Sunday, June 28, 2009

rainy-day musings

Today we had church at home with our visitors, Anna's parents, because the service we were supposed to attend was canceled due to the weather. It is cold, windy, and raining. On the phone, the pastor told me that he didn't think anyone would show up on this morning.

This sort of thing brings up a number of issues in my mind. For one, the church could have had their little roof sealed long ago. It is not a question of money; it is a question of priorities in spending available money. At this point, the church has chosen to spend on festivals and funerals. At some point, they may decide that having a dependable structure is part of the sustainability of a worshiping community. They do desire both things--to have a better meeting space and to celebrate the special events of a community's life; yet, when pressed, they are unable to resist certain cultural expectations in the immediate in favor of considerations for the future. This is difficult. For many years, many North Americans have been spared of having to choose between these polarities. Perhaps the economic downturn has exposed that life everywhere still entails these decisions.

Second, it is up to the local church to make these decisions. Western money has often been used in places such as Mthatha to build structures for local worshiping communities. This money precludes the local church from developing the decision-making capacity they need in order for long-term survival. This money may make the church seem to spring up in the immediate, but it impedes their ability to thrive in the long-term.

In this sense, then, foreign money is less related (at least positively) to local church realities than some of us might assume. In the west, we sometimes discuss within the local congregation the morality of adding on to our current worship structure or building a new one. This is a good debate. However, arguments against building on the grounds of moral considerations are often fueled by comparisons with the church in the majority world. How can we build when what we have is already far more than others do not?

I would suggest that standards for local church buildings should be considered within the means of the local church community. Don't build a building that your congregation cannot afford. Don't go into debt. One author suggests that it is not wise to build a building for the church that is more extravagant than the homes that the majority of its members live in. A church building should serve the needs of communities. If the building itself becomes an impediment to worship, to service, to the simple act of meeting together on a consistent basis, it is time to make a change.

Of course, the local church is also not on its own--it is part of the global church. But what we assume is good for the global church may not in reality be. The local church everywhere has to decide what is good for itself under the scrutiny of the gospel. As communities of the gospel, northern churches can impact or inform the decision-making processes of southern churches, and visa versa. This is, in fact, both inevitable and an obligation. Yet it is our obligation not to put a "stumbling block" in anyone's path on our way toward realizing our full freedom in Christ.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

this week's funeral

We spent Saturday at a funeral. We had not been to a funeral for several months but could have availed ourselves of an opportunity to attend one each weekend. A lot of people are dying. Most of this is a result of AIDS. At some of these funerals, the underlying cause of death is revealed. At others, it is not.

This time a woman from our church had lost her child. She had told me she was pregnant at an Easter service, brought her baby to the church to be blessed by the pastors which included us, and spoke to me frequently of her concern for the child because of his eczema. But now, at one year, he had cried in the night, breathed funny, and died. Just like that. Maybe meningitis, maybe an asthma attack. She will probably never know.

The funeral followed the form of all others. When we arrived, the women of the household were sitting on the floor in a rondavel with the coffin (in this case a heartbreakingly small one). Each group of entering visitors went around the circle shaking hands, then started a song which everyone joined. One from the group prayed aloud and greetings were exchanged around the room.

After several hours of this, everyone exited the rondavel and with the coffin and proceeded down the hill to the tent where the service would be held. Amid singing and praying, friends and family members spoke, with one person given the special task of explaining the history of the illness. In this case there was not the usual platform for promotion of causes as this child had not participated in any of the things usually promoted--ANC or another party, organisations and leagues, etc...

At this funeral, Joe was pronounced the lead preacher with our pastor translating in such a fluid and dynamic way that they appeared to be thinking the same thoughts. He preached on the resurrection and the place of the deceased in the 'arms of a loving God.' This is important. This child is not now a restless spirit whom the living must appease but has been fully received by a loving God and will one day be with us in the resurrection.

We sang again and the coffin was carried through a parched field to a hole. Our pastor read from 1 Corinthians 15, the coffin was placed in the hole, and family members took turns putting dirt over it.

On the way out of the field there were basins of water in which to wash our hands. We were directed into the rondavel in which all visitors from Mthatha were to eat. Young women served us plates of mutton, samp and beans, beetroot, and potatoes. We had now been there for 5 hours and the cold Coke that was brought out after the salty meal tasted incredible.

At this point, normally everyone makes their exit. But for some reason, on this day, everyone went back into the rondavel where the female family members had begun the day and probably spent the night before. We did another round of handshaking and singing and an old pastor prayed. And then someone began a joyful, joyful song. The mother of the deceased child was smiling and the feeling of a burden lifted was palpable.

This mother will have to go back to her house in town and learn to live every day without her son but, on that day, our purpose had been fulfilled. By sharing her pain, the gathered people had allowed her to smile, even if just for a minute.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

good books

We highly recommend the book Three Letter Plague by Johnny Steinberg. I think that in America it is called Sizwe's Test. The book does an excellent job of bringing out the complexities of the AIDS crisis in this part of the world and showing why our scientific solutions are just not enough.

The main action takes place about an hour from where we live and many of the things affecting the people's lives are similar to those that we hear about from people in our Bible school.

It would be a great book to read and discuss in groups or for a small group or Sunday school class to study together. We'd love to discuss it with anyone interested.


Monday, June 8, 2009

would you rather?

Sometimes we wonder what our kids think of us and what we do. And sometimes we find out.

One day we were driving home from the beach with our Botswana friend and colleague Melanie Quinn. We were playing a game of Would you rather? Would you rather eat apples or oranges? Would you rather run or ride a bike? You get the idea.

We were driving behind a very smoky and rusty bus. It was Isaac's turn.

Isaac: Would you rather drive that nasty old bus or be a pastor?

Enough said.