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.