In my life, I’ve been involved in a number of discussions on the gifts of the Spirit. Mainline churches are usually accused that they do not give enough attention to the gifts while other churches are accused that they only emphasise a few spectacular gifts, such as the gift of healing, of speaking in tongues and driving out of demons. Usually, somewhere in the discussion I’ll ask why we don’t make much more about the gift of serving. When Paul writes in Romans 12 about the gifts of the Spirit, he says in verse 7: If it is serving, let him serve… (Not surprisingly, that remark usually ends the argument!)
I’m still waiting that one of the well known evangelists stand up one day and inform the audience that he/she has received a gift for serving and that anyone who needs to be served, should come forward!
This past Saturday I experienced something like this. After our church had received the Courageous Leadership Award for our home-based caring project in Swaziland, I had been looking for an opportunity where I could get the entire group of caregivers together to show then the trophy we had received and to honour them for the unselfish work they are doing. At last our opportunity came when we were able to organise a celebration function on Saturday. Of the 380 caregivers presently in the project, 350 arrived by bus, by car and by taxi. We had rented a school hall and by the time everybody had turned up, the hall was packed. A few people were asked to speak and in between the existing eleven groups which are part of the home-based caring project came forward – some to sing and some to do a short drama to demonstrate how they are working in the community.
My wife summed it up very well when she made the remark afterwards that she looked at the group and was absolutely amazed to see how happy they are. At one point I spoke to the headmaster of the school (who is an elder at our church and a close friend of mine) and told him that there is no way that I would do this work, if I had to do it for money. And I thought to myself that maybe these caregivers truly have received the gift of serving. I can give no other logical explanation why they would keep on doing this work, without receiving a salary, often taking the little food they have in their homes (most of the caregivers live in extreme poverty and a number of them are HIV-positive themselves) to share it with their clients, and still be happy to do it.
Swaziland’s Minister of Education also attended the function. He had actually come on behalf of the Minister of Health, (a friend of mine) who was unable to come and then asked his colleague to come on his behalf. The Minister of Health had no idea what the work was all about and while the groups were singing, he kept on asking me questions to get more information, as he was supposed to give a speech and had no idea what to talk about! (I wasn’t really worried – Swazis have a gift to speak!) But as the morning progressed he kept on telling me that he could not believe what he was seeing. He just could not believe that people would volunteer to take care of the sick and the dying, without being paid for the work.
When we were through and we had had lunch, I could barely contain my emotions. I look at the church of today and see how they struggle with deep theological questions. And then I look at these people, content with what they have, with no concern at all about the deep theological questions church leaders are discussing, merely doing what they believe God has called them to do. And, as far as I can see, they are much happier than most Christian leaders I know.
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.
The past two days I had been plucked entirely out of my comfort zone. I have so often spoken about the importance of leaving your comfort zone in order to become more useful to God and certainly I have been in situations which other people would just turn around and walk away from. But I still have a lot to learn.
In 2006 I attended the graduation of some students at the Africa School of Missions in South Africa. Among the students was a Russian girl, Svetlana Kutusheva, whom I had met in Samara in Russia on previous visits to this country and who had also been in my class while I was teaching there on the topic of eschatology. She then decided to go to South Africa for two years to further her studies in theology, obtain a degree and then to become a missionary in Cambodia. During this graduation function I witnessed a remarkable ceremony. After their degrees had been handed out, each of the potential missionaries lined up before the audience and each then received a towel, symbolic of the fact that they had been called to wash other people’s feet. Seldom in my life had I seen anything which spoke so strongly to me and I made the decision that I was going to duplicate this ceremony in Swaziland with the one home-based caring group which we had at that time at Dwaleni. It was close to Christmas and we were already planning something for around 250 orphans living around our church in the area. I decided to combine the two functions and when we handed the orphans a small gift I called all the care-givers forward and presented each one with a towel, explaining to them the symbolic meaning of the towel.
As we trained five extra groups of care-givers during 2007 this became part of the final day of training where I stressed the fact that the greatest leaders in God’s eyes are not those who can manage millions or who make decisions about a country’s future, but that Jesus considered those who serve the most to be the greatest leaders. This has always been a very special occasion for me. But during the last week or two I felt that God was trying to convince me of something more. I became increasingly convinced that God was expecting me to set an example. Now, I fully realise that the washing of other people’s feet had become something of a custom amongst certain Christians. But as I thought about this issue (not without some fear) I also realised that, in our case, this would be much more than a mere symbol. This would mean that I, as a white man, the pastor of the church (held in high esteem in Swaziland), the project manager of the Shiselweni Reformed Home-Based Care Project, would have to go on my knees before a Swazi woman to wash her feet. I was not comfortable with this idea. Not at all! I’m not a very “touching” person. A bear-hug is fine (male or female – as long as it’s not too long or too close) and a hand on the shoulder or the upper arm is also acceptable. But washing another person’s feet was just way out of my comfort zone. That’s not me! And yet, I felt convinced that I had to do it.
Then on Wednesday I received a phone call from a recently married woman living in our town. She had been praying to God about greater unity amongst Christians and churches in the town where we live and she felt that God was telling her to visit each of the pastors in the town and to wash their and their wives’ feet. So she called on Wednesday, told me what she believed God wanted her to do and made an appointment to visit us in Thursday evening. And I didn’t look forward to this. (Refer to my previous paragraph!) The only reason why I consented was because I felt that it would be wrong of me to discourage this woman from doing what she felt God was telling her to do. But I wouldn’t even be comfortable if my wife was bowing down before me to wash my feet – let alone another woman!
Well, she came. She went down on her knees before me, washed my feet and prayed for me, then washed my wife’s feet and prayed for her and then I also prayed for her. After this she left. This was a first for me. I survived! But the big test would be the next day when I had to wash other people’s feet. So yesterday I drove through to Nsalitje, encouraged the people, handed out the customary towels and explained to them the symbolic meaning of the towels. And then I called the newly chosen chairperson and coordinator to come forward, asked them to sit on a bench and, after explaining to them what I had in mind, I started washing their feet with soap and water, afterwards drying their feet with a towel.
As I was doing this, the craziest thought came into my mind. In Biblical times people were mostly expected to wash their own feet. In extreme circumstances a slave could be used for this purpose but there was an explicit law that prevented Jewish slaves from doing this. Slaves could be asked to do anything, but washing another’s feet was considered to be so degrading, that there was a specific law against Jewish slaves doing this. (Only heathen slaves could be forced to do this.) And this was the thought that came into my mind while washing their feet – that I had probably never been in such a degrading position in my life.
I survived! I’m glad I did it. I think that I will do something similar in the future when we train new groups, as the symbolic meaning of the washing of feet was emphasised in a way that the mere handing out of a towel could never accomplish.
Never again will I speak lightly of people having to leave their comfort zones. But then again, if I could survive this uncomfortable situation then others can also survive getting out of their own comfort zones.
This past Sunday, 13 January, it was exactly 23 years since I was ordained as minister of the Swaziland Reformed Church. Actually, I didn’t even think about it until I arrived at the church and saw that someone had put up a notice in the church which read: Happy birthday and happy new year. When trying to find out who’s birthday they were celebrating, nobody seemed to know, although I wondered if they hadn’t intended this to be a celebration of Jesus’ birthday! In any case, I then suddenly realised that in a certain sense it was a birthday celebration – my being part of this church in Swaziland for 23 years.
When I arrived in Swaziland on 4 January 1985, I never thought that I would be remaining there for so long. Typically, at that time. ministers remained in churches for three to four years, before moving on. It was usually just the hopeless cases whom nobody else wanted that remained in one congregation for such a long time 😉
The advantages and disadvantages of remaining in one congregation for a long time can be debated. I know that Rick Warren believes that it is good for a minister / pastor to remain in one congregation more or less for life. I tend to think that this may be even more important in a missionary post. I’ve seen people come and go in missions, sometimes remaining in one place for a year or two and then moving on to the next place. Obviously not all are called by God to do the same thing. Paul also moved around a lot. The problem, when working in a totally different culture from your own, is that it takes so long to build relationships – something which cannot be done in a year or two. When you move away after such a short time, it would be nearly impossible to leave behind something which have really made a change to the people’s lives.
Related to this is the lack of commitment from people going on short-term outreaches. I wrote about this topic a few weeks ago and have been thinking about it again over the past few days. People go on a short-term outreach, get excited about what they experience there and the people they meet, promise te keep contact, promise to send photos and promise to return, and I would dare to say that in 99% of the cases none of these promises are kept.
While I was still a student, I was the leader of a short-term outreach to a small community in rural Kwazulu-Natal (South Africa) where we helped the local minister to add a study / office to his home. His wife was pregnant at the time when we were there. A few months after we left we heard that the baby was born, that it was a son and that they had decided to give the child my own name: Siyabonga SenzoseNkosi Arnau (translated into English this means: We thank the work of the Lord, Arnau) which was a great honour to me. A few months after I made special effort to travel back to that area to greet the family and to see the child. That day I saw how much it meant to those people that I had not forgotten them.
Being involved in mission is a long-term commitment. Those leading outreaches or coordinating a church’s mission program, need to realise this. Although I am convinced that God expects of all of us to have a vision for mission, part of this vision should be based on a long-term commitment in whatever place God calls us to work. More harm is being done by hit-and-run missionaries than by those not involved at all.
I’m not in the United States to understand all that is happening there, but what I can follow is that huge supermarkets, such as Wal-Mart, forbid its employees to wish customers “Merry Christmas” and rather to wish them “Happy Holidays”. Yesterday, one of the blogs which I constantly follow, wrote about this topic, which you can read here.
On December 13, 1993, Christianity Today published an article in which they warned that Christmas was not being ruled from Jerusalem or Rome or Wheaton or any other religious center, but from Madison Avenue and Wall Street. It is time, the article argues, for Christians to recognise this.
The controversy in the United States about the law forbidding customers to be wished a merry Christmas obviously unchained a lot of emotions amongst certain Christians. But after reading about this the first time, I asked myself the question whether this was really bad. In another article in Christianity Today, the author writes that it is not only Christmas being celebrated during December. Those of the Jewish religion are also celebrating Hanukkah, the feast of lights. How can an employee be expected to wish someone a merry Christmas who does not believe that the Messiah’s birth is being commemorated? And what right do Christians have to claim the holiday season for themselves, thinking that commercial businesses, who by definition exist to make a profit, should neglect their non-Christian customers or offend them by wishing them a “merry Christmas”?
The article reports: One organization is selling bumper stickers that read, “This is America! And I’m going to say it: Merry Christmas!” and “Merry Christmas! An American Tradition” to which the author adds, tongue in the cheek: I don’t remember the American part of the Christmas story, but I haven’t re-read Luke 2 yet this year.
South Africa went through a similar phase when the Day of Ascension was no longer a religious holiday. Christians were up in arms about this and commented about the anti-Christian government in South Africa targeting Christian religious holidays. Most churches responded by arranging for special church services to be held on the evening of the Day of Ascension. Ironically, these services are usually poorly attended, which makes one think that the issue for most people calling themselves Christians may not be the Day of Ascension as such, but rather indignation that a holiday had been taken away from them.
Which brings me back to the Christmas issue. If we want to bring back the true Christian spirit of Christmas, then we will have to focus on Easter. The gospels of Mark and John do not even relate the birth of Jesus. But all four gospels focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. And when the first Christians started spreading the message, we find them mainly preaching about Jesus who had been crucified and who had arisen from the dead.
I’m not sure how Easter is celebrated in other countries, but in South Africa this is, next to Christmas, the biggest holiday season (and ironically, also the time when, except for Christmas, the most people are killed in vehicle accidents.)
Easter isn’t a time of shopping or decorations. People are not being wished a “happy Easter”. But for Christians this should be the biggest feast on their calendar. Only by celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus in a proper Christian way, can the true spirit of Christmas be reclaimed.
I’ve just finished Oswald J Smith’s book, The Challenge of Missions. This book was originally written in 1959 and although I know that the science of missions has undergone huge changes since the time this book was written, I would be dishonest if I did not admit that many things he wrote left me in awe of the insight he had in missions. For one, many years ago he went to the auditors of his church in Toronto and asked them how much money their church had spent on work at home. The answer came: $53,000. He then asked the auditors how much had been spent on missions. They answered: $318,000! This was more than fifty years ago! In another chapter he mentions how he had moved from country to country to assist in evangelism crusades. This was in the 40s and 50s. Most of the travelling was probably done by boat. I mean, flying is bad enough today, sitting in seats invented by someone with a very evil mind, spending hours of worthless time in transit at airports surrounded by shops specialising in exotic liquor, cigarettes and perfume, being subjected to x-ray machines and body searches (yes, in Russia they do body searches before you leave the country). But I’m sure that all this is still better than what Oswald Smith had to go through when he was preaching all over the world.
However, he got me thinking again about our motive for missions. One of his own motives is to hasten the return of Christ through evangelism. Basing his conviction upon Matthew 24:14: And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come, Oswald Smith believes that haste should be made to evangelise all the nations of the world as Christ cannot come before this had happened.
I cannot recall any modern missiologist that would seriously believe today that this should be our motive for missions (or for that matter that our earnestness in spreading the gospel would actually cause the second coming of Christ to occur sooner.) But the question remains, what then is our motive for missions? First and foremost, obviously, I see it as obedience to God. We do it because God wants us to do it. (And the opposite is also true: We do not do missions because we don’t want to do what God wants us to do!)
But I am also totally committed to missions because I firmly believe that God wants us all to have a better life on earth than what most presently have. When Jesus says in John 10:10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full, most people see the thief as Satan who had come to destroy our lives. While that is certainly true, the thief actually refers to the religious leaders of that time who, through their unbearable laws and regulations, had taken all joy away from the people. To be able to proclaim a gospel which truly sets people free, is a privilege. When moving around Swaziland and seeing how people are bound by culture and traditional beliefs and seeing the burden it places upon them, then I really experience how Christ can set people free to live life abundantly.
I still often struggle to know when I should address cultural issues and when I should keep quiet, but I do know that I may proclaim the joy of freedom found in a relationship with Christ. And this becomes, at least for me, a wonderful motive to keep on with what I am doing.
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