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.