I haven’t had much time for blogging the past week or so. I’ve been conducting a series of church services every evening. I focused on the Gospel of John and learnt some really remarkable stuff as I did thorough exegesis of the parts I wanted to preach about.
Tomorrow morning I will be wrapping up the series by looking at John 17. One of the things that I’ve realized since I started preparing for these sermons, is that John gives the impression that it is fairly easy to understand and then, the deeper you delve, the more difficult it becomes until you eventually discover the actual meaning of what John was trying to say to his readers.
John 17 is no exception. On the surface it is a prayer of Jesus for His disciples. I’ve done a lot of research on John 17 in the past within the context of church unity. With eleven language and almost as many race groups in South Africa, the church in South Africa is seriously suffering from the effects of disunity. Even within language and race groups, there are denominational groups which are very close to each other but which still consider those not part of their church as the opposition.
I once read the following story which illustrates in a humorous way what is happening between Christians:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Well…are you religious or atheist?”
“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
In 1981 my wife and I had the chance to visit Zimbabwe. This was just after many years of civil war in the country. As we sat down to speak to church members about their experiences during the years of war, we struggled to understand how it feels to leave your house or farm in the morning, knowing that you are being watched through the scopes of a missile launcher which could be triggered at any moment if the soldier carrying the launcher feels like it. People were killed at random and everybody were living in fear every single day of their lives.
In those days many pastors left Zimbabwe and new pastors were not granted work permits for Zimbabwe. Under those circumstances the “right” church was not the one with which you agreed doctrinally, but the one which had a pastor. And I can still remember that I asked myself where things will need to lead to in South Africa (but not only South Africa) before a desire will grow amongst Christians to really accept one another in love and to demonstrate their unity. If this is what it cost to get the churches in Zimbabwe to work together, what will it cost us?
I am blessed that, in the town where I live, pastors from across virtually the entire spectrum of doctrines, have expressed the desire to come closer to each other. Pastors from different races and language groups and from different denominations (Charismatic, Pentecostal, Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran and a number of others) meet each other for breakfast once a month. During these gatherings, doctrinal issues are put aside in favor of reaching out to each other in love. In fact, over the years (and it literally took years to build this trust between the churches) we have developed the ability to make jokes about our own or even the other churches and to laugh at the way in which we used to protect our domain in the past. We still have a long way to go. But I’m truly thankful that I can experience something of what Jesus prayed for in John 17.
Tomorrow, as part of the Global Day of Prayer, most of these churches will be gathering to unite in prayer. Perhaps we need to pray the words of John 17 more regularly in our churches: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
I’ve just finished reading Alan Hirsch’s book: The Forgotten Ways. It’s a great book and highly recommended, but be warned: It’s not easy to read. I do most of my reading when I go to bed and I really struggled to work through this book, But it is worthwhile reading it.
In short, Alan wants the church to rediscover it’s true purpose, what he calls mDNA, or the Missional DNA of the church. At the core of the church of Jesus Christ is the desire to reach out to the world. Churches which are not doing this, are acting contrary to how God has wired the church.
I have obviously done a lot of reading on this topic, therefore I can’t say that I had many “aha!” experiences while reading the book. He does however emphasise many things and says it in a way, which, as I read it, I just wished that I could share this with everybody I know.
On page 235 he says something which I have suspected for some time but which he is convinced is the truth. Gordon Cosby, the leader of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., noted somewhere that in over sixty years of ministry, he has never seen that groups which are formed around a non-missional purpose (prayer, worship, Bible Study, etc) ever ending up becoming missional. It was only those groups which intended from the start to be missional (and usually embraced things like prayer, worship and Bible Study) that ended up doing it.
This corresponds with my own experience. It is impossible to calculate how many people have contacted me over the years with a request to get involved in our work in Swaziland. Usually the conversation goes something like this: “Hi, we are a cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group from xyz congregation and we have heard about your work in Swaziland. We feel that it is important for us to reach out to others and we would like to visit you to find out how we can assist you.”
Being a fairly positive person, I always invite them to come, but at the back of my mind I know that there is a more than 90% chance that nothing will come from the visit. The reason is simple. To be part of a cell group or Bible Study group asks a small investment of your time: 1 – 2 hours per week. And let’s be honest – these meetings are fun. Coffee and cookies are served. There’s a lot of time for interaction. And after worship and prayer you feel revived and ready to tackle the rest of the week.
Involvement in mission asks much more than that. On most Sundays I leave home at 8 in the morning and return home somewhere between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. And that’s just for a church service. Anything happening during the week involves a lot of driving – two hours at the very least – entering places which may make you feel uncomfortable, seeing things that are not nice to see, walking in the scorching sun. After their visit these groups have a lot to say about their experience and always promise to come back again, but more often than not we never hear from them again. They will return to their cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group and will probably never return to Swaziland.
If I have to say why this happens, then it boils down to a lack of vision. A group that is formed without a missional vision, will never be able to become missional. They will merely follow their vision and if it is not a missional vision, they will not become missional.
Is there a solution for the hundreds of thousands of cell and other groups meeting all over the world with the main intention to feed themselves (pun intended)? The only solution I can imagine is that the leader of the group make the decision to change the vision. That should not be to difficult as most of these groups do not have an official “vision”. They just follow the leader. But if the leader could convince them to determine their vision (which can be as simple as to answer the question: Why are we meeting every week?) and then convince them that the true purpose of the church lies in its calling to become a light for the world (or whatever other missional metaphor he or she wishes to use), it is possible that, over time, a group like this could really become missional, using their normal weekly meetings to build themselves up so that they could do more outside the church.
But that’s my optimistic side speaking. If I have to be realistic, I doubt whether any significant number of church groups will ever become missional.
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.
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.
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.