I’m busy working through the book of Revelation (again!). Contrary to most people I speak to about this book, I find this to be one of the most comforting books in the Bible. I recently purchased a new commentary on this book and although I don’t agree with everything the author says – one point being that he disagrees with the fairly general viewpoint that the Christians in the time when Revelation was written was confronted with great opposition from the Roman empire and that martyrdom was a reality with which they were confronted – I thoroughly enjoy reading through this book.
In the letter to the church in Pergamum, the author notes a few interesting issues. This church is commended for the way in which they took a stand against the worshipping of the emperor – something which was common in those days. Revelation was probably written in around 95 AD, in the time when Domitianus was emperor of Rome. He commanded that the people refer to him as deus et dominus – our lord and our god. However, although they took such a strong stand against this ungodly practice, within the church itself there were serious problems. Apparently there was a group of Christians (church members) who did not consider it inappropriate to take part in heathen festivities. These festivities were usually characterised by various forms of immorality. In this letter to the church in Pergamum, it is said that Jesus holds it against the congregation that there were people within the congregation who took part in these festivities, with the implication that the church did nothing to change their viewpoint.
This brought to mind two questions: Does the church have anything to say about the personal life of church members and does God have anything to say about the way in which I conduct my personal life – or, to put it in other words, is it possible to be in the world without being from the world? When I was much younger, the church in South Africa that we belonged to, had endless rules and regulations about what members could do and could not do, what was sin and what was not sin. These rules didn’t help much, because people still tended to do whatever they wanted – they just ensured that the church leaders didn’t catch them doing this.
In Swaziland, as I suspect in most non-Western countries, this is still true to a great extent. A former colleague of mine used to be a missionary in Zambia and he shared a story with us of how one of their male church members wanted to get married. His only means of transport was a bicycle and he picked up his future wife at her homestead and travelled with her through the forest (a fairly long distance) until they reached the church where they wanted to get married. Once at the church, the local church members decided that he couldn’t get married before being put under church discipline for some time, because nobody knew what had happened while the two were travelling by bicycle through the forest! The amazing part of this story is that the couple accepted their “punishment” and put off their wedding until the church discipline had run its course.
In most churches in Swaziland there are certain things which are absolutely considered as taboo. Smoking and drinking are non-negotiable. I’ve found the same in the church in Russia. I suspect that it would be true for many countries in Africa. These churches come from a background where people would drink until they fall down. When people accept Christ, they have to follow a totally different lifestyle to distinguish them from those who are not Christians. And this is the reason why things like smoking and drinking are such huge issues for them. In their eyes, people smoking and drinking cannot be Christians. Compare this with Indonesia, where I attended church and then, as soon as the service is over, people start lighting up their cigarettes, even while still in the church building. Granted: their buildings are totally different due to the extreme heat, which is more like an open space covered by a roof, but still…
The problem of breaking totally from your old lifestyle is that it becomes increasingly difficult to have an influence on non-Christians. And this brings me back to the main question: How to be in the world without being from the world? The answer is not easy. Few people are capable of doing this, without eventually making important sacrifices. This is apparently what had happened to some Christians in Pergamum.
What are your feelings about this?
Do a Google search on “Threat of world Aids pandemic among heterosexuals is over, report admits”, and you’ll be surprised to see how many articles refer to a report, written by the World Health Organisation (WHO), in which it is said that, apart from Africa, “there will be no generalised epidemic of Aids in the heterosexual population.” More details can be found here.
My son was speaking to some kind of medical professor from the USA some time ago and she told him, after he had told her what we are doing in Swaziland, that, as far as she is concerned, AIDS is under control in the USA. With the progress made in research and the development of ARVs, I can believe that this may be the truth. AIDS, I always say, is treatable but not curable. With the right medicine and more or less ideal circumstances, most HIV+ people would be able to live long and productive lives.
The fact is that Africa does not provide the ideal circumstances within which to fight a disease such as AIDS. ARVs are expensive. The cheapest tablets that I could find in a pharmacy in Swaziland costs around $50 per month. Where 70% of the population receive less than 45 US cents per day, it is clear that for the most people it is not an option to buy ARVs. Government hospitals supply ARVs, but the choice is limited. The privilege of adapting the treatment with different drugs to find the correct combination for a specific person, does not exist for the majority of the population.
Another problem is that ARV treatment is usually started too late. Last week one of our care supporters told me of someone who’s CD4 count had been determined. It was under 20. Treatment with ARVs in Swaziland should be started when the CD4 count falls below 200. But even that is too late. I spoke to a medical doctor some time ago who specialises in treating people with HIV and he told me that tuberculosis (TB) starts when the CD4 count falls below 350. According to him, if ARVs could be administered when the CD4 count is still above 350, the chances that a patient could live a fairly long life could be hugely increased, as many people who are HIV+ actually die because of TB. But where would Swaziland find the money for these drugs?
Furthermore, ARVs without healthy eating habits also does not give the required results. And this is another problem we have to cope with. Fruit and vegetables are expensive. We have seen, time and again, how people start using ARVs, but because they don’t eat balanced meals they seem to become stronger for a while and then their condition suddenly starts deteriorating and they die.
I can understand why the WHO says that the AIDS pandemic is over in many countries outside Africa. Although, I think in countries like India and Russia we are just starting to see the tip of the iceberg. But if the pandemic could be brought under control in the USA and Europe, then it means that we have to do even more to bring it under control in the rest of the world which is still severely affected by this disease.
I’ve been following some of the news of the team members who had recently had their short-term outreach to Swaziland from Florida, USA. Most of them are on Facebook. Personally I’m not very fond of Facebook but I must admit that it does give me the opportunity to have closer contact with this team as a whole. But more than anything else I think, I’m intrigued to see how these students adapt to their “normal” lives after their visit to Swaziland.
On their arrival back in the states, they immediately set up a group on Facebook where they could post their photos and video clips and send messages to each other. The first messages were: “I feel so lost without seeing you guys today!!!!” and “I miss you all & Love you all so much!! Hope your summers are swell! Keep in touch, and POST PICTURES! Love you all!” Then the posts concentrated on asking the team members to post their video clips. But now, two weeks later, there is hardly any mention anymore about their trip to Swaziland.
Looking at the individuals’ profiles, it is clear, after two weeks of leaving Swaziland, that life is “back to normal” for most of them, with only one or two still mentioning constantly that they wish they could be back in Swaziland. Oh, and it was interesting to see, just after their return from Swaziland, that all of them had changed their profile photos to one taken in Swaziland. A few have already changed their photos again showing something which they had done during the past few days.
OK, two questions: If I had told the group, just before they left Swaziland that for most of them Swaziland will be a far-off memory in a few weeks time, would they have believed me? Probably not. Is this abnormal? Probably not. I think different people react differently to short-term outreaches. I myself get much more emotionally attached to people than many of my friends. For the past eight years I’ve been going to Samara in Russia for two weeks. For the first week or two after my return, I really struggle to focus on my normal duties. All I can think of is my visit to Russia. I’m not a great tennis fan, but after returning from Russia my wife (she loves tennis) calls me to come and watch each time that Maria Sharapova plays, not because she’s blonde or beautiful or an excellent tennis player, but because she’s Russian! My wife has been to Russia with me, so she understands my withdrawal symptoms after arriving back at home.
How do I handle my return from a short-term missionary outreach? First of all I believe that God had sent me on that trip for a purpose and the purpose is not primarily so that I could enjoy myself. God wanted to teach me something and He wants me to share what I have learnt with other people. And so I try and arrange a time, usually in church on a Sunday, to give a short presentation on what I had experienced. Then I put up reminders (photos or some other gift I may have received) to help me to remember to pray for these people. You can pray for people you do not know. But it becomes much easier and more enjoyable to pray for people whom you do know and whose circumstances, home, family, etc you are familiar with.
But for myself the greatest help is my commitment to the people in Samara. The first year I prayed whether I should go. The second year I prayed that I would be able to go. From then on I prayed that God should show me if He didn’t want me to go! This keeps me focussed on the country and the people I’ve come to know. They know that I’ve made a long-term investment in them and I believe they do appreciate it.
When you arrive in the foreign country, you go through varying degrees of culture shock. When you return home the same thing happens. We have to learn how to handle these emotions and how to apply it in a positive way so that the people that we had visited will benefit from it.
Well, I’ve returned to my home after my time in Russia. I often compare the Russians to the people in Swaziland, the one difference being the colour of their skin. There’s a few other differences as well. The one is the Russian’s love for flowers, something which I have seldom if ever noticed in Swaziland. The Russians just love flowers and in spring people selling flowers have a blooming (pardon the pun) business. The other difference is the Russian’s love for dogs. In the building where the Bible Centre in Samara is situated (they rent some rooms in an office block) a big dog wanders around. It was a stray and the people in the office block started taking care of him. One things I have always noticed in Swaziland is that nearly everybody does have at least one dog but very few dogs are in a good condition. Most of them are extremely skinny and look unhealthy.
But in many other aspects these two groups of people are much the same: things like poverty, their musical ability (the Swazis are better, but the Russians are also good), their almost simple faith in God. And yet a few things happened on my visit to Russia that did show me that, in spite of the things God is doing through our church in Swaziland, we still have a long way to go in other aspects. On three occasions I was invited to share with groups of Russian church leaders the story of our ministry in Swaziland, how it had started and what God is doing for us and through us. On two of these occasions I was deeply humbled when the people who were present asked me for our bank details as they would like to collect money to help us in our ministry. What impressed me about this was that I know something about the financial situation of most of the Protestant churches in Russia. Their expenses are huge (in most cases they do not have their own church buildings and they have to rent buildings, mostly theatres or something similar for their weekly gatherings) and their income is low. Nobody would blame them if they felt that they would rather use the money which they receive just to survive. This is the reason why it surprised me so much that, in spite of their own poor financial situation, they are still willing to offer to help others. This made me think of the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:2-3: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”
I’m still in Russia. This morning it started snowing, whereas, since we had come, it had been fairly warm. It cooled off during the night and when I woke up this morning the landscape had been transformed into a beautiful fairytale scene, with snow covering the trees and the ground and millions of snowflakes falling to the ground.
I had been in a discussion yesterday with a woman who is busy with a certain ministry here in Samara in Russia. What really touched me, was to see the passion and enthusiasm she has for this ministry. It is clear that she absolutely loves doing this work. I can honestly say that I have the same feeling towards my work in Swaziland. A few months ago someone was telling me that he needs to take a break from his ministry on regular occasions in order to energise himself to continue with the work. Granted: We are all created differently. Some people need breaks more regularly than others.
What I do realise however is that in the countries where the most missionaries are working and which are usually also the poorest countries, like those in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, the local people do not have any understanding for our Western need to “take a break” in order to energise ourselves again. I am given six weeks leave every year. Two weeks are used each year when I visit Russia to teach at this Bible centre. The other four weeks I usually take during December when I try and spend some special time with my family. All the other paid workers in our church in Swaziland have the same privilege. Yet I have never found anyone of them ever asking for official leave. It’s not as if they are working day and night. On the contrary, all of them are working at a much slower rate than I am used to (which probably also explains partly why they don’t easily get heart attacks,) but what I do notice – and this is the point I’m trying to make – is that they seem to be energised through the work that they are doing and not through other things which take their mind off the work.
And this made me think how important it is to enjoy the ministry to which God has called us. Obviously there are times when things are not always going well. Obviously there are times when one will get despondent. And surely there is a need to “take a break” from time to time, even if the main reason would be to spend more quality time with our families. But looking yesterday at the way in which this young woman radiates her passion for the ministry she is in, made me realise that, ultimately, we need to get our strength and energy for mission, not through things that take our mind away from our mission, but from the work itself that we are doing.
Within 24 hours, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be on my way to Russia again. Since 2001 I’ve had the opportunity, once a year, to visit Samara, a city about 600 miles south-east from Moscow. After the Iron Curtain fell in Russia, many church organisations from various places in the world flocked to this country to preach the gospel. In 1999 God also called a young, unmarried, female science teacher from South Africa to start a Bible School. In 2001, after she visited South Africa, I received an invitation to go to Samara, at that time to assist in training people in evangelism and then, since 2003, to teach on the topics of eschatology as well as the book of Revelations. And now this will be the eighth time that I go to Samara.
Despite Russia being open to religion, Protestant Christians are not always popular. During that first year, while we were busy spending time in the parks (it was during summer), speaking to people about the Christian faith, one old woman made the remark that, when she was a little girl of about five, a soldier ripped a crucifix from her neck, threw it on the ground and stamped on it with his heave boot, telling her that God was dead. For more than seventy years she believed what he had said. Suddenly we appear on the scene telling her that God is not dead! One can understand how difficult it is to believe this.
Many missionaries in Russia are making serious mistakes, being focussed more on their own ideals of rapid church growth rather than being there to serve the people. In many ways mission in Russia is the same as in Africa. It takes a long time for people to really trust the missionary and this trust will have to be deserved, not through money or good sermons, but by the way in which the local people are respected and served.
I will be spending two days in Cairo with some local Christians and then on Saturday I will be flying to Moscow and then to Samara.
For those who diligently follow this blog. I will be posting the next few days. This is the miracle of blogging sites where posts can even be scheduled for the future. Tomorrow I will be posting something on A Multifaceted Gospel and on Thursday I will post something on the “Sinner’s Prayer”. If time allows, I still want to write something on tithing which I will post on Friday. I will hopefully be “on the air” again on Sunday and will probably share something of my experiences in Russia this year.
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.