No, I didn’t stop blogging. I’ve just been through an exceptionally rough time and when I did get a chance to relax, blogging was fairly low down on my priority list. But now that I’ve reached most of the deadlines that were stretched out before me, I should be able to do a few things that I neglected over the past 6 – 8 weeks, including blogging.
One topic that has been on my mind quite a lot lately, is the influence of prayer on mission. A lot has been written about prayer and I hardly consider myself as an expert on the topic. In fact, I’m usually the first one to admit that I have no idea how prayer works. That’s not the same as to doubt whether prayer works. It’s just that I have no special formula that I can use to guarantee that things will happen in the way we want them to if you keep to certain rules. I do also know the truth of what Søren Kierkegaard once wrote: “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realised that prayer is listening.”
What I do realize, the longer that I’m involved with mission, is the essential role of prayer in this work. Just looking at our own ministry in Swaziland, Shiselweni Reformed Home-Based Care, and the way in which God has provided in our needs after people prayed about something, has made me realize that, statistically, it would be virtually impossible to say that it was purely by chance that things had happened, sometimes within an hour after praying about a matter. It could happen once. It could happen twice. But when you have ten, twenty and more stories to tell of how people prayed about a certain matter and an answer came, then you have to admit that something supernatural is happening.
We have a large number of prayer supporters all over the world. Not nearly enough though! But those who are praying for us, form an essential partnership in our ministry. Some pray daily. Some pray on a specific day in the week for Swaziland. But without prayer support, we, who are working on the inside, know that our attempts to do what we do will never rise above mere humanitarian assistance.
We can do lots of good things for God, but to rise up to a higher level, every mission ministry needs consistent prayer support. Perhaps Acts 1:8 could be our guide for prayer for mission: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth. If every Christian could start praying consistently for four mission ministries – one close by, one a bit further away, one even more further away and one really far away – who knows what we might see happening in the world.
In 2006 a masters student, Adriaan van Klinken, from Amersfoort in the Netherlands spent some time with us in our home as well as with our AIDS ministry in Swaziland. His supervisor at the University of Utrecht and I know each other and when he started working on his MA-thesis with the title “Theologising Life, Even in the Face of Death – A Study on the Reflections of three African Women Theologians, namely B. Haddad, I.A. Phiri and F.L. Moyo, on HIV/AIDS and Gender and its Relationship”, she recommended that he visit us. And so a friendship developed and we still have regular contact through e-mail. What further developed was a relationship between his congregation and my congregation.
Some time ago he told me about a very interesting project done from time to time between different congregations, especially across cultural borders. The idea is that the two congregations come to an agreement on doing some form of Bible Study and then sharing their results with each other, to try and understand the differences in approach to certain parts of Scripture, due to the difference in culture. The request was whether we would consider doing something like this with them. The idea sounded interesting to me and when I asked the people at our church whether they would be interested in doing this, they immediately agreed.
Today the pastor of the congregation in Amersfoort sent me an e-mail to explain in greater depth what they have in mind. In fact, I then found out that there is a website devoted to this topic: http://www.bible4all.org Shortly, how it works is that the two congregations agree on a certain Bible story (rather than dogma) which is read and discussed in both groups. The group leader tries to determine how the group members understand the story in their lives by asking certain key questions, such as:
1. About the story and one’s own life experiences
• What thoughts, memories, and experiences from your own life does the text evoke?
2. About understanding the text
• Does the story contain aspects (positive/negative) you can relate to? If so, which ones?
• What is the story about?
• What does the story tell you?
3. Identifying with the text
• Which person in the story do you identify with?
At the end of the session(s) a report is compiled by someone who had been appointed to take notes during the discussion and this report is then sent to the other congregation. At a following session the congregations will then discuss the other group’s report in an attempt to understand how they see the passage. They will then write down their reactions, positive, negative, questions to try and get a better understanding, etc and send it back to the other congregation who will then discuss the reactions, write down their response and send it back again for further discussion.
I’m extremely excited to be part of this process. I’m used to Bible Study where one will sit down with commentaries, dictionaries, Bible translations ranging from Greek and Hebrew to the most modern English translations, all in an attempt to determine the true meaning of Scripture. This seems to be different. The idea is not, as I understand it, to spend so much time on the exegesis of the passage (although I would think that this will still play some role) but rather to look at the understanding of the group of the passage.
It is obviously always difficult for groups from different cultures to understand each other, but perhaps, by listening to each other through the Word of God, this may just lead to greater understanding of each other’s background, fears, joy and expectations.
I’m looking forward to this and I’ll keep you posted on how things work out.
Probably one of the most traumatic experiences a missionary can face, is to be informed that his or her support is going to be terminated. It is my guess that this will be happening again as the impact of the global financial crisis starts having greater effect on the income of missionary organisations and churches. Over the past week or so, I’ve received three messages from missionaries or mission support organisations, all mentioning that dark days may be lying ahead. Things like a global financial crisis or a depression are more or less out of the control of the church. I was reading a post today of someone who described how their church had kept on sharing their funds in spite of severely hard times that they went through. People who make faith decisions like this need to be honoured. It is also understandable that individuals who had supported missionaries in the past, may now be faced with the harsh reality that they need to decide whether they will continue with their support or not.
I do not know of a single missions organisation that do not need financial support. Long distances that need to be travelled, the harsh circumstances under which most missionaries are working amongst people who more often than not are themselves barely surviving, the lack of proper schooling, sicknesses and many other issues have the result that finances are needed to support those who are working as missionaries. When it comes to the point of support, I can think of a few things which need to be kept in mind if the work has to continue over an extended period of time.
First of all I think that it is not wise for one individual or one organisation to fund a missions project on their own. Supporters lose interest. Financial circumstances change. A variety of things may occur which makes it impossible for the individual or the organisation to continue with their support. What happens if the supporter dies unexpectedly? What happens if the supporter’s source of income falls away? If a potential supporter is convinced that a missions project is from God, then they need to discuss it with other partners and get them to invest financially in the project in order to establish some form of sustainable support.
Secondly, new projects need to be considered prayerfully and not emotionally. Now, this works both ways. I’ve seen many a project being started due to the convincing arguments given by a missionary. But if such a project is from God and the supporters are truly living in a relationship with God, then God himself can convince the supporters to fund the project. Gather people together to hear whether the new project is really from God. But the argument also has another side to it. I’ve seen many a missions project stopped because the supporters or supporting organisation used equally emotional arguments why the project could not be started. Sometimes a new project has to be started as a leap of faith. As long as we are convinced that it is what God wants us to do, we need not fear to take the next step.
Thirdly, supporters need to realise that they are working with people’s security when they make decisions about support. I once attended a meeting in advisory capacity where the future support of missionaries working in Asia was discussed. The congregation was not going through a particularly tough time, but they did need to do some renovations to their own property. They then suggested that the missionary’s support be cut by 50%. I had trouble to control myself, asking the meeting where they wanted the missionary and his family to cut on their own budget. Their rent was fixed. Water and electricity was fixed. School fees for the children were fixed. The only place where they could cut, was on their monthly groceries. By cutting their subsidy, this family was effectively being told to eat less if they wanted to remain in Asia. The sad news is that the cut was approved. The good news is that individuals then started supporting the family with even more than the reduction in the subsidy.
Financial support for missions is an extremely sensitive issue. I am aware that some missionaries misuse funds. But on the whole, most of them are stretching the funds to cover much more than would ever be possible on the home front. Whether you want to start supporting a missionary or whether you are starting to feel the pinch and considering to withdraw your support, don’t do it without seriously praying about this and discussing options with Christian friends you trust.
I’m recovering again after a hectic week – the reason why my blog-writing has been pushed to the back for a while. On Sunday I flew down to Cape Town where I had been invited to attend a capacity building workshop co-hosted by USAID. Flying back to Pretoria, I stepped into another meeting with representatives of a Christian trust and after driving home I spent a few more hours in another meeting with a NGO which is showing some interest to partner with us in Swaziland.
Up to now I’ve never really been bothered with capacity building. I have more or less a feeling that things are going fairly well with our home-based caring ministry in Swaziland. We have money (not quite enough, but we manage) to do the basic things and I would be satisfied if we can keep this up. So I wasn’t all that eager to attend the conference. But then, before I left for the conference, a friend told me that God might be setting us up for something larger than we have been doing up to now and that we may need more resources to do what He wants us to do. (OK, so that’s not quite what I wanted to hear!) But it changed my attitude to attend the conference with a more open mind.
The overwhelming feeling I had was that most people presenting conferences like these have no idea how rural Africa looks. In most cases the people we work with in Swaziland have no electricity, no water (sometimes a communal tap, but not always), no telephone (although more people are using cell phones), little food (some homes have three meals a week instead of three meals a day!), and a large portion of the people in the rural areas are illiterate.
But then, at the conference, we heard stories of Christians and congregations who are aching to become part of the solution to the world’s problems. People living in affluent communities who feel that they want to start investing their money in ministries deeply involved with the world’s problems – bringing hope and light to those communities. And as I listened to this I realised that there must be a way for those with the resources and those doing the work on grass-roots level to connect with each other. It doesn’t seem right that people are eager to get involved with God’s work on a greater scale and others are looking for ways in which to increase their influence, and these two groups cannot be connected.
But after this conference and the hard work (and we worked really hard in smaller groups), my favourite topic kept coming into my mind: partnerships! In rare cases it may be acceptable for someone with a lot of money to write out a cheque. But that’s not the ideal. We need people to come and look and feel and smell and taste the reality and then sit down with us to think of ways to have an even greater impact on this country – to think of long-term solutions.
So: This is an open invitation to get involved in Swaziland. If you’re part of those people aching to do something outside your own community, send me a note. If you belong to a church longing to do more than merely keeping those inside the church happy, send me a note.
I’m sitting at our annual synod meeting in Manzini at the moment. I’m the general secretary of the Swaziland Reformed Church and for the past week I’ve been rushing around, getting things ready for this meeting, the reason why I haven’t been able to blog lately. In between I have also been involved with a team from OM (Operation Mobilisation) which had been doing their rural outreach training in Swaziland. Instead of using them for building projects, I use these teams mainly to work with our home-based caregivers. Every morning, after breakfast, they meet the caregivers and start walking with them from homestead to homestead, caring for the patients, often walking down to a stream or river to fetch water and doing whatever is necessary to practically demonstrate the love of Christ to these people.
On Tuesday evening, the day before the group returned to their training base in South Africa, I asked them to come together at our church building at Dwalenito share what they had experienced in the two weeks that they had been in Swaziland. This was a time that I wanted to use to hear from them what had happened, but it was also a time of debriefing for the group, as many of them had really experienced culture shock. One of the young people said: “I had been stretched over my limit while I was there, but it was a good thing. God opened my eyes for the real need of the people in Swaziland.”
What really amazed me was to hear how virtually everyone of them said to me that the time had been a challenge to them, having to walk long distances in the day, not having the convenience of a shower, having to fetch their own water, but then hearing every single one thanking us for allowing them to be part of this work. This isn’t what I would consider as a normal reaction. Normally people would be thankful if they had been living in comfortable rooms with comfortable beds and all other things which they would find at home.
But I also realised why they reacted in this way. They had been exposed to some of the worst situations that many of them had seen, things like extreme hunger (at one house they had helped to clean the house and did not find a crumb of food in the house) and also a girl of twelve years who is suffering from a sexually transmitted disease because some family member (probable the father or uncle) had continually raped and abused her. (Through their intervention the matter has now been reported to the police.) But then they also saw how the caregivers gave themselves to help these people. They saw one caregiver who had no food in her own home, going back to her house to fetch a bar of soap, just to be able to share something with someone else. And it was seeing this attitude that made it worthwhile for them to be here. Yes, they were stretched, but they were changed for the good and I believe that not one of them will ever quite be the same again.
Under normal circumstances I have too much other work to be able to visit the clients regularly. But every once in a while I join up with one or two of the caregivers and visit a few homes with them. And every time I do this I am strengthened and enriched merely by observing what these people are doing. But obviously, when I visit a home with them, I cannot leave without praying. These people still believe that there is some special power in a minister’s prayer!
Bill Hybels mentioned that every person should expose him or herself to a place of pain in order to grow spiritually and to have God speak to their hearts. I cannot agree with him more.
Well, those of you following this blog consistently, will know that the topic about partnerships is one of my favourites. I fail to see how mission can be done without partnerships. Unfortunately I’ve seen many people trying to do it on their own, mainly, I think, because they do not want to share the glory with others. (Hey! Does this sound strange? Christians doing God’s work to receive glory?) The fact is that Christians struggle equally with pride as non-Christians do (although it should not be so) and I find that the one thing that helps me in this regard is to focus on a larger vision. When missionaries try to do things on their own, they receive the glory for the end-result, but the work will hardly be able to continue without them. When missionaries partner with other organisations without fear of sacrificing the glory, the work will prosper and continue, long after the missionary had moved on.
One of the outcomes of receiving the “Runner Up” position in the Courageous Leadership Award, (of which you can read more by clicking on this link: http://www.courageousleadershipaward.com/2008_swazilandRC.html ) is that I immediately made contact with a number of people who indicated interest in joining hands with us in the fight against AIDS in Swaziland. As my wife and I left the main auditorium at Willow Creek on Friday, after the Courageous Leadership Award winners were announced to those attending the Leadership Summit, a great number of people came to greet us, of which many mentioned that they would like to visit us or get involved in some way. And this, of course, places a great responsibility upon my own shoulders, to discern between people who want to partner for their own benefit and those who are genuinely focussed on further improving the services we render.
I remember, not too long after we started with the home-based caring project, that someone asked to meet me. He had great ideas on how we could work together. But his main objective was to make money. He wanted to start a small business, include us as partners and then we would all share in the profit (and needless to say, he wanted us to finance him – with what, I wonder!!!). As I was speaking to him, I realised that he was trying to use the success of our ministry (albeit small at that time) to benefit himself. And I gave him an answer (and I think it was Rick Warren in his Purpose Driven Church from whom I learnt this) that really helped to give a solution to his request. I asked him what his vision was for this partnership. It boiled down to making money. I then explained our vision to him (“Becoming the hands and feet of Christ in our community”) and said that I have difficulty in seeing how these two visions could be combined. He looked at me, agreed that I was right, and left us.
Compare this with a request to partner which I received yesterday. I intentionally leave out the name of the organisation for the present: “XYZ is a non-profit, nondenominational, Christian organization providing relief to hurting people around the world. Since 1970, XYZ has helped meet the needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine. XYZ offers assistance to anyone in need without discrimination and regardless of race, religion, or ethnic origin. Within Africa, we are active in eight countries operating directly under XYZ field offices. We do not have presence in Swaziland except through a local partner we support in OVC work.
XYZ’s main HIV related work is in prevention (AB focused) and care; we have a ***** funded youth focused prevention project across four countries (Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Mozambique) and we have a number of community based prevention and care projects, OVC projects.”
If I compare this with our own vision, then I can foresee that there is a great chance that we should be able to partner with this organisation. We seem to share the same rule of ethics. We focus on the same communities. We both want to see the effects of AIDS being addressed. And also important: We complement each other. We are strong in the “caring” part, but lack a proper “prevention” program. This group has “prevention” high up on its priority list. This may just become an ideal partnership.
The days of the “Lone Ranger” missionary is long gone. There are literally thousands of organisations and missionaries wanting to make a real difference. By taking hands and working together, so much more can be done so much more effectively. All we need is the willingness to work together.
Yesterday was pretty hectic. A team from Luke Commission came to visit a school virtually across the road from our church at Dwaleni. We had invited them to come as part of our service to the community, taking care of the sick at their homes.
But I have to be honest that there were times yesterday when I had more questions than answers. After 24 years in Swaziland, I haven’t seen any real improvement in the health system of the country. This was a mobile clinic which we were part of and more than 800 people were attended to. Children were inspected for scabies and other diseases often found in children. Adults’ blood pressure was taken and recorded and those over fifty were also tested for diabetes, a disease which is becoming very common in Africa. All adults were also invited to be tested for HIV. The majority of those who were tested, tested negative. Although this sounds like extremely good news, the reason is most probably that those who are living promiscuously did not consent to be tested. Some of our home-based caregivers then counselled both those who tested negative as well as those who tested positive. Those who tested positive also had blood drawn in order to determine their CD4 count, which will indicate whether they are eligible to receive anti-retroviral medicine from the government. Many of those who had come also had their eyes tested and from tens of thousands pairs of glasses donated, and with the help of a really nifty machine and a huge database, all of those who needed glasses could be helped. On a lighter note, some of those who received glasses looked really strange as many of the frames had been worn in the USA as part of a fashion outfit. But in the end, to be able to see, is what really counts.
Two patients really touched me. One was a young woman with severe chest pains. In fact, she was crying most of the time because of the pain. The doctor told me that she was HIV-positive and they suspected that it might be TB which is causing the pain (one of the main diseases often associated with AIDS.) The sad news was that she had been to the health centre in Nhlangano, one of the main towns in Swaziland and they had given her pain killers and sent her back home. Then she went to Hlatikhulu, where one of Swaziland’s main hospitals are situated and they did the same. And then she came to us, in the hope that we could help her. But the doctor could do nothing for her without first seeing an X-ray. I eventually spoke to the girl’s father and told him to take his daughter to the clinic and insist that they do an X-ray to try and determine what is causing the pain. And then he told me that he could not take her, because he had no bus fare! Eventually I gave them bus fare and hope that they would have gone to the hospital today.
And then a schoolboy turned up. He was probably about thirteen or fourteen. During a football game he had broken his leg above the knee, about four weeks ago. He had gone for surgery and a metal rod was inserted to help with the healing of the bone. He came to us yesterday and his mother told us that almost since the operation he has been suffering from extreme pain. They had gone back to the clinic, but it does not seem as if much was done. The doctor then removed the bandage and we found that the metal rod was sticking at least three inches out of his leg! His body was busy rejecting the rod. His knee was swollen to at least twice its normal size and from the smell it was clear that there was extreme infection in the bone. I cannot even start to imagine the pain the poor boy had to go through.
Fortunately, the doctor could arrange for him to be admitted to a hospital where he is now on intravenous antibiotics. Whether it will be possible to save the leg remains to be seen.
I don’t have an answer to Swaziland (and the same can be said about most African countries’) health situation. I’m just wondering how many lives can be saved if the health system could improve.