Dear Kanyaganyago,

I hope you have been well. Since you came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, we have not been able to catch up and talk.

The global pandemic has also not helped the situation. But I promise to send you an occasional letter to address some of your concerns as a new believer.

Before I talk to you about what Christians call the ‘Sabbath’, allow me to tell you how I have been lately. For the last two months, I have been studying Biblical Greek or Koine Greek. This has been an intensive class where courses that generally take three months are covered in four weeks.

As a slow person, I don’t work well with intensive classes. Even worse is that my relationship with biblical languages is terrible.

My fear right now is the uncertainty of what things will look like in the next two or three weeks. Even when I do well on the exam, for some strange reason, my heart starts to race. I begin to ask questions like: “What if I don’t pass the class?” “What if I don’t get a good enough grade?”

Here in seminary, they tell us grades are not that important. It sounds like a relief, especially when it comes from a professor, but the reality of the statement is that there is not much truth in it; otherwise, grades would be eliminated altogether.

Now to the topic at hand.

Why it is Hard to Observe the Sabbath

You have been wondering why you should stop working at least once a week to take a sabbath rest. You are right when you say that we should do it because God commands us so. But I want to take some time and make a few things clear to you regarding sabbath. This is just a letter, I may not be able to talk about everything that I have to say about the topic today, but I will in subsequent letters.

When most older people, especially men, approach their age of retirement, they complain about losing a sense of purpose. They have been working for over forty years, and now all that is left to do is wake up in the morning and do absolutely nothing.

Part of who they are is the job they have been working for decades.

It is even harder to tell someone to rest for a day when all they can see is a laundry list of tasks, responsibilities, and obligations begging to be taken care of.

Isn’t it a sign of irresponsibility to neglect work of a day in the name of a sabbath rest? Doesn’t rest somehow lengthen the task at hand? I mean, a two-hour job may not be completed until the next day. All these are legitimate questions, but the problem is that these questions miss the point.

Kanyaganyago, your problem is not that you are not as efficient as you want to be; instead, it is this: you are allowing your work to tell you who you are, and what you can or cannot be. You are turning to your job to tell you something good about you so you can feel good about yourself.

Most people will not admit that they spend their entire life thinking that everything is fine so long as they work. They believe they can be something if they do something. Their whole assurance of being who they hope to be is invested in work. In fact, some will say that they will rest when they die.

The challenge, my friend, is that the work you do was never meant to tell you who you are, intrinsically. It may say to you that you are a hardworking person but reducing your inherent worth to subjective qualities like hard work is tantamount to devaluing who you are as an image-bearing child of God.

Now, the question is, how does rest solve this problem?

Well, it doesn’t. Rest, like work, is not intelligent enough to tell you who you are. In fact, it can be as damaging as the work you are avoiding. The key, therefore, is to look at rest as a vehicle used by God to focus you on him.

Let me give you an analogy.

Look at your Smartphone

I am aware that you recently bought your first smartphone five months ago. Unlike the old feature phone, you had, smartphones require a certain level of care as you will find out. My smartphone occasionally heats up, and then the applications start to freeze. This happens typically after extended usage.

I then restart the phone to try and remedy the situation. You see, because several applications can run simultaneously in the background, they leave the phone exhausted since it was made to accommodate just a handful of active applications at a particular time. Therefore, when I restart the phone, it destroys all those background operations so that its system can breathe again.

It may say to you that you are a hardworking person but reducing your inherent worth to subjective qualities like hard work is tantamount to devaluing who you are as an image-bearing child of God.

Nuwamanya Mategyero

On restart, the phone will be faster and more efficient. But that is not the point of the analogy.

Here is the point: when the phone is switched off, when its phonebook, or camera, browser, email app cannot work, at that moment, the phone is of no use. Its usefulness is in its ability to carry out all the functions that are expected of a phone. So, to any regular human being, that phone is useless—until it is switched back on.

But not to its owner.

You see, Kanyaganyago, what that phone is, and what it can become is a reality present and active in the mind of its owner. It may be switched off, but the owner knows, even when the apps are not running, that it is her phone; that it is indeed a phone capable of all things a phone can do.

What that phone is, is not in its ability to function but in the fact that in the mind of its owner, it is still a phone even when it is not functioning.

The same is true of you and God—your owner. When you rest, you are rebelling against an entire culture which looks to things like work, money, girls—yes—girls, boys, technology etc. to tell them who they are or what they can be.

To rest is also to decide that work, however important it might be, cannot be the thing that informs your very existence. Because, in the mind of God, you are known, loved, and secure—minus your work. You don’t have to work to be, you already are, without any work.

Rest is a Gift from God

The preacher in Hebrews chapter four draws on the salvation history of the people of God, Israel, to show that rest—what he calls the ‘Sabbath Rest’—was a promise from God. He also says that it takes faith to enter that rest.

This, my son, is not the way we look at rest. We do not consider it a promised gift from God that we take in faith. It is not something we do when we have nothing to do. Instead, it is an act of worship in reverent obedience to God. The preacher draws on the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 95 to show that the children of Israel did not enter God’s rest [for them] because they still doubted a God who had (literally) moved heaven and earth to prove to them that they were secure in him. They chose to disregard his presence among them by doubting his ability to keep them safe.

That anticipation is an endeavour of faith.

Nuwamanya Mategyero

When you think about it, you will notice that the children of Israel did not just fear the giants they saw. They, in admitting that they stood no chance against these giants, were saying that the God who led them out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, giving them free-oven-fresh bread from heaven, etc. would not deliver on his promise of giving to them the land he had promised to their ancestors. They were making God a liar.

Kanyaganyago, think of it this way: this Eternal God who created this world, and redeemed it from sin in his beloved Son, Jesus Christ has called you in faith to find life in him. Praise the Lord that you have heard him and now know him. But this is not the end. He promises to come again and make all things new (see Rev 21:1-8). This means that you are being saved; that you are on the journey to that Sabbath rest and that God who started this work is committed to completing it (Phil 1:6).

This is where the Israelites were at when they stopped to believe that God would complete “the good work he had started in them.” As the scriptures say, So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” (Ps 95:11).

I want you to know, my son, that the only thing that will ever have anyone cast away from the saving presence of God is unbelief. The failure to trust in God’s redeeming grace is what Jesus called “blasphemy against the Spirit” (Matt 12:31). In future, I will write to you addressing this topic. Remind me if I forget.

You may now be wondering how this relates to what I said to you earlier in this letter. Well, first of all, the Sabbath Rest which the preacher of Hebrews talks about is our eternal rest. The rest which I am recommending that you consider as an integral aspect of your faith is an anticipatory exercise which portends the final [R]est in Jesus, which is also the culmination of our salvation.

That anticipation is an endeavour of faith. It is the business of trust alone in the saving ability of God, even in your regular sabbaths. Do you now see the implications of taking a sabbath every week?

Going back to the analogy of the phone that I told you earlier: when you stop working and refuse to have your work tell you who you are, you are in faith saying that you will only listen to God’s view of who you are, and what you can be. That even when it is hard, and the giants are before you, you will look at him who is saving you.

I know that this is a long letter, Kanyaganyago, but I trust that it has clarified a few things for you. I also want to encourage you that while taking a sabbath is hard—and it will be for a long time—take comfort in the promise that you are “a sheep under his care” (Ps 95:7). You will occasionally fail, but don’t let that discourage you. There is new mercy for every morning. That mercy also covers your failure to rest.

Until next time, endeavour to live a restful life.

Grace and peace to you my friend, and son in the Spirit,

Nuwamanya-Mategyero

A false prophet?

Maybe.

But, a heretic?

Not a chance.

One of the greatest minds of the previous century, G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous.”

My Professor, Justin Holcomb, in his book Know the Heretics notes that the sense of the word “heresy” has been lost. He adds “To some people today, a heretic suggests a rebel – someone with courage, the kind of person who can think for himself and stand up to the institutional church.”

In the early church, heretics were those guys who came up with new and novel ideas on who God was. Their crime was not the creativity and thoughtfulness they exhibited, it was the deviation from a unified position, call it doctrine, that the Universal Church taught.

That is not how we use the term today.

Today, the term carries connotations that are less religious. It is more of a cultural term.

Elvis Mbonye would agree that he is a ‘rebel’, ‘courageous’, and that he is ‘standing up to the institutional church’. In fact, he rues the “religious establishment” for spending too much time practicing a static spirituality, and dead theology with nothing to show for it.

I want to submit that Elvis Mbonye is a product of the current social and cultural forces that have shaped the way we live, interact.

Spiritual Entrepreneurship

The contemporary catchphrase all wannabe entrepreneurs talk about is ‘disruption’.

Millennials will walk into an incubating hub in one of the suburbs of Kampala, hoping that their business idea will be the one to serve a market that could not be served previously.

With the use of words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘accurate’, etcetera, concerning his predictions, Elvis Mbonye has positioned himself as a disrupter in the religious space.

He is different and unapologetic. His ministry is like a regular high-end startup, operating in a rented space, probably because of an anticipation of future exponential growth.

His selling point, though, is his personal brand.

The idea of a personal brand is new. Older folks don’t ‘get’ it, for the most part, because they don’t ‘get’ social media. The other day President Yoweri Museveni tried to resist the idea of building a personal brand when his Bazzukulu (grandchildren) told him that these days “appearances matter.”

He responded in a classic Museveni fashion by reminding everyone that he is the son of Kaguta and therefore does not need PR. Recently, he has jumped on the train, and it is working well for him.

Now back to Mr Mbonye.

While his ministry—Zoe Fellowship—sells him as the brand, his skill is what completes this equation. You see, a personal brand is built around something you can sell to people. Mbonye sells predictions, packaged as Christian prophecies.

That is why his public image matters to him (not that it shouldn’t matter): the classy outfits, latest cars, and the marketing language sprinkled with religious words.

The other thing about personal branding is what is called “social proof”, the idea that they will only “believe if ya show ’em”. It’s a game of perception, and people will adopt a certain way of life akin to those who ‘influence’ them. Have you seen people on Facebook add ‘Elvis’ to their names? Or others entering the prophecy business calling themselves his sons with the same haircut, and flashy outfits?

Because, if you mimic his observable behaviour, you become like him. Well, in reality, not really.

What they try to mimic—the tip of the iceberg—is what they see in pictures, videos or two hours a week. Mostly, it is someone who has makeup on and is trying to portray themselves in a particular light. What about the other part of the iceberg which is submerged in the icy waters of personal struggles, sin, marital fights, vulnerability and all the other ‘thorns in the flesh’?

The question above is important because one day, when a teenage daughter starts to blur parental boundaries, or a scary medical diagnosis comes in, or a marriage can’t work anymore, etc., one will need an authentic spiritual leader, not a social media, photoshopped version of a man of God.

They that make them are like unto them

—so is every one that trusts in them, says the Psalmist in Ps 115:8. One thing that has been evident with Elvis Mbonye and his followers has been the arrogance with which they speak.

About a year and a half ago, when two of Mr Mbonye’s followers were hosted on a talk show on NTV, a youthful fellow spent all those two hours swimming in arrogance to the dismay of everyone on the show. He turned to one of the guests on the program and pointed out how his faith was ‘dead’ because he was putting on eyeglasses. Indeed, if his God was living, he would cure his eye problem, the young man reasoned.

That lack of cultural intelligence is analogous to small three-year-old children who have not yet developed social skills. It’s the kind of behaviour that should never be condoned by anyone in their right mind, yet such is what sets you apart as Mr Mbonye’s son or daughter.

This week, Elvis Mbonye exhibited the same arrogant pride in the interview he gave to Solomon Serwanjja. It is now evident who taught that youthful fellow to behave and speak the way he did.

The arrogance that Mr Mbonye exuded in the interview can pass for a spiritual endeavour. It seems to me that that arrogance is to them a fruit of the spirit, Mbonye’s spirit.

Everyone who trusts in them will become like them.  Elvis is teaching them well, and they are becoming like him.

Why Elvis Mbonye is not a Heretic

Going back to our definition of heresy above, I mean the traditional definition. I still hold that Elvis Mbonye is not a heretic.

You see, heresy demands that you compromise an essential doctrine of the faith, and in the process disfigure the traditional understanding of who God is. Mr Mbonye has not done that.

Not even close.

He is a product of the social and cultural forces that have shaped the way we interact and live. What he does is done by so many other spiritual entrepreneurs.

What he has failed to do, however, is use these socio-cultural forces, like social media and today’s redefined view of self and personhood to shape, at best, or alter, at worst, the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. He is theologically bankrupt.

Yesterday while on a walk with two friends, one of them told us a story about his time in a Christian college. It went like this. A certain student prefaced his in-class submission with the words “For fear of being a heretic…” His professor quickly interjected and said, “Son, you are not smart enough to be a heretic.”

Everyone goes to church.

Irrespective of what our different religious inclinations are, all of us dress up for Sunday morning worship.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to walk around the town of Amesbury, Massachusetts, the neighbourhood of All Saints Anglican Cathedral, the church I attend.

While at it, I was struck by the number of people who were out and about on the streets at eleven in the morning. On my left, a local bar was packed that you could not see the bartender behind the counter. On my right, a local boutique was booming with business. Before me, the wooden benches in the town square were occupied by people who seemed to be wearing off the past week’s fatigue.

Sunday morning is an opportunity to walk to the newsstand to grab the Sunday paper. It is also a time to catch up on the texts and all those Facebook notifications that kept the phone buzzing since Monday morning, the week past—provided you have the monastic mojo to hold them off for a full week.

As I stood on a street corner with my eyes transfixed on the people’s Sunday morning life, I could notice that they are all doing something. Some were heading to church, others to party with friends, others walking their dogs, name it.

*******

The Apostle Paul was onto something when he wrote to the Romans that our hearts are a stone tablet on which the law is permanently engraved that it cannot be erased, not even with heart surgery (see Romans 2:15). Well, not in those words but close. He also added that however much we try to deny this legal inscription on our hearts, the truth is right before us looking us in the face as we hide in plain sight.

What Paul is actually saying is that the moral demands of the law awaken consciousness in everyone so that the breach of that moral code triggers an alarm in all of us. It is the painful feeling of trying to erase what is permanently inscribed.

Think of a parent who gets home, as soon as they shut the door behind them, they notice that their small child is acting weird. Trying—for the first time—to do homework without the daily dose of coercion. Automatically, the parent will know that something is amiss. Clearly, the kid is hiding something. His conscience is haunting him. This is so because that conscience is awake to the difference between ought and oughtn’t.

When Paul wrote that: “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them”, the law that he was talking out is God’s law—or what we have come to call the 10 commandments or the moral law.

Every one of those 10 commandments is chalked on the heart of every person that they are aware of their little peccadilloes when they commit them. There is also a tendency in the hearts of all people to try to live up to those commandments.

It is in our DNA.

Every human being on earth has something in which they invest their value and worth. All of us give ourselves to something that we hope to be defined by. There are projects we devote ourselves to the point of saying that “I want to be known for championing such and such a cause or being such a kind of person.” In other words, there is something in all of us that we find weightier or worthy that the other stuff in our lives.

In religious terms, the attention we give to the projects that devote ourselves to is called worth-ship. Sorry, I meant worship. You can only worship what matters to you. That is why we run after young hot girls/boys, money, fame, good grades, perfect kids, nice cars, etc. those things are our gods—we bow down before them hoping that they would deliver us.

Why is this so? Because the first commandment relating to worship is written on the hearts that beat inside our chests.

The fall of man did not erase this inscription. Instead, it distorted the way he reads it. The motivation is there, but the execution is skewed. The desire to worship something or someone is present but always directed to a wrong object.

You see, transgression is never so much the failure to do what the moral law of God requires. No one ever fails to do. Instead, it is an act of the right motive flowing in the wrong direction.

*******

In the fourth commandment, we are instructed to rest on the seventh day.

For most of us, Sabbath is that day of the week called Sunday—the day we go for morning worship. For the rest of the day, no work is done. For some, this is a conscious decision while for others, it’s the opposite. Yet we all rest.

This is not an accident. Everyone—consciously or otherwise—has a way in which they would consider their week incomplete if it lacked that day when they broke from the weekly routine. Regardless of what is done, that day is ‘holy’ in a sense that no bosses or demands from the workplace are allowed to corrupt it.

What I am trying to say is that all people keep the Sabbath. They rest on the seventh day. It is not surprising that the days we don’t go to work are called ‘holidays.’ As in ‘holy days.’

The fourth commandment, like the other nine, is also written on our hearts.

All the people who flock bars, parks, shopping malls, and those that walk their dogs are practicing the ritual of rest because they are all consciously aware that it is ‘good’ to do.

Yet, when the fall of man was distorting the first commandment, the fourth did not survive.

God’s will is that we all find rest in him alone. It is what Jesus lays out in Matthew 11:28.

The sabbath is not something we do once a week. Instead, it is something we do every day of the week but then have it showcased, sometimes publically, on Sunday, or any day of the week we choose to rest. People who go to church on Sunday morning don’t trust God only on Sunday morning, they do it every day of the week.

Likewise, a millennial who worships video games does not do it only when they have a joystick in their hands. It happens every day as they imagine and reimagine the thrills of completing a difficult level on their latest game, or when they refresh polygon.com in hopes that they will be the first to chance on the latest piece of Nintendo gossip.

*******

The things to which we give ourselves to define us are the same things we seek to rest in. It is on those altars that we spend our Sabbaths. What captivates you is the very thing you are resting in, hoping that in that thing, or person, your life will one day have meaning and purpose.

That rest—or the thing that looks like it actually is work. The difference between resting in Jesus and resting in some other stuff is that real, genuine rest is only found in the former.

When we give ourselves to things smaller than Jesus, we will always be exhausted. Jesus himself said that the Devil is the father of lies. He tricks us into thinking that we will find rest in a video game, sex, money, and other petty things that have never saved a single soul.

Instead of resting, we spend our lives on a treadmill of restlessness hoping that one day our misery will come to an end. Yet, all we do is work and never rest. Because we serve gods who have ears but cannot hear and eyes but cannot see.

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
 They have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them. (Psalm 135:15-18)

Those who bow down to false and powerless gods work for them. What looks like rest is actually hard work—the hard work deifying something that we have no business deifying.

*******

There is only one resting place—Jesus Christ’s work for us. That is the only acceptable religious pitstop.

Where do you go to church? Many people, especially the non-religious elite, would say that they don’t go to church. Yet, they do the very thing which takes their counterparts to church: rest. In filling our Sunday mornings with to-do list-worthy things, we declare a rest, but not according to the pattern God has ordained.

We decide what to worship, where, and when. We also install ourselves as high priests to mediate the covenant we have cut with our idols.

The idea of rest is not to sidestep work. No. Rather, it is the completion of a long day’s work. Jesus is seated at the right hand of his Father because he has finished his work. He even said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Real rest is found in him who has completed his work.

It is also why we go to church—to an empty cross and an empty tomb—and finally to a feast-ready table as our gaze is transfixed on the right hand of the Father’s divine seat where the Son is resting so that there, we will learn to also rest well.