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.