Friday, October 7, 2011

if you who are evil

Within the last several weeks, I’ve been approached by the same ostensibly down-and-out person for help.  The first time was right outside my in-laws’ home; the second time, yesterday, was at McDonald’s—two very different places within the same city.  I do not believe that the person remembered that I had helped him out earlier, and am therefore all the more curious as to why he picked me out of a crowded restaurant on a Sunday afternoon.

My internal, and possibly external, reaction to this man was one of disgust: why was he asking me again? doesn’t he know he’s already tried his spiel on me?  Having seen him now for the second time, I was more suspicious of the truth of his story the first time, and less inclined now to be gracious toward him.  Still, in spite of myself, I gave the man what he was asking for: a ten-piece chicken nuggets meal “with barbecue sauce”.  He thanked me both at the time and before he left the restaurant, coming back to find me in the playplace area where I was seated near my children.

I thought especially about my reaction to his request; my inhospitable spirit troubled me.  And yet, I gave the man precisely that for which he asked.  The two side-by-side, both my resistance to and persistence in grace, suddenly spoke to me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Just as suddenly as these words came to me was the realization that the one who had asked me for food, far from being a nuisance come to take advantage of me, was a messenger of God come to teach me.  For if he, swallowing his pride, could ask—and receive—something good from an evil person, why do I not ask the God who “alone is good” (Mk 10:18) for that which I believe God wants to give me and those around me?  For so he says: “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mt 7:8).


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

on compassion or we are the poor

This summer, as we have related our experiences in South Africa to North Americans, I sometimes sense a confusion about the people with whom we work in South Africa.  For if the people with whom we work in South Africa are among the poorer members of society, why then do they appear in our pictures and reports as they do: wearing suits and ties, using cell phones?  The logic, of course, is that these amenities are not within the domain of the poor; thus anyone who has them must not be poor.  This may lead to a further line of thinking—if someone is not “really” poor, that someone is not worthy of another’s help.

Last night I watched a television show in which the anchorman expertly exposed a similar logic in the expressed views of popular media pundits.  In ruminating on the United States’ budget crisis, these pundits disparaged proposed taxes up to $750 billion as “a drop in the bucket”—of no real consequence—even as they touted, in the name of justice, taxing the poorest Americans whose combined wealth totals only double that same $750 billion.  Then, as though he needed a moral argument to support his economic proposals, one pundit insinuated that America’s poor were frauds—since 99% of poor households have refrigerators!

Behind the sentiments in the above examples is an image of the poor person who can neither look like nor have anything in common with the one who himself/herself holds that image of the poor.  It’s a sentiment rooted in the lie of our own self-sufficiency, the belief that whatever good we have today is only the result of our own efforts, owing nothing to factors that preceded us in this life.  It’s also a lie, I believe, which is usually sustained apart from actual relationships with those whom one perceives as different.  For, when one begins to know the other, learning the story of another’s life, compassion—the recognition of the self’s struggle in the other—cannot but arise.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

what is mission?*

At the Mennonite Church USA convention last week, we led two seminar sessions for youth on the topic of mission. In each session, after gathering the group’s perceptions of mission, we shared four definitions of or quotes related to mission. They were:

1. “Mission is ministry in the dimension of difference.” This quote, from Titus Presler, an Episcopalian missionary and scholar, implies that mission is a subset of ministry—not that ministry is a subset of mission. In other words, mission is a distinctive form of ministry; though all mission is ministry, not all ministry is mission. And that which makes mission a distinct form of ministry is “the dimension of difference”, or when ministry takes place between people of various categories (ethnic, socio-economic, religious, etc.) of human difference.

(Presler, Titus. “Mission is Ministry in the Dimension of Difference: A Definition for the Twenty-first Century.” In International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no. 4 (2010): 195-204.)

2. Before our own presentation, we attended a seminar on ministry in the city led by Joe Manickam and Leonard Dow. Mission, in their definition, exhibits three essential components. 1) Mission involves a crossing of barriers; 2) mission involves a proclamation of the gospel; 3) that proclamation of the gospel is in word and deed.

3. “Only through mission can theology be liberated from its otherwise inevitable cultural bondage.” This quote, from Jonathan J. Bonk, describes the importance of mission in the history of the church. Because mission is ministry across boundaries, an engagement of difference, mission is the means by which the church discovers its unity with others. When people from different backgrounds, with different ways of living, encounter each other, one new way from the two must be established in order for the two to live in peace. Mission, thus, is the process by which each culture’s “absolutes” are relativized in light of the other in order that a law higher than that of either’s respective law may rule the day.

In the biblical story, the decision of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) exemplifies this process. The Gentiles, on the one side, did not have to undergo circumcision—the cultural “absolute” of the Jews, the other side—in order to belong to the community of Christ. In other words, the Jewish Christians discovered, through their encounter with the Gentiles, that circumcision did not define identity as the people of God. The Jews in Christ subjected a cherished way of life for the sake of a relationship with the Gentiles in Christ. Yet the Jews were not the only ones who gave up an important tradition for the sake of community; the Gentiles gave up “things polluted by idols”, or everything that was offered as an act of service and devotion to the gods of Greek culture (Acts 15:20). Gentiles forfeited certain cultural patterns in order to belong to the new community toward which they had been drawn by Christ’s love. This is not to say that all things are always equal, in this case, that circumcision as an act of devotion to the one true God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is on a par with acts of devotion to pagan gods. Indeed, Jewish Christians did not give up circumcision as an expression of their faith in the same way that Gentiles had to give up “the polluted things” in order to belong. Jewish Christians continued to circumcise as an expression of their faith. Therefore, what they did not give up was circumcision as an act of devotion to God; they gave up circumcision as a barrier to the true worship of God in community, or the requirement that the participation of Gentiles in the community of Christ was contingent upon their willingness to be circumcised. All this is to say that both Jews and Gentiles, because of Christ, gave up beloved cultural patterns unique to each in order to belong together. And that this process of giving up in order to belong is discovered, in the words of Bonk, “only through mission.”

(Bonk, Jonathan J. “Missions and the Liberation of Theology.” In International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no. 4 (2010): 193-194.)

4. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Mt 4:23). This summary of Jesus’ ministry, which also serves as an introduction to Jesus’ ministry and teachings in Matthew’s gospel, is a powerful illustration of mission. Within this narrative definition is visible the characteristics of mission discussed in the preceding points. Mission was “ministry in the dimension of difference” or a “crossing of barriers”: Jesus went throughout Galilee, choosing not to be located primarily in the center of his religious tradition (Jerusalem) but in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mt 4:15). Even within Galilee, Jesus was not static: he went throughout. And though far from neglecting his own people, the Jews—“teaching in their synagogues”—even ministry to his own was far-reaching, a kind of crossing of boundaries between congregations; Jesus taught in synagogues (plural).

Proclamation, likewise, was essential to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus taught and “proclaimed the good news of the kingdom.” Moreover, that proclamation was in deed as well as word. People were healed “from every disease and sickness.” Jesus’ words confirmed his deeds, and his deeds confirmed his words.**

So here are four “definitions” of mission. What would you add?


* The title to this entry has been used before, namely by J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission?: Theological Explorations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

** I make this statement with the question in mind of whether “word and deed” is even an appropriate distinction. Was Jesus’ healing activity separate, or of a different order, from his teaching, or did not Jesus often heal precisely by his word? To put it differently, is not the word truly spoken itself the deed? Of course, the reverse is also true; inaudible deeds, done in love, also speak.

Monday, July 11, 2011

American freedom, God’s grace

The Mennonite Church USA convention opened last week, on the 4th of July, in Pittsburgh, PA. We arrived early in order to meet with the board of Mennonite Mission Network, and so also were given the gift of a free afternoon in the city before the convention began. So we took in that day’s baseball game between the Pirates and the Astros at PNC Park.

It seemed to take forever for the game to begin because—predictably on an independence day at the ballpark—we stood through several displays of American civil religion: a short address on the video board from “old glory”, the flag, reminding us all of how she was there with us throughout our nation’s history; “God Bless America” sung—beautifully—by a woman in the military; finally, the national anthem itself, sung by the choir of an evangelical megachurch.

Even after the game began, we were exposed, between innings, to introductions of soldiers and a video presentation in which the Pirates’ players, one by one, responded that the “best thing about America” was “freedom”—seemingly an American invention. That tandem—soldiers and freedom—reinforced the message that the one was dependent on the other, that soldiers, by their service to America, give freedom to the rest of its citizens.

As an American citizen living abroad and a Christian, I find that message wanting. First, though living outside of its borders has caused me to appreciate the United States in ways inaccessible to me before, it is false that people in other countries are not free. There are certain ways in which I feel more free over there than over here. Second, and most importantly, as a Christian I have been taught that freedom is not a thing contained within borders; it is the gift of God whose “the earth is and the fullness thereof, the world and those who live in it” (Ps 24:1). That confession, made by the Psalmist, was over against the Canaanite religions of ancient Israel’s day, religions whose God was the God of borders. Israel’s God, by contrast, was a God within as well as without, a God who traveled with his people from slavery to freedom, from geography to geography, from Egypt to Canaan. It was by God’s “presence going with [them]” that Moses declared that the people “would be distinct from every people on the face of the earth” (Ex 33:14-16).

Exception-uniqueness-distinction—that which American religion claims is its freedom—is, in biblical religion, an experience of God’s presence rather than a possession of human might. The Christian’s freedom is given by the “God who will fight for us” independently of the soldiers who guard America’s, or any other’s, borders (Ex 14:14). Freedom is by the grace of God’s love and forgiveness and “not by works—so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9).

Judging by the ease in which “the great congregation” of PNC Park assented to the narrative of American freedom, America has yet to hear “the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).


Thursday, June 30, 2011

highlights from our first month back in the states

  • Denver. To visit Jacob and Aaron, Anna’s brothers. Shortly after our visit, Aaron got engaged to Kelli Kol, and the wedding is set for November 19—while we’re still around.
  • Bike-rides with Grandpa in Goshen, Indiana. This included a 26-mile round-trip ride on June 18 on the Pumpkin vine. Isaac and Moses both completed 18 of those 26 miles.
  • Sawatzky-Gingerich family reunion at Camp Mennoscah, Kansas. We enjoyed playing in the Ninnescah River with my parents’ eleven grandchildren between the ages of 8 and 1.
  • Family time in Kansas City. On the way from Indiana to Kansas, we had a great time at the College Basketball Experience and Kauffman Stadium for a Royals game.
  • Sunday, June 19 at Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, rural Goshen, Ind. This was our first official congregational visit of our North American assignment. Next up for us is the Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh, which marks the beginning of an accelerated speaking schedule for us.
  • Running into old friends wherever we have been.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Partnership Council 2011 Group Photo

This is the group that met in Bloemfontein at the beginning of May, reported on here. Thanks to Martin Wiens for the photo.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

North American Ministry

We've just reached another milestone in our missionary career. Yesterday we arrived in the United States for the beginning of our second "North American Ministry", or time away from our host country of South Africa in our sending country. This time around we will be here for seven months, returning to South Africa just after Christmas.

The purpose of this period will be:

1) visits to our supporting congregations throughout Mennonite Church USA (June, July, August)
2) "mission education" at various other events and church visits (October, November, December)
3) spending time with extended family
4) personal renewal

We made lots of arrangements in order to be gone from South Africa for this amount of time. This period will be a good test of whether the work we have been doing over the last five years can continue long into the future. We return to the United States pleased that we were able to make all the necessary arrangements before leaving South Africa. Now we leave the work to others in confidence and in prayer.

In telling people about our plans, one other question kept resurfacing--"What about the boys?" The boys will complete the fall term of school in the states, in Goshen, Indiana.

We hope to see many of you around!


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Easter and beyond

After our southern Africa trip, we had only one week at home before setting off on our Easter travels. Taking advantage of the long school break, we spent nearly two weeks in the Northern Cape and Free State, visiting churches and leaders to whom we Mennonites relate in South Africa.

We spent Easter with Grace Community Church (GCC) in Philipstown, and spent the following week visiting members and getting better acquainted with the small town. The big event of the church’s Easter conference was the ordination of a pastor, for which Anna and I were both invited to offer words of encouragement. The lingua franca in Northern Cape is Afrikaans, so, with those people who do not speak English, our best hope of communication is in isiXhosa, the other prominent language in the region.

After Philipstown, we headed 50 km down the road to De Aar. As last August, we enjoyed the hospitality of the Vena family and worshiped with New Beginnings church. Then we, along with two representatives from that congregation, traveled to Bloemfontein (Free State province) for this year’s meeting of the “Partnership Council”. There we met up with representatives from GCC, Breakthru Church International, Bethany Bible School, the Anabaptist Network in South Africa, A Rocha (a Christian environmental organization), and our other North American Mennonite colleagues.

The Partnership Council meeting was very rich. We developed a structure, appointed a Steering Committee, and made some plans to collaborate with one another on some ministry opportunities within the coming year. Ideally, the Partnership Council will function as a network of mutual growth, support, and accountability for partners diverse in experience, background, and theological perspective. Another highlight of the one-day meeting was an opening panel discussion on the meaning of salvation drawing upon the wealth of imagery and texts from the Bible.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Southern Africa Trip

From 30 March-14 April, we were away from our Mthatha home on a tour through the broader southern Africa region. The purpose of the trip was threefold: 1) to visit Melanie Quinn, our colleague with Mennonite Mission Network, serving in Francistown, Botswana; 2) to see the sights of the region, in particular Victoria Falls; 3) to visit Anje and Philip Cassel, workers with Mennonite Central Committee in Macha, Zambia. Since, from Francistown onward, we traveled through Botswana and Zambia with both Melanie and the Lindell Detweiler family, our Network colleagues in South Africa, the trip afforded much quality time together as a team. The pictures below tell the story of the Zambian portion of our journey.


We crossed the border from Botswana to Zambia and back again by ferry. Here our Opel Zafira, which made the more than 5,000 km-round-trip journey without a hitch, boards the pontoon.

The day after arriving in Livingstone, Zambia, we headed for the Falls. Anna, Jesse, Levi, Moses, and Isaac get set to go down one of the trails to view the Falls.


Baboons such as the one below are fixtures near the entrance to the trails at Victoria Falls. They’re obviously used to people and acquiring their food, as these were so aggressive as to climb into the back of our car in search of nourishment (they made off, only briefly, with a bottle of motor oil). We were also concerned for Levi, clutching an apple in the above picture, as the baboons, lurking near but out of view here, would have stolen it right out of his hand.



Victoria Falls, Mosi Oa Tunya, “the smoke that thunders”, themselves. From even this picture one can sense something of the sheer volume of water which plunges into the gorge. We were there in the season when the water is at its highest level.


Our group gets soaked. The trail along the edge leads to several fantastic vantage points of the Falls. Actually, when this close, the Falls are quite hard to see; one looks rather into a blinding wall of white—spray bounding up from the waters’ long fall. In places such as the one above, that mist is a torrential rain.


Another trail leads down to the “boiling pot”, or a treacherous whirlpool of water having made its fall. An intrepid Moses surveys the scene.

From natural wonders to man-made oddities, all taxis in Zambia were this shade of blue.


After Livingstone, we went three hours further inland to Macha, current home of Philip and Anje Cassel and their sons, Everett and John. They live and work on the complex of Macha Mission Hospital, a ministry of the Brethren in Christ (BIC) church in Zambia, a member church of Mennonite World Conference. The BIC church in Zambia dates to 1906, when the efforts of four missionaries, two American women and two Zimbabwean men, led to a church. The Cassels worship in one of the several BIC congregations in the area.


Our two days at the Cassels’ centered around their dining room table, symbol of their most gracious hospitality.


Traveling with four children certainly has its trying moments, but, as so many of our team activities in South Africa, our way was made by the Lindell Detweiler children’s ever-present willingness to play the role of older cousins to our boys. Here Annika carries Jesse on her back.

In addition to the highlights represented by these pictures, we also enjoyed:

  • finally seeing Melanie in her own environment. Though she has spent every Christmas with us since 2008, we had yet to make it to Francistown. We saw Bopaganang Basha, the youth centre where she works, worshiped at her church, met her friends, and ate delicious Indian cuisine at a local restaurant.
  • the wildlife along the way. Without even entering a game park, we saw dozens of elephants, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, and more on the stretch between Francistown and Zambia.
  • Fawlty Towers, the backpackers (low budget accommodation) in Livingstone. It features an expansive courtyard, large swimming pool, even a lounge with satellite television where we were able to watch the NCAA men’s basketball championship (too bad the game itself was total rubbish!).
  • our first hitchhiking experience. 20 km outside of Nata, Botswana on the return trip, our car ran out of petrol. But friendly assistance got me to and from Nata with a container of gas while Anna, Melanie, and the boys spread a blanket and read from the Chronicles of Narnia by the side of the road.
  • the friendly and helpful border employees in Botswana and Zambia, not so much the aggressive hawkers and moneychangers on the Zambian side.
  • two days in Johannesburg on the way home. We met up with another set of colleagues, the Suderman family, who is staying there for several weeks as part of their work for the Anabaptist Network. The highlight was a day at Gold Reef City, an amusement park. This was just what the doctor ordered for our boys after several long days in the car.

We’d been anticipating this trip from the beginning of the year, and are grateful that we made it to Zambia and back to Mthatha safely with many blessings in between.


Monday, March 28, 2011

definition of “Anabaptist”

A colleague recently asked me to write “an historical definition” (450-500 words) of Anabaptism for a forthcoming newsletter for the Anabaptist Network in South Africa.

I like history a lot, though I think I am too inclined to want to do theological analysis of historical events to truly measure up to the standards of modern historiography. That disclaimer aside, my definition is below.

In order to find a useful definition of “Anabaptist”, let us begin with the name itself. The word “Anabaptist” consists of two parts, “ana” and “baptist”. The first part, “ana” is the Greek prefix meaning “re”. The second part, “baptist”, refers, obviously, to the Christian practice of baptism by which one becomes a member of Christ and his Church. In the sixteenth-century, European context in which it was first coined, the title “Anabaptist” denoted a person who had been “re-baptized”. The title was pejorative; it was the Anabaptists' opponents way of speaking about those whom they said had violated the “one baptism” mandate of the New Testament (Eph 4:5). The name stuck, and today the spiritual descendants of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists gladly embrace it. Yet, originally, the Anabaptists did not believe themselves guilty of re-baptism; they simply denied that their “first” baptism—the sprinkling of water upon a newborn baby's head—was truly Christian.

The first known Anabaptist baptisms took place on 21 January 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland, when a group led by Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Felix Manz baptized one another in Manz's home. Their baptism, which has come to be known as “believers' baptism”, stood in contrast to “infant baptism”, the standard practice of the European society known as Christendom, the alliance of power between the church and the state. The meaning, again, lies in the name; the baptism of “believers” signifies those who have put their faith in Christ, not “infants” who, against their wills, have been sprinkled with water. Anabaptist baptism is the baptism of discipleship, of “counting the cost” before one sets off on one's journey after Jesus (Lk 14:27-28). Thus, believers' baptism—along with the type of community (church) it forms—is also often described as “voluntary” and “free”. Consistent with the freedom of their baptism, Anabaptists, in spite of a few notable exceptions, rejected coercion and violence, including participation in military service—for which they were persecuted and martyred.

Just as the early church after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1ff.), so persecution “scattered” the Anabaptists; in addition to remaining in their birthplaces of central and western Europe, Anabaptists fled in waves to Russia and the Americas. Later, through the great missionary movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Anabaptism took root in Africa, India, and East Asia. Today, the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptists are on every inhabited continent, with the greatest concentration of believers in Africa. As of 2006, according to the findings of Mennonite World Conference, “a community of Anabaptist-related churches”, there were nearly 1.5 million Mennonites and Brethren in Christ worldwide in 75 countries and over 200 “organized bodies”. Yet wherever people commit themselves to Jesus in a community of “justice, joy, and peace”, there the Anabaptist vision is alive (Rom 14:17).

In drafting this definition, a connection I began to make but had never quite seen before was the “freedom” inherent to “believers’ baptism” with the “nonviolence” characteristic of “believers’ churches”. In other words, though we often reason for nonviolence in terms of Jesus’ example from the gospels (which I still take to be the bedrock), Anabaptist Christians might also make a “theological” case from the wisdom or logic inherent to our (“free”, not “coerced”) baptism.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

a gift that keeps on giving

Today during our morning office time, we had an appointment with the Canon (Bethany Bible School rents office space from the Diocese of St. John’s, Anglican Church).

We met to discuss an unexpected fee raise on accommodations for conferences that we had noticed from our last invoice. While the Canon said that the decision was not his to make—that he had to take it to his Executive meeting later this month—he would certainly advocate for us, for our school, to receive a lower rate. He then gave his own testimony about BBS. He said that he used to see the Zionist leaders in the place where he was also serving an Anglican congregation. And, upon noticing over time that the quality of these pastors’ preaching had greatly improved, he commented to them, “I can see that you are getting some new things.” They replied, “Yes, we are going to Bethany.”

So, the Canon said to us, “I have seen the fruits of your labor.” Those are things that we do not always see. Nor did we expect to hear such an affirmation today; we are therefore grateful for this gift that has come our way. So too we are grateful for, to use a phrase which I first heard used of another ministry context involving Mennonites and African Initiated Churches (AICs), the “significant deposit of goodwill” which was made long before we even dreamed of coming to South Africa. That deposit is still there for us.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

worker care

Mennonite Mission Network has learned through long experience that the pressures and sometimes isolation of cross cultural work lead to high levels of burn out and other problems. And so they take the health, mental and otherwise, of their workers seriously.
To address these issues they employ a number of "worker care" people. A new initiative has been to take on, as mission workers, a couple who are based in London and travel the world visiting workers and seeing what they need. Wayne and Lois Hochstetler have come to see us twice and have washed dishes, played with our boys, visited ministry sites, met people, talked with us, done more formal counseling, and taken us out to eat. Their experience in pastoring and counseling qualify them for the work. Making them more highly qualified is the fact that that they are easy, warm, and adaptable people. Now they have been all over the world and have seen missionaries dealing with all kinds of situations, experiences which they bring to bear on other situations. In addition, they have been living outside of their home culture themselves.
Lois wrote a list on her blog the other day about the great things about being a missionary. It all feels very true to me, having spent most of my life in cross cultural mission in some way--as a missionary kid and now as a missionary myself. Here is the list.
  • You get to live in some of the most beautiful parts of the world.
  • You get to travel.
  • You get to be (have to be!) self directed.
  • Your experiences are very varied.
  • For most, the daily routine is very unstructured, often relaxed.
  • You get to see so many life experiences from different cultural points of view.
  • You get a much greater, "zoomed back," world view.
  • You feel unique.
  • The great satisfaction, when it happens, of "getting it," be it the language, a cultural moment, a connection with a national.
  • Kinship with other expatriots.
  • Although sometimes lonely, you know you are prayed for.
  • Those moments of supreme grace when there is a sense of being in the presence of, and participating with, a great and compassionate God.
  • You get to combine all this with a passion for the church, the Kingdom of God and the spiritual wellbeing of people all over the world.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

HIV-AIDS workshop at Bethany Bible School

When South Africa has been included in international news over the past decade, it has often been for an unfortunate reason: its scourge of HIV-AIDS. The government of Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), successor to Nelson Mandela as the nation’s second president, was widely condemned for its stance on HIV-AIDS, namely its denial that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus. Just as the government followed a course of misinformation during these years, so many of South Africa’s citizens remain misinformed or uninformed about a disease that affects all of them directly or indirectly.

7-8 years ago, Mavis Tshandu (below), a student-leader of Bethany Bible School and a nurse by trade, led a series of trainings on HIV-AIDS throughout the Transkei (the eastern part of the Eastern Cape Province with Mthatha as its principal city) as part of an off-shoot organization of BBS. That organization no longer functions, but our expansion of BBS’s program with three additional workshops throughout the year has created new opportunities to bring understanding of HIV-AIDS and other social issues affecting South Africa. On 4-5 March, Mavis led the first of these workshops in 2011 for 25 students who had gathered. Of these, only one person had participated in her trainings years ago. Moreover, Mavis reported that the knowledge of HIV-AIDS of those gathered last weekend was next to “nothing”; it seems that the time had definitely come for this workshop.

It was well-received. With an air of surprise and a sense of empowerment, one participant exclaimed, “This workshop was very nice—we are doctors now.” Hyperbole, yes; but also testimony to knowledge—and a measure of power—gained over an otherwise overwhelming burden in the rural communities from which these students come.

-JoeBBS HIV-AIDS workshop 015

BBS HIV-AIDS workshop 004

Monday, February 28, 2011

the urban tortoise

My mom went fo a wock and she came back with a tortoise. We cave hem
carrots and water.


life and death

At our Mennonite Ministries in South Africa retreat over the turn of the year, we were privileged to have several sessions with former general secretary of Mennonite Church Canada Jack Suderman. We spent mornings with Jack while he shared biblical insights for mission and discussed these insights in light of situations that we deal with.

Jack shared on the importance of good biblical interpretation. Looking at the story of the wise men who come to visit Jesus, we see the life and death consequences of incorrect biblical interpretation. The wisemen came to Jerusalem following a star that signaled to them the birth of the "King of the Jews". Based on their study they believe that the king of the Jews has to be born in Jerusalem. And so they come to Herod to inquire about the new king. Herod is afraid and threatened and summonses his wise people. His scholars read prophecies of a king to be born and see that such a king must be born in Bethlehem--"geographically close but theologically very far apart" says Jack.

As a result of this exegetical "mistake", King Herod has all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed. The task for us is to at least do no harm through our exegesis.

Over Christmas a woman from our church released her husband to go home to his family for part of the holidays. I don't know what their relationship was like or why she did not accompany him but I do know that when he did not reach home people began to look for him. He was found murdered in town. We attended his funeral several weeks later. Pastor Ntapo was to lead the service and Joe to preach. As is the custom, we gathered in the rondavel before the service for which a tent had been set up. The "mourners" sat on mats on the floor and everyone took turns speaking, singing, and praying. During this session, Joe had been mulling over various texts on which he could preach. As the time for the service to begin drew near, the coffin was brought out from the wall for everyone to see the deceased in flesh one last time. As the murdered man's sons of 12 and 10 circled the coffin it became clear that this was not a situation of comforting the bereaved. This had become a situation in which our primary task was to do what we could to prevent the sons of the murdered man from becoming murderers or being murdered themselves.

So Joe chose to preach on Cain and Abel and to relate the story of that death to Jesus' death as interpreted in Hebrews 12--the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. It was a strong message and was received with joy but we didn't know any more than that.

The next day at church we heard more of the story. Pastor Ntapo told us that during the early part of the funeral, which we had not understood, the friends of the deceased had stood to tell the story of the death. In their manner of telling they implicated the widow in his murder. One man had begun wondering aloud why he had been alone in town without his wife and had ended with: "I had better stop there." Malice and ill-will were running high when Joe got up to preach. Pastor Ntapo said: "but that word silenced them. It was a miracle since you didn't even know."

When we arrived in the US for three months in 2008, I was amazed by the quiet peace of Newton and Goshen. Everything looked clean and in order and everyone looked healthy and happy. As we traveled and met old friends and new, we found out how much pain lay behind some of those closed doors, how much had happened internally for people even as their lawns continued to look unharmed.

I am grateful to pastors and others who speak a prophetic word into the lives of people suffering--whether that suffering is upfront and known as it often is here in Mthatha or whether it is hidden and deep as it often is in North America. The word that comes from the Word can reverse the drive toward death and harm, it has the power to heal and bring newness of life.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

the just and the social

Recent events, which I will not specify, are forcing me to rethink my commitment to the primacy of a social, embodied peace. That is, taking my cues from such texts as Ephesians 2:11-22, I had come to see as all-important the “one new humanity created in place of the two”—“the two” being the different groups of humanity which were “hostile” one to another, but now brought into a relationship of “peace” “through the blood of Christ” and “by the cross, by which he put to death their hostility”. It is this same social “peace” which the apostle exhorts must be “maintained” by “every effort”—and so it should be (Eph 4:3).

The problem, of course, is that many cry, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer 6:11, 8:11; 1 Th 5:3). In the name of “unity”, some counsel the simple “forgetting”, the “putting behind” of offenses committed apart from “every effort” being made to rectify such wrongs. Apart from that rectifying, however, the sting of offense remains to pain the body. And though the body, the social peace, may for a time hide its bruises under clothes, that which is hidden eventually consumes from within. There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed (Mk 4:22; 1 Cor 4:5). We either rectify offenses quickly—though not carelessly—or they will deal with us at the appointed time.

Consequently, before the embodiment of peace comes the doing of justice/righteousness. Before there is the “one body” created by the cross, there is “his body” crucified there. Before there is peace, there is “the division” which he came to bring (Lk 12:51). Before the church, the Christ who fills it (Eph 1:23).

To be sure, the justice which precedes the peace is part and parcel of it—that is, in fact, the point. It is precisely in standing up for the “things that make for peace” (Lk 19:42)—true peace—that division comes. Yet stand up we must—and “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

for love of God

Yesterday we said good-bye to my parents after a wonderful two-week visit to South Africa, their first-ever overseas trip.

At church on the 6th, Pastor Ntapo asked me to introduce my parents with “that song which you love”—Besuka Bamlandela. Translated, it says that certain people “left to follow him/they left their homes to follow him/they carried the cross, going to Golgotha/they left their homes to follow him.”

I do indeed love that song. Early on, I had singled out its melody from a range of choruses and Xhosa hymns. When I learned its meaning, it impressed me even more. The song encapsulates for me both my calling and what I perceive myself to be calling others to: a faith in Jesus that leads even to dying for enemies (the cross), a passion to please God more than human beings, an obedience to an Authority higher than the authorities of “home”—of nation and yes, parents. In other words, the song acknowledges the conflict that often arises between loyalty to God and loyalty to parents, one’s earthly elders.

For that reason, I have sometimes fancied that my missionary identity has much gospel integrity—that because I have so obviously left the home of my birth I have the power to preach to others the allegiance to God over humans; no one can deny that my simple being in a foreign land is a demonstration of that commitment. It also seems true, however, that such a commitment can seem so strange to others—perhaps so distasteful—so as to be scarcely human. Upon seeing my parents, the one “old woman” of the church proclaimed, “Now we know that Joseph is not a street kid”.

The comment was partly tongue-in-cheek, yet it revealed the strong African characteristic of fidelity to one’s elders. The woman was glad to see that I had a living relationship with my parents. For if I did not, was I fully a person?

The comment was also a check on my perception of how others perceive me. Is that which we perceive to be our most faithful witness sometimes an impediment to gaining a hearing for our message? A certain logic, for example, has sometimes told me, along related lines of forsaking family for the gospel, that one could be a more effective missionary freed from the responsibilities of family. Some of the words of the Apostle Paul appear to give credence to such logic (see 1 Cor 7:32ff.) Yet Anna and I have found that our greatest asset in this work has been our marriage and family. In a culture that both values families but suffers much brokenness within them, the greatest witness is a man and woman who go through life together, publicly tend their children, and even sometimes say “no” to ministry opportunities for the sake of family. On occasion the latter example, initially feeling like a failure of ministry, has been received as a witness of faithful love, as an opportunity for the one watching and listening to be convinced of the importance of primary relationships.

For in the end, tending family and following Jesus are not inherently opposed. Marital love can be the source of strength for other relationships. And parental love—that which embraces—can be, ironically, that which sets one on his course away from home—that which releases—to follow Jesus. So it has been for me.

As I interpreted the words of that song to my parents, I realized that it was not simply I who, for love of God, had left home and parents. They, for the same love, had given me up.


Untitled 0 00 12-19Tim and Lela Mae Sawatzky bring greetings to the gathering of Bethany Bible School, 4 February 2011.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

new man, woman new

Several weeks ago on my scripture blog, I reflected on the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38). The story had served as our inductive Bible study at Bethany Bible School last August, and its relevance to elements within South African culture continue to astound me.

Most importantly, for example, the text champions the cause of the widow, Tamar by name, in society. The text is a glowing narrative example of Old Testament law’s, also echoed by the prophets, constant refrain that God is a God for “the orphan, the poor, and the widow”, or society’s most vulnerable members. The story is a glowing testimony to the overwhelming dignity of the Old Testament, a document in general which is still largely derided and misunderstood by many within the Christian community, pastor and layperson alike.

Perhaps my appreciation of the Old Testament generally, and the story of Judah and Tamar in particular, is magnified by my living in a society whose own dark side regularly features contempt for women and widows in particular (Please note here that I refuse to define such treatment as an element of “traditional” or “African” culture; we can point to humane and inhumane treatment of society’s most vulnerable in every human culture throughout time, and thus the choice is ours to define as authentic culture that which is good or that which is evil in any society).

Two examples will suffice:

1. Widows are vulnerable because, as in the story of Judah and Tamar, popular opinion often implicates them in the death of their husbands. I just preached at a funeral for a man who was stabbed to death by tsotsis (young gangsters) over the Christmas holidays. He left behind three children and a widow—a member of our church. Although the widow had nothing to do with her husband’s attack, she, like Tamar following the deaths of Er and Onan, was suspected by the husband’s family of plotting evil against her husband. Recall that, even though the text clearly states that the brothers Er and Onan died for their own sins, because they were evil in the sight of Yahweh, Judah suspects Tamar. Our pastor tells me that such suspicion of widows is all too common. The reality that many marriages are not healthy either gives rise to such suspicions or exacerbates them.

2. And why are marriages difficult? I recently had the privilege of conversing with someone who was privy to a conversation between young people about cultural practices that contribute to the oppression of women in society. At her meeting, the conversation got around to circumcision, which is the initiation here for boys becoming men (about age 18). Although men are not supposed to reveal what they learned at their circumcision schools (what happens there is supposed to remain “secret”), two men disclosed their experiences. One went to a circumcision school in which the initiates were taught how to be men by learning how to respect women. The other went to a school in which initiates were taught that manhood was sealed by sleeping with as many women as possible—especially women whom one “does not like” or find desirable. When asked whether he had followed through on such “wisdom”, the man said “yes” because doing so was the way given for him to become a man. If it is true, according to a recent study, that 75% of men in South Africa have committed violence against women, it is reasonable to assume that the latter school of thought on manhood is the prevailing one. And if these are the men who also marry, woe the women to whom they are married.

If all of this sounds too depressing, there is yet the witness of a better way. For the story of Judah and Tamar reveals, not redemption for Tamar alone, but for Judah, the offending man in her life. His repentance through the word of truth—“she is more in the right than I”—from his prior condemnation of Tamar is hope for a society in need of a “new man.”


Friday, January 21, 2011

style and substance

We have written many times about our little church and the spiritual nourishment we have found there. We met in a tiny cement building. The music was soul-tearingly beautiful and we found a lot of life in a common practice of everyone praying out loud together. While the people raised their voices to God together each could find their own way to come to God. Some could scream and shout, some could cry, some could pray in the silence of their hearts. The emphasis was on no one person or on eloquent words and I could be lost in prayer in a way that I haven't experienced before.

A few weeks before Christmas, the landlord demolished the building with two day's warning. The following week we met in a tent on another piece of land. The church hired a sound system since it was a special end of the year service. The amplifier has to be turned all the way up and the microphone held right up to the mouth of a person who is used to projecting a voice with no amplification and does not tone it down for the microphone. The sound is intense but in that tent for a special occasion I was able to handle it and still enter the worship.

Over Christmas, the church put up a tin shack to meet in. It is considerably larger than the previous structure which had become much too small.

On Sunday we were dismayed to see the speaker that projects the sound out into the community already in place. It seemed that they had settled into a pattern of regularly using the speakers that had once been for special occasions. The sound was the loudest I have ever heard in five years of going to extremely loud churches. The combination of tin walls, the sound all the way up, two speakers in a small building, and the power of the voices that are shouting straight into the mic, was enough to create a sense of panic in me.

The cacophony was overwhelming and I found myself utterly unable to enter into the worship. The practice of praying together took on new dimensions while the two people with mics screamed their prayers out into the neighbourhood. I was unable to think or pray. The voices of the two women leading the songs were so distorted that I could not understand the words or participate in the singing. The electrification put a wall between people who had previously been united in lifting their voices.

This week has been difficult for me. The church that was our stability had become a place that I dreaded to be. I woke up in the night feeling the panic of Sunday all over again. Even if I can find a way to worship in the frenzy, I can't sacrifice my children's long term health.

In a setting in which I am among "my own" or in a situation with no power imbalance, I would be able to address the issue with the pastor or the people. But I am different and have different tastes. If everyone else finds life in this then I can't be the one to change it. And yet, I can't be sustained in this place without a way to worship with other people.

We all know and condemn the stories of missionaries who came into a culture and told the people that the way they were doing things was evil and that they needed to be more like the missionaries' home culture. Not a matter of the Gospel at all but of culture. Or is it always that simple?

Independent Christians in this area, AICs and Pentecostals, have grave concern that they obey the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:6 "but whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door." Although the door is normally open during a service for air and light, it is closed as soon as a prayer begins.

Now the prayers of the faithful are projected via loudspeaker into the community. They act from a concern for outreach--more people will come in if they hear what is going on. Which concern trumps the other? Which is faithful? Do we hold the people to their own concern for not being "like the hypocrites"? Or is that imposing our culture? And is it separated from our desire to worship in a way that gives life which we had previously found with them?


Monday, January 17, 2011

living the dream

The coming of this day every year, the third Monday in January, is for me an opportunity to undergo one of my favorite experiences: to be moved by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am grateful that I am, in certain ways, living Dr. King’s dream; not “in Alabama” but in South Africa, I see “little black boys and black girls” joining hands with “little white boys”—my own— “as sisters and brothers.” Such a witness means at least as much in South Africa as it does in the United States of America.

And just as Dr. King often and in brilliant fashion called upon the hymns and prophetic words of his faith to interpret the old and call into being a new world, so more than a few South African brothers and sisters have proclaimed the “fulfillment of prophecy” through the words of a cherished hymn upon our sharing of worship together.

Abantsundu nabamhlope/Mababulele kunye/Mabavakalise bonke/Baculele iNkosi

Blacks and whites/let them give thanks together/let them all proclaim the good news /let them sing to the Lord


Monday, January 10, 2011

being the church

At the beginning of last month, the last month of 2010, our church lost its building. It was literally there one Sunday, gone the next. The owner of the land wanted it back in order to put up a personal residence. The church structure is now a heap of rubble, the personal house has not yet arisen. The church has moved on regardless. For a few weeks the church worshiped in a tent; during the time when we were away for our retreats, a new, large “shack” was erected from two-by-fours and sheets of tin. We worshiped in it for the first time, the church’s second Sunday, yesterday. The shack has lots of room for growth—a good thing since the old building had become too small.

The church got a R15,000 ($2,200) loan to secure the building materials and will have to pay it back in R1,150 monthly installments. That breaks down, averaging four Sundays per month, to about R300: that is what the people will need to give in offerings in order to pay it back. Although that seems like a manageable sum of money, typical Sunday offerings never even approach it. In an independent church of this nature, shortfalls typically become the pastor’s responsibility. So, if some here get into the ministry as a money-making enterprise—as it is often alleged—others enter it with much fear and trembling for its great pressures. Our pastor, for example, carefully balances the pressure of running a church with caring for a family of five. Dipping into his own pockets on behalf of the church is money not spent on his household. For that reason, many pastors’ wives are reluctant to embrace their husbands’ ministries. That, of course, is also a major strain on marriages; and some pastors have discarded their wives for others who will bear silently the pressures of ministry.

In light of such scenarios, our pastor has transferred the family’s bank account into his wife’s name, giving her final control of their income. That move should go a long way in keeping the precious unity of the marriage in a time of financial uncertainty in the church.

In the meantime, the church will need to pay back the loan. Yesterday might have been a start—if the offering had not gone, in total, to the member of the church who was widowed over the Christmas season, her husband found stabbed to death in town. Such a situation too, whether death by violent crime or disease, is one of the realities that churches “on the edge”, in the poor communities of South Africa, deal with on a regular basis, and which hold them back from their dreams of developing programs which would improve the quality of lives.

Even still, though the church struggles, it is precisely within the struggle that the church fulfills its mission. As it “bears one another’s burdens”, it “fulfills the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Would that all the programs of the Church did as much! In that sense, the church of the poor is less to be pitied than considered, a witness to the plan of God for the world from which all churches might hear anew their true calling.