I’ve just finished reading Ron Martoia’s book, Static, which has the sub-title: Tune out the “Christian noise” and experience the real message of Jesus. Frankly, I don’t know how I feel about this book. He writes a lot of stuff that I can totally agree with. I usually refer to Christianese where he speaks of Christian noise. (That’s the special language we Christians use which only we can understand!) The book is written in the first person as an account of his experience with two (as far as I can see, fictional) friends, Jess and Phil who are frustrated because they can make no headway in sharing the gospel with a person called Marty. As I read the book I had the feeling that he was trying to do the same as Brian McLaren had done in A new kind of Christian – writing a type of novel in the first person to illustrate his point.
As I mentioned, there’s a lot that I can support: Listen to other people before you try and share the gospel with them; be careful of using words that have no meaning (or may have a “loaded” meaning) to non-Christians; don’t focus so much on life after death that you forget about life before death and much more.
What surprised me more was his accounts of sharing some of his viewpoints with pastors who reacted with shock and indignation that what he had shared with them had never been told to them by their college professors. Some of the things he mentions we had already done in Biblical Studies 1! He elaborates on the issue of the kingdom of God and claims that almost everybody he has spoken to sees this as “heaven”. William Barclay wrote a lovely little book which we did in my first year at university (1976), The mind of Jesus, in which he, at that time, defined the kingdom of God as the place where God is in control, God’s domain, or in the words of Martoia, God’s empire. I’m struggling to believe that so few pastors know something as basic as this.
My main problem with a book such as this is that the author has a problem with people interpreting the Bible from a “modernist” viewpoint and then they seem to interpret the Bible from a “post-modern” viewpoint. Not that I’m saying that there isn’t a lot to learn from this. I think his emphasis on looking at the entire story, from Genesis to Revelations is really great. What I miss in his book is an interpretation of Paul’s view on salvation. Martoia focusses on the gospels and mainly on the gospel of Luke (my favourite gospel as well) but as far as I could tell there is only one single reference to the letters of Paul. Furthermore, nothing is said about the message of salvation as recorded in the book of Acts nor is there any discussion on the emphasis placed on the resurrection of Jesus, which, in the book of Acts is one of the most central messages proclaimed by the disciples.
I agree with Martoia in that I also have a problem with the typical “turn or burn” preachers. I agree that it doesn’t help to get people into heaven solely because they are afraid to go to hell. I agree that there isn’t a “once size fits all” gospel presentation. There’s so much that I agree with. But there is a lot more that needs to be said than what is written in this book.
I think my frustration to a certain extent lies in the fact that he doesn’t seem to give answers. Probably he would argue that it was not his intention to give answers, merely to question traditional viewpoints. Granted. But I have seen many people in my life come into a new relationship with God (I personally also prefer to speak of a relationship rather than conversion) without needing to start with Genesis and working the way through the story of Egypt, Canaan, the first and second exile and the prophets after the exile before eventually coming to Matthew 1.
Martoia is a good writer. The fact that I was down with flu the past two days probably also helped that I could finish the book in a short time. Jess, the one character in the book, says at one point that “it’s so much more difficult than I first thought.” And I wondered whether we are not making things much more difficult than they should be. No, I’m not saying that we preach fire and brimstone until people feel so guilty that they repent. I’m all for conversations about God. I’m all for taking time, visiting people over and over before speaking about Jesus. But if I had been a Christian without much knowledge in evangelism, this book would probably have convinced me once and for all that evangelism is only to be done by professionals. And that, I’m sure, is NOT Biblical.
Well ,here’s the second part of my story about taking a group of White, Afrikaans-speaking Christians to Black, Siswati-speaking Christians. If you missed out on the first part, read it here first.
After leaving Manzini with three seriously confused people in a house without a pastor, we drove through to Mbabane. The other single lady was placed with an older married couple and then I drove the older couple who had come with me through to the house where they would be staying. What happened there I only found out months afterwards and it was also told with great embarrassment.
Not knowing what to expect, the lady had packed a clean set of linen in her suitcase so that they could put this on the bed if they suspected that the linen may not be clean. In the meantime, the couple who was housing them had even painted out the bedroom in preparation for their coming! (We tend to think that cross-cultural contact is only difficult for us Westerners, but for the Swazis doing it for the first time, it is equally difficult.)
After a lovely meal they retired to their bedroom, only to find that their hosts had gone out of their way to make everything as comfortable as possible for them. Needless to say, the linen remained in the suitcase.
The next morning when I drove to fetch them for church, I had the same reaction that I later had in Manzini. With tears in their eyes the older couple put their arms around me and thanked me for one of the best experiences they had ever had.
Cross-cultural contact need not be painful. A lot depends on the attitude. Most of us enter into such a relationship with the idea that we are on a slightly higher level than those we have come to meet. It is only when we really allow the Spirit to open our hearts for other people that we really come to appreciate them. And sometimes we have to be “tricked” into a situation that we would normally not have entered into to really learn to appreciate others for what they are.
After yesterday’s post about my friend who had died, I had a chance to reflect on some of the finer moments in our relationship. He definitely helped me a lot in positive cross-cultural experiences, something for which I am extremely thankful.
On a lighter note today, I want to share something which happened when I wanted to expose a number of “White, Afrikaans-speaking” Christians from South Africa to the Swazi culture. This happened quite a few years ago, but if I remember correctly we were twelve in all who took the road through Swaziland, visiting a number of branches of our church in various regions. This group consisted, amongst others of an elderly couple, two single woman, a younger couple whom I knew had struggled with God about this visit and then a few others.
Before we left I warned the group that I was planning to give them a very positive experience of Swaziland but that I was also going to give them maximum exposure to the local people. I informed the younger couple that I was planning to house them with a wonderful Swazi couple. (Just to give you an idea about the Swazi couple: The man is the personal chauffeur for the British High Commissioner in Swaziland and his wife is the director for SOS Villages in Swaziland – both people with loving, open hearts.) A day or two before we left, this young lady phoned me and told me that she and her husband had thought about staying with the Swazi couple. They felt that it would be more comfortable for the older couple to stay in a house and then they would be willing to sleep on the floor in a church. (How unselfish can one get!) Of course I knew that this was not the true reason for them deciding not to stay with the Swazi people, but I left it at that. Actually, I already had a plan B in mind, knowing that I would do them no favour to “let them off the hook.”
We left on the following Saturday and drove through a large part of the country. At Matsanjeni we were met by the congregation who welcomed them with wonderful singing. Just before dark we reached Manzini and went to the house of one of our pastors. I told the young couple and one of the single ladies to unpack their stuff as they were going to remain behind. The pastor was not even there at that point, although his young children were present. I took them in, introduced them to the children and told them to wait for the pastor to arrive and then we left for Mbabane to the house where my friend who had died yesterday, used to stay.
I’ll fill in the details of our stay in Mbabane tomorrow, but the following morning, Sunday, we returned to Manzini to attend church. As we stopped at the house where I had left the three the previous evening, the woman who had phoned me rushed out of the house. For a moment I thought that she was going to slap me! But instead she came up to me and with tears in her eyes put her arms around me she hugged me and thanked me “for one of the most wonderful experiences ever” in her life. More than a year later she found the courage to share with me what had happened. We were involved in a 24-hour prayer watch and it happened that she and I were both slotted for a prayer session at midnight. We did pray, but that night she filled me in one the detail which I had never known before.
That evening when I left them in Manzini they honestly thought that I was playing some kind of practical joke on them. As they sat in the house she said over and over again to her husband that she knew that I was going to come back and fetch them and then we would all laugh at their expense. But as time went on, they started realising that I was not intending to return. Eventually the pastor returned and prepared food for them (his wife was not present at that time.) Then he took them to their bedrooms and the couple was housed in a large room with a lovely double bed (I know, I’ve often slept in that bed). And then the strangest thing happened. The woman, realising that they had been “tricked” went to have a shower. She told me that night, as we were praying together, that she got into the shower. The shower railing and wall were being used by the pastor’s young daughter (probably about five at that time) to hang her underwear to dry. And this woman said to me, as she stood in that shower, with “panties” all around her head, something broke inside her! She, who had decided that she would not stay in a house with Black people, suddenly discovered a love for them that she had never known before. She came out of that shower, cleansed not only of the dirt of the day, but cleansed also of a lot of prejudice that she had had in her life. It was amazing to see how God changed her life around through that one experience.
Well, we had a good laugh about this. She was so ashamed for what she had done. But what a great testimony she had afterwards.
One of my long-time friends in Swaziland passed away today. He had been one of my first Swazi friends I ever made and for many years we were next-door neighbours. We were the same age. He had a lovely wife. He also had four children (like us). His oldest daughter and my oldest son are nearly the same age and were very close friends when they were small. We still laugh at what happened when both these children started speaking. We were very excited about this friendship because we believed that our son would naturally start speaking SiSwati as this girl obviously knew no other language. And then one day we passed by where the two of them were playing and we heard the girl speak Afrikaans! (I maintain that my son’s stubbornness is to be attributed to my in-laws ;-)
Towards the end of November I went to visit him at his home in the northern part of Swaziland. I had heard that he was not well and was shocked to see him that day. He had lost a lot of weight and it was obvious that his body was very weak. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that he had been working hard in his garden. In my heart I knew that this wasn’t the reason for his illness, but I left it at that. I prayed with him and returned home.
Last Saturday I had a meeting in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. While there I was informed that he had been admitted to the government hospital a few days before. After the meeting I drove to the hospital to see him. Only his familiar face was visible above the blankets. I’m not sure if he ever recognised me. Most of the time that I was there he seemed to be sleeping. His wife, standing next to his bed, tried to wake him up and after a while he lay, staring somewhere but not aware of what was going on around him. I prayed for him and his family. I was on the point of leaving when I tried again to communicate with him. At that stage it seemed as if he may have recognised me. His wife once again told me that he was very weak because he was stressed and he had been working hard in his garden. But the symptoms of course were clear. His sickness had nothing to do with gardening!
This morning he died. And I thought to myself, after hearing the news, that we know that between 70 and 80 people are dying in Swaziland on a daily base due to AIDS. In South Africa 1000 people are dying daily because of this pandemic and in sub-Saharan Africa around 6000 people are dying daily for the same reason. For most of us this is nothing more than statistics. And then one day you receive the news that your friend has died. And suddenly you are confronted with the reality of this terrible disease and you know that you have to keep on fighting to lessen the effects of this disease. Eighty families are mourning in Swaziland today. Tomorrow another eighty families will join them. On and on, more and more.
When will it ever stop?
Those not living in southern Africa may not be aware of all the things happening in South Africa on the political front. President Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa was recently voted out as leader of the ruling political party, the ANC and replaced by Mr Jacob Zuma. Accused of rape, a charge on which he was found not guilty after it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that there had not been consent from the girl who laid the charges, indications are that Mr Zuma will soon be standing trial on charges of corruption. Mr Zuma is also a Zulu, one of the largest population groups in South Africa, closely related to the Swazis.
Yesterday I was driving around in Swaziland accompanied by a nurse who is helping us with our home-based caring project. She is also a Zulu and she is also a Christian. Our discussions eventually moved over to politics and she admitted that she was fully in favour of Mr Jacob Zuma becoming the new president of South Africa. I, on the other hand, said that I would find it difficult to respect him as president due to a number of moral issues with which I cannot identify myself. One issue obviously is the fact that he never denied having a sexual relationship with the girl in question but only that he denied raping her. And when he was asked in court whether he was aware that the girl was HIV positive he replied that he did indeed know beforehand. When asked what he did to prevent himself from getting infected, he told the court that he took a shower after having sex with her! Oh boy!
What surprised me was when the nurse in the car with me remarked that my problem was that I didn’t understand the Zulu culture which was the reason why I couldn’t accept Zuma’s morals. I responded by saying that this wasn’t really the truth, as I feel that I do have quite a lot of understanding for the culture but that I, as Christian, could not identify myself with this part of culture. Furthermore, what is considered to be culture is causing the death of millions of people in Southern Africa.
This discussion just made me realise once again how sensitive cultural issues are. I would guess that most committed Christians would claim that there is only one thing important to them and this is to do what God wants them to do. But throw in a few cultural issues and it will soon become clear that nearly all of us have certain issues which we consider to be non-negotiable.
Knowing the integrity of the person who said this to me, I took her words seriously. And I did realise that God truly has to free us all from our cultures, be it African, Western, American, East-European, Asian or whatever else. In some cultures it may be racism that we need to be freed from. In other cases it may be arrogance. In some a culture of alcoholism in others a culture of free sex. Ultimately we all need to be purified by God in an ongoing way so that we can increasingly reflect the Lord’s glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Having said all that, I just realise how difficult it is, when working in another culture, to distinguish between matters that are truly Biblical and those which contradict my own, Afrikaans culture. This is not as easy as it may sound.