Thursday, December 20, 2012

December trip

From last Thursday through Tuesday we were away from Mthatha on a family fun and work trip to the Northern Cape.  On Sunday, we worshiped with the Grace Community Church in Philipstown.  On the way to Philipstown, we spent two nights near the Eastern Cape town of Cradock, home of Pastor Lawrence and Juanita Coetzee, also of the Grace Community Church family.  Around these visits we enjoyed much good family time (see below).

Isaac, Moses, and Levi man our cooking fire at Mountain Zebra National Park outside of Cradock.  We stayed in the campground for two nights.

Our family tent (left) and Uncle Jacob's one-person tent (right).
One of the park's friendly beasts.

Near Philipstown we stayed at our usual spot, the guest farm of Andries and Kay Fourie. Andries gave our boys rides on his motorbike.
The meals at the guest farm are always a highlight.
Monday's main activity in the swimming pool.  Uncle Jacob throws to Moses.
We managed to get this family picture on one of our walks around the vast farm premises.

We found this amazing stick insect on the farm.  The resemblance to a blade of grass or  straw is uncanny.

Isaac at work designing soccer jerseys, his art project of choice for the trip.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

known and loved

Something very beautiful happens when our seven-year-old Moses enters our backyard chicken pen.  Since August we've had a small flock of birds, and Moses knows them by name.

A couple of weeks ago he led me to the pen to exhibit the skills of his flock.  Moses climbs a small tree, bird under his arm, and places the chicken on a branch.  Then he patiently waits for the chicken to fly down from its perch of its own accord.  He notifies me ahead of time which birds are reluctant to fly, and which birds descend without deliberation.  Every time the result is as Moses has foretold.  One small hen he has named Bravey, because she shows courage in her quick descent from the tree.

If Moses is in a bad mood, he transforms into an exceedingly polite and gentle young man in the presence of his chickens.  I cannot help but remember "the Good Shepherd" (Jn 10) when I see Moses and his flock; Moses truly "knows his own and his own know him" (Jn 10:14).  And if this level of delight in and loving kindness for his creatures is a reflection of who Jesus claims to be, then those who belong to his flock have much reason for quiet confidence and strong hope in the midst of adversity.  The One who holds the universe in his hand loves us, and nothing else matters.

If a seven-year-old's care is a reflection of our Creator, then truly God is love (1 Jn 4:8).


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

30 years of BBS

2012 marked the 30 year anniversary of Bethany Bible School and its predecessor Bible teaching programs, a partnership between Mennonites and African Independent Churches.  This is a presentation that we had made for the occasion.  Thanks to those past missionaries, mission office personnel, and archivists who sent us the links to many of these photos.  Thanks to Jacob Liechty for putting it all together.

Monday, November 12, 2012

graduation 2012

For those of you who have been supporting us for the past seven years, you might know that the past weekend was a benchmark of sorts for our work in South Africa.  Fourteen students graduated with what we are calling a "Certificate in Theology" from Bethany Bible School.  These are students who studied and were tested on the 24 topics that comprise our curriculum and make up our Bible conference schedule.

Overall, I believe that the students were elated.  "The history has been made yesterday.  And I'm glad to be part of it. . . . Truly it was awesome", read one graduate's thanks by text message.  They certainly loved the BBS isidanga, the ceremonial accoutrements which, in this context, seem to concretize "achievement" far more than they do in the western cultural milieu that shaped my own mindset (A whole other entry might be written about that).  In the words of one student, "People and I are so amazed, they are filled with wonder about the SASH AND THE CERTIFICATE . . ." (emphasis his).

The pictures below will help to tell more of the story.

All the rewards for our students' work.  The BBS stole was embroidered by a local Mthatha business, Handsrite, which did a stunning job.   The layout for the stole was designed by Anna's brother Jacob who is staying with us for several months and is a brilliant graphic designer.  The certificate at top, also Jacob's design, was awarded to graduates.  The certificate at bottom was a special recognition for elders of BBS, people who have been with the school since its inception which dates to 1982 (At BBS, students don't necessarily move on; even many of our current graduates plan to return to continue studying.  BBS is a Christian fraternal as much as it is a school).  This conference doubled as a 30-year celebration of BBS.  Placed at top left of the bottom certificate is a BBS pin, which all graduates received (Graduates, by their choice, paid for their stoles, pins, gowns, and mortarboards).  Finally, we also arranged to honor our elders with a BBS mug, which another local business, Rose Signs, made for us.

Friday of graduation weekend includes the Annual General Meeting (presided over by Committee members , from L to R, N Dwele, B Mbana, and WS Gumenke).  Preceding the AGM was a day full of oral examinations over the year's topics.

Our banner with school logo, courtesy of another local business, Marie's Workshop, which also made our pins (when we explained to them the work of the school, they donated the banner).  The symbol is inspired by Ephesians 4:13, "until all of us come to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ".  The vision is that, through the knowledge of Jesus and the story over which he is Lord, his followers will grow into his likeness.  Hence our motto, Siyakhula ekwazini uNyana, We are growing in knowing the Son.

The hall where we meet was decorated by a secondary (middle school) school which had used the hall for its own prize-giving earlier on Friday.   They didn't take their decorations down, which ended up being a gift to our gathering.

All the graduates, the elders, and us.  

The three elders we honored for their leadership in the school since the beginning.  L to R: TM Adonis; G Nombinja; J Koti.  Absent, but also honored were R Bulu and SM Mgqotho.


Friday, September 14, 2012

speaking about Lonmin

It is difficult to say anything in the wake of last month's killing of thirty-four striking workers at the Lonmin Platinum Mine in the North West. And yet it is nearly equally hard to remain silent about the massacre and its spin-off protests and political battles which continue to dominate national headlines and garner international attention.

Much of my reluctance to speak may be found in the limits of my identification with the mine workers and the nation of South Africa in general; I am an American citizen sojourning in South Africa, and the circumstances of my life have not driven me to seek the hardscrabble employment of the mines as did those twenty-eight fellow residents of the Eastern Cape (and specifically the region around Mthatha) who perished at Marikana.  Perhaps if I may speak out of any common identity it is as a Christian, a title which claims at some level eighty percent of the population of South Africa.

My Christian faith tells me to be wary of "the rulers and authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12).  Though these powers are not "of blood and flesh", they exercise control over human institutions which have rebelled against their loving creator God.  It is within the very nature of these powers to wield the sword of economic inequality, to enrich those humans who accept their thrones and impoverish those whom they enslave.  Samuel warned Israel that the king whom Israel set over itself would "take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers" (1 Sam 8:14).  That power of economic exploitation remains in our time.  I cannot imagine that even R12,500 ($1,500)--the monthly salary demanded by striking mine workers--is too much compared with the billions accrued by mining magnates on the backs of their employees.  Injustice is the basic predicament in which we human beings are ensnared.

My Christian faith calls me to a particular kind of life within the pervasive injustice of our world.  Not every weapon in the struggle against injustice is appropriate for the Christian, but only that which Christ himself has sanctioned.  The Christian lives only in Christ; his way determines our path.  What is that path?

My Christian education taught me that the Palestinian Judaism of Jesus' day exhibited three prevailing approaches to the "cosmic powers" that enforced the world's inequalities.  With regard to the Roman occupation, the embodiment of exploitative power, the Sadducees, the temple aristocracy, counseled accommodation.  Accommodation to injustice was typified by the high priest Caiaphas who, fearing the wrath of Rome against a popular Jewish uprising that might be incited by Jesus, was willing to sacrifice an innocent man in exchange for the preservation of the temple (Jn 11:45ff.).  The Essenes, not mentioned in the Bible, coped with the specter of Rome by forging a communal life in wilderness isolation from the surrounding world, an approach sometimes called withdrawal or flight.  A third group, the Zealots, advocated armed resistance to Rome.  Peter, the eventual leader of Jesus' disciple band, though never identified as a Zealot, best typified their approach to fight when he took up the sword in defense of Jesus at the time of his arrest (Jn 18:10).  Jesus himself, of course, rejected all three options:

  • not accommodation, the moral compromise of sacrificing others for self-interest, but "I am the good shepherd" who "lays down his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11);

  • not flight, but "he set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Lk 9:51);

  • not fight, but "when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten" (1 Pet 2:23) (emphasis mine).

The approach of Jesus, instead, was nonviolence.  Jesus walked the narrow path that few find (Mt 7:14).  He willingly walked "through the valley of the shadow of death" for the sake of truth, upholding the dignity of the human being whom God did not create for slavery and subjection to evil (Ps 23:4; Ps 8:5-8; Heb 2:5-9; Gal 4:6-7).  He did so while maintaining his purity as a child of God, meeting the cruelty of human injustice with the righteousness of God's persistent love.  "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Mt 5:9).

Protest, that seemingly beloved and venerable tradition in South African society, certainly fits within the Jesus-way of moving toward, that is, not avoiding, situations of injustice.  Even so, only that protest which exhibits Christ's nonviolent love is acceptable for the Christian. It is for that simple reason, therefore, that I am far less easy with this tradition of protest

than I am with with this

or, from the American story, this.

But if the circumstances of my personal identity (nationality, privilege, race) should preclude me from speaking at this time for the sake of Christ, I hereafter forfeit that voice.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Bolt being Bolt and biblical narrative

The last two weeks have seen our social calendar increase due to the London 2012 Olympic games.  Not having a television of our own, we've been imposing upon several households of Mthatha friends to satisfy the desires of our sport-obsessed children (not that their parents don't enjoy the games!).

All of this is a backdrop to say a few words inspired by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, arguably the brightest star in a veritable sporting galaxy. Transcendent is not too strong a word to describe Bolt, an athlete so beyond his opponents that ESPN's Michael Wilbon claimed something of a victory for the United States' mens' 4x100 relay team for simply pushing Bolt "to run at full speed right through the finish line"--something he seemed not to do in his 100m victories in Beijing 2008 and London.  Yet what is wondrous about Usain is not simply his exploits on the track, but that he does what he does under the name of "Bolt".  He is a sprinter named lightning.  Not even that swimmer named Michael, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, was blessed with a surname like "Fish".

Bolt's luster is unique indeed.  Or at least it carries something of biblical proportions.  This is not to say that Bolt is a god (a self-proclaimed "living legend" will do) but that the circumstances of his character are the stuff of biblical narrative.

Bolt being Bolt, for example, is akin to "Mahlon and Chilion", the destined-to-die-before-their-time sons of Naomi, being named, in their Hebrew meanings, "sickness" and "wasting" respectively (Ruth 1:2).  It is like, where sarcasm proves the point, the husbands of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, carrying names like "Protector" (Er) and "Vigorous" (Onan) though they failed to produce offspring for her (Gen 38:1-10).  It is like Elijah, "Yahweh is my God", being the only prophet left in Israel who did not bow the knee to Baal (1 Kgs 18:22; 19:10, 14). It is even like Jesus--though the narrative's own rationale is explicit--being named "the Lord saves" (Mt 1:21).  Apparently some names make the man.

Critical scholarship usually assumes that such details of biblical narrative were contrived for ideological import rather than recorded for historical accuracy.  Hence, the noted "historical Jesus" scholar John Dominic Crossan has argued that the passion narratives of the gospels are "prophecy historicized" rather than "history remembered."  In other words, because the disciples' experience of Jesus somehow reminded them of their holy scriptures, they reconstructed his story for the sake of fulfilling Old Testament prophecy rather than for preserving a "blow-by-blow", that is, factual, account of his life.

To be sure, it is one kind of error to reduce all theological truth--that which is true about God and God's activity in the world--to that which can be verified according to modern standards.  Indeed, if truth were no more than fact, then the biblical genres of prophecy, parable, proverb, psalm, and poetry would provide little interpretive value to the meaning of life, the opposite of which has been proven in the experience of the faithful throughout generations.  On the other hand, if the modern mindset requires that faith must work without history, then we are likely to miss the miracle of life when it passes before our eyes.

The wonder of Usain Bolt being Bolt, therefore, is that in it converges--in our games, in our time, in our world, before our eyes--the name and the reality, the word and the sign, the invisible and the visible, the spirit and the flesh.  Bolt being Bolt, and other exceptionally clear exhibitions, enable us to glimpse the unity of life in God's design.  In such moments, myth becomes reality, and reality myth; legend becomes history, and history legend.  Or, in the words of American author E.L. Doctorow, "There's no longer any such thing as fiction and non-fiction; there's only narrative."  It is in that same light, I contend, that we might appraise the biblical story.


I first encountered Crossan's terminology in his Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus.  San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

on dress and humility

Last week I attended a funeral for the mother of one of the members of our Bible School’s committee.  When I arrived, I was positioned front-and-center between two bishops in pope hats.  Sparkling attire has also been the major preoccupation of our committee as we prepare for the Bethany Bible School graduation in November.  Because we now have students who, upon testing, will have completed our curriculum, it seems right to reward their efforts with stoles at graduation.  For our students, however, even stoles are not enough; in spite of their limited resources, they are quite willing to open their pocketbooks for robes, mortarboards, and pins with the school logo affixed.  Though most of our students, hailing from African-Initiated Churches, already have church robes, something unique for the occasion is apparently in order. 

In the opposite direction, I spent significant time with a pastor in a quite different context in South Africa from the one in which we work who shuns all type of priestly identifiers because, in his view, they send the wrong message about the meaning of Christianity.  In our conversations he also raised serious questions about Christians who do dress up for church, insinuating that those who are concerned with dress betray a deficient spiritual state, these being convinced that proper dress or the right performance of rituals will get them into the kingdom of God.

Though I sympathize with the pastor’s concern for spiritual health, neither have I been able to avoid conforming, where conscience permits, to the mores around me.  Wearing a suit and tie to teach has been an important show of respect for my students’ culture and, at least initially, a factor by which I gained a hearing.  So too, I believe, was the move I made in 2009 to begin wearing a robe and my seminary hood for graduation.  It simply seemed like a step I needed to take in the direction of respect for the students, the Bible School, the occasion, and my role as teacher.

So while the recurring focus on dress sometimes—hopefully not too often—leads me to despair of a breakdown in the communication of my witness to the gospel, for the sake of Christ’s humility (Php 2:1-11) I continue to be led down paths not of my own choosing.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Durban immersion

Walk through the heart of Durban, as we did today on a visit to the US Consulate General for the renewal of two passports, and feel the pulse
  • of a blind woman singing gospel—Noya na phezulu? Will you go to heaven?—for tips;
  • of the Islamic Propagation Centre;
  • of street vendors spreading on their mats various tree barks, components of traditional Zulu medicine;
  • of a curios shop selling statues of Vishnu, Ganesh, and the host of Hindu gods and goddesses.
Venture to the beachfront, to the uShaka Marine World complex, and see
  • white girls doing as one of the signs says, “Shop in your cossies” (“cossies” is short for swimming suits or “costumes” as they’re called in South Africa),
  • alongside Muslim women whose only exposed flesh is a thin strip from eye to eye;
  • two generations of Jewish males donning yamakas
  • people from all walks of life sporting the latest fashions of a globalized world—Nike, Converse, soccer jerseys, the obnoxious phrase t-shirt genre
For food
  • “Middle Eastern Style Schwarmas” washed down by Fanta Grape Soda and Stoney Ginger Ale (lunch)
  • South African Indian takeaway—mutton samoosas, vegetable breyani, beef and mutton curries (supper back in Pietermaritzburg)
African, Asian, and European.  Separate but together, together but separate.
This is South Africa.


Monday, July 2, 2012

learning about the San

We just visited two sites in the Central Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, Giant’s Castle and Kamberg, which are both known for their Rock Art as created by the San or Bushmen, the indigenous people of South Africa who predated the black farmers and the white settlers.

The pictures below illustrate San beliefs.


In these two, the second of which is a close-up of the middle section of the first, two women can be seen.  One woman, at left, receives a baby from another woman, at right, who herself carries a baby on her back.  In the first picture, these figures are clearly overshadowed by two large, dark figures which are medicine people or shamans, the holy people of the San.  The shamans, who themselves did the paintings, appear with the heads of elands, the most sacred animal of San religion.  The San depended on the eland, which still exist in the area.

The San shamans depicted themselves as according to their experience in a dance-induced trance.  After dancing for hours, they would see themselves with the head of the eland, which signified for the San hunters that a successful hunt was coming.

Eland were important to the San for marking entry into different stages of human life.  For example, a male did not become a man, able to provide for his clan, without first killing an eland.  Likewise, in the ritual of child dedication, the meat of the eland was consumed as a blessing upon the life of the family.

In the third image (below), a shaman receives the life-force of the eland by gripping its tail.


As a Christian visiting these sites, I’m reminded of the tradition of ritual animal slaughter in our own religious tradition.  Though Christians generally do not sacrifice animals, the Bible contains stories and laws from the time when our spiritual ancestors did mark life with the blood of sacrifice.

If animal sacrifice seems strange to Christians today, it is likely so because we have inherited from the early Christians a departure from the practice in light of their understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Even that departure, however, did not come so much as a new revelation in human history as a rearrangement of beliefs about sacrifice and its benefits.  Jesus did not abolish the necessity of sacrifice but became the sacrifice whose life we also might receive, becoming ourselves, “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1).  Unlike the San, the blood of bulls (Heb 9:13) or elands is not necessary for us, but the work of living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural world goes on.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"When I Remember" by Cradock youth

Neither Mthatha, where we are, nor Colesburg or Cradock, where we visited our sister churches several days ago with the Youth Venture team, are considered by most South Africans to be destination locations.  People are usually surprised to learn that we have seen the small places of the Eastern Cape.  Yet as a biblical people, we should not be surprised to find in such places the indescribable riches of God's kingdom. The natural power and beauty in the voices of these young people are some of those great gifts which God has allowed us to experience in South Africa.  As one of the Youth Venture participants remarked of her South African peers, "They are the greatest singers in the world!"



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Youth Venture in South Africa

Youth from Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Cradock, Eastern Cape , South Africa, at the home of Pastor Lawrence and Juanita Coetzee of Grace Community Church, Monday, 11 June 2012
For the past ten days, we've been hosting North American church youth through Youth Venture, a short-term learning and service program of Mennonite Mission Network.

Our journey together started in the Northern Cape, where we met the group of six (four youth and two leaders) for a weekend with the branches of Grace Community Church, a member of Mennonite World Conference.  We were hosted in Colesburg by three different households from the church.  After church on Sunday, we traveled to Cradock where the youth from the USA enjoyed an evening session and meal with youth from several congregations in the area.

Upon arrival in Mthatha last week, we began orienting the group to the sights, people, and culture in preparation for the following week of home-stays and work assignments.  The orientation week included

  • a visit to the Nelson Mandela Museum near his boyhood home of Qunu
  • an introductory session on Xhosa language and culture taught by our teacher, Yoliswa Mxakaza
  • a visit to a rural homestead
  • a scavenger hunt through downtown Mthatha
  • a walk in a local game park
  • an evening with our Tuesday Evening Bible Study group
  • a beach day at Silaka Nature Reserve, Pt. St. John's
This week the youth are living with local families and working with Non-Profit organizations in the region.  These include,

  • Mzomtsha Youth Care Centre, Ngqeleni, a home for orphaned children between the ages of 6 and 18
  • Bethany Children's Home, for orphaned children from 0-6
  • Vision Care, which specializes in eye-care for under-served people
  • African Medical Mission (AMM), which until just recently ran Itipini Clinic which served a community which had stood for many years on a former garbage dump.  Within the last month, the community has been displaced and the task of the AMM workers now is to dissolve the organization while continuing to give care to some of those who have lost their homes.
Thanks for your prayers for the group, its leaders, and their South African friends as they experience God in new ways together.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

on church leadership

Yesterday I had someone share a story with me about pastoral leadership in this context.  A church questioned the fitness of its pastor to preach due to a conflict.  In the pastor's place, the church suggested that guest preachers or lay members with something to say might fill the pulpit.  The church's reasoning, as it was relayed to me, went something like this:

The people have problems of their own.  They are looking for help for those problems.  They think that if the preacher has those problems too, he will be unable to impart the word to them.

I don't know what all influences--societal, cultural, religious, or a mix of all these and more--form the people's beliefs, but I do know that the verb "to impart" or its noun form, "impartation", seems to be something of a tenet of Pentecostal/Charismatic doctrine.  At least impartation gets tossed around as though its meaning is self-evident to all Christians; what Pentecostals mean by it has not, perhaps until now, been evident to me.

Perhaps most of all, the story interests me for what it reveals about the meaning of the preaching event in this particular context, namely, that the sermon, being the means through which God's Word is imparted to the people, has a healing function.  People anticipate the sermon as the time when something will, in effect, be done for them.  It is the time when the preacher, the acknowledged authority in their midst, puts his "spirit" on the people.  Surely, the story goes along with how a pastor defined his role to me some years back--"I am a transferer of spirits".

It follows from this understanding of the preacher and the proclamation that the spiritual health of the one who shares God's Word is of primary importance in the eyes of the people.  If the preacher has a right spirit or the life to confirm the words he/she speaks, then the spirit the preacher transmits can improve the weakened "signals" of the members of his flock.

There are perhaps some antecedents to this logic in the history of Christianity.  In the early fourth century in North Africa, a rift developed in the church between those who were represented by a man named Donatus and those loyal to Rome.  The followers of Donatus, or the Donatists, did not want Rome to ordain pastors over them whose integrity in their eyes was suspect.  The so-called Donatist Controversy set several precedents which have haunted subsequent Christian history, not the least of which was one part of the church turning to the state to forcefully discipline another part of the church, with the Donatists bearing the brunt.  For this discussion, however, the relevant point is the Donatists' perspective on pastoral leadership over against that of their most outspoken opponent in later years, Augustine of Hippo.  On behalf of Rome, Augustine undercut the Donatists' emphasis on the moral leadership of the pastor with his own emphasis on the primacy of the office of the pastor as vested with authority from Rome.  As the official teaching position of the church, the primacy of office over person went a long way to undercutting the centrality of morality generally as a hallmark of Christian identity.

In the sense that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists also insisted upon the upright character of pastors and all Christians in general, they were descendants of the Donatists.  And in the sense that the people in our story carry the concern for the personal integrity of the pastor, they too follow in this tradition.

Upon inspection, however, the issue is not so one-sided; the people do not perhaps revere the "person" of the pastor so much that they ignore the "office" of the pastor.  Otherwise, why would they trust guest preachers, many of whose character they cannot possibly know, or another lay person of perhaps similarly-compromised integrity to speak the word on Sunday mornings?  That they would accept the word from such persons indicates another important element in the effectiveness of faith--the faith of the receiver.  Because the people do not know of a particular preacher's personal life, on the basis of their faith they can be healed by the preacher's words apart from the overall witness of the preacher's life.  All of this is to say that for this reason and more, and however incumbent the righteous life is on leaders, it is good that the pastorate is also more than the person.  Office also matters.  Priestly functions, in this case, preaching, must be filled.

Let each part--the evangel (message of good news, gospel), the evangelist (messenger of the good news), and the evangelized (those who welcome the message and the messenger)--be afforded, each in relation to the other, its rightful place in the church.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

weathervane of the spirit

Our assignment in South Africa is to work with the self-identified "spiritual churches".  We had, before arrival, understood this to mean that these churches put more emphasis on the leading of the Spirit than on correct doctrine.  This sounded good to us.  But our time here has given us a great appreciation for the complexity of this distinction.  While the freedom from pressure to adhere to form does bring a freedom to worship and community life, it also brings with it a great need for discernment.  Many things can be attributed to the Holy Spirit.  
As Joe has written  elsewhere, last week was full of John 3 in which Nicodemus discusses being "born again" with Jesus.  Lectionary readings are, for us, breakfast devotions, Tuesday evening bible study discussion, and often Sunday sermon.  Last week's Tuesday evening discussion was particularly fruitful as we reflected on the nature of the Spirit.  It coincided for me with reading J. Nelson Kraybill's book on Revelation, Apocalypse and Allegiancein which he delineates the sign theory of Charles Sanders Peirce.  Peirce describes three categories of signs.  Icons communicate because they directly depict the thing which they represent, e.g. a picture of a trash can on a computer screen to tell us where to dispose of unwanted items. Symbols have meaning as culture gives them meaning, e.g. we know what to do at a traffic light because we've been taught what the respective colours mean.   Indexes show the way in which they've been affected by that which they represent, so a weathervane shows wind direction because the wind itself has moved it.  
John's comparison of wind and spirit (although one and the same word in Greek, Hebrew, and in Xhosa) cause me to reflect on the nature of each.  Neither wind nor spirit can be seen apart from that which they cause to happen.  "We cannot see where the wind comes from" says John.  Nor can we see where a spirit comes from.  But if leaves blow south, we know the wind is coming from the north.  If clothing whips around on the clothesline, we know that there is a strong wind.  And so with spirit, we do not know where it comes from except by seeing the result that it has.  And Paul has laid out the test for us.  Does the spirit in question produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22)?  If yes, then the spirit has come from God.  Does the spirit produce anger, drunkenness, idolatry, or jealousy?  Then it is not from God.  The fruit is the index of the spirit from which it comes.            
Once again, we will be known by our fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The wind blows where it chooses, let us be in the path of the Holy Spirit and no other.                  


Kraybill, J. Nelson.  Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation.  Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Monday, May 28, 2012

wired for heaven

Seeing that we don't really have a Sunday School option for our children right now, we've taken to reading and discussing a Bible story with them on Sunday evenings before bedtime preparations.  This week, Moses--whose insights we've chronicled before--had some things to share about "heaven."  

We were reading the short parables of Jesus in Matthew 13:44-46, which I have taught in other settings.  Both illustrations begin with the line, "The kingdom of heaven is like . . .."  Fixing on the word, "heaven", Moses inquired how it is that a person goes to heaven after they're buried.  That isn't really where we had intended to go with the parables, seeking rather to see "the kingdom of heaven" in its broadest terms as that which Jesus inaugurated already in his earthly ministry and which will extend for eternity.  We did indeed talk about the present reality of the kingdom, but Moses' interest demanded attention to the kingdom's future and personal dimensions as well.

I said that, because none of us have yet died, we don't really know what life is like beyond death.  Moses countered with stories we ourselves had told him--stories we didn't know he remembered.  "Some people have died and come back to life," he said.

"Yes", said Anna, "you mean like Jesus?"

"And [one friend who had had a near death experience].  And Tata Gumenke."

Indeed he was right.  Both of Moses's examples were of people who had ceased breathing for a period and come back to life.  And both persons had visions of God in their respective times of dying.

I don't recall ever teaching Moses about heaven as the abode of the righteous dead.  Yet he has absorbed that understanding of the word; it is the first meaning that comes to his mind when he hears "heaven."

For many Christians, post-death life is the goal of the gospel and itself the good news.  For Christians who have reacted against that understanding because it seems to ignore quality-of-life and justice issues from birth to death, the afterlife has perhaps virtually disappeared from Christian proclamation.  Moses's innocent curiosity and right remembering reminded me that the good news is for this life and the next.


Friday, May 18, 2012

be the tree

In our experience, South African church occasions usually feature a "vote of thanks", often delivered by some notable elder.  At funerals, for example, this might fall to an elder in the family of the deceased.  At our Bethany Bible School gatherings, the chairperson typically asks an older man from among the student body to fill this role.  As teacher, I have had the privilege of being the recipient of many votes of thanks, as I was again last Saturday.

Perhaps the most oft-used line in my hearing is something about either the message or the messenger being "new".  "We think we know the Bible," an old man named Victor Mcotheli said last week, "but today it is brand new to us."

Victor Mcotheli 

Also typical has been some form of encouragement to the teacher to press on with the work, to ascend to greater heights.  In the case of last Saturday's speech, Tata Mcotheli drew upon several points of imagery from the weekend's lessons to make this plea.  His use of imagery was quite inventive, indeed imaginative, for it transformed the images in the context in which they were taught into something new.

My lessons on Friday and Saturday had included many images.  On Friday, teaching on worship, I began with several prints of paintings of Jesus which illustrated examples of worship.  One of those--in my mind intended to show "offering"--was the scene of the widow putting in her mite alongside the offering of a wealthy man.  In the artist's depiction, a beggar could be seen in the distance, in the entrance to the temple, asking alms of passersby.  Because of that, some students did not instantly recognize the story as that of Mark 12 (the story of the widow's mite), but of Acts 3--Peter giving the beggar "not silver or gold" but "the name of Jesus" (3:6).  Though this whole exercise was intended as something of a foil for the lesson, it was to figure in Tata Mcotheli's speech.

On Saturday, teaching on apocalyptic literature in the Bible, I sketched on the whiteboard the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2 and 4.  The second of these, the great tree with its top in the heavens and visible from the ends of the earth, was also to figure in the vote of thanks--but not with the same meaning as I had applied to the tree.

So how did Tata Mcotheli urge me on to new heights?

"Just like that tree," he said, "you must grow so that you can continue to give us new things."  In its original context, of course, one could not say that the stature of the tree was entirely positive, for its top in the heavens bespoke Nebuchadnezzar's presumption to be "like God"--an arrogance for which he, like the tree in his dream, is "cut down."  In its biblical context, therefore, becoming "like the tree" is probably not something for which I should aspire, but neither is that what Tata Mcotheli meant by his reference to it.  On the contrary, as the speech continued, it became clear that his primary learning for the day was precisely in accord with the call to humility in Daniel 4.

"We used to think that we pastors were the big men in our churches, and we would be scared of anyone who had talent.  But now we know that we must humble ourselves."

Concluding, he drew us back to where the weekend had started and to a story which I had never intended to teach.  Though Acts 3 had come up by accident, as a student contribution to the lesson and not from the mind of the one who had prepared the lesson, it was the last word on this day.

"We were like the people who begged for alms every day, but now we have something better--the name of Jesus.  It is this Jesus who we will take back to our churches."


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

endings and beginnings

As of last Saturday, we have completed one cycle in the 24-topic curriculum we introduced at Bethany Bible School in 2008.  In November, BBS will have its first “graduates”—though I doubt that any of our regulars will cease attending our conferences and workshops.

We ended, as does the Bible, with the book of Revelation.  My selection of which courses to teach when was somewhat random, but to end on Revelation was appropriate indeed.  The book brings to the fore the main themes, symbols, and images of the Bible as a whole, and therefore served as a summary of what this curriculum was designed to teach.

Our next gathering is a workshop slated for 1-2 June.  A guest instructor will teach on composting, gardening, and small business creation through food production. 

The next curriculum cycle starts in August, followed by a workshop in October on youth.  And then the big graduation in November.

Our committee has been anticipating BBS graduation for so long already.  Completion of the certificate comes with a BBS sash this year—and the students can hardly contain their excitement.  If there’s one thing we’ve learned from our years in this place, it’s that the people love their celebrations, their pomp and circumstance, their flowing robes, their flowery decorations.

For those who will be graduating such celebration will be well-earned.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

a brief history of South Africa

The following is a piece that I wrote for a chapel service that we led at Hesston College.  It was my attempt to tell a vast sweep of history in a few paragraphs and to give significance to the daily challenges of overcoming South Africa's history of racial injustice and separateness.  

 South Africa has long been home to diverse peoples. First occupied by Khoi and San or bush people, and joined by Bantu people from the north who migrated to South Africa’s fertile plains giving birth to the Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho nations. Later, Vasco DaGama stopped on his way east, naming the southern peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope. Europeans, both Dutch and English, followed him, moving inland and coming into contact with earlier occupants. As Europeans began to carve out large farms and require more land, they began to exercise more violence and proprietary behaviour. Battles and wars ensued, most often won by those with guns and the Africans got pushed into smaller and smaller areas. Indians joined the mix, being recruited to cut sugar cane. As the various groups met, children of mixed race were born who would eventually be put into their own racial category and called coloured.

In 1948 the minority Afrikaners or those of Dutch origin, fully believing in their relationship to South Africa as that of the Israelites’ to Canaan, began to systematize the separateness they desired. The people of South Africa were divided into White, Indian, Coloured, and African. Over time, Africans were limited to substandard housing and education and excluded from all but the most menial labour. Claiming their desire for “separate but equal development” the Afrikans government held court, assessing a person’s ethnic group based on a series of tests such as whether or not they had freckles and whether a comb would stick in their hair. Those deemed to be African were then sent to live in the “homeland” of "their people", a somewhat arbitrary dividing of the land into Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, etc… areas. They were then allowed to travel only with special permission and proof of work in the other place. The system of oppression and privilege was so exactly ranked and proportioned that Nelson Mandela recounts in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom that in prison whites were given white bread and white sugar, Indians and Coloureds were given brown bread and brown sugar, and Africans were given neither, supposedly lacking the “sophisticated European taste for them.”

The system of apartheid, meaning separateness, finally came to an end in 1994 when the first free and fair elections were held, following a concerted campaign which included an armed struggle and eventual peaceful negotiations.

While the system has formally ended, the struggle to relate to each other in new ways continues. People who have been systematically separated do not readily find themselves in the same social circles, bosses do not naturally learn to treat their employees with more respect, and economic power is not automatically redistributed. And on a day to day basis, each person must choose how to respond to another, whether to stay in their own racial group or take initiative to move outside.

We followed this overview with retellings of experiences previously recorded as stumbling blocks to transformation a beautiful moment, and morning at supa quick, attempting to show the challenges and joys of moving across boundaries.  It continues to be our challenge and our great joy.  


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bible Study Retreat

We spent 23-25 March at Silaka Nature Reserve near the town of Port St. Johns (about 1.25 hrs from Mthatha) with our Tuesday evening Bible Study group.  The group has tried to take annual retreats together, though there have only been three in our six years.  We have participated in two, and both have created some wonderful memories.  From this year’s retreat I will remember playing soccer on the beach, the fellowship around our Saturday evening braai, and sharing a line-by-line reading of Psalm 148 on Sunday morning. 


Our group photo.  Several of our members were missing, but that did not stop us from having a great time.
Moses, our creature-loving child, with a new friend.
The retreat coincided with Isaac's 9th birthday.  Our friend Jenny brought a special birthday hat  for him, which he wears here before blowing out the candles on his ice cream cake.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


An ever-present issue in South African politics is land ownership.  In the broader southern Africa region, the nation of Zimbabwe has become synonymous with one way of addressing the issue, namely, that of dispossession of the heirs of the privileges of colonialism from the land.  South Africa so far has not gone that route, though there are strong voices within the country calling for it.  Last week at our Tuesday evening Bible Study/fellowship group, we discussed land redistribution under the topic of reconciliation.  Since I had recently prepared a lesson on reconciliation for Bethany Bible School, I led our group in an exploration of the story of Jacob and Esau from Genesis 33:1-11.

The story of Jacob and Esau is pertinent to the discussion of land redistribution because it is a story of reconciliation as restitution.  It is a story of an offender, in this case Jacob, restoring to his brother, Esau, that which he took from him.  Jacob, of course, gained the blessing of his father in place of Esau through dishonest means.  That blessing entailed material wealth— “the fatness of the earth”, servants, etc. (Gen 27:28-29)—and was, according to the cultural perspective embodied by Isaac the father, due only to one of the two sons (Gen 27:33ff.).  It was thus no matter that Isaac had wanted to give the blessing to Esau; when Jacob actually received it, albeit dishonestly, it was rightfully his.  So said Isaac.   Even so, it is precisely those physical gifts which Jacob attempts to give back to Esau at their first meeting in twenty years.  He offers droves of flocks and herds, and himself bows down to his brother as though his servant.  This latter action was, of course, the exact opposite of what the blessing entailed, namely, that he who received the blessing would be lord over his brother, and his brother would serve him.  Jacob, the rightful lord according to the blessing, even goes so far as to address himself to Esau as “your servant” while calling his brother “my lord.”  Whatever one might think of Jacob’s motivation for approaching Esau (to appease him, to buy him off), the text seemingly will not allow us to deny that Jacob truly humbled himself before his brother.  The offender truly repented before the offended.

Esau, for his part, was utterly magnanimous.  He, in fact, does not want Jacob’s restitution, for he, in the years that ensued from losing the blessing, has also become wealthy—blessed in spite of what amounted to his father’s curse.  It is probably from that recognition of blessing, that acknowledgment that “I also have much, my brother”, that Esau finds the strength to embrace his brother.  This, and not Jacob’s droves of gifts, is what brings Esau to accept Jacob when he sees him.  Before Jacob can explain the meaning of the droves, Esau has gone to him, fell upon his neck, kissed him—and they embraced.  Esau was already in a position of forgiveness for Jacob.

South Africans, too, are famous internationally for their magnanimity.  Many victims of apartheid who went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the mid-1990s showed astounding grace toward their perpetrators.  Their example and their representation of the people of South Africa can never be erased.  Even so, in South Africa much pain remains from the injustices of the past, and that pain seems to dominate headlines today.  That pain is real; it is the sign that, unlike Esau, many people do not yet have “the much” that they need to embrace their “brothers”.  It is also probably the sign that their “brothers” who have the blessing by dishonest means have not, en masse, given back what was taken.

South Africa’s problem is not as simple as Jacob and Esau’s.  Jacob and Esau were together one generation—they had time to make amends for wrongs committed within a lifetime.  The heirs of colonialism and apartheid live on land that their fathers took generations ago; they have grown up knowing no other life, no other home.  Another dispossession would seem to amount only to a redirected injustice and therefore, an entrenchment of injustice pure and simple.  Dispossession of current landowners would seem to create new hostilities, new bitterness.

There must be a way forward that involves creative ways of sharing the land.  And wherever that will happen/is happening, there undoubtedly will be/is the Spirit that was in Jacob and in Esau on the day of reconciliation.


Monday, February 20, 2012

meeting other missionaries

Perhaps early in this new term with Mennonite Mission Network, I'm being told to learn something from other "resident aliens" in South Africa.  That is, I've encountered two separate pastors or missionaries recently from other African countries from whom I've learned something of the challenges of ministry.  I'll restrict my comments below to one of the two persons of whom I speak.

I met an African missionary who is going about the city doing evangelism--praying with people, preaching to people, "saving souls", in his words.  He comes, quite predictably, out of the Charismatic/New Pentecostal stream of Christianity which is so prevalent in this part of the world.

I find myself challenged simply by listening to the details of his story.

First, the predicament of his missionary situation:  The missionary is married with children, but he has left his family behind in his home country to be here.  How different that is from my missionary situation.  Our senders do not ask such a thing of us and, indeed, I cannot imagine being here--I would not be here--without my family.  They are the source of my strength and sanity, and I theirs.  I ask, is that what God asks of us?  Is this what Jesus meant when he talked about forsaking "wife and children" among others for the sake of the gospel?  I recently made some peace with that text, but encounters with persons such as this missionary force me at least to ask the question.

Second, the method of his missionary practice:  He calls himself a "missionary" which is self-evidently to him about doing primary evangelistic work, in his words, "saving souls".  He looks for an opening in his walks around town, perhaps identifying a "sick person" or a youth who is smoking.  Those conditions bespeak some need in the person which the missionary then addresses by praying for the person and asking them if they want to "receive Christ".  The missionary is full of stories about "miracles" which have occurred at his hands, of people being slain in the spirit as he prays, of people with long-standing conditions being healed.  He speaks of receiving "a word of knowledge" when he preaches, a word divinely-given to address the particular needs of people listening without him having prior knowledge of their situation.  I ask, am I as open to encounters with strangers, to people I pass on the street?  Am I closing myself off from learning something new about myself and about God in such encounters with others?

Third, the urgency of his presence: I'm sure this man is convinced he's living in the "last days".  He said so when we prayed together in my office.  I think it is in part that conviction that drives him on to seek the salvation of people.  Do I expect that God is about to do anything new in history, let alone bring about the redemption of the whole creation?

So if I ask such questions of myself, I still have some other questions.

What is the goal of the missionary's "soul-saving" mission?  He does speak of "gathering the souls he's saved", but this is in order for him to more easily "monitor" them on an individual basis.  I ask the question, "Who will take over the work after you leave?"  He intimates that there would be others from his church who could come to lead a church.  As for him, he knows not how long he can stay here, since as an evangelist it would seem that his job is to impart the bare minimum amount of knowledge a person needs to get going and move on to the next location.

I feel that there is quite a large gap between what I believe I am here to do and what this man believes he is here to do.  I am here to engage people deeply in the scriptures, to help them to know and to find their lives within that broader story of God's people.  I am here to do discipleship.  I believe that the goal of discipleship, that salvation, is the community called the church which God has ordained as the here-and-now sign of his coming kingdom.  I believe that essential to the redemption of the creation is the capacity of the church to live out its calling as the people of God's peace in the midst of the world.  I am trying to form those peace-minded disciples of Christ in my work.  Yet something about my encounter with this missionary seems to call that very approach into question.  I suspect that for him my approach must feel too long-term, possibly too structural, perhaps not urgent enough, since the "present form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor 7:31).  I would reason rather that, since we "know neither the day or the hour" (Mk 13:32), we might as well settle in for the long-haul and do the kind of thorough discipleship that I understand Jesus to have been about in the gospels.  I might characterize the gap I perceive as having as one's goal the saving of the individual versus having as one's goal the creation of a people.  This is not to say that the two are opposed; indeed, the salvation of individuals makes up the formation of community.  Still, I sense a basic difference in orientation.  The church is central, not peripheral, to my understanding of salvation.

That question aside, I sign off with one final challenge for me.

Even if I could reason myself into believing that I am the one who, as above, articulates the authentic "Anabaptist vision", I am hounded by the suspicion that my friend resembles the sixteenth-century Anabaptists more than I resemble them (I understand that being "like the Anabaptists" is not the goal--nonetheless I do believe in the vision).  Many of them were also convinced of the imminent end.  They also went around preaching and baptizing, probably in a fashion that would seem too haphazard to our modern, "settled," western Christian sensibilities.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

on biblical literacy and leadership

Last night was week #2 of the discipleship class I'm leading at a local church.  I was relieved that it actually happened since, last week--only one week into the course--it was canceled for a "church meeting".  The cancellation, of course, led me to wonder how seriously the course was being taken, in spite of the fact that the opening of the course was not our own initiative but the pastor's.  It is not unusual for things to start out with a bang, only to fizzle out when the challenges of living life "on the edge" get in the way.  Or else that which is somewhat outside conventional "church culture" in this setting gets squeezed out by more conventional forms--evening prayer services, revivals, "meetings".  Another pastor from one of our partner churches elsewhere in South Africa recently articulated this phenomenon to me.  Speaking of his town, he said,

"churches in the Pentecostal stream from which I come don't do Bible study anymore.  We used to do it, but now churches just hold services during the week."

The comment came in the flow of the pastor's own case for the value of biblical education, especially for leaders in the church.  For those of us who come from rather "flat" leadership structures in the church (as opposed to hierarchical) and believe it should be that way, we may want to protest at the line, "especially for leaders in the church".  Why, we might ask, should "leaders" be valued more than laity if the type of community to which Jesus and the apostles pointed was that in which no one on earth should be called "father", since "you have one father, your father in heaven"?  Shouldn't we just expect, independent of human experts, to be taught by our heavenly Teacher as we gather together in the community of faith? (see Mt 23:8-10).

Ironically, such questions merely mirror that which they often oppose, since the ultra-hierarchical forms of church in the Pentecostal-Charismatic mold also--like their "flat" "free church/believers' church", "Anabaptist" brothers and sisters--often exhibit a kind of confidence in the "spirit" to guide apart from the illumination of the "word".  Regardless of whether or not modern Anabaptists from the global north would use the language of the spirit to speak of their church structures (we are more likely to use the language of "democracy" and "equality"), the ultimate effect is the same as the Charismatics: the erosion of literacy/fluency in the Bible.  

On the South African Charismatic side (the AICs also are not immune to this) this can take the form of leaders who insist that they need not study or seek higher biblical training because their Spirit-conferred authority is sufficient for them.  I once attended a funeral for a Zionist church member in which my presence as representative of a Bible School spurred this very debate over lunch among the leaders assembled there.  One old man was particularly adamant that it was completely unnecessary for him to attend school because he had the spirit.  The pastor quoted earlier likewise lends credence to this phenomenon when he makes the following point about his Pentecostal context.

"In the secular world, people are trained thoroughly for their professions.  But it is not that way with leaders in the church."

It is against such a backdrop, therefore, that the call for biblical education, "especially for leaders in the church", is apropos.  Facility in that source which holds such wisdom for our practice as a people faithful to God, serving the cause of justice and peace in our world, must begin somewhere.  Why not begin, therefore, with men and women specifically called, trained, and equipped to lead the church in unlocking the wonders of the word?  There is still a need for such leaders in the church on either hemisphere.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

back at BBS in 2012

Last weekend was our first Bethany Bible School conference of the new year. The topic on Friday was Introduction to Biblical History.  Saturday's topic was Reconciliation.  For a reflection on what transpired on Friday, see

Below are a few pictures from the weekend.

Vivian Booi, a student and member of the BBS executive committee, assisted by Mavis Tshandu, narrates the story of Jesus and the disciples in Gethsemane as illustrated in this print from the Jesus Mafa collection.

Representatives from one of the four small study groups present their images.   Mama Booi here holds a depiction of Samuel anointing David as king of Israel.

Tata Mbana, also a member of the committee,  dances  up to the camera during the pre-teaching singing.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

fish first or first fish

Moses, our second-born son, heard the gospel reading from the lectionary this week in a way that I had never heard it before.  He heard the familiar line from Jesus' call of James and John (Mark 1:16-20) not as "I will make you fishers of men", as it has been traditionally rendered, but as "I will make you fish".  That is, because of the way in which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) renders the line--"I will make you fish for people"--Moses took "fish" not as the verb but as the direct object of the verb "make".  In other words, Jesus was not going to make James and John to be fishers of or for people, as the Greek literally has it, but as "fish", presumably to be eaten by "people".  "Come after me, and I will make you into fish--food--for people."

Though our son's interpretation is not textually defensible, I find it, on the other hand, theologically primary, of first importance.  Indeed, Moses' interpretation implies that the method and the means--how we fish--precedes our desired end--the people for whom we fish.  That is not to undermine people; on the contrary, it is precisely to value them above all else--so much so that we ourselves seek to be made by Jesus into something which people might taste and live, food which will actually nourish and not poison people.

I sense, also from my experience in South Africa, that the way in which the church has called people to Jesus has often been out-of-step with the longings of people outside or on the margins of the church to be embraced and loved by God.  And that what the church needs in our day is first to be made and remade truly into fish before we begin to fish.

That, in the end, is not only the theologically but also the broader textually appropriate interpretation; Jesus called, taught, and embodied for his disciples the true way of life before he sent them out to "all the world" (Mk 16:15).


Monday, January 16, 2012

the Ephesian trajectory

Today is the third Monday in January, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as observed in the United States of America.  Marking this day is in my blood; growing up, I used to attend the festivities hosted by Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, for the wider community in honor of Dr. King.  Since living in Africa, the continent of King's ancestors, I've used this day to reflect on the connections between the American story and the South African story, and the place of my own experiences within those larger streams.  I do so again today.

King spoke of his dream being "deeply rooted in the American dream", that "America would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: that 'all men are created equal'".  In doing so, King framed his coming world in inclusive terms; "all men"--and today we should say "people"--kept white people in the picture even as it called upon them to open their hearts to the struggle of black people to realize, in the words of the United States' Declaration of Independence, that to which the "all men" are entitled, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".  South Africa, similarly, speaks of a "non-racial society", or a society that bestows its benefits upon all its inhabitants irrespective of color.  These are the visions, if not yet the realities.

A related contribution comes from the field of Christian missiology.  Andrew Walls, a leading thinker, has spoken of our time, as a result of the great expansion of the church to the global south and east over the last century, as "the Ephesian moment", or a situation in the life of the church equal in its ethnic diversity to the first-century context in which Paul penned his letter to the Ephesians.  The familiar reading from Epiphany has just passed us (6 January) again: "In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind . . . that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph 3:5-6).  Multiple peoples, multiple cultures, "Jews and Gentiles", each retaining its own distinctiveness, have nevertheless become "one body" by sharing Christ's self-giving love for one another.

My own efforts to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ resort consistently to the language of Ephesians.  As well as "the same body" of which the many are one, Ephesians uses the parallel images of chapters 2 and 4: "the one new human being" (Greek: anthropos) created "in place of the two" (2:15) and "the complete man" (Greek: andre) (Eph 4:13) into whose fullness the members of Christ's body, church, are growing together.  Cloaked by the generic translation "maturity" in the New Revised Standard Version, the more literal rendering of 4:13--"the complete man" into whom the church is growing--evokes the similar sounding "one new humanity" of 2:15 and thereby creates an unmistakable association of meanings between the two "persons".

The character of that association is essentially christological; it speaks of Christ who "himself"--alone--"is our peace" (2:14).  The goal of the "one new human being" is none other than "the complete man" who is its origin.  And that by which he made "the two" one--the peace/forgiveness which he proclaimed/embodied for his enemies on the cross (2:14-16)--is the same means by which the members of his body will come to "the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to the complete man, to the measure of the full stature of Christ" (4:13).

Before there is an "Ephesian moment", therefore, there is an "Ephesian trajectory"; the coming together of once-divided and hostile peoples into "one new humanity" flows from the One who satisfied God's perfect love for creation within his flesh.  In the South African context, "the Ephesian trajectory" may be found in the beloved Xhosa hymn, "Masibulele kuYesu", "Let us all give thanks to Jesus."  Indeed, in the two verses which we most often hear paired together, the second flows quite appropriately from the first.  First there is the exhortation to "thank Jesus" (Masibulele kuYesu) because "he died for us" (wasifela), a display of loving "kindness" (izibele) on his part.  For our part, in the second verse, we are implored, "black and white" (Abantsundu nabamhlope), to "serve the Lord as one" (Mababulele kunye).

The loving-kindness that was Christ's dying for us is the spirit in which we who belong to his body must relate to one another, and the spirit which the church must embody for the world as it "seeks the peace" of the nations in which it resides (Jer 29:7).


The reference to Walls's term comes from "The Ephesian Moment: At a Crossroads in Christian History" In Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 72-81.