On Fire Engines and the Nature of God

The following piece was written back in 1992 when Wanda and I lived in Nairobi, Kenya for a year. It was originally published in the Brethren in Christ Church magazine, The Evangelical Visitor. I had to borrow a copy of it from a colleague who had filed it in a folder entitled “Open Theology.” {insert nervous laughter here}  Also, I am happy to report I have violated the 750 word length rule.


I had been in Kenya a little over two months, and it suddenly dawned on me: I had not seen a fire truck. I thought perhaps there were no such devices of Western technology here. After all, a fire engine is a significant financial investment, and the grave nature of that investment is compounded by the fact that Kenya must import such equipment. The task of rounding up sufficient amounts of foreign currency is probably beyond most developing nations, or so I assumed. I simply concluded there were no fire engines in Kenya.

Later that week I sat in my office thinking about God. To be more exact, I was thinking about the way Africans view God and how that differs from my North American perspectives. I concluded that most, certainly not all, Americans see God as “preventer,” while most, again certainly not all, Africans view God as “redeemer.” Impressed by my own observation, as shallow as it was, I wrote on a scrap of paper, “God is primarily in the redemption business, not the prevention business.”

These two seemingly unrelated events came together in one “blinding” revelation about one week later. This event is certainly not to be confused with an earlier Christian’s Damascus Road revelation. [In fact, my revelation took place on Mbagathi Road, and there were no donkeys in the vicinity. There were, however, a few goats eating grass near the scene of the revelation.] Isaac Gyampadu, a third year student, and I were strolling to Daystar University College. There, before our eyes, sat a bright red fire engine. I, being a little more excited than he, exclaimed, “Isaac, look! A fire engine. I didn’t think Kenya had fire trucks.”

Unimpressed, he calmly responded, “There’s no reason.”

My mind, running full tilt in Western mode, said, “No reason?” Once my mouth caught up to my brain, it responded, “What do you mean ‘no reason’? There are fires in Kenya, so you need fire engines.”

Isaac proceeded to teach a brief lesson in cultural anthropology. “When you call the fire brigade, it takes 20 to 25 minutes to arrive. And when they arrive, they don’t know what to do. So let the house burn down, and rebuild it.” [The very next day this observation was confirmed by a front page photo in a daily newspaper, The Nation. The picture’s caption reported that it took the fire company two hours to arrive at the scene. I guess Isaac was being kind.]

Somewhat baffled, I shot back, “You mean people don’t want to prevent disasters?”

“Well, it’s not part of African culture. You don’t plan to prevent a crisis. You deal with it as it comes.”

I thought to myself, “Seemingly you deal with it well after it comes.”

At that moment my eyes were opened. My North American culture had, in fact, warped a primary element of God’s nature. We North Americans tend to avoid pain, disaster, and the like as much as possible. A well-known proverb is “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” As often as we repeat this line, one would think it was a part of Scripture. And we expect our God to help us avoid the potential unpleasantries of life. Even when facing the inevitable facts of the life cycle—like death—we ask God to keep the harsh realities from us. Whether we want to accept it or not, we desire a “preventer” God.

The central problem with this cultural impact on our theology is that God ends up looking like an uncaring, deaf, and incompetent minor deity. We ask that we might avoid trouble and yet troubles come. Thus God seems rather ineffective. The fact is that bad things happen to people, and God is not in the business of preventing these “bad things,” despite our desire for him to do so.

Africans, on the other hand, are light years ahead of us here; or, perhaps I should say centuries behind us. They are ages “behind us” in that their culture has allowed them to think like the writers of the Bible and, thereby, they can be more faithful to the biblical image of God as “redeemer.” Yahweh is one who brings salvation (or wholeness) out of disastrous events. The God of the Bible brings good from evil. His primary nature is to “redeem” not to “prevent.” It certainly is easier to pray to this type of God, and it’s a lot easier on God.

Instead of setting God up to become a big disappointment, this understanding of God opens the door for God to act in a way consistent with his nature. Remember, God did not prevent slavery in Egypt, but he did redeem the children of Israel. Nor did God help Israel avoid the Babylonian captivity, but Jerusalem was rebuilt. And finally, Jesus, God’s own Son, died on a cross, but this tragedy was followed by resurrection. African culture(s) allows Christians to better understand this aspect of God’s nature, while I fear our North American culture(s) clouds our eyes to this biblical truth.

In the final analysis, I am glad that the city of Nairobi has at least one fire engine. While the reports are not so encouraging about the fire company’s ability to extinguish fires, it certainly is helpful for people, such as me, who are interested in biblical theology.


Parameters for this Spectacle–Feedback is Welcome

This isn’t a shocker to anyone reading this: one’s childhood experiences stay with us for life.  Fortunately, not all those events are “actually” remembered.  They lie hidden beneath the surface making most of us interesting to be around.  For other people they lie hidden beneath the surface and end up going to prison with their bearer.  As a first born child, who was essentially raised as an “only child” until my sister was born seven years after me, I admit I like my life to be orderly.  Therefore, I believe this venture into blogdom (Do I get to make up words when blogging? I am such a newbie to this world) will benefit from a set of rules that will generally, not slavishly, guide my undertakings.  My first draft includes the following:

(1)   I will not intentionally write with the goal of irritating, ticking off, or annoying the readers.  If, however, someone is irritated, ticked off or annoyed, I will smile quietly and not gloat.

(2)   Postings will NOT exceed 750 words.  Let’s face it, like most bloggers, I don’t really have much to say, and you certainly don’t have lots of time to read a load of rubbish.

(3)   Every fifth posting will use the word “hamster(s)”.  Yeah…this isn’t always gonna be a journey into deep reflection.  I attempt to make lots of room for laughter in my generally mundane life.

(4)   World famous New Testament scholar, and my personal academic hero, N.T. Wright will be quoted regularly…preferably in every fifth posting and in close proximity to the hamster(s) reference.

(5)   I will invite guest bloggers.  I would say the chance of Dave Broberg being one of these guest bloggers is slim.  There is a 750 word limit.

(6)   I will NEVER use the words “musing(s)” or “muse”.  I probably will use the word “inspire” but not in the biblical sense.

(7)   Embarrassing and poorly edited sentences written by my students will be shared.  This is an imperative if their lack of precise editing results in profane or risqué language.

(8)   I promise to severely restrict “over the top” praise for Newcastle United Football Club. On the other hand,  Bolton Wanderers and their most ardent fans in the USA, my nephews Eric and Michael Thuma, will be mocked mercilessly.  I thought about mocking Man U and Chelsea, but those two teams have lots of fans and many of them could really hurt me.  This would include Josh Wood, Logan Thompson, Danny Thompson, and Logan Shellenberger.

(9)   To keep Helena Yeatts Cicero happy every tenth posting will say something nice about my employer.  Challenge accepted, Helena.

(10)    I reserve the right to modify and/or totally ignore and/or bizarrely interpret the above guidelines.

There you have them.  Clearly, I am thinking this blog ought to be a little different.  And let’s get this difference rolling.  I am inviting you the reader (yes, I am assuming there is only one of you and I know it isn’t my mom ‘cause she died three years ago and her computer skills were not very good when she was alive.) to offer new guidelines or provide arguments as to why one of my suggestions should be modified or deleted.


I am pleased to announce this post consists of only 529 words.  Success…modest success, but success none the less.

What Have I Done?

Well, having deleted the generic welcome to wordpress.com rubbish, I added this rubbish.  Hopefully, this will improve over the next few months.  I would like to point out that I feel technologically challenged and inadequate.  AND I am very ticked off that someone has taken the wordpress address beginning with BOTH “jmcd” and “jaymcd”.  What has society come to?