Sunday, October 18, 2009

the manly calling

Some weeks ago, I devoted two entries to events which included a young couple who had just joined the church in Mandela Park. and Less than two months later, that relationship has unraveled; the husband left the wife and two children and the pastor of Mandela Park behind to work with "another pastor" in an area about 80 km from here.

The news came as a big disappointment for me. The pastor was hoping that his younger colleague would be a great help to the ministry, that they could lean on one another to meet the needs of their people. In order to ensure that that might happen, we had held a special service of blessing for the couple, signaling their status as leaders of the congregation. I left that Sunday feeling pleased that we had done all we could to get the relationship off to a good start. Its unraveling, therefore, comes as a betrayal also to me, the one who offered the words of encouragement that day from the Bible.

The situation is doubtless a greater crisis for the wife and the pastor who were left behind than it is for me. Nevertheless, it also leaves me vulnerable; it forces me to face the prospect of my own ineffectiveness as a minister/teacher of the gospel. I believe in the power of the Word of God; I have experienced it in both personal study and public proclamation. As a result, I find it amazing that a person who has witnessed the power of the Spirit in the company of the Word can--and so soon--do the very thing the Word told him not to do.

According to the pastor, his departed colleague was heard to say that he "believes he is called by God to serve this other pastor". If such a call is true, that is, from God, then we must accept it (regardless, we have to live with it). Yet that call rings hollow. It comes, seemingly, from a spirit without content, without knowledge, without the Word. It comes from a spirit that says "leave wife and children for the sake of the good news"--the very ones, now in essence widowed and orphaned, whom the good news was given to serve. For what other reason was the good news given than to make us better husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, humans-in-community?

Jesus, of course, did tell us to "hate wife and children" (Lk. 14:26), among other family members, in the pursuit of following him. This is rightly a call to resist in one's life the counsel or wisdom of any human authority as greater than God; being controlled by the wisdom of one's spouse or children can lead a family away from the blessings of God. Yet, those who have entered the holy covenant of marriage will find that an increased loyalty to God will lead to an increased--not decreased--concern for the well-being of "wife and children". In other words, we must "hate them" in favor of God in order to love them as God does.

How does God love them, love us? With the words of Ephesians 5 no doubt in the background of his mind, the pastor who was left behind is fond of saying, "The wife of Jesus is the church; I have my own wife". "Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her," so the pastor must give himself to his wife (Eph. 5:25). That is his calling as a man of God.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009


A little illustration of how everything in our house becomes a competition or you know you are living in an all-boy household when....

After four days of rain, the sun finally came out and Moses, Jesse and I took a little walk around the yard to check on all the plants. We noticed that one lavender bush was choking out another one and decided to trim back the big one. We made a huge bouquet of lavender which Moses said he wanted in his room "to make him sleepy". He also cut a little sprig for his pillow.

That night, Isaac was upset that Moses had a lavender sprig on his pillow and he didn't. So we cut him one too. The next day I happened to be walking by his room and saw Isaac with a scissors "giving a haircut" to the lavender bouquet. I decided to ignore the whole thing.

The following day I went to take off his sheets to wash them and discovered what he had been up to.

I guess Isaac won the lavender competition.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

outside the law

Last Saturday night, I enjoyed an in-depth conversation with my neighbor and his friend as they braaied some steaks. My neighbor is my peer: 31 years old, married, a father, a committed Christian.

I listened as my two companions shared fascinating insights into the relationship of Christianity and culture in the traditional southern African setting. They spoke of conversations they used to have with other peers in their Christian fellowship in their university days. They used to debate--and the debate still rages--an issue which also occupied the mind of the early church: circumcision vs. uncircumcision.

The two largest language groups in South Africa, the amaXhosa and the amaZulu, are known to have different traditions regarding circumcision; Xhosa boys become men through circumcision in their late teen years, Zulus do not practice circumcision. In reality, the situation is considerably more complex than that, as various communities often classified as Xhosa, the amaMpondo, for example, traditionally did not circumcise. Today, that situation has changed, as there has been an epidemic of young men dying through botched circumcision rites in Pondoland, and at ages far younger than Xhosa tradition would recommend. In the end, therefore, the practice of circumcision in South Africa reveals my friends' point: there is no pure culture; culture is dynamic.

Having established this background, my friends moved to describe the aforementioned debates. On one occasion, one of their peers claimed that circumcision was essential to his Christian life because it established his credibility when preaching in the rural locations. The traditional people would not welcome the message of a male who was uncircumcised. Something about his argument, however, did not sit well with my neighbor.

"Are you saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is limited?" Countering his peer's logic, my neighbor had told the following story.

"There was once this Zulu guy who was spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ through all these Xhosa villages. He used to get up and preach and say to the people, 'I am not circumcised', and the people loved him. That shows that the most important thing is the anointing [of the Holy Spirit], not culture."

That the Zulu preacher repeatedly emphasized that he was "not circumcised" illustrates the strength of the attachment of his Xhosa audience to this cultural practice. Indeed, because their belief in the power that circumcision bestows was so strong, it was necessary for the preacher to ascribe the power so obviously at work in him to another source.

It is interesting to read the South African context of circumcision alongside the biblical record of the same. In the book of Galatians, for example, circumcision is tied to blessings and curses. Certain people within the churches of Galatia were insisting that uncircumcised Gentile converts must be circumcised to avoid the curse of disobedience to the commandments of Jewish Law, of which circumcision, of course, was one. That curse, as described at length in the final chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, included the entire nation; the transgressions of one to the law led to the curse for many. That curse entailed loss of land to enemies, disease, plague, death.

A similar dynamic seems to be at play in Xhosa traditions. Although the Old Testament law consistently forbade Israel to consult the spirits of the dead whereas many African traditions are based on such communication, in both disobedience of one member to spiritual authority puts the entire community at risk of death, of the curse.

In light of this, we might not understand the so-called "Judaizers" among the early Christians so much as callous, unwelcoming traditionalists but as zealous members of the covenant community, concerned above all for the survival of the whole people of God. According to their understanding, circumcision and law-obedience was the way of avoiding the curse; the uncircumcision of certain members put the entire community at risk.

In light of Christ, however, we understand that understanding to be limited. Though he was obedient to the law, circumcised, he was also cursed according to it: hung on a tree (Gal. 3:13; Dt. 21:23). Yet, in his name, by his gospel, by his Spirit, came "love, joy, and peace" (Gal. 5:22). From the cursed one came blessing.

As Christ, so the Zulu preacher who came in his name. From him came blessing outside the dictates of the law. If blessing could come outside the traditions, then the traditions--and the powers who presided over them--were not so powerful as previously thought. They might continue to bless and curse those who continued to fear them. But for those who welcomed Christ, only the curse was lost; "from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace", blessing upon blessing (Jn. 1:16).


Monday, October 5, 2009

waiting on Jesse

Last Monday, September 28, ended our long wait for the arrival of our fourth child. He turned out to be Jesse Immanuel Liechty Sawatzky, another big, beautiful boy.

Thinking we knew the date of conception, we had been expecting Jesse a day or two from September 8. Accordingly, we had made arrangements that Anna's mother could be with us for the birth and surrounding days; she arrived on August 31. However, as Jesse stayed inside, it became clear that she would have to extend her stay--something she had to do twice (Thanks to the Elkhart, Indiana school district!). She is now scheduled to leave on Friday.

Based on our expectation, Jesse came late. Perhaps also we produced some worry in friends and family who wondered why it was taking so long. We, too, struggled against our worst fears and had to seek assurance many times throughout the month of September. Yet, we decided that the baby was fine: Anna felt great and Jesse was moving. The wait was difficult, but we believe in waiting.

Perhaps nothing is as difficult for us in the 21st-century as waiting. Information is instantaneous in the internet age. In terms of birth, the medical establishment seems increasingly hostile to the experience of waiting--the rates of induction and caesareans are higher than they've ever been. Why wait if technology and expertise can minimize the disruption to our schedules that is birth?

There are many good reasons to wait--for example, that technology and expertise can't minimize disruption but may, in fact, create greater, more unwelcome disruptions--but for us it boils down to an affirmation of faith, a dogged insistence against the overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom to the contrary, that God still rules the world. With Paul, we "want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings . . .." We want to endure the suffering that waiting can be if it brings us closer to the God who loves us.

Many things brought us back from the pit of despair as days turned into weeks. In terms of scripture, I found myself again and again in Psalm 27. Its closing became for me a word of strong defiance against fear, and, somewhat paradoxically, a gentle assurance of God's presence.

"I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!" (vv. 13-14 NRSV).

We did see the goodness of the Lord. We did come to know again the creative power of God, the power that calls into being the things that are not and raises the dead. We came to know it in Jesse, a baby named "Immanuel", "God is with us".

We came to know it through waiting.