On Sunday evening I was leading a Bible Study on Acts 13 & 14. This is a group of people (all White) with whom I meet from time to time and presently we are working through the book of Acts. Acts 13 & 14 tells the story of Paul’s first missionary journey. Those attending the Bible Study are all members of a church which seems to have lost its vision for missions, although individually many of these people do want to get involved in missions.
The story starts in the church in Antioch which most probably was not a very large church. In some way (we’re not told how), God indicates to them that Paul and Barnabas have to be sent out as their “missionaries”. After further prayer (probably also to make sure that they had “heard” God correctly), the laid their hands on these two people and sent them off.
How could a small congregation as the one in Antioch afford to do this while huge congregations in our times fail to do this. In Acts 11:27-30 we get an idea of the attitude of the believers in Antioch. They seemed to understand how God feels about people. Therefore, when they heard of the famine in Jerusalem, they gave what they could to help the people there. This gives us an indication of their vision which is directed towards people loved by God. Perhaps it is not so strange that God then also uses this congregation to send out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries.
Looking at this story, I think there are a number of things one can learn from it and which could be applied to our modern congregations:
- First of all I believe a congregation needs to develop a vision for the world. We need to look with God’s eyes to the world which He created and we need to develop God’s heart for the people.
- A church needs to learn to trust God unconditionally. As pastors we preach about trusting God, telling those in the pews that they need to learn to trust God with their money, with their families, with their belongings, even with their (eternal) lives, but often the church or congregation itself does not set the example of trusting God unconditionally. I’ve heard, time and time again that church members say that they believe that God wants them to get involved in some missions project, but that they cannot afford to do so. Isn’t this what it means to trust God unconditionally?
- A church needs to spend time in prayer, listening to what God wants them to do. A church which regularly prays together, praying for the world, praying for specific mission projects, praying that God’s light will shine throughout the world, praying for guidance on where and how God wants to use them in this task, will hear from God. Of that I am convinced. And then all that they need to do is to obey Him.
I’m encouraged when I read and hear stories of churches taking this step of obedience. We ourselves are not there yet. The money issue is still a strong inhibiting factor, keeping us from taking the step of fully trusting the Lord. But step by step we are learning that there is nothing which can take the place of obeying the Lord and trusting Him so that He can reach His goal through us.
I was recently reading the passage in Mark 12:41-44 again where the poor widow came to the temple, dropped two coins in the chest used for the offerings, after which Jesus reacted by saying that she had given more than all the others who had given from their wealth.
John Rowell, in To Give or not to Give also writes about this under the heading of The Principle of Proportionate Sacrifice (p 194-6). I have for long maintained that many third world churches are giving relatively more than their Western counterparts, for the simple reason that the majority of these church members are extremely poor while in most Western churches the majority are extremely rich.
Rowell has a very interesting way of looking at proportionate giving. Within the Kingdom of God it doesn’t really matter how much is given. God can use a little to accomplish much, as we well know from the miracle when Jesus fed the crowds with five loaves of bread and two fish. Rowell writes: Proportionality in giving is determined, therefore, not by what we have invested financially in a kingdom venture, but more by what we have kept for ourselves.
Rowell then suggests the following formula to calculate how generous we are: We should divide what we saved by what we gave every time we make a donation. The resulting quotient will show whether we are selfish or sacrificial. According to this formula, Rowell calculated that Americans are keeping approximately 97% for themselves. (Rowell is an American, which is the reason why he concentrates on his own country, but the same could probably be said about most Western countries.) Even if we tithe (something which I personally adhere to, not as a law, but as a rule-of-thumb) then the amount which I give for kingdom ventures are still depressingly small, compared to what I keep for myself, not to live on, but to acquire luxuries.
Maya, one of the readers of this blog who also frequently comments, recently brought my attention to a website: Global rich List. On this website you can determine how rich you are compared to other people in the world. (I don’t think this is very accurate, as similar sites such as Rich-o-meter have slightly different results, but nevertheless it gives an indication of where you fall within the worlds economy).
According to this website, 50% of the world’s population receive less than $850 per year. In the DVD Dear Francis which I recently wrote about, it is said that more than 60% of Swaziland’s population are getting 45 US cents per day ($165 per year) or less, which places this group in the poorest 5% of the world’s population. Obviously, not all our church members are as poor as that. Some of them do have well-paying occupations and some of our church members, especially up to the northern part of the country (Mbabane and Manzini) would even be considered to be fairly rich. But on average, the greater part of the population, and the greater part of our church members are extremely poor. And yet, many of them are still giving generously to kingdom ventures.
Which brings me back to the question: Who gives the most?
I’m just home after a hectic day – nine hours on the road and three hours in a meeting somewhere in the middle – and every minute of this worthwhile! Last week I received an invitation to attend a meeting today, hosted by the Dutch Embassy in Pretoria, focussing on AIDS and Swaziland. The main speaker was Professor Alan Whiteside of the University of Kwazulu-Natal but also Director of HEARD. I accepted the invitation to attend, thinking that it would probably be a discussion of the problem of AIDS and perhaps referring to Swaziland in passing. Was I ever wrong!
What I found out was that Alan Whiteside had spent many years in Swaziland, even schooling there at one the most prestigious schools in the northern part of the country. He has a passion for this country. But what he wanted to share about the country was not good news. Most of the things he said today was not new to me. It was about the effects of AIDS on this country. I’ve done enough research about AIDS in Swaziland to know that what he was saying is the truth. He had developed a number of graphs which was shown on the wall and which illustrated vividly the situation in which we find ourselves at present in Swaziland.
However, he came to a point where he asked the question how an emergency should be defined in a country. One definition says that an emergency is the result of “a bolt out of the blue” such as a tsunami. Furthermore, a country which is recovering from the effects of war could also be considered to be in a state of emergency.
Alan then continued by asking whether an emergency should not be redefined. If an emergency situation is imminent, should people ignore the situation until it explodes or should help be rendered in an attempt to prevent the emergency from occurring? The point he was making – or perhaps closer to the truth – the plea which he directed towards the Dutch ambassador in South Africa and to all the others present, was that they should do something significant to try and stop the growth in the rate of HIV infections in Swaziland before it is too late (the question being whether it is not too late already).
It was a strange feeling to attend a meeting like this entirely as spectator and then to find out that you are held in high regard merely because I told them that I come from Swaziland and that I am project manager of Shiselweni Home-Based Care. It was as if people were thinking: Wow, if the situation in your country is as bad as it seems, you must be a hero to keep on working there! The fact is that, on the outside, little have changed for the worse in Swaziland. In fact, many things are so much better than when I originally arrived in Swaziland in 1985. The infrastructure has improved by 10,000%. Shops, factories and other businesses have improved. But it is only when you leave the highways and move into the homes of the poor and the destitute, that you realise the impact that this disease is having on the population. And the question arises how long it will take before the effects are going to be seen, even in the places which seem to be unaffected for the untrained eye. Five years? Ten years? It is inevitable that things are going to become worse, much worse, before it will become better. But how many people will still be alive at that stage?
Has the time come to announce a state of emergency so that people and organisations all over the world can assist to bring a halt to the spreading of this virus? The answer is not clear. But I have had that uncomfortable feeling that we may be playing violin while Rome is burning…
On Thursday evening and on Sunday morning I had two absolute extreme experiences about the role of missions within a congregation. I have mentioned before that I attend a certain congregation’s mission meetings in advisory capacity. Well actually, after Thursday, I realised I’m making a hopeless mess of my task to give good advice. For more than a year now I’ve been questioning the time spent at these meetings, as my impression was that I’m actually wasting my time. On Thursday evening I turned up for their scheduled meeting. We were six in all who attended. The chairman is 70 years old and was never part of their missions committee. He volunteered to become the chairperson because nobody else wanted to do it. There were two others, a man and his wife, both mission enthusiasts but both on their way to 80. Then there was a blind person who has a heart for missions but cannot do anything himself. There was also a younger lady who attended for the first time and myself. What became clear that evening was that we are definitely wasting our time.
When asked what I think should be done, I said that any congregation who, in itself, is not driven to become involved in missions, will fail to get people involved in missions. A congregation needs to be focussed on the most important task that the church has before the members will get focussed on this task. A mission committee will never be able to shift a congregation in becoming involved in missions if the church leadership does not set the example.
After much discussion and prayer, the chairperson suggested that he will go back to the church leadership and inform them that the missions committee no longer exists. The committee has been disbanded!
I and all the others present gave our full support to this decision as I am a strong believer in the saying: If a horse is dead, dismount! The leadership still has to discuss this, but I think one of three things will happen:
- The decision will be accepted
- The decision will be ignored
- The meeting will take note of the decision with shock and plan on what they have to do to revive their commitment towards missions
On Sunday I was invited to preach in another congregation, in structure and membership much the same as the first one. On entering the church, the notice board was covered in newsletters, pamphlets and photos of missionaries supported by the congregation. At the entrance fridge magnets were set out on tables for the benefit of the members. The magnets had photos of missionaries on them and the idea is that people will take a magnet and stick it to the fridge as a reminder to pray for them. After the service the missions coordinator made an appointment to see me before I left. The post of missions coordinator has a salary linked to it as a lot of responsibility is expected of her. She told me that they are spending 800,000 South African Rand (that’s nearly $120,000) this year on missions – money being spent outside their own congregation!
To be honest: I wasn’t all that surprised. When a church becomes mission focussed, everything changes within that congregation. Finances pick up. Members become more spiritually focussed. Members become less selfish.
If all this is true, why do churches struggle to make the decision to become more focussed on missions? If God has shown us (and proven through innumerable examples) that the secret of a strong church is to be focussed on missions, why are we so reluctant to do it? Or worse still: Why are members satisfied to be in a mediocre congregation, merely, as in so many instances, because church leadership are afraid or unwilling to lead their church members on the exciting road of focussing on missions?
On Friday we wrapped up a week’s training with a new group of AIDS home-based caregivers. I had some things I had to do and it was still a two hour’s drive (on the gravel road and in rain) to reach Jerusalem, the place where the training had taken place. On arrival I found the group of 32 people all present. But apart from them, there were also about eight community leaders who had decided to attend the last day’s training, as a sign of solidarity with the people who will in future be taking care of the sick at their homes and also to encourage them. Amongst these were two Members of Parliament who also came to encourage these workers.
The newly trained people had prepared a short sketch to demonstrate how they would go about visiting someone in the final stages of AIDS and what they would do to help her. The “patient” was incredibly realistic, even to the point of seeming to want to vomit when the “caregivers” were trying to “feed” her, which led to a lot of laughter from those of us who were watching.
When they were finished, a woman, Elsie Mavimbela, stood up. She read us two poems that she had written. Poetry isn’t really something that I have linked to the Swazis before. Perhaps that is the reason why these two poems had such an impact on myself. The first one:
I am AIDS, I Kill
I do not care who you are
I do not consider your status
Whether you are ugly or beautiful
Everyone must be aware of me
Some say I am not there
But I know myself
I am there
Those who say I am not there
I am AIDS
To the youth I give a word of warning
It seems to you that people are joking
when they say I am there
otherwise you will follow others that followed me
I am AIDS
The second poem was written as a sort of tribute to thank the people of our church who had come to train the new group. The name of our church is the Swaziland Reformed Church. However, neither the woman who wrote the poem nor any of the others who had undergone the training are members of our church, which perhaps make this poem quite remarkable:
The Small Tree
Oh my dear Swaziland Reformed Church
You are a small tree with sweet fruit
that everyone need to eat
But your fruit is not enough for everyone
Oh my dear small tree
Plant your seeds for everyone in Swaziland
Those who did not know your tree
They will approach you because your fruit are more sweet
Grow up tree with your sweet fruit
Grow up for everyone
With your name
Swaziland Reformed Church
Readers of this blog may wonder why missionaries write so much about money. Before I came to Swaziland I also had the wonderful idea that missions is all about the gospel and proclaiming the peace of Christ and people of different cultures living in harmony with each other. It didn’t take long for me to come down to earth and to realise that there were many issues in missions which I had never considered before and which was never taught to us at university. And most of these issues concerns money. And mostly it is about local people working in the church not getting enough and closely related to this, that expatriates working as missionaries are getting too much.
John Rowell, in his To give or not to give, also writes about this problem. Western missionaries have always received a higher salary than the local church leaders and it is understandable why this would also cause a lot of tension amongst workers.
Yesterday was not a good day for me. Out of the blue I received a letter from one of our fellow church leaders in another congregation with a sharp attack against me personally as well as the missions committee which sent me to Swaziland on exactly this topic. This type of thing is really sickening. I went to university. He went to university. I’m getting probably about three times what he is getting. I’m being paid by the missions committee which sent me to Swaziland while he is being paid by the local church (which receives a subsidy from the same missions committee, but not enough to pay his full salary.) On the other hand, we also make use of church leaders who have not had official university training and he is getting about four times what they are getting. And so it seems to me, that the disparity is there and will always be there, unless if all church funds could be placed into one big pot and then divided equally. But then again: Will that be fair? Will everybody be happy then? As parents we always said that if you have four children and you treat them all equally, then three of them are being treated unfairly. Is the same true in the church? I know that the responsibility which I have to carry and the expectation which the church has of me is much greater than the responsibility which any of the local church leaders have to carry and the expectation which people have of them. But is that reason enough to have a disparity in the salaries?
If I think about what Jonathan Bonk wrote and I think of what John Rowell wrote, then I acknowledge that there is a lot of unfairness in the system. But then again, is there a way in which this will ever be solved?
My good friend, Bryan Mosell, who frequently comments on this blog, recently sent me a documentary DVD which he had purchased in the USA. The name is Dear Francis. This is part of the story of the AIDS epidemic in Swaziland. For those who are interested on getting a glimpse of what Swaziland looks like and what AIDS is doing to this country, I can recommend this DVD. It can be purchased directly from the producers here. For myself, the part which probably touched me the most was not in the movie itself, but rather in one of the Special Features called The Hospital Visit. This is an uncut scene and shows the reality inside one of the large government hospitals, The Mbabane Government Hospital. This is exactly how I also find it when I visit hospitals in Swaziland, with the smell of death literally hanging around in the wards.
The DVD received two awards and is really of a good quality. A number of the people speaking in the documentary are known to me and it was great to hear their concern but also their realistic approach to the problem. We all know that there is no quick fix for this problem.
But as I watched the documentary, I also had a number of concerns. First of all the documentary was made when a group of students from Texas were flown out to Swaziland to take part in a program to teach school children about abstinence. One of the students did build a relationship with one of the Swazi school children who was concerned that he may be HIV positive. The student eventually convinced his new friend, Sipho, that both of them should go to be tested and obviously (otherwise it would not have been shown) both of them were negative. This, for me, was a great part of the documentary. What concerned me was whether a group of wealthy (and lets face it, you need to be wealthy to fly out from the States for a short-term outreach in Swaziland) students from the States can really change people’s life-styles on the long term, without realising the challenges these people face in their normal day-to-day living. In the documentary one of the students actually say something like: We have to try and change in a week’s time what had been taught to them over a period of eighteen years! And in fact it’s not really a week, because the group moved from school to school, spending a few hours at the most at each school. I don’t want to be small of faith, but personally I wonder what difference this will make. This is why I try and work so hard on building relations when we have short-term outreaches from groups to Swaziland rather than trying to cover as much ground as possible in the shortest period of time.
Another concern I had was about some emotional things which were said and which I don’t believe to be quite the truth. Swaziland, at present, does have about 80000 orphans. That’s about 8% of the population and the numbers are increasing. But one of the people at one point made the remark that one out of ten homes are run by children. Even after intensive surveys which we did from home to home in two of the worst affected areas in Swaziland, I still have to find a home actually run by a child. Furthermore, after a question why there are only two girls at a certain orphanage while there are many boys, it was said that female orphans are snatched up by neighbours so that she can become a “slave” in their household and eventually she will be sold to someone who wants to marry her for the price of 15 cows. This is highly debatable, as it is normally only girls related to the king (girls who come from the Dlamini clan) for whom a bride’s price (lobola) as high as 15 cows will be paid. And in my contact with other orphanages I found that the ratio of girls/boys is close to 50/50. As often happens with this type of documentary, I had the impression that things are said to obtain people’s sympathy for a cause and in the process it may happen that the truth is stretched a bit.
But other than these remarks, I really felt touched by this DVD. It is permitted that this DVD may be shown in congregations so if some of you who have been following this blog wishes to use this to inform other Christians about the situation in Swaziland, you are free to do this. (Just take note that I am not involved with any of the projects actually shown on the DVD. The documentary was made in the northern part of Swaziland while our work is focussed on the southern part of the country, which is also the poorest and most infected part of Swaziland.)
One of the people, I think it was the American Ambassador to Swaziland, made the remark that we are losing an entire generation. This is the truth. The only hope which I personally have is that the new young generation will make decisions about their life-style so that they do not get infected with HIV. Otherwise it may well be true, what was said in the documentary, that Swaziland will no longer exist in fifty years’ time.