Thursday, December 22, 2016

Do You Understand What You Read?

Then the spirit said unto Philip, “go near and join yourself to this chariot”. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said: “do you understand what you read?”
And he said, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” And he desired that Philip would come up and join him. (Act 8:29-31)

There is no one way to interpret, and therefore understand, the true meaning of any bible verse. Every pastor, evangelist, and students of the bible – including the congregation and theologians read the same bible verse, or some versions of the bible, and render different interpretations of that same verse. Most of the times, their intent is to make the interpretation suitable or commensurate with the message they want to impart to their audience. The same situation applies to how students in schools of varying levels interpret and understand the textbook they use for their various school courses and exams; that is why some students would study hard and fail their tests, while others will study less and do very well. It is all about your level of understanding and incorporation of the message in what you read.

In the passage under discussion, an Ethiopian Eunuch, a man of great authority akin to a vice-president or Prime Minister of a country; a Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, or in the case of the Old Testament stories, a Joseph to the Egyptian Pharaoh. This man was a man of great authority in the then Ethiopia under the Queen – the utmost authority in Ethiopia as at that time; his status was like that of Joseph in Egypt or Oliver Cromwell in the 1600 England. According to the story, the Eunuch had been to Jerusalem to worship and was on his way back to Ethiopia; it is also obvious that he was new to Christianity, so God saw an opportunity to use him to open up a Christian front in Ethiopia – what better person to use than a man of wide authority who easily had the ear of the ruler Queen. We do not know the name of the queen ruling Ethiopia then, since the word “Candace” was the Latin version of Kandake – a Meroe word used to describe a queen. Historians have even suggested that the queen then was Amanitore who ruled in the 50CE.

Having had a taste of Christianity during his trip to Jerusalem, the Eunuch was thirsty for more; so, he collected articles on the late prophet Isaiah to read on his way home. Problem was that, not being from part of the region where Jesus Christ’s missionary work took place, he was not familiar with the stories that form the bible today. Also, since the missionaries of Paul, Silas, and the other Disciples of Christ had not started, Christianity had not spread widely in Ethiopia beyond the queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon in the Old Testament. So, the Eunuch could be excused for not understanding what the story of Isaiah was all about. In came God, using Philip who happened to be available at that time. God commanded him, specifically, to go “towards the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem to Gaza, which is desert”. God had to be clear in his description to Philip so that he will not miss His subject of interest; his vehicle for the spread of Christianity beyond the Middle Eastern region. We have to remember that many other people were returning to their various towns and communities from having gone to Jerusalem to worship, just as the Eunuch.

Interestingly, that was where God’s instruction to Philip stopped; He never told Phillip that he will meet an Ethiopian Eunuch heading home from Jerusalem; Philip was to discover that all by himself, and God ensured that he will not miss the opportunity to meet with this man traveling in an unusually expensive and well-endowed chariot by urging him to get closer to the chariot, where he overheard the Eunuch reading out loud. For those who might wonder how Philip was able to hear the Eunuch reading, remember that when we are new at reading a text we are not familiar with, we tend to read it out loud, and slowly too, to better absorb it.

“Do you understand what you read?”

Good question! This same question applies to many of us, not just when we are reading the bible, but when we are reading anything that is worth reading for any reason. I have been around groups where members were asked to render their understanding of an assigned passage, and all of us had very different interpretations. Understanding of what we read is very important towards not just for accurate interpretation, but for proper implementation/application of the instructions, be they in the bible or in a textbook. The Eunuch was interested in what he was reading, and desired to understand what the story was all about; however, being a stranger to a new religion, he needed someone to explain things in simpler terms to him. Sometimes, that is all we need to better understand the verses in the bible and get the intended message.

Beyond the bible, understanding what we read is very important; school assignments, an ordinance, accurate interpretation of court verdicts, contractual and partnership agreements, wills and even pre-nuptials where such things are desired. The deeper a person’s level of understanding, the better his or her level of interpretation. Many have fallen victims of many acts of criminals because they could not understand the documents they were reading, and lacked the capability to interpret it properly. Many Christians have misapplied their pastor’s instructions, or biblical teachings, just because they could not understand these teachings. Unfortunately, instead of admitting their lack of understanding and seeking further explanations, they would form their own opinions and run with it.

And he said, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” And he desired that Philip would come up and join him.
The Eunuch, this man of great powers who has the ears of the Nubian queen of Ethiopia, did not see it as humiliating to admit that he did not understand what he was reading; he even went further to ask Philip, whom he has never met, to come on to his chariot and help explain to him. How many people of means and influence will be humble enough to admit that they do not know something and seek the assistance of a “nobody” to educate them? The Eunuch in his request of Philip, expressed the desire to be further educated, which is very important. If we can overcome our ego and superiority complex, and seek the services of those who know better than us, we would be the best for it. Most times, we suffer for lack of knowledge; and we lack this knowledge because we refuse to seek it. We refuse to seek it because the knowledge is, in most cases, possessed by those we consider inferior, until something goes terribly wrong. By then, it is usually too late.

The Ethiopian Eunuch did not want to leave anything to chance; he did not want his ego and position in society to get in the way of acquiring knowledge. He also wanted to be able to say to his fellow rulers: “this is what I learned from my travels. Here, partake of it and your life will be better”. By acquiring knowledge through the understanding of his readings, he will be able to spread the message of Christ to his people. This is what God had intended, not just for the Eunuch but for all of us. If we cannot properly understand the words and teachings of God, we cannot share or spread it; if we learn and understand the wrong thing, that is what we will share; the same thing those we shared it with will pass on to their converts, and the cycle will just continue. When that is the case, what do we get? “People being led like a sheep to the slaughter house, and like lambs dumb before their shearers, so opened they not their mouths”

Felix Oti

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

What Is Your Situation?

Then the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold now, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad and the land is unfruitful”. He said, “Bring me a new jar, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. He went out to the spring of the water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I have purified these waters; there shall not be from there death or unfruitfulness anymore.” (2 Kings 2:19-21)

In spite of our efforts to create a facade to mask our internal problems, there is always something that gives our real situations away. Reading this verse reminds me of Sodom and Gomorrah; the land and vegetation were attractive enough for someone like Lot. In Sodom, he saw vast acres of green for his livestock and crops, friendly neighbors and favorable laws, and cheap labor. Unfortunately, there was a lot morally wrong with Sodom and Gomorrah, and God was determined to destroy the land. So, in spite of its beautiful and lush greens, paved roads and magnificent edifice (assumed), and friendly (too friendly in many cases) citizens, the soul of Sodom and Gomorrah was bad and corrupted.

Another reminder is Enron, the Houston-based energy company that went under in a matter of days after its dirty deeds were exposed. On paper, year after year, Enron was a financially strong company. Its annual filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission was nothing but exemplary, the envy of its competitors and the darling of every SEC auditor. Unfortunately, beyond that paper façade was a company that was financially weaker than a paperweight.  When the façade was lifted off of Enron, the shockwave rippled beyond continental United States; countries far away in African and Asia lost millions of dollars, and in a matter of days the behemoth known as Enron was reduced to a heap of financial ashes. While some of its executives ended up in prison, one or two committed suicide, and the entire staff was up the creek without a paddle.

What happened to Enron and Sodom can be seen in many families and communities today; beyond that beautiful family portrait on the mantelpiece is always a rocky marriage, financial problems, marital infidelity, drug and alcohol abuse, and what have you. Inside that beautiful expensive dress or suit is a tortured soul crying out for intervention. That one person who lights up the party, who tells the funniest jokes, and always wins every drinking contest in the bar; The hunk who gets all the girls, or the blond who attracts all the guys, always smiling and looking all put together well. That socialite who throws the best Christmas parties every year, or the pastor who deliver’s that uplifting sermon every Sunday, they all have hidden “bad” waters that need purification.

What is your situation like beyond that camouflage? In the verse above, Elijah had transcended and Elisha was left with the mantle of prophetic leadership. The sons of the prophets in Jericho, not believing that Elijah did actually transcend, persuaded Elisha – very much against his will - to send some 50 men among his servants to go look for Elijah. As expected, the search party did not find Elijah, dead or alive, deposited anywhere in or around Jericho; but in their search, they discovered something: the terrain and placement of the land was a sight to behold, but because the water was bad the soil is not good for cultivation. Of course, for there to be a bumper harvest, there must be adequate supply of good water either naturally or through irrigation. The same is applicable in life: for there to be marital, financial, and business success, there has to be love and commitment, financial frugality, and business planning. For there to be redemption and salvation, there must first be acceptance, repentance, and submission to His will and ways; and for there to be academic success there first must be dedication to studying.

He said “bring me a new jar and put salt in it”. So they brought it to him. (Verse 20)

Elisha knew what needed to be done, and with what instrument. Salt is largely used as a purifier and preserver in those days, and even in some communities today. So, it was appropriate that Elisha will ask for a jar of salt, since the problem was with the water. If your problem is marital, what are you asking for? If you identify your problem as being financial, or spiritual, what do you perceive as the solution? If your business is not getting off the ground, after many years of toiling, what is the problem? Your soul is not at rest? Having sleepless nights and tortured mind? Where do you go for solutions? Do you need a marriage counselor? A financial planner or business analyst? Do you need a session with your pastor, doctor, a social worker or psychologist? What is your situation? When you identify it then you will be best able to look for the best possible solution.

He went out to the spring of the water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I have purified these waters; there shall not be from there death or unfruitfulness anymore.” So the waters have been purified to this day, according to the words of Elisha (verse 21-22)

Elisha went to the spring – source/head – of the water and threw the salt in it. This is very important. It is not about pouring a jar of salt into a stream, it is more about where exactly you pour it. He did not pour it mid-stream or tail-stream, he poured it head-stream. If you cut of the head of a snake, the tail dies of. If you pour a jar of salt at the head of the stream, the purification process continues all the way down the stream.

The same process applies in our individual and collective problems. Most of our problems persist because we apply solutions mid-stream; we fail or refuse to apply solutions from the source of the problem; instead of a thorough analysis of our problem, with a view to identifying the source, we embark on a patchwork process that only identifies the parts of the problem and apply solutions accordingly. What is/are the cause/causes of your marital, spiritual, financial, and business problems? Are they in parts? Are the parts easily identifiable? If they are, can you successfully sequence them? If so, then you can apply the solutions from the first sequence and the results will cascade to the last one.

Just like Elisha poured the cruse of salt at the head/spring and cleaned out the entire river, so also will our problems be completely solved if we apply the solution at the origin of the problem.

Felix Oti

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