Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

First World Technology in a Third World Country

I’ve always been interested in technology (computers and anything related to it) and use this to the best of my ability, especially when I’m working in my office. As I’m away from my office fairly often, my cell phone has now become a handy device to check my email (and to do Facebook updates!) But as a missionary in rural Swaziland, where most houses do not even have electricity and not a single house has running water, modern technology has little use.
Last week I was visiting a lady in her primitive house together with one of the caregivers of Shiselweni Home-Based Care. She is in constant pain, has swollen legs and sores forming on her skin. The caregiver had enquired before whether the client was HIV+, but she seemed reluctant to speak about this. When I visited her, the client took out her “clinic record” card – a document each patient receives when going to a clinic for the first time on which diagnosis and medication are indicated and handed it to me. It’s not the first time it’s happened. I don’t know why they do it, but it might be because I’m white and that they think I am a medical doctor. I had a look at the card, but the diagnosis gave me no indication of what was wrong with the woman. Neither did I have any idea what the prescribed medicine was for.
And then I thought of a possibility. The Swaziland cell phone service does not allow me to go onto the internet with my cell phone. But then I realized that the area in which this woman’s house is located, is fairly close to the Swaziland / South Africa border. I changed the network on my cell phone and found that I could connect to the South African service provider through which I could go onto the internet. I Googled the name of the medication and immediately found that this was indeed anti-retroviral medication (ARV). It was the weirdest feeling, sitting in this primitive homestead, with someone who has absolutely no idea what a computer is, let alone the internet or Google and finding answers which will enable us to raise the standard of our care for this individual. One thing we will do, is to ensure that she takes her medication regularly as prescribed and also to ensure that she has enough nutritious food to eat.
I couldn’t help wondering where this could lead to in the future. We’ve already had situations where clients had severe wounds. The caregivers could take photos of the wounds with their cell phones and we then showed the photos to a pharmacist who helped us to decide on the best medication and method of helping each client. For people in Western countries, this may sound fairly primitive. In our situation, where doctors are scarce, public transport is expensive and where people are so sick that it is very difficult to transport them, this technology might, in the words of Neil Armstrong, be a small step for man, but a giant leap – if not for mankind – at least for the people in rural Swaziland.

Monday, June 14, 2010 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Culture Shock, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Swaziland, Theology | 14 Comments

My name is Nqobile

This is a testimony which was given by a learner in my wife’s maths class before the whole school, this past Monday. The girl gave me permission to publish it on my blog.
Good morning fellow teachers and pupils.
There are no hopeless situations. There are only people who have grown hopeless about them and in every storm there’s a story. We all go through storms in life, whether it’s a mental, spiritual or physical storm. There was a girl who like most girls had a happy family, a mother, a father and an adorable baby sister, but at the age of fifteen she was all on her own. ‘How?’ you may ask. When she was seven, her baby sister passed away. At age ten, her mother passed away due to a crack in her skull which resulted from a car accident they’d been in earlier. And just when she thought she couldn’t lose anyone else, her father passed away at age fifteen, due to colon cancer.
At that moment this girl started doubting there was a God, the worst part of it being she was alone in her house and in the world with no one to take care of her. She had family, but when she needed them the most, they were nowhere to be found. Then of course she sought help at social services but came back feeling worse than she had before, after hearing that the only help they could give her was to put her in an orphanage. When they told her this, she cried and one of the social workers told her not to cry because it wasn’t their fault she was an orphan. She was fifteen years old. She had a number of bad options: drugs, alcohol, suicide. But she chose none of the above.
Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
This girl had a name and it meant ‘Conqueror’. Many people may not understand its true meaning. This name means: Overcome, Defeater, To triumph over.
Its at this time where she had no one to talk to and no one to ask help from that she made a prayer asking God why He had taken everything away from her. She thought of all those children around her who often complained about their parents and how they were never satisfied. It was during this storm in her life where she gave her life to God and met Jesus and had a shoulder to cry on, realizing that God had never left her, for in Jeremiah 29:11 it says: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” She is turning eighteen this year and is strong and truly believes in God.
By the way, my name is Nqobile, but I’m better known as “Q”. My name means ‘Conqueror’, ‘To triumph over’.
Looking back from where I come and everything I’ve been through, I’m standing in front of you today proclaiming that from the impossible it is possible. No matter what you’re going through and how life seems at this moment, God has not left you. He is a mighty God who never fails us, a God of peace and a God of restoration. That was the storm in which I found my story.
Thank you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010 Posted by | Africa, Death, Disappointments, Hope, Mission, Prayer, Theology | 8 Comments

Enveloped by love

For the past few weeks I’ve been under extreme pressure, not sleeping nearly enough, working towards deadlines and eventually feeling more tired than I think I’ve ever been in my life. Last week we trained a group of 43 new caregivers for our HIV/AIDS home-based caregiving project ( www.shbcare.org ). I usually only attend the last day, when we have a celebration function at which time we welcome the newly-trained caregivers into our group and commission them to go out and serve their neighbors. This is usually a very touching ceremony, but on Friday morning, when I had to leave to join the new caregivers, I was so exhausted that I could not imagine how I would get through the day.
I arrived at the community in the Mantambe area and greeted the trainers who were waiting outside for my arrival. I then entered the community hall where the newly trained volunteers were singing in their typical Swazi fashion. But even that couldn’t do much to lift my spirits – I was just too tired to care. But I put on my smile and as the crowd was singing I started greeting them all with a handshake – the first one, then the second one, the third, the fourth and then the fifth one. And then, as I shook the hands of the sixth person, she let go of my hand, put her arms around me and hugged me. And then the next one did the same. And the next one. And the rest of the 43 new volunteers all did the same. This is not Swazi custom. Swazi’s are normally very reserved in the way they greet and even more so when greeting someone of the opposite sex. But as each one hugged me, I could feel my energy returning and the rest of the ceremony was a huge celebration.
That afternoon, after returning home, I tried to tell my wife what had happened. Failing to be able to share the emotion I had felt, I summarized it by saying that I had never in my life experienced so much love concentrated in one place. Nobody else had known how I had felt that morning, but as each one hugged me, it honestly felt as if it was God Himself putting His arms around me.
Feeling fairly revived on Saturday, I thought back to what had happened the previous day and realized that, as one starts serving others, this action in itself leads to advantages for oneself. This was probably an unique experience and I can’t expect to feel the same when next we train a group, but I will always cherish in my mind what had happened on this past Friday.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Celebration, Cross-cultural experiences, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Support teams, Swaziland, Theology | 1 Comment

Could the local church be the hope of the world?

Bill Hybels, pastor at Willowcreek, has a saying: The local church is the hope of the world. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Worldwide it seems as if the local church is becoming smaller and playing a less prominent role. Many people – committed Christians – have left the church, either for nothing or for a small group. These are people who have given up hope for the local church (although many still haven’t given up hope for God.)
Frankly, we (that is, our family) are hyper-critical about the local church. We experience extreme arrogance, a lack of leadership, a total lack of commitment towards those outside the church, an unwillingness to change effectively and a whole range of other issues. I’m not referring to a particular church, but rather to a whole range of churches which I see around us. I have a dear friend who is pastor in a very small local church in the town where we live. This man has vision and dreams which you rarely observe in any pastor. But his congregation doesn’t support him. He’s on his way out – going to retire and live somewhere where he won’t need to worry about things like this anymore. And the church he is leaving behind is going to become even smaller than it already is!
Most local churches are fast declining in numbers. This is often blamed on the changing environment in which we live, the post-modern outlook on life, the old-fashioned way of worship which exist in many churches, the judgmental attitude of many Christians, and the list could go on. But I’m still not convinced that these are the real reasons why people leave the church. I’ve seen a number of people in our town who left very modern-style churches to join the Anglicans (old-fashioned with a strict liturgy). I’ve been in a Presbyterian church in Rotterdam which seem to have nothing flashy in terms of worship teams, sound systems and lights, but this church is growing, in spite of most churches in Europe declining in numbers. I believe a lot has to do with people finding that they are making a difference by being part of the church.
When people step into a relationship with Christ for the first time, they need the church to bring change into their own lives, but in my opinion, as they grow in their relationship with God, their needs (should) change, so that they can become a blessing for others. I don’t often have the chance to attend church as spectator. On most Sundays I have two and sometimes three services where I have to preach. But a few weeks ago I attended church with my family and when I left the church I was overwhelmed with the feeling of: If I have to do this every Sunday and this is all that church is about, I’ll die! And this, I believe, is the reason why churches are dying: because people cannot get the impression that it makes any difference whatsoever whether they are part of the local church or not.
Coming back to what bill Hybels said: The local church can only become the hope of the world if it gets involved in the community and the people where it is situated. People need to experience that the church is offering something that they cannot find elsewhere. Probably the church will not be able to compete in terms of financial resources when real disasters strike, such as 9/11, Katrina or with a pandemic such as AIDS. But I am sure that there are hundreds of survivors of 9/11 or families who had survived Katrina who would be able to tell stories, not of what the government had done for them, but of what churches had done for them. When I was in Chicago last year, I stayed over with a family that had just returned from New Orleans where they had helped people to rebuild their houses. I cannot for one moment think that those people, whether they are Christians or not, will see the church as being irrelevant. In Southern Africa, where the AIDS pandemic is at its worst, governments of all countries are giving out billions of dollars to help control the spreading of the disease and to ensure that people are tested and will receive medication. But the real stories of hope come when people tell how the church has reached out to them. There are wonderful stories of how the church brought hope into people’s lives. And it is when I see this happening, that I know that the time of the church is not over yet. The time for ineffective churches may be over, but the world will always need hope. And nobody can bring more hope than the local church which has, itself, experienced hope through God’s love.

Saturday, August 22, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Alternative Society, Bill Hybels, Church, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Hope, Indigenous church, Leadership, Mission, Short-term outreaches, Social issues, Support teams, Theology, Vision | 7 Comments

How my eschatology influences my life

I am in White River at the moment, (or just outside, actually, not far from the Kruger National Park) at the Africa School of Mission (ASM). They are training mostly young people eager to get involved in mission in some part of the world and the present batch of students come from countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, England and Croatia. I’ve been asked to take the week’s lectures, speaking on eschatology and the book of Revelation.

I can still remember distinctly where and when I had one of the most mind-shattering moments in my life. I was in Ovamboland, in the desert of then South-West-Africa (now Namibia) in a tent, trying to survive the hottest days and the coldest nights I’ve ever experienced, doing compulsory army service in the South African war against Angola. I took some books with me for the four months that I was there that I hoped to read. I was busy with the thesis of one of my favourite South African theologians, Adrio König and was absolutely intrigued by the way in which he discussed eschatology. And then one sentence caught my imagination, something (and I have to quote from my memory) like: “The end times only have meaning as long as we are involved with mission.” That was the moment that I decided to start working on a PhD with the theme of mission and eschatology. (If you’re interested in the topic, you can try and get a copy of the book: The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology: Toward a Christ-Centered Approach )

Later, as I started working on my PhD, David Bosch (I had the privilege to work closely with him, although not under him) referred me to an article he had written in which he said the following: “I wonder whether the real difference between “ecumenicals” and “evangelicals” (and, may I add, between different brands of “evangelicals”), does not lie in the area of eschatology… Until we clarify our convictions on eschatology, we will continue to talk at cross purposes.” Once again I had one of those “a-ha” moments, knowing that my thoughts on this topic was changed forever. (If you have access to an academic library, you can search for this article: Bosch, D J. 1982. How my mind has changed: Mission and the alternative community. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 41 (December) pp 6–10)

As I’m getting older (and hopefully more mature in my theological thinking), I still realise the truth of these words. As we are busy with the discussions in the lecture hall at ASM, I can absolutely see how these two topics are linked to each other. I started my lectures by making the remark that many people refuse to read the book of Revelation, because it makes them afraid. Immediately a number of students in the classroom confirmed this. What I’m hoping for is to give them a more balanced viewpoint on eschatology so that, by the end of the week, they will be able to read Revelation, not with fear, but with excitement, in the same way as the first Christians to whom this book was addressed, probably read it.

Yesterday I did a short introduction on eschatology in general and then started with Revelation 1 this morning. When we read Rev 1:7: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen”, I said that, for the early church, the return of Jesus was the ultimate hope they had. They were living in wicked times. Their friends and church leaders were being persecuted and often fed to the lions. They had little hope that a change in government would make things better. And therefore they kept their eyes focussed on the return of Jesus. Yet, these early Christians simultaneously kept their eyes focussed on the world in which they lived, becoming involved in social issues, feeding the poor and caring for the sick, better than the government could do.

And this, it seems to me, is the key of a Biblical eschatology – keeping the balance between a real expectation of the second coming of Christ and being involved in the world in which God has placed us to live. As I spend a week in the lives of these young wannabe-missionaries, I hope that they will be able to keep this balance, wherever they may end up in the years to come.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 Posted by | Africa, David Bosch, Eschatology, Hope, Mission, Social issues, Theology | Leave a comment

Mission outreaches, again!

I’m not dead and I haven’t been seriously ill. I just did not have the time to blog the past few weeks. Since the beginning of July I’ve first had a single girl who came to join us for a week in Swaziland, to experience what our caregivers are doing in an AIDS-infected community. While she was here, three medical students also arrived for five days, wanting to combine compulsory practical work with a medical outreach to the community. While they were around, my friend Tim Deller (http://swazilandexperience.wordpress.com/) and his dad arrived back in Swaziland, to visit many of his old friends. While they were still around, the two leaders from a team from Fresno, CA, arrived and then a few days later the rest of the team arrived and we spent a great time together in Swaziland. You can read about their experiences on their blog: Summer in Swaziland
Yesterday, as the team was preparing to return to the USA, we had a long time of debriefing, rethinking and evaluating the previous two weeks. Someone asked me a question: “This trip had cost us around $36000 (traveling, food and on the ground expenses). Do you feel that you received $36000 worth of help? Shouldn’t we rather have sent you the money and remained at home?” I had to think a few seconds before I answered: “First of all, twelve people would probably not have been able to raise $36000. Secondly, how do you determine the value of deep relationships – the type of relationships that were formed while they were in Swaziland the past two weeks? How do you determine the value of encouragement given to caregivers, working in fairly hopeless conditions, when someone from affluent USA says that she is willing to get into a taxi with a caregiver (twenty one people in a twelve-seater mini-van), walk along sandy footpaths to reach a homestead in order to apply the most basic care?”
And then the person who had asked the question, added that the spiritual growth that had taken place in the team also had to be taken into account. Probably the greatest moment, as far as I’m concerned, happened yesterday morning when one of the team members, who had never prayed in public before, voluntarily prayed while the whole group was listening. I wonder if I’ve ever been more touched by a prayer. It was an amazing experience for all of us!
I met early this morning with a group of men, some of whom are presently attending group sessions every evening focused on their own spiritual growth. Without wanting to discredit what they are doing at their church, I am absolute convinced that the spiritual growth that had taken place in the lives of most of the members of this outreach team, surpasses what will be obtained by attending lessons about the topic.
Short-term outreaches can lead to serious problems, one of the greatest probably being that the people being visited become dependent upon the outreach teams. There are many horror stories of outreach teams eventually realizing that they had been pumping money into a community, only to find that they had not been assisting the community, but had rather led them on the road of greater dependency. I still find it very difficult to know where one should help and where one should deny help. Or to rephrase: Where one should assist directly (giving something which is needed) and where one should find other means to give assistance such as helping certain forms of development to take place. I’ve made enough mistakes in my own life where I gave help in the wrong way. However, I’ve also seen the results when two groups of people from different cultures come alongside each other, the one rich (according to African standards), the other extremely poor (according to Western standards) and where they work together to address the real needs and not only the perceived needs.
I asked the group a question: “Is it necessarily wrong for people to live in a house built of mud, where they sleep on a thin grass mat on the floor and where they have to go down to a river to fetch water?” Obviously, if you had never had to stay in such circumstances (except possibly when going on some kind of exotic vacation), you would feel that it is wrong. But for those growing up in such conditions, it is fairly acceptable. To move into a community such as this, building a new home for one person (usually someone that the group had become attached to) is probably not going to be a good idea, as the neighbors are bound to wonder what that person did to deserve a new home.
Ten days ago we were part of a community project to help a certain community to get clean water. I have three basic requirements when starting any such project: It should be affordable, sustainable and duplicatable. (These are a sort of rule-of-thumb for myself and there are times when I would ignore one or more of these requirements, but then I need to make a deliberate decision that, within the circumstances, it is acceptable to do so.) The community has a real need for more clean water. The Swaziland government had installed a communal tap, but the water flow is so slow, that it takes ages to fill a container with water. After discussing a plan with the community, they came together to dig a hole in the ground. We supplied a plastic barrel (costing R300 or $40) and the community helped us to bury the barrel in river sand which acts as filter, so that eventually clear water will accumulate in the barrel through fine holes we had drilled into the bottom of the barrel. This is affordable, sustainable and duplicatable. In fact, this is the second similar project we have done.
Did I need a team from the USA to do this work? Of course not. But I’m sure that for some time to come, every team member will think of that community whenever they open a tap and see clear water running into a glass. And the community will remember that the group of people came from the USA, not to give out huge sums of money, but to address a real need that they had been struggling with for some years.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Dependency, Giving, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Partnership, Poverty, Prayer, Short-term outreaches, Social issues, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

Fighting the demon of Racism

One of South Africa’s coloured church leaders last year spoke, during a church meeting, about the demon of racism which is still alive in South Africa. Although I’m not someone who constantly try and link some kind of demon to every form of sin, such as the demon of alcoholism or the demon of lies, I do think that there is some truth in saying that the fight against racism is something which needs to be won in a spiritual realm.
After my post on the Angus Buchan Phenomenon, I received a lot of reaction. With the exception of one, the comments were really decent, even where people differed from me. Some of the correspondence about this post was done via email and therefore did not appear on my blog. One of my very special e-pals (an “e-pal” is the equivalent of a “pen-pal”, except that we correspond by email rather than by pen and paper), who is a missionary in Ukraine, wrote me a long letter which triggered many things in my mind. In the post I referred to, I asked the question why Angus Buchan is so popular amongst white men. But in my correspondence with my friend in the Ukraine, I asked another question: Why doesn’t God use Angus Buchan more effectively to break down racial barriers?
My friend responded by saying (my own translation from Afrikaans to English): I think that, while big meetings and prominent leaders can create the atmosphere within which believers can live differently, the coming of God’s kingdom which needs to be demonstrated by the church as alternative society, will have to start from “below”. The mass of Christians need to live and do things differently. Then the prominent leaders will merely become catalysts in processes which are much greater than their own abilities. And my heart for mobilisation tells me that now is the time to do it!
On the same day that I received his email, I was attending a small group consisting of white Christians in which I told them that I had been challenged to do something about racism in our community and that I am going to challenge them to take hands with me, to pray with me and to work with me to make a difference.
South Africa had gone through the amazing period of reconciliation after more than forty years of a policy of “Apartheid” and we have experienced great blessings in many ways since 1994. But, to use the words quoted above, the demon of racism is still alive. Or, as I often say: Apartheid is dead. Long live racism! South Africa’s problem is not Apartheid. That was just the name given to an evil policy of government. The problem is racism. And I have traveled fairly widely throughout the world and have seen that it is definitely not only South Africa which is struggling with this.
I will never forget a particular class in Dogmatics which I was attending at university. Our lecturer was the distinguished Professor Johan Heyns, who was assassinated in 1994, presumably because of his strong viewpoint against racism. (His assassin has never been arrested.) On this specific day one of the students asked him what his viewpoint was on racism. Without a word professor Heyns turned towards the blackboard, took up a piece of chalk and wrote: RACISM = SIN! This made a tremendous impact on my life and I could probably say that on that day I vowed that I would fight against racism in my own life.
One of the most popular verses used in South Africa today comes from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
I am getting convinced that there is probably not a more wicked sin that we in South Africa will need to turn away from, than our sin of racism. Can we really expect God to heal our land while so many Christians still refuse to repent from racism?
I have been involved in processes of healing amongst people of different races and can testify that for White South Africans, there is little that can beat the feeling of liberty once they had come to the point of confessing this as sin and reaching out to people across racial barriers.
For those who had attended the Mighty Men Conference and experienced God’s forgiveness and love during the weekend: Are you willing to take up this challenge to help in bringing healing to our country?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Grace, Hope, Mission, Prayer, Racism, Stigma, Theology | 11 Comments

The Angus Buchan Phenomenon

It seems you either love Angus Buchan, from Mighty Men Conference-fame, or you hate him. For those who don’t know whom I’m speaking about: Angus Buchan is a farmer living in the Kwazulu-Natal midlands in South Africa who started an evangelism ministry some years ago. About six or seven years ago I attended one of his services in the town where I live. I went absolutely open-minded, but left, deeply anguished by some things I saw that evening. (If you are interested in what happened, you can drop me a comment with your email address. I don’t think I should discuss it on this open forum.)
Nevertheless, I think it was in 2007 that he organised the first South African Mighty Men Conference, attended by several thousand men. Last year he pitched, what is supposed to be the largest tent in the world, on his farm and accommodated 60,000 men. As from today thousands of cars are driving to his farm again for the 2009 conference where Angus Buchan hopes to have 200,000 men attend! By the way, the book and the movie, Faith Like Potatoes, is a biography about his life.
In spite of my negative experience at his service a few years ago, I had the feeling last year that he might just be God’s man for South Africa at this time. I don’t necessarily have to agree with everything he does to believe that God can use him effectively. After the conference, which a number of people I know attended, I noticed distinct changes in the lives of many of them – changes for the better. One person, who was an absolute racist and did his utmost to break down the work we’re doing in Swaziland, came to repentance and has since contributed substantial amounts towards our work amongst people with HIV and AIDS in Swaziland. Others, who had been Christians, but living more like non-Christians, came back and a year later their lives are still fully devoted to God. Obviously, a large number also came back and returned to their old lives. I’m grateful, however, for the change in many people’s lives.
But I do have a few concerns. One of the things I suspected, is the restricted audience he has. This was confirmed yesterday when I watched a home-made DVD made by someone who had attended last year. I don’t have percentages to prove my point, but the majority by far of the people who attended, were White males. In follow-up conferences held during the rest of the year at sport stadiums, attracting tens of thousands of people, the majority of people attending were also White. I suspect (and I would like to hear the opinion of others on this point) that many White people see in Angus something comparable to an Old Testament prophet, called by God to give hope to the people of South Africa in times where many are uneasy about the future. What worries me – and I know, once again, that I have no proof to substantiate what I’m saying, merely a “gut feeling” – is that White people may have the hope that God is going to put South Africa back into the hands of the White people, or at least, in the hands of Christians, and I fear that this may be false hope.
The other concern I have is the reverence that people have for him. It is almost as if some people take his words to have even greater authority than the Bible. Or at least, his interpretation of the Bible is believed rather than the interpretation of people who are also serious about finding the true meaning of the Bible but who differ from him. For many people, the words of Angus Buchan has the highest authority. I’m sure that this isn’t what he wants, but I would be afraid if I myself ended up in such a position. I’m not sure whether I would really be able to handle this new-found glory in the right way. After last year’s conference I told many of my friends that we need to pray, if this man is really someone sent by God for these times in South Africa, that God would grant him the ability to remain humble.
As for myself: I have respect for Angus Buchan. I’m not a disciple of him, nor do I hate him. At this stage I prefer to follow the instruction in Acts 5:39 : “…if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.

Thursday, April 23, 2009 Posted by | AIDS, Cross-cultural experiences, Disappointments, Evangelicals, Evangelism, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Prayer, Racism, Swaziland, Theology | 112 Comments

Should we still speak about hell?

About twenty years ago I was involved in some correspondence with one of South Africa’s foremost theologians (who has since been appointed as professor at a university in the Netherlands). He was my professor in Hebrew and was absolutely outstanding as lecturer. At that time he started writing articles on the devil and hell and was widely criticised for his viewpoints. In an attempt to try and get an understanding of his way of thinking, I wrote him a letter (that was long before email!) and asked him to explain what he meant. He was quite thankful that I was willing to enquire about his meaning before criticising him (which was an important lesson to learn).
Being mainly an Old Testament scholar, he maintained that the Old Testament does not really know of anything about hell and knows very little about the devil and he felt that these were concepts which were developed much later under influence of certain philosophical thoughts at the time when the New Testament was written.
In short, I disagree with him on this point. I do, however, believe that there had been a huge development in the way in which Satan is regarded in the Old Testament to the way in which he is described in the New Testament. In the Old Testament he is described, almost as a mischievous being, making trouble here and there (as in the story of Job), but not really causing much harm.
In the New Testament, on the other hand, Jesus considers Satan as His great adversary which has to be driven out of people. Paul sees Satan and the evil spirits as something we have to withstand and, of course, when you read the book of Revelation, it becomes clear, especially when reading the second part of the book (chapter 12 onwards) that, behind the scenes, there is a mighty war going on between Christ and Satan which ends when Satan is thrown into the lake of burning sulphur (20:10).
Having said all that, one of the lessons I did learn from my esteemed professor, was that one cannot get someone into heaven primarily because they don’t want to go to hell. For too long the church has made people afraid of hell and then, based on that fear, given them the alternative, which is to accept Christ and go to heaven.
And then Matt Stone recently asked the question on his blog: Why don’t we talk about hell anymore? And he included a video clip of N T Wright in which he says that this repulsion to speak about hell started after the First World War, when people had almost experienced hell on earth and then came to the conclusion that God would never allow anything like that to exist in the future. You can see the clip here:

As with so many other topics in theology and in missiology, we have made mistakes in the past: Focussing on evangelism at the cost of social involvement. Focussing on hell at the cost of God’s love. And then the pendulum swung to the other side. Then we spoke about social involvement and disregarded evangelism. And we spoke about God’s love and remained mute about hell.
And I can’t help wondering why we always have to go to extremes to make our point. Can’t we preach about God’s love while also mentioning the result of rejecting God (as Jesus, Paul and John did?) Can’t we preach about evangelism while also preaching about the consequences of following Christ for our social lives, ecology, etc? Do we always need to choose either the one or the other, or can we preach the one “without neglecting the other”, if I may misuse Luke 11:42 in this context?

Friday, April 17, 2009 Posted by | Church, Death, Demons, Dialogue, Ecology, Eschatology, Evangelicals, Evangelism, Hope, Mission, Social issues, Theology | Leave a comment

Beating MCPs to beat HIV

I’m a computer fanatic, but there is no way that I can remember all the acronyms used in the computer world. The same applies for AIDS. It’s HIV, AIDS, VCT, PMTCT and MCP, to name just a few. This morning’s plenary session of the 4th South African AIDS Conference focussed, amongst others, on the problem of MCP. This is an acronym for Multiple Concurrent Partners. The debate in HIV and AIDS still revolves around methods to bring the number of infected people down. By the way, one of the top professors in micro-biology stated it clearly today that, in the fifteen years that he has been involved in research in finding a cure for AIDS, they haven’t really made much progress and he doesn’t think that any real progress will be made in the near future..
Coming back to MCP: The rationale behind this paper was that people in countries with a high prevalence rate of HIV infections, which include all the sub-Saharan countries, are not necessarily having more sex, but are having more sex with more than one sexual partner in the same time period, hence the term Multiple Concurrent Partners. (I don’t fully agree that this is the only important reason for the high HIV prevalence rate in Africa, because I’m not convinced that people in the USA, Europe and Australia, where the prevalence rate is low, are really living much differently). But the point is, and with this I do agree, if the number of sexual partners could be tuned down, the statistical possibility of someone who is HIV-negative to get the virus, is also lower. How much lower, is anybody’s guess.
One of the key note speakers at the discussion, Ms Lebogang Ramafoko, is a Black South African woman who also spoke about the role of culture. I myself have found that many people in Swaziland have an almost fatalistic attitude towards AIDS, saying that it is part of their culture to have a high number of sexual partners. Even many women seem to accept the fact that their husbands are unfaithful to them and shrug their shoulders when one tries to discuss the issue. “This is our culture,” they say. However, this viewpoint was challenged today by the speaker. She challenged a culture which fails to adapt to circumstances which causes the death of thousands of people every day. In South Africa, about 1000 people are dying daily directly as a result of HIV infection. She was loudly applauded when she demanded that we re-think our attitude towards culture, as if this was some kind of unchangeable monster.
A few other things which came out in some of the other papers today and which I found interesting: When speaking about AIDS in Africa, one of the topics which regularly come up is the problem of child-headed households. I wrote about this, about eighteen months ago, when I reviewed the documentary, Dear Francis. If you are interested in my viewpoint on child-headed households, I suggest that you read this. The point is that I have become convinced that people, working for NGOs, are often using the argument of child-headed households in an attempt to get money. Obviously, one’s heart has to be very hard if you don’t give money to assist children, especially if they are living on their own. But amongst the almost 1600 clients that we are serving in one of the poorest regions in Swaziland through our home-based caring project, we still have not found a child-headed household. Obviously the orphans are facing tough times, but all of them that we know of, are living with other people, mostly family members. Therefore, I’ve been questioning the truth of the alleged large number of child-headed households for a long time and definitely the claim that one out of ten households in the Mbabane area of Swaziland are run by a child is not the truth, as claimed in the documentary.
This was confirmed today when it was said that research has shown that, of the 4.1 million orphans in South Africa (out of a total population of around 44 million!), only approximately 60,000 are living in child-headed households. In no way do I want to suggest that this is acceptable. On the contrary, one child-headed household is one too many. But the point is that we need to be careful not to exaggerate statistics to draw an even bleaker picture, in order to obtain the sympathy (or funds) from others. The picture is dark enough. By being honest we will hopefully still get enough sympathy and assistance to be able to do something to help those in need and people will also accept our integrity.

Thursday, April 2, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Death, Giving, Health, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Movie Review, Poverty, Social issues, Swaziland | 1 Comment

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