-speed roads, primarily affecting poorer people who have to walk everywhere.

The sprawling nature of Nairobi also means residents are unable to easily move from one part of the city to the other due to unreliable and inefficient transport networks made up of matatus and boda boda motorcycles. And with poorly digitized land registries, disputes over land ownership are common, with corrupt land deals sometimes subverting formal development plans.

Besides, constructing new roads have a political salience, especially for politicians who use their visibility as “tangible signs” of their performance. Public contracts for road construction also offer opportunities for private gain through kickbacks or rewards to political patrons. Donors and governments also support paving new roads, pegging their justification on economic grounds: Kenya’s roads authority estimates that for every shilling invested in roads, the country stands to gain two shillings and fifty cents in benefits.

Yet building more roads, and not investing in light railway or a rapid bus transit system, haven’t reduced congestion—hence why Nairobi, ironically, is thinking of proposing car-free days. And while thousands of Kenyan pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists die every year in road crashes, road safety continues to remain a distant issue in the public sphere.

On Monday, facing criticism, the government defended the demolitions, saying only 2,000 households were affected and that a resettlement plan for those evicted had already been completed.

3 Essentials on Technology from Postman

In 1995, I was finishing my undergraduate studies, and I took a summer course in New York City. Part of the course involved lectures with Neil Postman, Professor of Media Ecology at New York University. His writings deeply nurtured a healthy skepticism towards technology in my thinking.

Media ecology sounds good, but what is it?

Ecology implies the study of environments. Eco(oikos house) + logos(words). Environments in the natural world are well-known, ie. a frog pond. A media environment is not as familiar. It is a more complex structure which specifies and imposes on human beings certain ways of doing, thinking, and feeling.

In the case of media environments (e.g., Youtube, Whatsapp, books, radio, film, television, etc.), the specifications are often IMPLICIT and INFORMAL. You cannot always see them. Like the bottom half of an ice-berg, they are half concealed by our assumptions that what we are dealing with is not an really an environment but only a machine.

In other words, we don’t often think about the environments nurtured and developed by technological tools. We don’t think of a tool as doing any other than what it was designed to do—a shovel just digs holes. But technology gives and takes away from our everyday lives.

Media ecology tries to make these half-hidden specifications explicit and help us to think about how technology shapes our lives. Media ecologists know it is usually the parts of something we don’t see(or think about)that can cause the most devastation—just ask the crew of the Titanic.

Allow me to share with you three of Neil Postman’s most profound ideas about technology.

Neil Postman called all technological change a Faustian bargain. By this he meant that all technology gives some things to us AND takes away other things from our lives. For every advantage your smartphone brings to your life, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. Sometimes the disadvantage is much bigger than the advantage. Other times, the advantage exceeds any disadvantage that can be imagined.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “Thank you very much Captain Obvious.”

Yet, you would be surprised to learn how many people believe that new technologies are completely unmixed blessings. Technology is all good, they say, and give us the latest and the greatest. The majority of people have drunk Samsung or Apple’s Kool-Aid. They know all the good things a smartphone brings to their lives. They can extol the near “miraculous signs and wonders” a smartphone provides. But you will also notice, if you pay attention, most people completely neglect to mention any liabilities of their smartphone.

Neil Postman says, “This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.”

To understand Postman’s first idea, ask yourself not only, “What will this new technology do?” but also ask, “What will this new technology UNDO?” The second question is probably more important because it is hardly ever asked or reflect upon. That is probably why we are dealing with screen addiction among young people today. There are always great costs embedded in every new technology and culture will always pay a price. Do you know the real price you pay for the technology you use?

Technology is good at hiding the ideas it contains. Often the worldviews/ideas are hidden from plain sight because they are abstract in nature. Theoretical should not be taken to mean unreal. All ideas have consequences. Just because we cannot see them, we should not assume these ideas do not have practical consequences upon our lives. The truth is they do.

In a nutshell, Postman’s second point: “To the man with the hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

This truth about human nature can be extended to other areas of life. “To the man with spray-paint, everything looks like graffiti,” or “To the man with a ruler, everything looks like a measurement,” or “To the man with an Instagram account, everything looks like a selfie.”

In other words, every technology has a prejudice. Technology is biased. It is predisposed to some things and averted from others. Like language itself, Postman says, every technology favours certain perspectives, mindsets and viewpoints over others.

In a culture without access to books, human memory is of the greatest importance. The elders with long memories of the past, who can share their wisdom, are highly valued. That is why Solomon was thought to be one of the wisest men who ever lived. The Bible says(1 Kings 4:32) that he knew 3,000 proverbs and 1000s of songs—by heart.

In a culture with printed books, or in a culture with Google, such displays of vast memory are considered a waste of time. Why dedicate yourself to memorizing vast portions of the Bible when you can instantly find it on Google? The writing/reading person favours logical organization and systematic analysis over memory. They favour speed over reflection. They favour information over wisdom. They favour the perception of the eye over the ear.

Printed words undermine the ability of people to memorize.

Every technology comes with a philosophy buried inside of it. Once people eat the fruit, they release the idea, and the consequences follow. This point is summarized by Marshall McLuhan’s famous sentence: “The medium is the message.” May everyone reflect deeply on this truth and critically unpack the beliefs inside every technology.

Postman explains this by using an analogy. “What happens if you place a drop of red dye into a clean glass of water?” Do you have clear water PLUS a spot of red dye? Obviously not. Instead, you have a new colouration of every molecule of water in the glass. It is impossible to separate out the colourful molecules.

This is what is meant by ecological change.

Just like a drop of dye impacts every molecule of water, so does a new technology. It does not just add something to a culture. It changes EVERYTHING about the culture.

In the year 1500, after Gutenberg invented the printing press, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a completely new Europe.

After the invention of smartphones, every culture shifted. It was not the old culture plus smartphones. Smartphones gave a new colour to every political campaign, every family dinner, every classroom, every church service and every industry.

After Mpesa, you did not have Kenya plus Mpesa. You have a completely different way of banking, loaning funds to friends, and sending money to your upcountry relatives. Mpesa has given Kenya a different colour. The whole culture has experienced change as the result of the introduction of Mpesa.

Christians must be diligent observers of these kinds of technological changes. The consequences of technology are always vast, unpredictable and largely irreversible. Christians must be able to discern not only the tools but also the changes these tools create. We must nurture a healthy suspicion of those who want to exploit new technologies to the fullest without acknowledging that traditional values will be dismantled as a result.

Because it changes everything, technology is equally compelling and important for Christians to consider. It’s potential is too great to be left entirely in the hands of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook. We must develop a theology of technology.

Perhaps the best way to view technology is the same way we might view a thief in the night. Technology is an intruder into our culture and traditions. Our high-tech tools, while allowed under God’s sovereign eye, are really a product of our creativity and hubris.

We must keep our eyes wide open so that we may be aware of what it does for us and to us. After careful consideration of what technology gives and takes away from us, we need to proceed slowly so that we may use technology rather than be used by it.

Viral Church Planting

Oscar Murui is a speaker who communicates with authority. Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, his words command attention. His delivery is serious and deliberate. He presented the keynote talk about the future realities of Global Christianity. Click here and here to watch.

According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Africa with 631 million Christians, is now the largest church in the world. The centre of Christianity has relocated to the southern hemisphere and it is booming! Not only is the church in Africa spreading like a wild fire, the population is thriving. Africans are multiplying like rabbits. The population of Nairobi is expected to reach 40 million by 2050(from current 4 million) and Africa will reach 2.4 billion people(from current 1 billion).

The future of Christianity is African. Dozens of African countries have an overwhelming majority of Christians. The question is, how will Africa evangelize its own as well as the rest of the world? Even though Africa has added hundreds of millions of people, it has not increased the overall percentage of Christians. In other words, the net number of Christians has remained consistent.

The future of Christianity in Africa is about youth and children. Africa is the youngest continent in the world. With a huge youth bulge(average age of a Kenyan is 19 years of age), and the life expectancy being in the 60s, the church has an urgent task. Even though the average age in the Kenyan church is 40, the church must focus on the 4-20 window. This refers to the most receptive age categories to the gospel are between four and twenty. This is where the real battle lies. Teachers, musicians and media content producers have and will continue to have a huge evangelistic potential.

The future is crowded immobility. Africans are moving to the cities and Kenya’s projected rate of urbanization is more than double the global average. 250,000 Kenyans move into cities every year. Buying land is already expensive in Nairobi, but when the population increases to 40 million, it will be insanely so. We must change our church-planting strategy and establish churches as close to people as possible. Churches will need to by hyper-local and small to survive. This will require the training of thousands of bi-vocational pastors.

Ed Stetzer wrote an article about rhinos and rabbits comparing them to different church-planting philosophies. He writes:

It is unfortunate, but the White Rhino appears to be on a trajectory to extinction. And there’s little wonder why. Human and environmental factors aside, the rhino has a built-in malefactor that hinders their own proliferation—a gestation period of 16 to 18 months. It takes a year and a half for a rhino to have a baby, meaning that even if all others variables are ideal, the birth rate is going to be excruciatingly slow.

Yet, all other factors are never ideal, so some rhino babies do not make it to birth, while others die soon after. As a result, you’re unlikely to hear about rapid rhino multiplication. Instead, expensive and painstaking management is required simply to avoid extinction.

Contrast rhinos with rabbits. The animal’s name itself has become a synonymous symbol for rapid multiplication. Why? Rabbits have a gestation period of 31 days—one month. This system of rapid multiplication allows the rabbit to persist and flourish despite various environmental impediments that should cause its demise.

Oscar, making reference to this article admonished churches to reproduce themselves as rabbits. He said, “After four years, you can produce one rhino church but after four years, you can produce millions of rabbits.” Africa needs hundreds of thousands of rabbit-like churches. New, smaller churches are concerned with aggressive evangelism because if they don’t, they will not survive. 90% of the world’s churches are 100 people or less and only 1% of churches are 1,000 people or more. It is easy to train a pastor to lead a church of 30 people; it is difficult to even find a trained pastor willing to lead a church of 2,000.

Grace of God and Flaws of Men

Grace of God and Flaws of Men by Anand Mahadevan

Though Anand Mahadevan rightly states in his book, The Grace of God and Flaws of Men, “When sin reigns darkest, grace shines brightest,” he gets one bit wrong.

The Mumbai-based church planter fails to cushion the reader from this greatest of Biblical truths. He neglects to provide any wiggle-room so a person can squirm away. His book offers no leeway to drift off the course. It would have been a whole lot easier if he allowed us to avoid our flaws and comfortably settle back into old patterns of thinking.

Instead what we get is something like drinking water from a fire-hydrant. On the one hand, you are overcome with how bad these faithful men(Hebrews 11) behaved. On the other hand, you are overwhelmed with how God could bless such notorious sinners. Mahadevan drenches us with the realness of our sin and, at the same time, the genuineness of God’s reckless grace.

In page after page, via the stories of Abrham, Isaac and Jacob, the reader is confronted not just with the ugliness of sin but the reality of God’s grace. In chapter after chapter, the book plunges the depths of the darkness of these heroes of the faith only to climb to the heights of the glorious riches of the Gospel of grace.

Several features of this must-read book become apparent within the first hour.

First, the author deeply loves the Gospel of Jesus. The writing emerges not from a dry, aloof observer of what others experience. This is a powerful, soak-it-all-in, testimony to the living truth of Jesus. He writes, “I hope you are drawn to worship Jesus as you read this book,” and encourages us to, “worship and adore him for a few minutes at least after every chapter.” You will, in fact, be bowing down on bended knee as you recognize the existential presence of grace.

Second, fresh writing these days is hard to find. Often a reader loses interest as they feel like they have been there and read that. This is not the case with Mahadevan’s book. His twenty-five year career in journalism certifies him to tell familiar stories in original ways. For example, he skillfully relates the Biblical narrative found in Genesis 19, “There within the dingy confines of the cave, Lot and his two daughters committed the most abhorrent of sins,” and “even the most sexually permissive person will not say that sex between a father and daughter is okay,” then connecting this scandal to Jesus’ birth, “the human ancestry of Jesus Christ can be traced all the way back to that despicable, drunken and incestuous night in that cave.”

Finally, the author’s own personal experience with God’s grace is weaved into the tapestry of the book. It is obvious he has walked the talk. He shares snippets of his own struggles, like when he didn’t attend church for a year, or when he lived a life of wild abandon, or when he did unbalanced corporate interviews. Because of his straight-forward admissions of wrestling deeply with sin, the reader is supplied with courage to dive below the surface of superficiality in their own struggles.

Like a breaking news report, Mahadevan delivers the message that God revealed himself for 1500 years as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” In the same breath, he gives the scoop on the stinking-with-sin lives of Abraham the “serial offender”, and Isaac the “biased unrepentant” and Jacob the “foolish deceiver”. Although these men were all deeply flawed and terribly broken, over the course of their lives, they were transformed by God’s grace. In the last chapter, we read, “In revealing Himself primarily as the God of these three men, God is telling the world that He is a God of transformation who takes messed up sinners, forgives them and transforms them into heroes of faith.”

In the end, this book points us to Jesus Christ. We are more damaged than we actually know, at the same time in Jesus, we are more loved than we ever dreamed. Because of Jesus, we have great hope towards living a life of purpose. Mahadevan challenges us, “Grace is only complete when our experience of forgiveness and transformation compels and empowers us for mission…even if this mission often involves great suffering.”

How do you know if you have understood the book’s message? You know because you begin to joyfully live a life of obedience and sacrifice. You look to Jesus—not to yourself—for the origin, meaning, identity and destiny of your life. In other words, you find your whole life built on Christ. We don’t do this to earn God’s favour, we do this in response to the favour that Jesus has already earned.

If you desire to recover the heart of the Christian faith, this book is for you. If you crave a raw, on-the-rocks presentation of the Gospel of grace, this book is for you. It will push you toward a deeper understanding of the Big Story and promote God’s mission in the middle of your everyday life.

Book Reviews: 3 Favorite Books on Transition and Change

Eight years ago, we were preparing to head overseas to Africa. Life was moving fast, we were full of uncertainty and often experienced a unique mix of exhilaration, sleepless nights, and desperate prayer! We have heard some of you are in transition or you are trying to make a change at the moment.

One thing God used to anchor us during that time of transition was a good book. Actually, there were several!

If you’re in a season of transition, looking to understand a bend in your road, or just want a good read, consider checking these out. There are tons of great titles out there, but these were really meaningful for us at that time.

Book #1:

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. (Buy It)

“Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives?

The primary obstacle is a conflict that’s built into our brains. Psychologists have discovered our minds are ruled by two different systems—the rational mind and the emotional mind—that compete for control. The rational mind wants a great beach body; the emotional mind wants that Oreo cookie. The rational mind wants to change something at work; the emotional mind loves the comfort of the existing routine. This tension can doom a change effort—but if it is overcome, change can come quickly.”

One of my favourite quotes from this book was:

More options, even good ones, can freeze us and make us retreat to our default plans.

If you’d like to get it on Amazon, here’s the link.



Three Qualities People Look For in Leaders

On March 15 1987, Dick Berg inaugurated one of the biggest scandals to ever be unleashed in Kenyan history. The American convinced the gullible Kenyan Sports Ministry officials that his firm, Berg and Associates, could help collect over Sh224 million to market the All-African Games. He claimed he had done this at the Los Angeles Olympics and no one bothered to check the facts.

[tds_note]People can spot a fake or a pretender from a mile away. In today’s world, people are weary of being “sold” or “marketed” to by incompetent baboozlers. Being an authentic, ethical leader with character is the most important. Yet, we must work had at improving our competency in whatever field we are working.[/tds_note]

Berg was granted exclusive business rights to market the games and brought some big sponsorship deals from the likes Coca-Cola and House of Manji. The Minister of Sports, Henry Kosgey, did not know that Berg was “an international crook”. While he was to market the games internationally, the Ministry only received Sh5 million before Berg hurriedly left the country in a cloud of shame. Dick Berg has lost his credibility and has a life-time ban from entering Kenya.

The reason Dick Berg lost his credibility is the same reason all leaders lose their credibility. They didn’t walk the walk. Even in today’s post-modern world, once your credibility is gone, it is very difficult to get it back. Just ask Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Brian Williams, or you fill in the blank with a name.

[ads-quote-center cite=”]What is credibility and how can leaders cultivate it?[/ads-quote-center]

The English word credible finds its source in the Latin word for “believe”. In his book, On Rhetoric, Aristotle tells us  that a person’s ability to persuade and influence is rooted in three factors: ethos, pathos and logos. These three traits: known as:

  • CHARACTER (ethos)
  • PASSION (pathos)
  • SPEECH (logos) 

First, there is ethos. This is the speaker’s willingness and ability to project a trustworthy persona. It means things like integrity, transparency, honesty, grace and truth. On the one hand, this is great because ethos doesn’t require a PhD or lots of money. On the other hand, it is scary because there’s a high-intensity spotlight aimed at the character of every leader.

Ethos itself can be subdivided into three aspects: wisdom, virtue and good will. Wisdom is your ability to know and understand both sides of an issues. For example, if your neighbor asks you about your new sprinkler and you tell him the pros and the cons, you are more credible than if you only mention the good things. Virtue, sometimes socially constructed, over the centuries has remained surprisingly consistent. Things like justice, courage and self-control are always admired no matter what culture you are in. Recently, some have pointed out that virtues can be both in conduct but also associated with thinking. Goodwill is the last feature of ethos. This occurs when a leader disadvantages themselves to advantage others(especially their enemies). Central to the posture of goodwill is pointing out the worthiness of another.

Pathos is the passion, emotion, feeling, zeal, intense fury or even rage with which something is expressed. It is the emotive content of a message. This is one of the most neglected elements in our world today. Why? in general it is because we, men in particular, have been shaped to think and not to express feelings. Men are supposed to be stoic. The stronger you are, the less you express your emotions. On top of this, we are all aware of when a leader may use emotions to manipulate followers by shedding “crocodile tears”.

But a leader, especially a Christian leader, who acts and speaks without any emotional display is equally dangerous. How can you lead people towards something that has not gripped your inner being? It was once said of the famous preacher, Moody, that he was one of the few people qualified to speak about hell, because he could not talk about it without weeping. If your message does not move you, if it does not seem to have an impact upon your heart, then how can you expect it to have an impact on anyone else? Leaders must speak with an urgency as if it is a matter of life and death.

Finally, there is logos. What does logos mean in English? It means “word”. We get our English word “logic” from the Greek. It refers to the verbal content of a leader’s communication, but it also includes the craft, the artistic merit and the logic of a leader’s words.

The only way I know how to improve your ability to reason and use words is to be a reader. All leaders are readers because they interact with other ideas, concepts and words. When you aren’t improving your critical thinking, vocabulary, and your knowledge of new concepts, then your ability to influence others diminishes.

Logos appeals to a follower’s intelligence and offers evidence in support of what you are trying to say. Logos also increases ethos because the organized presentation of information makes you look knowledgeable. When you have well-presented powerpoint slides, even if you haven’t prepared, the perception is that you are organized. This causes your audience to give you more credibility and authority. A well-reasoned presentation, with ample evidence, is not easily dismissed by your followers.

Another important aspect of logos is that you know your audience. Who are you speaking to? Are you challenging men to love their wives? Are you inspiring teenagers to keep their eyes on the prize? Are you communicating a basic truth from Scripture to small children? Speak the language of your audience. Do not use words that they don’t understand and avoid cliches or technical language.

All that being said, people can spot a fake or a pretender from a mile away. In today’s world, people are weary of being “sold” or “marketed” to by incompetent baboozlers. Being an authentic, ethical leader with character is the most important. Yet, we must work had at improving our competency in whatever field we are working.