Teach Us To Number Our Days Oh Lord!

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”(1)

It is a rare gift, in this age of distractions, to have five minutes to rest and reflect. Recently, I had the opportunity to take an entire afternoon and do nothing. I was sat in the botanical gardens of the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra surrounded by huge trees, and the singing of birds. As I looked out over the contrasting horizon of azure sky and the green earth, I was struck by my own insignificance—something I rarely allow myself to think about as I routinely fill my days with a kind of busyness to make me feel important. That topography of sky and bird and the greenery had been there long before I arrived and would surely remain long after I had departed—both from my visit and upon my departure from this world.

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Despite this more sobering thought, the gift of undistracted space nourished me. I could revel in the symphony of songbirds all around me; marvel at the cataclysmic forces of nature that formed the mountains and valleys around the globe. I could wonder at my place in the vastness of the creation and feel my smallness and my transience. Having this kind of time to sit and to reflect is a rarity, and was just as fleeting as the birds that flew around me.

Though writing hundreds of years ago, Blaise Pascal serves as a prophet for this contemporary age. With the transience of life and the specter of death facing all, most seek lives of distraction. Whether or not we recognize that the fear of death is an underlying, albeit unconscious motivation, we nevertheless recognize how often we fill our lives in order to obscure these realities. Whether it is in juggling endless priorities, the relentless busyness of our age, or perpetual media noise, our lives are so full that we rarely find space or time to reflect honestly about anything. Particularly in this day and age, mindless consumption numbs us to the eventuality of our mortal condition and our finitude. The advertising industry is not unaware of our propensity to consumptive distraction. Marketers spent over 295 billion dollars in total media advertising in 2007.(2) Perhaps they know that humans mistakenly equate vitality with the ability to consume.

It is easy to understand how the fear of death and suffering would compel human beings to live lives of distraction. Yet, the cost of that distraction is a pervasive and deadening apathy—apathy not simply as the inability to care about anything deeply, but the diminishment for engagement that comes from caring about the wrong things. Kathleen Norris laments:

It is indeed apathy’s world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. We discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets.

The ancient Hebrew poets, while meditating on the brevity of life, prayed: Teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom. It was the inevitability of death that motivated this prayer for wisdom. This was a wisdom that didn’t try to hide from the realities of life—be they joys or sorrows—but rather sought to keep finitude ever before it. Indeed, the poem ends with a cry for God to confirm the work of human hands. Whether a cry of despair over finitude or a cry of affirmation, numbering life’s days can lead to meaningful engagement in the world and in human work—and this was the mark of wisdom.

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As I pondered the beauty around me, I thought of dear loved ones, both family, and friends, who will not look on this earthly horizon anymore. I counted myself among them for one day my own eyes will cease to behold this kind of earthly beauty. Despite the temptation to disengage or distract myself from the pain of these thoughts, contemplation reminded me that I too must number my days. In dealing with significant loss and pain it is certainly understandable how one would long for escape, but facing mortality and attending to it is the way to develop a heart of wisdom. Only then can one be open to the possibility of meaning and confirmation.

Jesus, himself, faced his own death with intention and purpose. “I am the Good Shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative.”(3)

READ: MAKING CHRIST KNOWN

The way of wisdom demonstrated in the life of Jesus gives flesh and new possibility to the ancient psalmist’s exhortation. As he numbered his days, he calls those who would follow to engage mortality as a catalyst for purposeful, actual living. While following Jesus insists on laying down our lives in his service, it can be done in the hope that creation’s abundant life is truly made new even in the darkest of places. For the one who laid his life down is the one who was raised. He is the one who declared, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me will live even though he dies.”

 

 

(1) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, (New York: Penguin Books:, 1966), 37.
(2) As referenced by Allan Sloan in “Fuzzy Bush Math,” CNN Money, September 4, 2007, money.cnn.com, accessed October 15, 2009.
(3) John 10:14a-18.

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Time Out! – John Paintsil needed this latest sack.

It’s just what the doctor prescribed for John Paintsil: a fresh start.

Days after announcing his decision to retire from active football and stating his intention to go into coaching, the veteran Ghana full-back landed his first managerial gig — and, given his next-to-no experience in management, it could hardly have been bigger. The former Berekum Arsenal man was unveiled as one of the new faces who was to grace the technical bench of South African giants Kaizer Chiefs nearly a year ago, joining the Amakhosi as assistant to head Steve Komphela. That was really no more than the merits he could legitimately claim after all he’d been through in recent years.

Paintsil, a two-edition Fifa World Cup participant and 89-game member of the Black Stars over several years, received his last Ghana call-up in 2012. His club career — the heights of which saw him represent Fulham and West Ham United in the English Premier League — dragged along to a slow, painful death not long afterwards, eventually ending unceremoniously in the same country where he launched his coaching journey.

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Disturbed thus in his public business, there’s been precious little solace from Paintsil’s private life where a troubled marital relationship has only gone downhill since Paintsil was nabbed by the police in 2013 for allegedly assaulting his wife physically. For a man who’s had so little to celebrate over the years (albeit having himself to blame for some of it) and who has suffered a sudden demotion from being the lovable flag-waving patriot whose victory laps decorated almost every major Ghana win in his time to a deeply-loathed, woman-abusing villain, Paintsil deserved that big break he would have been the first to admit he’d barely earned.

Being at continental heavyweights Chiefs in his fresh role wasn’t necessarily going to cast his demons out, of course. Nor was it going to make him husband-of-the-year. It surely wasn’t going to rid him of the personal demons that seemed embedded in his worryingly worsening attitude… And so, it proved. After twelve months with the South African club, these same news worthy activities, that have come to typify john Paintsil as we’ve come to know him for so long came back to haunt him. The vicious cycle of getting into the headlines and featuring on the frontpages of newspapers for all the wrong reasons wasn’t something those in the helm of the Amakhosi were going to be taking lightly. This latest episode came with a prize tag he could barely afford to pay (all puns intended).

Having been relieved of his duties now, this new phase in his life, instead, represents a clean slate Paintsil would be a fool not to fill with glory. Should he make good use of this me-time, Paintsil could prove even better at coaching than he was at playing; mess this golden opportunity to regroup and restrategise up, though, and his mission of self-ruin would be complete.

Over to you, Jeonju Man.

The Case for disbelief

Reading an online newspaper the other day, I ended up, as I often do, on the religion pages. My attention was first caught by a long list of various world religions, followed by the descriptions of the beliefs and key practices of each one. Interestingly, I thought, atheism was among the many religions listed. And yet in describing the main beliefs of atheists, the first sentence declared: “Atheism is not a belief.” Can a belief-system accurately be defined as the absence of belief? Its very inclusion as a belief-system among alternative belief-systems seemed to negate its first belief.

Though atheism contends disbelief in God, it is rightfully placed among the many belief-systems that inform life itself. As the atheistic worldview offers certain perspectives about the world, like Christianity or Hinduism, it requires certain faith assumptions: that the world exists in ordered, knowable nature, that our senses and intellect are reliable in discovering truth, that there is a uniformity to nature extending from past to future. At the foundation of every worldview, a number of interconnected beliefs are held in faith. The question then becomes, which faith provides the most coherent foundation for understanding the world?

Some insist the atheist’s insistence of reason as the foundation for non-belief creates a tension of incoherence within the belief itself. “Reasons require that this universe be a reasonable one that presupposes there is order, logic, design, and truth. But order, logic, design, and truth can only exist and be known if there is an unchangeable objective source and standard of such things….Like all non-theistic worldviews, Darwinism borrows from the theistic worldview in order to make its own view intelligible.”(1) In other words, the very foundation of atheistic faith allows for an unstable structure of interpretation.

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Either arrogantly or boldly, Jesus of Nazareth is one who proposes himself as a foundation for belief. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on a rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”(2) It may sound to some archaic or odd. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life… I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved… I am the wayand the truth, and the life.”(3) Others might note sounds of this bold and arrogant foundation in the contemporary wisdom that occasionally cries out for something more certain.

In 1960, famed psychologist and avowed atheist Hobart Mowrer wrote an article entitled “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” in which he decried the loss of humanity in our attempts to free ourselves from the notion of sin. “In becoming amoral, ethically neutral and free, we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity. And with neurotics themselves, asking, ‘Who am I? What is my deepest destiny? And what does living really mean?’”(4)

At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. there is a large wooden altar from a synagogue that was vandalized by Nazi soldiers who had come to remove the Jewish citizens of the city. Across the altar is a single phrase of Hebrew carved deeply into the wood. Though it bears the hack marks of axes that attempted to delete the words, the phrase is still decipherable. It simply reads: Know before Whom you stand.

We can attempt to eradicate the one at the foundation. We can dismiss the bold declarations of Christ as arcane or arrogant. But it will never negate his presence, nor his ability to answer in his very person the deepest questions of self and human identity.

 

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(1) Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 130.
(2) Matthew 7:24-26.
(3) John 8:12; 10:9; 14:6.
(4) Cf. Hobart Mowrer, “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” American Psychologist, 15 (1960): 301-304).

VAR needless: If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!

Change, they say, is good, but they also say it could be incredibly difficult to accept, and nowhere is the latter aphorism as truthful as in the world of football. In the last few years, football has proved it wouldn’t embrace any attempts to alter its long-standing traditions warmly — at least not without a fight.

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Indeed, unhappy were many when the ‘golden goal’ — and later the ‘silver goal’ — was introduced to decide the winners of games that extended beyond 90 minutes. And when the matchball for the Fifa World Cup was made considerably lighter for the competition’s 2010 edition, people complained. Goal-line technology and the presence of an additional assistant referee behind the goal-lines, though now fully incorporated threads in the football fabric, took a while in coming and some do still have their reservations about those novel concepts.

Football, to put it mildly, is highly resistant to change, and the latest instance — that of the video assistant referee (VAR) — at the ongoing Fifa Confederations Cup in Russia has, true to form, caused no mean a storm. The period of cruel uncertainty between incidents and the VAR’s reaction times has left many feeling they — and football — would be better off with its many flaws, unless the latest innovation’s own troubling errors are ironed out.

For the conservatives (the vast majority of those who have found joy in the beautiful game over the years, really), though, there may be many more months of heartache and accustomization ahead. Should the sport’s lawmakers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), have their way, football would soon give its pretty coat one trim too many.

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Among a raft of alterations to be made to existing football laws aimed at addressing the game’s “negativities”, IFAB hopes to make it possible: for a player to be able to dribble straight from a free-kick; for a player to pass to himself at a free-kick, corner-kick and goal-kick; to fix a stadium clock which stops and starts along with the referee’s watch; for a goal-kick to be taken even if the ball is moving; for a goal-kick to be taken on the same side that the ball went out on; for a “clearer and more consistent definition” of handball; for a player who scores a goal or stops a goal with his hands to get a red card; for a keeper who handles a backpass or throw-in from a team-mate to concede a penalty; for the referee to award a goal if a player stops a goal being scored by handling on or close to the goal-line; for referees to blow for half-time or full-time when the ball goes out of play; that a penalty kick is either scored or missed/saved and players cannot follow up to score; and for a game to be played in two 30-minute halves.

Now while the objectives toward which all that is geared is certainly noble — namely, “improving player behaviour and increasing respect, increasing playing time, and increasing fairness and attractiveness” — the actual measures meant to lead football there aren’t exactly going to please everyone; tell me you didn’t find quite a few somewhat ridiculous and barely imaginable as you went through them. Implement these and, at least at the outset, many fans, players, managers and journalists would almost certainly raise one loud, deafening howl in protest, even if — as with every form of change the world has ever experienced that stuck — with time we’d be forced to accept, if not love, them.

Football is already great as it is — though requiring the odd tweak here and there — but somebody shouldn’t have forgotten to attach that ‘DO NOT TAMPER WITH’ tag to the package.

New Dawn: Kwesi Appiah out to prove a point

Tomorrow, Kwesi Appiah would have his second debut as head coach of Ghana’s senior national team, the Black Stars, when he comes up against Ethiopia in the first of Ghana’s six group matches in a bid to qualify for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

 

 

 

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Of course, given the strength of the teams that share space in Group F with the Stars (Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and. Kenya), it would be quite surprising should Ghana fail to make it to the finals. Merely qualifying, though, wouldn’t be good enough. The Stars need to do so in style, considering how much they’ve underwhelmed in recent months. Failing to make any proper mark at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon earlier this year — preceded by patchy pre-tournament form — set the team on a downward spiral that has since seen them plummet on the Fifa rankings, with Ghana currently a disappointing 9th and 49th respectively in Africa and the world. Then there was that technical vacuum which ensured the Stars didn’t have any chance of redeeming themselves in the immediate aftermath of the Afcon 2017 fiasco. Now under a freshly appointed head coach, though, Ghana have no excuse not to rebuild and make progress, starting when they play the Ethiopians in Kumasi.

But this game holds much more for Appiah — and, by extension, his new-look backroom staff — than it does for his players. He’s only been weeks into the job officially, but Appiah has already made it obvious his second stint wouldn’t be business-as-usual. The squad he has invited includes several new faces and excludes almost as many established regulars, forcing on Appiah himself the need to prove he’s made the right calls.

 

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It’s one reason why Appiah’s Ghana 2.0 has to get off on the right foot versus Ethiopia, but not by any means the sole reason. This may only be his first official game in charge since his return, but everyone excited by the teaser Appiah has served with his early decisions and the prospects of his star-studded technical team — which is basically everyone, actually — would wish their weighty expectations be fulfilled from the very start. Besides, there are those who still doubt whether or not Appiah is the right man to take Ghana forward, and the 56-year-old would have to win those Thomases over in earnest. Also, given that this is the country’s only competitive game before the must-win 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers resume — friendlies with the USA and Mexico would be played in an entirely different setting — Appiah would have little time to experiment.

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Success wouldn’t necessarily mean burdening Ethiopia with the number of goals that sunk Lesotho in Appiah’s first debut five years ago, but the performance itself must reflect that same dominant, ruthless spirit. Hopefully, there’d be no floodlight trouble to take off some of the gloss this time. Hopefully, a star would emerge from among the new lads trusted by Appiah, in much the same manner that saw Christian Atsu introduce himself to Ghanaians against Lesotho and blossom into an indispensable star ever since. And, hopefully, the Stars would be emphatic in both their approach and product.

Appiah would have it no other way — and so would the millions of observers.

Taking Over – shine on bright Black Starlets

Shatta Wale’s Taking Over isn’t just the most wildly trending song on Ghanaian radio today; it’s also the ‘official’ party song for the Black Starlets, Ghana’s national U-17 team, as they’ve marched from victory to victory at the ongoing Nations Cup in Gabon.

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Indeed, the Starlets have exuded much promise and maturity since their first game at the tournament when they beat Cameroon — incidentally the very nation responsible for Ghana missing out on the last edition of the event — 4-0. They went one better in their next outing, thumping the sorry hosts and qualifying for the knockout stages — and the Fifa World Cup to be held later this year — with a game to spare. That third fixture, versus Guinea, ended in a goalless draw, but on parade was a different Ghana side, one that had nothing to play for. The stakes were considerably higher, though, when the Starlets took on Niger (a team they had comfortably beaten in a two-legged friendly just before the competition) in the semi-finals. Again, the goals failed to come, stretching the affair to a series of spotkicks where Ghana’s superiority gave them the edge in a 6-5 victory.

 

Ghana’s ability in front of goal may have waned somewhat in those two matches — a reason for which many Ghanaians tinged their initial optimism with caution — but at least they have been consistently impervious in defence. The Starlets are the only team thus far not to have conceded, and that’s a run head coach Paa Kwesi Fabin would love to extend and preserve in the final against Mali. The Malians themselves are something of a free-scoring side, having put past opponents just one goal less than Ghana’s nine. Like Ghana, too, Les Aiglonnets booked their ticket to the final via a penalty shootout, albeit one of the worse you’d ever see, with neighbours Guinea missing four of their spotkicks to ease the former’s passage.

And, oh, again like Ghana, who seek to become the first nation to win the trophy for keeps (a feat to be sealed by a third triumph in the competition), Mali aren’t without extra incentive, namely, the quest to become only the first team to successfully defend the title and simultaneously pull level with Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia on two conquests. Clearly, Mali — hosts of the first ever continental U17 championship’s back in 1995, the current holders of the trophy, and [losing] finalists at the last World Cup — would be no easy prey.

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All of that makes Mali the most formidable, most motivated team Ghana could face at the tournament. All of that, too, makes this the one game Ghana have little option but to win. Per the expectations of the many Ghanaians who have waited 18 years since the country last won the trophy — and 12 after their most recent appearance in the final, when a goal scored under controversial circumstances saw them overcome by Gambia — the Starlets are obliged, not just to triumph, but to do it in style and with character. It’s the only climax that the creative brilliance of Emmanuel Toku (touted as the brightest among the bunch), the goalscoring prowess of skipper Eric Ayiah (joint leading scorer at the showpiece), the remarkable confidence of Idriss ‘Tampico’ Mohammed (scorer of that peach of a panenka versus Niger), and the entire team’s collective brilliance deserves. Winning may not be the prime objective at under-age competitions — though that is a point not quite drummed home fully to folks this side of the Atlantic — but it’s a reward that wouldn’t be rejected.

Glory beckons, and there could be no better time for the Starlets to do just as Wale said in the song referred to at the outset — show Ghana, go harder, and take over.

Jesus! Our Emmanuel – Closer than You Think

In these fast-paced times where we contend with life’s rough-and-tumble hitting us thick and fast, I cannot begin to estimate how many times I have attempted to encourage someone with the assurance of God’s nearness to their situation: God is with you. God is near. God is among us. As a Christian, it is an astonishing attribute of the God I profess, a comforting attribute that voices long before my own confessed: “God is our refuge and strength,” writes the psalmist, “an ever-present help in trouble.”(1) “The Lord is near,” the apostle tells the Philippians, “Do not be anxious.”(2) That there is one who draws near is a vital part of the story of Christianity, one in which Christians understandably draw hope. But it is not automatically hopeful to everyone. I was reminded of this when my assurance of God’s presence in the life of a struggling friend was met with her honest rejoinder: “Is that supposed to encourage me?”

Nearness in and of itself is not assuring. I had forgotten this in my well-meaning, though knee-jerk truism. An essential ingredient in the assurance that comes from nearness is the person who is drawing near. The degree of comfort and assurance (or wisdom and conviction) we draw from those near us is wholly contingent on who it is that has drawn near. For some, that God is near resembles more a threat than a promise. My friend’s perception of God in that moment was closer to Julian Huxley’s than King David’s. For Huxley, God resembled “not a ruler, but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat.” For David, God’s nearness was clearly thought his good.(3)

Who is it that Christians believe is near? And what does this even mean?

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In Christian theology, the attributes of God are qualities that attempt to describe the God who has come near enough to reveal who God is. These self-revealed attributes cannot be taken individually, removed from one another like garments in a great wardrobe, or chosen preferentially like items in a buffet. They are not traits that exist independently but simultaneously, at times in paradoxical mystery to us. God is both near us and “among us” as the prophet Isaiah writes; God is also far from us and beyond us—in knowledge, in grandeur, in immensity, in position. “Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?”

Christians further believe that the one who dwells both among us and in the highest heavens is also good and wise and holy. The God of whose nearness Christians speak is infinite in being, glory, blessedness and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth. Like this God there is no other. The God who draws near us is wholly other.

 

Yet after the candid response from my friend, I realized how important it is to attempt to clarify what I mean—and whom I speak of—when I say that this God is near; and my attempts will remind me that this is never a simple, casual knowledge understood. My friend needed not only to hold the knowledge that God is near but the relational trust that the God who is near is also kind. She needed more than a rational reminder that God is holding her and her situation, but the embodied promise that God is good. She needed to hear the “who” behind the promise, beyond the attribute. And I needed the candid reminder that the attributes we can study, the biblical promises we cling to, the words I count on to comfort or restore, are pale in comparison and meaningful only because of the one they describe. The promise that God is among us is only promising because it is this God who is among us.

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Christians hold this notion most specifically in the kind mystery of the Incarnation, the divine drawing near to the human plight in human form. Who is this God who comes near, who rends the heavens to stand beside humanity, who stands at the door and knocks as one of us? Who is this vicariously human, mediating Son of God so near?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who attested to the nearness of God though confined to a jail cell, depicted the one beside whom he lived and before whom he prayed as a quiet companion, gentle and fierce, persuasive and patient on our behalf. He prayed:

“Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us. Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave. Be my brother, Thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death. Come with me in my death, come with me in my suffering, come with me as I struggle with evil. And make me holy and pure, despite my sin and death.”

What if it is this God who hears our prayers, the humanity of one who walked and suffered in Jerusalem, the Christ who came among us only to die and rise again? What if it is this God who is near?

 

(1) Psalm 46:1.
(2) Philippians 4:5-6.
(3) Psalm 73:28.