I had two men at my house today who came to see me because they needed some advice. One of the men used to be a member of our congregation some years ago, before he moved to South Africa. They are presently members of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa, which was formerly known as the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa which was in reality the Reformed church reserved for Black members of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Hey, don’t blame me if you don’t understand any of this – I didn’t invent this and neither do I approve of it!
In any case, their pastor had retired a few weeks ago and chances are that it will be nearly impossible for them to get a new fully ordained pastor due to the financial implications. The previous pastor’s salary had been subsidised heavily by another church but they had decided to stop the subsidy once he retired.
The problem which they are facing at present and which they wanted my advice on, was what they had to do concerning baptism and the serving of the communion. According to their church law only ordained ministers are allowed to serve the sacraments. The implication of this is that they have to ask their closest minister, who lives 80 kilometres (50 miles) away to come to their church on a specific Sunday. He however does not have his own transport, which means that they have to drive to his home and bring him back to their church and afterwards they have to drive him back to his home. At the rate at which the price of crude oil is climbing, this is becoming a very expensive exercise. What could they do?
When I came to Swaziland we were faced with the same issue. I was the only person allowed in our congregation to serve the sacraments. However, because we, at that stage, had five different “preaching posts” and it was obviously impossible to visit each of these posts every Sunday, we made use of “tentmakers” to preach at the places where I could not be on a specific Sunday. I however had to rotate so that I could visit the different preaching posts and also serve the sacraments there. It didn’t take me long to realise that there was something seriously wrong with the system. Within the Protestant tradition the Word of God is considered to be superior to the sacraments. But in practice exactly the opposite happened. Elders and at times even other church members were allowed to preach but they were not allowed to serve the sacraments. When the Swaziland Reformed Church came into existence (a story for another day) and we had the chance to write our own constitution, we decided, after a long discussion, that elders of the church would also be allowed to serve the sacraments. This decision freed my hands to work more constructively in the church. I was fortunate – I know of missionaries who have fifteen or more preaching posts for which they are responsible and in an attempt to serve the sacraments not less than four times per year at each place, they move around, Sunday after Sunday, serving the sacraments every single time that they visit a branch, often even at more than one place on a Sunday.
What did we conclude? Well, I couldn’t help them really, because they are restricted by their own constitution. A constitution is an extremely important document. But I have also seen and experienced how easily a constitution can strangle a church. One of my former colleagues used to say that a constitution is like a donkey: you ride it until it can’t go any further and then you dismount and proceed by foot! Somewhere we need to find a balance between having no rules at all and having so many rules and regulations that God’s work is restricted. Exactly where that balance is, is not always easy to determine.
After reading many favourable reviews of this book, I bought a copy and I really enjoyed reading it. Actually, with a title such as this, I was afraid that this would be another book written by someone who had been hurt by the church (there are many of those) and who then write a book in which they reflect their hurt and scepticism about the church (while we know that it was never God’s intention that the church should exist to cause hurt and pain.) But this book is something else. Antonucci’s love for the church is strong and what he is trying to say is that the church can and should be so much than what many are experiencing. We’ve all seen it: People who stumble through life, trying to exist in some way during the week, arriving at church on a Sunday morning, thankful that they can “recharge their batteries” only to fall back into a life of merely existing during the week. These are the people who made a commitment to the Lord at some stage in their lives but because their belief in Christ had not been properly internalised and become part of every aspect of their lives, they feel cheated – hence the title of the book.
Vince has a great sense of humour which I enjoyed, although there were times that it felt a bit forced. But he shares a lot of anecdotes from his personal life and his journey with God which really illustrates in a practical (and funny) way what it means to live as a Christian day by day. He also refers to a number of his friends who had discovered what it means to live in close harmony with God on a daily basis.
Obviously, with a book like this, there are many things which I do not quite agree with. The one thing which did bother me was one chapter in which he tries to define the “connection” between God and His children. For myself, I’m personally not really that interested to hear whether a person came to repentance and accepted Jesus Christ. That, in a certain sense, is the Christians’s birth story. I’m more interested to hear whether that person is living in a relationship with Christ at the moment. Antonucci says he’s not really interested in speaking about a relationship. He wants to know whether the person “abides” in Jesus. This is fair enough (although I think that these are two sides of the same coin), but for the rest of the book he still very often uses the word relationship as describing the “connection” which should exist between God and His children. So I just thought that the argument was really unnecessary.
Most of the reviews appearing on Amazon are very positive. A few are critical. As for myself, I really enjoyed the book and would really recommend it for people who may feel cheated that the church did not deliver as they expected or pastors who want their church members to experience more than merely to exist with the title: “Christian”.
I have a friend who says that he has “tickability”. I’m not sure whether non-Africans have experience with ticks. (Perhaps someone can tell me whether ticks are known in the northern hemisphere with its extremely cold winters.) In any case, a tick is a small insect which bites onto an animal (or a human) and sucks out blood and it really takes some effort to get them off the animals, at the risk of breaking of the ticks head and it causing further infections. My friend claims that he has “tickability”. Once he’s committed himself to something, he won’t let go – no matter what!
I’ve just returned from Dwaleni where a group of people from a congregation in South Africa will be busy with a short-term outreach until 3 April. I know the youth pastor of this congregation very well and she has been looking forward to this outreach for many months. What was extremely disappointing to her was, once everything had been finalised and quite a number of school kids had committed themselves to come for the outreach, to find that one by one the children cancelled their plans. Eventually the team turned up today with four young people (three more will be joining them on Friday.)
I won’t say that this lack of commitment does not disappointment me anymore. In fact, it does. I’m probably just getting a bit immune against it, because it happens so often. The problem does not lie with the children. One could probably say that the problem lies with the parents who should tell their children that you should not make a commitment unless if you intend to follow through with it. But the problem lies even deeper than this. Very few churches seem to have the ability to make a commitment towards mission. This is one of the most-heard arguments used when discussing involvement in mission: “We don’t want to commit ourselves towards supporting this project!” Why not? Why can’t we commit ourselves for a mission project? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that people will become dependent upon us? Or are we afraid that we will become tired of doing good?
I was thinking today that I have had pastors arranging with me to bring a group from their congregation to Swaziland for a short-term outreach and then, as the days come closer and I don’t hear anything from them, I eventually have to call to confirm whether they are still coming, only to find out that the outreach had been cancelled and the pastor did not even take the trouble to pick up a phone to let me know. This, I would describe as a lack of “tickability”.
I’m busy working through the book of Acts together with a group of people and Paul’s commitment, his “tickability”, is probably one of the greatest characteristics in the life of this missionary. I’ve just read today that the number of missionaries in the world has increased significantly over the past few years. This is good news. From my side I hope that these missionaries possess a good douse of “tickability” and that those congregations who have sent them and who have committed to support them, pray for them, visit them also have enough “tickability” to continue with this. Mission and commitment go hand-in-hand. This is true for the missionary as well as those who support and encourage him/her.
Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin was, in his days, one of the mightiest people on earth. As his name indicates, he was a Russian. He had been part of the Russian revolution of 1917, later became the editor of the most important Russian newspaper, the Pravda (which, by the way, means “the truth”) and was also a full member of the Russian politburo. He had authored books on economy and politics, many of which are still read today.
In 1930 he had to travel from Moscow to Kiev (in modern Ukraine) where he had to address an important meeting on the theme: Atheism. It is said that he spoke for an hour, during which time he broke down the Christian faith, insulted Christians and gave more than enough proof why God could not exist.
When he was through with his lecture, he looked at the people, convinced that nothing had remained of their faith. Then an old man stood up in the audience and slowly made his way forward. He looked at the audience from left to right. And then he greeted the audience in the traditional words used within the Russian Orthodox church: Xristos vaskrees! (Chris is risen!) The next moment the entire audience rose to their feet and like a clap of thunder the words of the audience echoed throughout the hall: Vayeestina vaskrees! (He has truly risen!)
As Christians, Easter Sunday is the most important day on our calendar. Through the resurrection of Christ, sin has been conquered, death has been conquered, Satan has been conquered. In our Western world Easter seems to have been eclipsed by Christmas. Obviously, it is impossible to say that one is more important than the other, because Easter could not have happened without Christmas. But for me – and this is something which I learnt in Swaziland – Easter is the most important day on the Christian calendar. And in Eastern Europe, Easter is also the most important day on their calendar.
I was told two years ago when I was in Russia, that on Easter Sunday, during the Communist times, even hardened Communists greeted each other with the words: Xristos vaskrees! to which the other person responded by saying: Vayeestina vaskrees!
Perhaps we need to bring back this tradition in our churches today.
Some of the most often quoted words regarding HIV/AIDS are the words of Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest from Uganda, who himself is HIV positive. He said: “It is now common knowledge that in HIV/AIDS, it is not the condition itself that hurts most (because many other diseases and conditions lead to serious suffering and death), but the stigma and the possibility of rejection and discrimination, misunderstanding and loss of trust that HIV positive people have to deal with.” (You can read much more about what I wrote on this topic on page 17 of the document which you can download here.)
As part of our home-based caring activities, we also try and eradicate the stigma clinging to people with HIV and AIDS. If we don’t succeed in doing this, people will never be willing to face the facts about their condition and they will also not be willing to be tested to determine their HIV status. By openly speaking about HIV and AIDS and also by openly caring for those who are infected, I believe that we are breaking down many barriers which exist between those who are HIV-positive and those who are HIV-negative. For us this is a very important part of our work.
However, the fear of stigmatisation causes another problem, in that we don’t want to acknowledge AIDS for what it is. Something which I hear constantly nowadays is that people are told that AIDS is not a death sentence. I beg to differ. AIDS is a death sentence. With early diagnosis, correct eating habits, a change in life-style and proper medication the actual death can be postponed for many years. But for the moment (and probably for many years to come), to have AIDS means that you are going to die from this disease (unless if you die from some other unnatural cause.) I don’t think it is stigmatisation to tell someone who is HIV-positive that this is very, very bad news. In Africa of course, the news is even worse, because most people do not have money to eat the correct food (lots of vegetables and fruit for example) and to get proper medicine is just out of the question for the majority of the people. I read in the Swazi newspaper a few days ago that 33,000 Swazis have actually been sentenced to death because they cannot obtain the correct medicine for AIDS in Swaziland.
Although I make a strong case in the mentioned document that we do not have the right to look down upon those who are HIV-positive as if they are all sinners, the fear of stigmatisation also prevents us from acknowledging the facts that the majority of people who are HIV-positive did indeed get it from some kind of immoral act. Yes, I know all the arguments about people becoming HIV-positive through no fault of their own – in fact I argue for them in the mentioned document. But I’m referring to the majority of people who are HIV-positive who did contract this disease through a wrong choice. The argument most often heard is about the woman who was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus, and after nobody was willing to cast the first stone, Jesus said: “…neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). But there is a difference in not acknowledging sin and not condemning a person. We don’t want people to be condemned because of wrong choices they had made (and to be quite honest, how many of us reading this also make wrong decision?) But only by acknowledging the wrong in their behaviour could we cause a change in life-style to take place. This is not stigmatisation. This is acknowledging reality but without condemnation.
I could therefore sit next to someone who has AIDS, explain to that person what causes AIDS, try and determine where and how that person had become infected and work through all the issues, without stigmatising the patient and at the same time without using such kind words that the truth is never told. In an attempt not to stigmatise someone, I believe that we may be dishonest. And in the eyes of God this is also wrong.
In a certain sense I am reluctant to share what had happened in 2005 which led to the forming of Shiselweni Reformed Home-Based Care. This was such a deep personal experience that I had with God that it was only recently that I started sharing this story with others. In a previous post which you can access here, I did share part of the story but refrained from sharing the real personal story. Now I feel more ready to tell openly what happened to me.
Since 1989 I have had a deep interest in the problem of HIV and AIDS, specifically in Swaziland. I had done a lot of research on the topic, published an article about this pandemic, with the title: Why are we losing the battle against AIDS? and found myself in 2005 preparing for a number of workshops which were to be held in Utrecht in the Netherlands as part of the general assembly of the Reformed Ecumenical Council, where I was asked to lead the workshops on the task of the church in this time of AIDS. The lectures I delivered in the Netherlands was entitled: Towards a Theology of HIV/AIDS. However, while preparing for these workshops, I had an uncomfortable feeling that God was expecting me to do more than merely presenting a number of lectures.
While attending the assembly in the Netherlands, all the delegates were invited one Sunday morning to attend church in Rotterdam. In spite of the wealth of the majority of the people in Rotterdam, this city, which hosts the busiest harbour in the world, has a large number of people normally regarded as outcasts, people such as drug addicts and prostitutes. The Scots International Church in Rotterdam, the congregation which had invited us to visit them, has the vision to reach out to these outcasts and to serve the poor and the destitute of the city. Although this vision was clearly displayed at the entrance to the church it was only later, in a remarkable experience, that I realised that this church truly lived out their vision.
After the church service, all the delegates were invited to lunch. Most of the delegates were prominent church leaders in their countries: professors, theologians, moderators, general secretaries and people of equal stature. It was while we were busy with lunch that something happened to me that changed my life in a profound way. I noticed a man entering the dining room. This man was obviously mentally challenged. With a slight feeling of discomfort I kept an eye on him, wondering how the local church leaders were going to handle the situation and expecting them to guide this man outside the church, at most with a sandwich in his hand. And then, instead of doing what I expected (and what I perhaps would have done myself in similar conditions), this man was invited to share our lunch! And it was at that moment that I knew that, had Jesus been on earth that day and at that place as a human Person, He would have done exactly the same. While sitting at my table I cried out to God and said that I wanted my own congregation in Swaziland to be like this: The people in Swaziland had to experience Jesus in the way that this man had experienced Him that day in Rotterdam.
While on our way back from Rotterdam to Utrecht in a luxury coach, reflecting on what had happened that day, I realised that I might just have had one of the most important moments in my life and I made a decision not to ignore this. As I was privileged to sit on my own, I had the chance to pray quietly to God and asked Him what He was trying to teach me. I didn’t hear voices! I saw no flashing lights! But in that coach I knew without a doubt that God was laying a vision for our church in my mind: We had to become the hands and the feet of Christ within the communities surrounding our church. Our congregation has several “preaching points” spread throughout the Shiselweni region of Swaziland and with growing excitement I became convinced that each of these communities of faith could become a centre of hope for the sick and the dying within the community where it is situated.
I have often thought about that day. I have discussed it with a few people who were also present that day and up to now nobody else I had spoken to had seen what happened that day. I wrote to the pastor of that church and told him what had happened, but he never answered me. It is as if that experience was meant for me personally. Today I know why I had to travel all the way to the Netherlands so that God could personally touch my life.
Josh and Lindsey Parks recently told a similar type of story and it was while reading this that I decided that the time had come for me to share me story. They actually tell two stories, one positive and one negative. Possibly the negative story touched me even more than the positive story, because it shows us how much harm we can do if we fail to live according to Jesus’ example.
I’ve been busy with some reading from the book of Deuteronomy (just slightly more interesting than reading from the book of Lamentations – or so I thought!) We had a professor in Old Testament when I was still busy with my theological studies who really helped us to focus on these seemingly uninteresting parts of the Bible to find out why God had wanted these parts to be written. I was focussing on chapters 24 – 26 and it was just amazing once again to realise how much God cares for the poor and the destitute. Some of the laws God made sounds really crazy. If a poor man offers you his cloak as a pledge after borrowing something from you, you may keep the cloak up to sunset but then you have to return it to him so that he can sleep in it! Why do you take the cloak in the first place if you are going to return it in any case? Because by returning it, “it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God” (24:13). If you hire a poor man to work for you, make sure that he receives his wages daily before sunset. He’s dependent upon that money to live. When beating the olive trees to harvest olives, do it only once and whatever is left belongs to the poor, the orphans and the widows.
The motivation for this gracious conduct lies in the fact that the Israelites were ill-treated in Egypt and that God had saved them from the Egyptians. Therefore they also had to live graciously towards others and allow them to live with dignity. And in doing this, we discover the true source of joy in our lives.
I realise that I write a lot about the joy we’ve experienced in Swaziland since we started with our home-based caring projects. But things were not always like this and in fact, there are still people in our church who have not made this paradigm shift in their lives. The amazing thing is to see how people change once they start focussing outside of themselves. It is as if they get a new meaning in life (which in fact, they do) and this new life which they have discovered brings them true joy.
When a Christian really starts focussing on the needs of others and witness the joy that it brings into those people’s lives, it becomes impossible not to be filled with joy because of the joy that the others experience. We know that Acts 20:35 says that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”, but for most people, Christians (and churches) included it sounds far-fetched. And yet, every person involved in helping the helpless will know that this is indeed the truth. True joy is found when we learn to focus outside ourselves.
This was our experience in Swaziland as well.
Yesterday (Saturday) I had to drive up to the capital city (rather town) Mbabane in the northern part of Swaziland for a meeting. Shortly after I left home someone asked for a lift and ended up driving virtually the entire distance with me. He’s a customs official working at one of the border gates between Swaziland and South Africa. After some small talk between us, he suddenly referred to an AIDS conference that had been held in their area a few weeks ago. I asked him if he had attended, but he had not. So I then asked him how much he knew about AIDS and it was clear that he had been informed about the most basic stuff about AIDS saying that abstinence and faithfulness was really the best way to stop the disease from spreading but also complaining that people didn’t want to adhere to this and therefore they were being infected by the virus.
I was obviously quite excited about this man’s positive approach to the disease and thought that I had found someone who was really living responsibly. But my excitement didn’t last long. I asked him how old he was. He’s 37. I then asked him if he was married, and he was not. But he immediately told me that he had a girlfriend and they had three children but they hadn’t come around to getting married yet. Realising that he would probably not be truthful with me I nevertheless asked him if he was faithful to his girlfriend. His answer surprised (and probably shocked) me, when he said something like: “Of course not. It’s very difficult to be faithful.” He then told me that he regularly visited a bar close to his home (the notorious “Why Not Disco Club”) where he would have some drinks after which he would find a girl (evidently prostitutes) standing around and spend the night with her. Although he always has a condom with him he would not use a condom if he went with the same girl the second or third time! (I was really amazed at his honesty.)
I then asked him if he had ever been tested for AIDS to which he replied that he had been tested three years before and he was negative then. Seeing that he was so honest with me, I decided to be honest with him as well and told him that I had bad news for him, because the chances that he was still HIV-negative are virtually non-existent! We had quite a discussion on AIDS and I eventually advised him to go for a test again. But I then asked him what he would do if he was found to be HIV-positive and he replied that he would definitely change his life-style. And when I asked what he would do if he was HIV-negative, he also said that he would change his life-style! In other words, once he had been tested, regardless of the outcome, he would change his life-style. But for the present, before being tested, he will go on with his present life-style, probably believing that he will be one of the lucky ones not to get infected.
At the end of the conversation, just before I dropped him off, I asked him whether his girlfriend was faithful to him, to which he replied that God had given him a wonderful girlfriend who didn’t sleep around with other men! (How sad that she can’t say the same about him!)
I’m still trying to figure this one out. Is it ignorance? Is it denial. Is it callousness? I don’t know, but I’m sure he is not unique. He’s one of thousands of men in Swaziland who believe that he will be the lucky one who will not get the disease. He has heard all that can be said about AIDS. He has all the right answers. But in spite of this, he still believes that he won’t become infected.
We still have a long way to go before people will really acknowledge the seriousness of this terrible disease.