Tuesday, November 30, 2010

no other head

Yesterday, on my scripture blog, I reflected on the claims of the Christ hymn of Colossians 1:15-20, specifically on the claim embedded in its center that "he is the head of the body, the church" (v. 18). That Christ is the "head of the body, the church" is particularly relevant in light of much pastor-speak I have heard in this country about headship. For example, Charismatic pastors are particularly keen on emphasizing their importance in/over the church. I have heard on a number of occasions that Satan particularly targets pastors because to destroy them is to scatter the flock that they lead. I have been a part of prayer services in which a visiting pastor brings the pastor of the congregation up front to be prayed for precisely on the basis of this rationale, that Satan is out to get him more than others. That the evil one would target the pastor seems, in these presentations, almost as a validation of the individual in the role of pastor, as if without it either the pastor initiating the action or the pastor being prayed over is not a legitimate pastor. Another variation which I once heard of this theme is more explicit. "If someone wants to kill a snake," the proverb goes, "he does not whack its tail, but rather its head." The analogy, of course, was that the pastor of the church is the head of the snake which the evil one tries to destroy in order to kill the church.

There is something to learn in all this. Pastors matter a great deal. Good leadership is as "yeast leavening the whole batch of dough" for good, while bad leadership is a leavening of the dough for bad (1 Cor. 5:6; Mt. 13:33). It should be a topic of discussion in churches which are especially suspicious of hierarchy whether the pastor--if he or she is even afforded such a title--is recognized as a person blessed with special gifts for leading a people toward "the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). It is likewise cause for concern, on the other hand, if the biblically-legitimized role of pastor becomes cause for seeing the pastor of the local church as having the same measure of authority of the one alone whom our text proclaims is "the head of the body, the church". In such a situation, the pastor is feared as though God, and, in effect, becomes a mediator between "God and humankind"--between the one head and the body--where none but Christ Jesus is intended (1 Tim. 2:5). In such a case, the body's growth in realizing the fullness of God's spiritual gifts to many is stunted in deference to the one posing as head in place of Christ.

If Christ is truly recognized as head, however, the body will not fear even though its pastor be removed. If the body knows Christ as head, and not a mere human (though Christ himself shares our humanity), it will rejoice, though it suffers, knowing that the One who fills the church also suffered yet rose from the dead. If Christ is head, the one who died and was raised to life, not even "the gates of hell will prevail against the church" (Mt. 16:18); they did not prevail against the head--they shall not prevail against his body.

The proverb of the snake is therefore misapplied; there is no head which can be struck by which the body may die. Rather, at the appointed time, let the pastor be removed, and " 'let another take his position of overseer' " (Acts 1:20).

The pastor who knows that his days are numbered, who has learned to "count his days" (Psa 90:12), who knows who she is in light of her Creator, is the one to lead God's people toward the fullness of Christ.


Monday, November 15, 2010

christmas in south africa

Shalom Mennonite Church has asked us for information about Christmas in South Africa. For us, Christmas is a time when we try to simulate our own culture's Christmas traditions but adapt them to South Africa and to summer. We buy a tree every year that can serve as a Christmas tree (gardenias have been our favourites),

Siya, Moses, and Isaac bringing in the Christmas tree

Jesse under the decorated tree

we decorate Christmas cookies,

and we hang stockings.

This year will be the third year that we have spent with our friend Melanie Quinn, a Mennonite missionary in Botswana. We cook a fairly traditional meal although one year we did have roast warthog leg and we are able to have vegetables fresh from our garden since it is summer. Here we are with our own Christmas tradition of the "stinky meal" on Christmas eve: chips and salsa, stinky cheeses, salami and other stinky things.

It is true that we spend a lot of time at our friend's pool--a Christmas tradition that we quite like.

We have asked some friends about traditions here in kwaXhosa (the place of the Xhosa people). The two biggest special things at Christmas are that everyone gets new clothes and that a lot of people repaint their house. The colours of houses in the rural areas are pink, green, blue, turquoise, and yellow. Some have a black strip around the bottom and this would also be refreshed for Christmas. For weeks before Christmas, you see people leaving town with big buckets of paint, often carrying them on their heads. Can you pick out the different colours of houses in these pictures? What colour house is in the bottom picture that I didn't list?

On Christmas day, kids get into their new clothes and then go in groups to the houses in their area. At each house they are given something to eat. At some it is a full meal of chicken, samp and beans or rice, and vegetables. At others they will get sugary milky tea and biscuits. Some houses will give them chips and sweets. Two things that were traditionally done to make Christmas special were that curry powder (called "Rajah") was added to the rice to make it yellow and that kids got jam on their bread. Even now when these things are everyday occurrences, they are sure to be done for Christmas.

Food cooking at a rural Xhosa homestead

At Isaac and Moses' old preschool, they did a Christmas play every year complete with donkey, shepherds, wise men, and gifts. Here is the year in which Isaac was a wise man and Moses was a shepherd. At the end they sing the chorus "oh come let us adore him" in English and in Xhosa. In Xhosa, the words are "Yizani nibulise. Yizani nibulise. Yizani nibulise. UKrestu Inkosi"



the righteousness of God revealed

In the “Principal’s Report” that I presented to our Annual General Meeting of Bethany Bible School (BBS) on Friday night, I concluded by describing 2010 as a "good and stable" year at BBS. The flip-side of stability in 2010, of course, was the upheaval of 2009—a year in which a conflict arose among members of our Committee and opened up fault lines in our student body as well. Nevertheless, we entered 2010 having restored a measure of peace—the product of a special gathering last December to honor the lifetime service of the particular Committee member who had been offended by the rest of the Committee. Although, in spite of our efforts, that member and those who followed him did not attend in 2010, we remained in friendly contact with him and he continued, in some form, to honor the work of the school; as a sign of his goodwill, he continued to refer students to our office for study materials or collect them himself. This arrangement indeed seemed “good and stable” and we were not holding our breath for anything more.

Something more, however, came last weekend. On the night before the closing conference weekend for the year was to begin, our vice-chairman received a call from a woman, one of the members who had stayed away in protest (or while wounds healed) at the perceived slight of her leader. Her call, however, was not a call to arms; rather, it was a simple notification that she would be attending the conference. That in itself was enough to stir our Committee, fearful of her reasons for choosing to attend after a long absence. The woman made good on her word, arriving on Friday afternoon.

As the Committee gathered for a short meeting following our oral exams over the year’s lessons, we decided to call the woman to the office in order to hear her intentions. She said that she had none—other than simply to return to the school. Although this was great news, it presented us with a new dilemma.

Every year, BBS lends its own graduation ceremony to two sister Bible Schools from Cape Town who share a common constituency (independent churches, least formally-educated church leaders) and mission (to educate such leaders). These sister schools offer their lessons in correspondence; as a result, they have students in our area—some of whom are also BBS students—who come to our site as the nearest place where they might receive recognition for their studies upon completion of them. Three of the last four years (including this one), we have also had at least one official representative of these schools at our graduation. Because this is a significant event in the life of those who graduate, they are often accompanied by guests who wish to share the party with them—a party for which BBS foots the bill. As a result, the Committee has had to establish registration costs for our graduation conference appropriate to the level of participation in our school throughout the year. Students who were on our roll in 2010 would pay the normal fee of R70 for the weekend; guests would pay an amount more reflective (yet still a good deal) of the cost it actually takes to sleep and feed a person for an entire weekend.

The problem, of course, in the situation of the woman who came back, was that she was once among us but then estranged; were we—to employ the biblical categories—to treat her as a Jew or as a Gentile? As a Committee, we were, in our hearts, inclined to treat her as one of us; we desired her return, and the return of all our brothers and sisters who left us in 2009. Even so, we had grown in our understanding as a Committee to be seen as a people who “stick by our word” for the overall health and functioning of the school. Too often in the past, we had made decisions in meetings only to set them aside under pressure from certain individuals who liked to complain. Yet it is the very “rule of law” which guards against individuals taking advantage of the whole and establishes trust in the whole. That trust, in turn, leads to growth. To summarize, on the one hand we were keen to uphold our commitment to love/grace/mercy; on the other hand, we were committed to justice, to respect for the honor/dignity of every human being which is commensurate with a sense of fairness—that one is being treated as the other. Thus, if we could not be seen in the eyes of others to make an exception for our sister, neither could we be seen by our sister and our God to withhold our grace. And if we could not deny her grace, neither could we deny the honor we were trying to uphold in the whole and, in effect, in every part as well.

Still, the decision of whether or not to treat our sister as an outsider was an easy enough one on the basis of the clear communication of our principles; if we simply explained to her that we were treating her the same as every other person who had not attended in 2010, she might understand and gladly pay the required fee. The problem, however, was that the woman had left home having budgeted for only the members’ fee of R70 plus her transport to and from. If she was going to sleep over and pay for meals, she would need to come up with more.

Initially, the Committee decided to do justice to their sense of honor rather than to their sense of mercy. We explained to the woman that she could pay the night’s fee but would be on her own for meals. She sighed heavily under her burden and minutes of silence ensued.

After she had left, one of the women on the Committee spoke up.

“Why did we not ask her to leave and then make a decision and call her back? Did you hear what she said? She said, ‘I didn’t know we were still fighting.’ We must not be seen to be fighting with anyone. We must be God’s messengers. We must only do righteousness.”

The same thought had dawned on me while our sister had still been with us in the room. Confirmed now by one of our Committee members, it was as the voice of God.

“What if we the Committee paid the rest of her fees out of our own pockets?”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” we all said together, remembering Jesus’ words which were one of the answers from the oral exams earlier that day (Mt 5:7).

We called her back and told her of our new decision—which she embraced.

But whereas our first decision had been weighted toward upholding a sense of honor, our second decision was neither honor over mercy, nor mercy over honor. Rather, honor and mercy, dignity and love, justice and grace, embraced as one, indivisible unity. The Committee neither lowered its standard of justice for all, serving the cause of love, nor denied its desire for mercy, serving the same. The Committee both set and fulfilled its own standards for the sake of the other. It both set and paid the price on behalf of the woman. In doing so, the woman was restored to our fellowship. So perhaps will others be who hear her report of righteousness.

In fact, the old man, her leader, for the first time in more than a year, was back at BBS the next day—seated in a place of honor on graduation day.


the preaching vocation

Mama Faniso is a "Bible Woman" in her Methodist church and serves on the executive committee of Bethany Bible School (BBS). She conveys as much in her look as in her words--passion and compassion. Here she is giving the vote of thanks at the BBS graduation on Saturday, 13 November.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

provision through the church

During our partnership council meetings last June, during the time when each of our South African partners shared about his or her respective vision for ministry, Pastor Ntapo of Harvest Time Ministries in Mthatha disclosed that he and his wife had discovered that many of the children who come to the church on Sunday have not yet had a meal on that day. As a result, the Ntapos had resolved—out of their own pockets—to provide a little something for their parishioners to eat every Sunday. We have certainly experienced the sharing of food within the church to be the rule, not the exception, over the last half of this year. Our children, though well-fed at home, share no less in the overflow of the Ntapos’ generosity than the children who do not know—except perhaps with regard to the church—from where their next meal will come. Just as Jesus taught and then fed the five thousand “in a desert place”, so Pastor Ntapo declares, “We have been fed with the spiritual food—now we will be fed with the physical food as well” (Mk. 6:30-44).