Thursday, January 30, 2014

the grain and the chaff

I have been thinking recently about what it will mean to leave our life of relative seclusion from popular culture and mass media. My fear, however unfounded, is that our children will be whisked away in a cloud of busyness and negative cultural influences. And possibly that we will be too. My reflections have persistently led me back to an experience we had when spending a week a with our friends the Momozas in 2008.

One day they said that they were preparing for us umngqusho--the oft-eaten combination of samp (dry white corn) and beans. Our hosts first took dry white mielies and pounded them. They then went outside and repeatedly poured the split kernels from a bucket to a basket. As they poured, the little fluffy pieces which are not desirable for eating, blew off in the wind. The larger luscious kernels fell safely into the basket.

I finally understood the biblical references to grain and chaff. It is not hard to blow off the chaff - it is light and has no substance, it is grounded to nothing. The good grains are strong and full of heft.

And so it is for those who are "rooted and grounded in love" (Ephesians 3:17). They cannot be blown or whisked away.

"Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away" (Psalm 1:1-4).


Thursday, January 23, 2014

pulling it all together

In Cape Town in October, we worshipped with Jehovah Reigns, the church of ANiSA steering committee member, Bonolo Makgale.  The church meets in an old factory in an industrial area.  The service was energetic and lively and fit with what we have experienced at other Pentecostal churches.

However, the sermon introduced a new take on prosperity gospel--one that has helped me to bridge some disparate elements in my own thinking.  In my time in South Africa as a Mennonite, working with various Pentecostal forms of church, and doing weekly Bible study with mainline Anglicans and Presbyterians, I have often reflected on what each tradition views as God's will for us. As a Mennonite, I believe that God calls us into a life of discipleship which means means taking up the cross and suffering for the sake of the gospel. I observe mainline Protestants to emphasise spiritual faith without God seeming to care what happens to our bodies. And Pentecostals are known for their teaching that God wants us to give and in so giving we will be materially blessed, without ethical limits. 
While each of these summaries is stereotyped and arguable, it is an attempt to communicate the essence of the extreme of each tradition.   Just as Mennonite and mainline pastors would not preach the messages exactly as I have attributed to them above, likewise very few Pentecostal pastors would preach the most un-nuanced form of prosperity gospel.  Most preach a modified form.  Working with people in tough circumstances, they assure them of a loving God who cares about their situation and the benefit of living responsibly and not giving up hope.  And the people flock to these churches, not because of the promise of future riches but because of the empowerment they receive to take some control of their lives right now and the practicality of what it means to live faithfully.

Pastor Tlali upheld the best of this tradition while subverting it at the same time.  He said, "there are principles in here [the Bible] that work. But that is not the point.  They work whether you are righteous are unrighteous.  The point is to be transformed into Christ."

These "principles that work" have been endlessly teased out by one charismatic pastor after another. And indeed in a context of historical oppression in which people have had very little control over their lives it is good news to hear that the widow's mite was honoured, that even a person with one talent can invest it and please the master, and that the leper's expression of gratitude saved him.  Thus when the pastor asks the people to give and to support the work of the church, they are given a chance to contribute to something larger than themselves.  This message is often turned into a promise that they will receive direct, tangible, ostentatious rewards as a result of giving which is also not an unwelcome thought. 

Pastor Tlali recognised the hope that this reading of the gospels gives to people. Yet he didn't stop there, he said that there was salvation beyond this and that the point was that we be spiritually renewed and live as disciples of Christ. In so doing he pulled together the major emphases which I have lived between for eight years. I thank him for that.


Friday, December 13, 2013

mourning mandela during advent

SAFM, one of the world's great radio stations, has been particularly fascinating since Tata Mandela's passing last friday. Every show has been dedicated to the discussion of his life and legacy. One strand that has run through it all has been the constant tension between deification of Mandela and "he was a human who himself admitted that he made mistakes."

What has been clear is that he enacted for us, in our own time and place, exactly what Jesus meant by "love your enemies." The events of the past weeks coming during advent have given reality to why God HAD to come in human form. The law was good--Jesus called its greatest commandment "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-40). But without seeing it acted out, most of us are unable to imagine how it could apply in our lives. Jesus showed us. And so have many others in their humanness. Mandela had the opportunity to do so in such a large way. When we see it we are utterly captivated. Enthralled.

And yet we will not be able to deify him, we cannot make him into God. That can only happen for one who really is God--for Jesus who does not lie in a grave.

The question that everyone on SAFM is asked is how they will carry on Mandela's legacy in their own life. And my answer is that I will do so by, like him, hoping to live the Jesus way of love in every small action so that if I am put in a situation where larger sacrificial choices are required I will be prepared to do so.


Monday, December 9, 2013

succeeding Mandela

One metaphor for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has repeatedly emerged for me in the wake of his passing last Thursday.  Sunday's City Press paid tribute to Africa's "towering baobab", lauding Mandela as the indisputably sturdiest tree in a forest of African leaders.  My reading of that comparison came on the heels of Sunday worship in which the service's leader employed an image from his native Ghana to describe the great South African--Mandela the man with a "heart of oak." Interestingly enough, on Friday another friend had related to us a story from the Ghanaian context.

Our friend, Professor Tony Balcomb, was a friend to the great Ghanaian theologian, the late Kwame Bediako.  Bediako, mentor to many, died of cancer when still at the height of his academic powers. On a visit to the institution that Bediako had founded, Balcomb received a vision of a tree that reached to the sky, forming a great canopy.  The tree was felled, but a forest of trees had sprung up in the absence of its great shade.  The vision was a window on reality: Bediako had been an inspiring teacher, and in his absence his institution was flourishing with a new generation of scholars.

Mandela's death signals the end of an era.  There are many reasons why Mandela is beloved, but foremost in the eyes of the world was his example of forgiveness.  The point was brought home strongly again by another acquaintance.  "We hated those guys," he said, referring to those whites who oppressed him and his comrades.  His point was that they were ready to seek vengeance at their leader's command, but that Mandela had come out of prison speaking peace.  There is a very real sense in which Mandela changed the course of history.  Without Mandela, South Africa would not be in the position that it is in today.

Even so, it is only without Mandela that South Africa can enter a new era of freedom.  The defining mark of greatness is the humility to see oneself in the company of others, to perceive that the purpose of life is to give life to others.  It seems to be true that, at the appointed time, only the termination of a present state can bring about a desired maturity.  In the departure is struggle, and also opportunity, learning, and the freedom to do "greater things" (Jn 14:12) than those who have gone before.  

Inspired by Mandela's start, it remains for South Africa-- and the world--to pursue with greater urgency the justice and peace which are ever before us.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

soundtrack of their lives

Our boys have been blessed to have grown up in a setting in which they consider this singing to be normal background music to their various activities.




Wednesday, October 30, 2013

reading with kids

One of the joys of South African life has been that no one does anything in the evening. For the most part, families go into their houses and that's about it. And so with no meetings, no church events, no social events, and no extended family time, we and our kids have moved through vast amounts of children's literature during our evening reading sessions.

Having finished all the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books in one year with Isaac and Moses, we are now reading the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Redwall chronicles various points in the history of Mossflower woods in which the virtuous Woodlanders--mice, otters, hedgehogs, moles, and badgers--come up against sinister forces--rats, wildcats, ferrets, weasels, and stoats--wishing to enslave them and take their woods. Reading these three epic series in quick succession in conjunction with morning Bible reading has led us to reflect on a number of characteristics of evil similarly portrayed in all three series. 
  • Evil is quick to turn even on its own. Voldemort, Saruman, and Tsarmina the Ruthless are all ready to turn on their followers for any offense.  In contrast, the side of good is loyal to its own and even seeks to restore the servants of evil to their own true selves.
  • Evil requires a level of uniformity absent in the side of good. The evil forces wear robes or armor that bring them into a mass that is programmed to destroy and never to disobey. The side of good is peopled with individual characters who serve out of devotion to the cause and whose individual best gifts are called forth.  
  • Evil overlooks the contributions of the weak and unattractive.  Good befriends the weak who in turn provide the key to victory. Sauron never expects hobbits or trees to feature in the plans of his enemies; Voldemort never even notices the house-elves; and Cluny the Scourge knows nothing of a baby squirrel who doesn't talk. In failing to notice, they secure their own demise.  In giving honour to the weakest members, the side of good finds its redemption.
  • Evil does not necessarily need to be destroyed but merely turned on itself. When the Hobbits are tied in sacks, awaiting the decision on whether they are to be boiled or fried for the trolls' dinner, the greed of the trolls needs only a few insults to bring forth a rage that results in them destroying each other. In a similar fashion Frodo and Sam escape from the orc tower, Harry and friends escape from Malfoy Manor, and countless woodlanders walk unscathed from scenes of terror.  
  • Self-sacrifice is the only means of true triumph, triumph that is not a simple re-appropriation of power. It is only when Frodo and Sam decide that they will not be coming back and eat the last of their food that the fortunes of good turn. Harry defeats Voldemort only when he willingly gives his life. While less prominent in Redwall, each book's hero must go off on a quest that could end the character's life but, if successful, will bring victory. 
There are many more things to say about these books.  Gospel themes are not hard to find. One element that bears constant discussion is the tendency toward redemptive violence.  In one such discussion last night, Isaac and Moses showed us the depth of their moral reasoning shaped by our reading of literature and the Bible. I was commenting on how, in Redwall, the side of good can use violence to achieve its ends and the books still end with peace and tranquility. There seems to be little repurcussion from the brutality of war, the "soul splitting" that results from killing, as JK Rowling emphasises.

I remarked on the fictional world in which there is a side of pure evil and a side of pure good. Moses chimed in: "there is no such thing because in real life it depends on your point of view." Later, I paused my reading during a description of an evil owl to comment that I liked owls.  Isaac reprimanded me, "but mom, you have to see it from the mouse's perspective."  Isaac and Moses' comments show a gospel understanding. Each side has its story to tell. We are all created good, all fallen, and all in need of redemption. For this reason, Jesus does not allow us to kill our enemies. As my boys seem to understand, the books we read personify the resistance to "the cosmic power of this present age" which is to be distinguished from the killing of "enemies of blood and flesh" (Ephesians 6:12). In real life, there is no one side of good and another of evil. Each of us must daily decide whether to follow the Christ who gave his life even for enemies.  Only insofar as we do that can we resist evil and work for good.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

on authority

En route to Cape Town earlier this month, I bought a copy of the Cape Times, my interest piqued by a front page photo of church ministers prayerfully blessing South African State President Jacob Zuma.  The accompanying article described the scene.  Zuma, "addressing the 33rd Presbyterian Synod in Giyani, Limpopo", had stated that "whether we like it or not, God has made a connection between the government and the church."  More specifically, Zuma shared his views on the nature of authority.  "If you don't respect those in leadership, if you don't respect authority, then you are bordering on a curse."

The president's sentiments stirred in me a fair amount of discomfort which I herewith put into words--if indeed by doing so I am not "bordering on a curse."

First, the president's words are remarkable in historical perspective.  As one who struggled against apartheid, a particular form of "authority" and one of history's most conspicuous examples of "the connection between the government and the church", was the pre-1994 Mr. Zuma himself thereby "bordering on a curse."  Was apartheid, by virtue of it being both government and authority, worthy of "respect"?

Second, the president's words are decidedly unremarkable from a cultural perspective.  Every land and culture has its own traditional or civil religion(s).  It is a commonplace of religion to ossify into a simple guardianship of culture, to uphold the traditions of a particular nation, party, or people at any cost.  Because, therefore, culture itself is the highest good, any attempt to modify or reform culture will be met with the threat of "curse" from those entrusted with its guardianship.  The president understands that he occupies the highest office in the land and quite "naturally" pronounces the curse upon all who confront the order which he serves.

Third, the president's words are deeply offensive from a theological perspective.  Since the president has drug the debate on authority into the church, the church will respond (with the exception of those church leaders who have welcomed him in).  There are church traditions, the Anabaptist being one, which have maintained for centuries the faith that in certain and not infrequent circumstances disobedience to earthly authorities is the crucible of obedience to God.  God has not, in fact, "made a connection between the government and the church", but has ordained the church as the witness against the idolatrous and destructive powers with which the state so often exercises its authority.  Such a church considers it pure joy when it is reviled for pursuing the justice of God; that which is cursed of humans may be blessed of God (Mt 5:10-12).

Finally, authority in the president's perspective is ultimately impotent from a biblical perspective.  Human authority has no power to curse what God has blessed, for "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming for us a curse" (Gal 3:13).  Hung on a tree and cursed by the vile and ungodly collaboration of religious and political authorities, "God . . . raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand . . . far above all rule and authority and power and dominion" (Eph 1:20-21).

With faith in its risen Lord, then, let the church confront without fear the pretensions of earthly authority.