Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Reflections of a White African: 5 (What’s so special about Africa?)

I have been asked to talk about Africa. I was born in Zambia and lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe for over 20 years. I lived in the USA for 25 years, and now also in Canada for 20 years. I have layers of identity (as most of us do), with Africa at the centre, so that Africa lives in my heart.

I grew up in a country run by a small White minority. When colonial Rhodesia became free Zimbabwe, many of my fellow White Africans “took the gap” – they left the country never to return. I am in contact with some of them. They are good people, but they miss the privilege that we had when half of the country’s resources were spent for a minority of five percent.

Some of them miss Zimbabwe for other reasons. Some have stayed in Zimbabwe, because Africa is home and they don’t want to live anywhere else. My question this evening is: What’s so special about Africa? What has caused White Africans to remain when they are no longer in control of the country? Why do some return after living elsewhere.

The answer varies from person to person, so I am speaking only from my own experience. I think that what I have to say applies more broadly, but you will have to talk with people from other countries in Africa to find out if what I say about Zimbabwe is true in their homes as well.

What’s so special about Africa?
1. Some people point to the scenery and the animals out in the bush. Having an elephant stalk past your little rondavel, brushing against the window as it passes, is an incredible experience. I have driven through a herd of water buffalo – slowly, not wanting a stampede – with the sound of a Wild West movie playing inside my head. And the scenery! I was born near Victoria Falls – twice as wide as Niagara Falls and one and a half times as high. Immense and powerful, with spray that drenches the surrounding grassland and turns it into a rainforest.

The truth is, of course, that Africa is incredibly beautiful, but so is the rest of the world around us. From China’s Great Wall to the Canadian Rockies, from the Rift Valley in East Africa to the Ruwenzori Mountains of the Congo, from Iguassu Falls in Brazil to the Taj Mahal, we have beauty all around us. Africa is beautiful, but that is not the primary reason that anyone would choose to go back home to live there.

2. Some people remember their youth, and they think that what they had when they were young was clearly better than anything since. This would be true for those with whom I grew up. Often they are right, but they forget the human cost of what we had. I remember Rhodesia of old. There were 300,000 White people at the most, and about seven million Black people. The White schools were excellent, but there were only a handful of places for Black scholars.

I remember the situation when I was a teacher there in the early 1970s. Consider, after grade seven Black Zimbabweans took an exam to see who could go on for further studies. The top 12 percent went on to high school. Then after grade 12 (as we would call it), they took another exam, and this time the top eight percent went on to university or teacher training college. Roughly one out of 100 Black children were able to pursue higher education. No wonder we had high standards! The whole process was built on systemic injustice. Those who think that colonial Africa was better forget the human cost of the colonial system. Remembering the old days is no reason to call Africa special.

3. I know what I miss. I love Zimbabwean music and the sound of the people singing and speaking, laughing and being. There are certain foods that I miss. I miss biltong and Marie biscuits, lemon cremes and gooseberry jam. I miss the crumbly Cadbury’s chocolate I used to get in Bulawayo and the licorice that was actually more green than black. I miss buying shelled peas from the vendor on the way home, not to mention roasted peanuts poured into a funnel made out of newspaper. I miss mealies (corn on the cob) roasted over a charcoal fire.

I miss the African night, so dark that you can really see the stars. I miss idonsakusa and icela inkobi – the names of the morning and evening stars. I miss the Southern Cross, which you can’t see in the northern hemisphere. I miss the sounds of the birds, the grey lourie crying “G’way!” I miss the brightly coloured lizards that scamper about the rocks. And I miss the rocks themselves, big boulders that make themselves into mountains in the Matopo Hills, where I grew up. But none of these things are what I miss the most. None of these things are really what makes Africa special.

What makes Africa special?
Our son once said that he wanted to go back to Zimbabwe to live. He was about 10 at the time and had been five years old when we left Zimbabwe. I asked him what was different about Zimbabwe from North America. He thought for a bit, and then replied, “In Africa, they treat people like people.” Bingo! That’s what’s special about Africa!

We have a saying in Zimbabwe. “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” Literally: A person is a person with people. More fully: You become a real person (fully human) in community, in relationship with other people. Desmond Tutu used to describe this quality of life in Africa as “Ubuntu” – humanness. When one person hurts, the whole community gathers around that person. When someone dies, we gather with the bereaved family and make sure they do not have to face death alone. When someone is in need, someone else will leave what they need at their door. No questions, no fuss, just care.

Canada is a great place, but we prioritize tasks over people. We care for each other, but we value getting things done even more. In Africa, we prioritize people over tasks. We want to get things done, but “in Africa, they treat people like people!” That’s what makes Africa special.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Healer of our Every Ill

We are broken people who live in a broken world. “Tell me something I don’t know,” I can hear someone say under their breath. This is not news! I have a friend who recently lost his mother. She gave him physical life, carrying him first in her womb and then in her arms. Now she is gone, and he experiences a brokenness that many of us have also felt. Another friend is nearing the end of a ten-year prison sentence. A bad decision in his university years, connected to drugs, has left him in a difficult place, with long-term implications for his life.

Many of us have been broken, but our world too is broken. This past week I read a news story about the head of the EPA in the United States, who wondered aloud if perhaps global warming is good for us. I grew up with Moody Science Films. I remember how they stressed the amazing wonder of the fine tuning of creation. If the earth were tilted on its access a little less or more than it is, or if the amount of radiation we receive from the sun were a little more than it is, or several other variables were not finely tuned, we would not have life on planet earth. God created wonderfully fine-tuned earth, and EPA head Scott Pruitt thinks that maybe we can tune it a little better. Wow!

One could multiply examples: The effects of racism and of consumerism and on and on. We live in a broken world. We know that our brokenness comes from sin because we know that God created a good earth and gave it to us. Human rebellion broke our relationship with God, and as a result we live with the long-term results of human sin (Genesis 1 to 3). We know that God wants to heal our brokenness and give us new life and new joy in a fully restored relationship with God. So, we turn to our passage in Mark 1 to see what God is doing in our lives.

Mark 1: 29-39
Mark begins the story of Jesus abruptly and dramatically. There is no birth narrative, just the announcement that this is the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. John the Baptist bursts on the scene, and then comes Jesus. Jesus is baptised and then tempted in the area near Jerusalem. Then the action shifts north to Galilee, where he preaches the gospel of repentance. He calls his disciples and then begins teaching in the town of Capernaum, on the north shore of Lake Galilee. At the close of the sermon, he casts out an evil spirit, setting the stage for our passage. Jesus went with Simon and Andrew to their home in Capernaum or Bethsaida (about three miles away). There they find Simon’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. Jesus healed her. The news spread quickly. Soon crowds of people, with sick and possessed family members, pressed around Jesus, and he healed everyone who came to him. Jesus left early in the morning, looking for space and silence. Simon and his friends found Jesus and asked him to come back to heal more people, but Jesus went instead on a preaching tour in the surrounding towns and villages. We see two basic points in these verses.
1. Jesus delights in healing people’s brokenness. When Simon’s mother-in-law was sick, he healed her. When people brought their sick friends, he healed them. Jesus healed people physically and spiritually, emotionally and mentally. We can take this as a basic principle of reality: God wants to make us whole. God has made us for an eternity of delight and joy in God’s presence, which includes removing our brokenness.

2. Jesus does not heal for the sake of healing. He said, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Jesus came to preach the coming reality of God’s reign. God’s reign includes reconciliation and wholeness, but begins with repentance. Therefore, Jesus begins with getting people to think. The healings and exorcisms of chapter one serve God’s purpose in at least two ways – by getting people to acknowledge their own brokenness (repentance), and by helping people start to ask, “Who is this man?” Jesus wants to provoke people to examine themselves and to turn to him. The healings of his ministry meet human need, but they do so in order to do God’s will.

We turn, then, to Job 7.

Job 1: 1-7
You know the story of Job. It begins in the courts of Heaven, with God and the angels. Satan joins them, and God holds up Job as a man of unusual integrity and devotion to God. Satan credits Job’s goodness to a kind of quid pro quo: God blesses Job, and Job praises God. Remove your blessings, he challenges God, and Job will curse you. God allows Satan to remove Job’s possessions, children, and other physical and emotional blessings. As a side note to this morning’s thoughts, you observe that this action lays the brokenness of our world at the feet of Satan, not of God. Nevertheless, God is ultimately in charge, and Job knows it.

Job’s wife says, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Job refuses. Three of Job’s friends come to him. They sit and weep with him for seven days, a remarkable show of support. Then they try to make sense of what has happened to Job. Their explanations reduce to one basic thought: You must have done something wrong. Job defends himself without fear. His conscience is clear. He knows that he has honoured God throughout his life, and he calls God to account.

In the last act of the story, God appears. God does not answer Job’s questions, but says only, “Look at me.” God asks, “Who are you, anyway?’ and redirects Job’s attention to God. Job repents (of what, we wonder) “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6), and God restores him to full health, with more possessions and children than before. God also tells the three friends to plead with Job to pray for them, because Job is righteous and they are not. They do so, and they all live happily ever after.

Job 7 comes near the beginning of the story. Job is in despair. He knows that life is short and full of pain, and he is ready to die and leave this world behind. He cannot see hope beyond his pain and says, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again.”

From this brief excerpt, we see clearly that any appeal to the prosperity gospel is false. Job suffers even though he is clearly righteous. The friends’ claim that he must have sinned brings down God’s wrath at the end of the story. We see that there are those seasons of life when all that we can see is darkness, when we also say, “I will never see happiness again.”

We see also that God had one primary purpose in all that happened to Job: God’s purpose was (and is) to glorify God. Job’s suffering was a lens to direct everyone who saw to God. God used Job’s pain to respond to the charge that people are only good when God blesses them. However well or however little we understand the pain Job experienced (and I do not understand it at all well), one thing is clear: God’s glory is the final answer to the pain and brokenness of this world.

Synthesis
This point is the connecting point with Mark 1. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus healed the sick to stimulate the question, “Who is this man?” He wanted them to see God. In Job 7, the underlying theme of Job’s suffering (visible only when we get to the end of the story) is that it strips away Job’s defenses until he sees God’s greatness and glory. This does not mean that God breaks us so that we can see God. It doesn’t explain pain and suffering. Rather, this point tells us what happens in our brokenness.

You remember the sermon on the first Sunday of Advent last year. Julia Thiessen told us the First Nations story of the raven. The raven broke the containers of light so that light could stream through the brokenness into our dark world. That is like the truth I’m stating here – that God uses our brokenness to reveal the light of God. 

The Man Who Was Thursday
One hundred and ten years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote a small book called The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a strange little book, which Chesterton described as coming from a time early in his life when his ideas about what he believed were quite unsettled and unsystematic. Bear with me while I try to describe it.

Gabriel Syme is a detective who is given the job of infiltrating a circle of anarchists in London, England. The Anarchists want to destroy society, and Syme is recruited by a large man in a dark room to infiltrate the anarchists’ central governing council, which has seven members named after the days of the week. When he tries to join the council, his chief rival is an anarchist named Gregory, a real anarchist. Syme is elected over Gregory, and he joins the council as Thursday. The head of the council is Sunday, who calls a meeting to plan a political assassination, but instead tells the council that one of them (Tuesday) is a traitor and a policeman. He expels Tuesday, threatening him with destruction if he ever talks about them. 

After the meeting, Syme is followed by one of the others, who also turns out to be a policeman, recruited by a large man in a dark room to infiltrate the anarchists. One by one they uncover each member of the council, from Monday to Saturday, and find that they are all policemen, recruited by the same large man in a dark room. They realise that Sunday is the large man in a dark room, and pursue him all around Europe and England, going through agonies and danger that threaten their lives and almost destroy them. Finally, they catch up with Sunday in a mansion in the English countryside, where they are each given a room and bath to clean up, and then they join Sunday in a great banquet. They have suffered greatly together, and now they sit down to eat with their tormentor. As they eat, they realise that Sunday represents both God and the One who has led them into great danger – much like Job. As they talk during the banquet, Gregory, the real anarchist, walks in and challenges all of them. I read now from the book. 
There was complete silence in the starlit garden, and then the black-browed Secretary, implacable, turned in his chair towards Sunday, and said in a harsh voice—
“Who and what are you?” “I am the Sabbath,” said the other without moving. “I am the peace of God.” 
The Secretary [who was Monday] started up …. “I know what you mean,” he cried, “and it is exactly that that I cannot forgive you. I know you are contentment, optimism, what do they call the thing, an ultimate reconciliation. Well, I am not reconciled. If you were the man in the dark room, why were you also Sunday, an offense to the sunlight? If you were from the first our father and our friend, why were you also our greatest enemy? … Oh, I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace.” …
[Each member of the council makes his complaint in turn and Sunday replies.] “I have heard your complaints in order. And here, I think, comes another to complain, and we will hear him also.” …
“Gregory!” gasped Syme, half-rising from his seat. “Why, this is the real anarchist!” “Yes,” said Gregory, with a great and dangerous restraint, “I am the real anarchist.” 
“‘Now there was a day,’” murmured [Saturday], who seemed really to have fallen asleep, “‘when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.’” 
“You are right,” said Gregory, and gazed all round. “I am a destroyer. I would destroy the world if I could.” … You are the Law, and you have never been broken. … … I do not curse you for being cruel. … I curse you for being safe! … Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule all mankind, if I could feel for once that you had suffered for one hour a real agony such as I—” 
Syme sprang to his feet, shaking from head to foot. “I see everything,” he cried, “everything that there is …. It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell. … I repel the slander; we have not been happy. I can answer for every one of the great guards of Law whom he has accused. At least—” 
He had turned his eyes so as to see suddenly the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile. “Have you,” he cried in a dreadful voice, “have you ever suffered?” 
As he gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew … larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the [darkness] he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”

Conclusion
Chesterton expresses something beyond our understanding here. God comes to us most clearly in our brokenness and vulnerability. When we are broken and accept our brokenness, we find Jesus, who was broken on the cross. We live, someone has said, in a cross-shaped world. In the darkness of systemic racism, we find Jesus. In the loss of the mother who first carried us in our arms, we find Jesus. In the fear that I feel when I think of the way that we abuse the earth, we find that Jesus is there – not there in our abuse, but there in our fear. I can embrace the darkness of our broken world, because there I find the light of Jesus.

Remember Mark’s gospel. Jesus loves to heal. God loves to heal. He is the healer of our every ill. Jesus is the great healer who comes to us in life and in death and gives us life, life deeper than all the pain and suffering of this world. The path to healing is the path of the cross.

This week we begin the season of Lent – the path that leads to the cross, and therefore also the path of our healing. Jesus is indeed “healer of our every ill.” I love this time in the church’s year, in which we find that our deepest fears are the place where God is most at work, bringing to birth “joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

“Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow,
Give us peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow.”


Steinbach Mennonite Church
11 February 2018

Texts
Job 7: 1-7
“Do not mortals have hard service on earth? Are not their days like those of hired labourers? Like a slave longing for the evening shadows, or a hired labourer waiting to be paid, so I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me. When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss and turn until dawn. My body is clothed with worms and scabs; my skin is broken and festering.
“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again.”

Mark 1: 29-39
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. 32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

A Story of Passports

I wonder what the plural is for a group of passports -- a murder of crows, a flock of birds, a herd of cattle. Maybe, a story of passports?

My siblings and I went through Dad's stuff this past July, after Dad's funeral. He had made sure that we had taken most of what we wanted before he died, but a small room remained. His last home on this earth. In these remnants of our parents' lives, we sifted through various items. Then we handed our selection to Nevin to keep at his house, since Lois and I were flying home.

When we visited for Christmas, Nevin handed us back our stuff, several boxers symbolizing Dad's life. I found his collar and dickey -- a black dickey (sort of like a bib) with white collars, which he used to wear as a minister in Zimbabwe, more than 50 years ago. I tried to see if I could put it on, but the collars are faded and brittle. I am ordained, as he was, but I will stick to normal Western wear.

I found two of his pocket knives. Dad was never without a pocket knife, for use, not for show. With me, they are purely for show. I found his date books -- 50+ years of date books. In the last year of his life, he weighed himself daily and recorded his weight. He had trouble keeping his weight up, so he chronicled his daily journey to eat enough eggs and get enough protein.

Finally, I found an envelope. A large plain brown envelope with the address of BIC Missions and some stamps. Inside I found passports, dated from 1946 to 1963. Here (briefly) is their story.


1946. Just after World War Two. Mom and Dad were scheduled to travel to Africa to begin their first term in Zambia, but pent-up demand for berths made it almost impossible to find space to sail to England. Dad told me the story of how one day he and Grandfather C drove to New York to look for tickets to sail to Africa. After much searching, they found a travel agent who told them he could get them seats on an airplane -- not the way we normally travelled in those days. Dad and Grandpa drove back to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and out to Ira Musser's farm. Musser was the missions board secretary, and in charge of getting them to Africa. They found him in the field, ploughing, and asked him if they had permission to buy the tickets. he immediately told them to buy the tickets and to get seats for the rest of the missionary party also. I think their party consisted of eight people: Mom and Dad and Donna (above), Lewis and Gladys Sider (with son John), and Lulu Asper, Rhoda Lenhert, and Florence Hensel.

They flew from New York to Gander, Newfoundland, where they were unable to land because of fog. I think they went to Monckton, NB. The next day they went on to the Azores islands, two-thirds of the way to Portugal, and then on to Portugal. From Portugal they flew to Dakar, Senegal, and then on to Monrovia in Liberia.  Finally they flew to what today is called Kinshasa, Congo, and then to what is now Lubumbashi. The last stage of their journey was by train, from Lubumbashi across the border into Zambia, and then on south to their destination in Bulawayo. They arrived in Bulawayo on Christmas Day, 1946. The beginning of almost 20 years in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their passport has the stamps from government officials chronicling their journey. A story of passports.


1950. I suspect that the passports had a five year limit, since their next passport includes me, issued four years later. They travelled on a family passport, showing and signed by David Climenhaga and Dorcas Climenhaga, and adding the names of their children, Donna and Daryl. I think I can see some weariness in my parents' faces. They had another daughter in between, who never made the passport, Dorothy Leigh, born in April 1948, and died in November, 1948. Expatriate life is often hard.



1956 (I think). Just before Denise joined the family. A typical missionary family photograph. You can see the collar and dickey my father wore, sort of like an Anglican priest. Odd, for Brethren in Christ folk, whose motto was simplicity, but understood by the people around us in a British colony. The same reason that my parents finally bought a wedding ring for mother about five years later. It stopped the English from thinking that they were not married, but "living in sin".


1957. Denise was born, and we added her to the family passport by the simple expedient of adding a picture of mother holding her, signed before the relevant American authorities. So much simpler than life is today. Denise looks unimpressed by the proceedings. I like the way that the side view shows mother's covering, a part of her dress that I took for granted for the first 15+ years of my life. I notice also (at least I think I saw this) that, when she stopped wearing the covering, it disappeared from her clothes entirely. Dad took off the collar and dickey at the same time, but it was still in his dresser drawer when he died, just over 50 years later.








1959. This photograph appeared in the book of missionary families in 1960, a copy of which sits in my office. here it served first to include Donna and then to remove her from our family passport. We must have travelled home to the USA on this passport in 1959 as a family. Donna remained in the USA when we returned to Zimbabwe the following year. As a result, she got her own passport, and had to be removed from the family passport. Again, a simple procedure, appearing before the relevant American official, who crossed her off, and it was done.


The last two passports complete the journey. I think that these were the first individual passports they held. Denise and I got individual passports at the same time. A little context. This was a period of political instability. Dad was the bishop of the church and general superintendent of the mission. If troubles of some sort or other broke out in Zimbabwe, especially in Bulawayo where we lived, individual passports enabled us to travel separately if necessary. Dad could stay behind and keep things going, while mother and Denise and I could head for South Africa and home.

I have wondered about that time. I remember getting my passport. It felt cool, and I felt grown up. I'm not sure I would have felt quite so pleased if I had known why I now had my own passport. Two years later we left Zimbabwe. I returned for three years in the 1970s, so that I was there for the beginning of the Liberation Struggle, but that's another story. A story of passports.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Can God Call an Old Guy (like me)?

Introduction
The question in our sermon title has an obvious answer – Yes! But the truth is that we often think of God’s call in quite restrictive ways. We think God’s Call is for young people, or for full time Christian workers, or for people facing some great crisis – in fact, for almost anyone except me. Let’s talk about God’s Call.

Some Stories
You probably grew up with stories of God’s call. I remember one my Uncle Arthur used to tell. He married Arlene Brubaker, a young woman from Ohio. They were both students in Upland, California when they met. He was a young man who knew he wanted to go into missions, probably in Africa. She also felt that God was calling her to missions, either in Africa or India. Since she had relatives in our mission work in Africa, she assumed God was calling her to India.

Arthur was a shy young man with a supremely confident exterior. He was afraid any girl he liked might say no, so he formed a club with some friends called “the woman-haters club”. When Arlene started at Upland College, she saw him across the room and thought he looked nice, but her friends discouraged her: “That’s Arthur. He started the woman-haters club. Don’t worry about him.” Of course, he had also noticed Arlene and decided to ask her out. In those days (the 1930s) “asking a girl out” included walking her home from some event or other.

Meanwhile Arlene was praying about God’s Call. So she asked God to show her if she should go to Africa or India. She prayed, “Lord, if you want me to go to Africa, have Arthur Climenhaga invite me for a date before Wednesday night.” That Wednesday, Arthur watched Arlene leave the campus by bus for her apartment. Then he got on his bicycle and rode to the bus stop where he knew she would be waiting. He rode up to her and talked for a bit and then asked, “May I walk you home from choir tonight?” He said that she just looked at him and he thought, “Oh no! She doesn’t like me!” She was thinking, “God just told me to go to Africa!”
[Disclaimer: Arthur said that he does not recommend this way of discerning God’s will – the proverbial “fleece”! I add that my memory of details such as “Wednesday night” may be quite wrong. I wasn’t there!]

I think of another story. Years before, Arthur’s Uncle, Henry Smith, was also engaged to a young woman, Katie Burkholder. Henry and Katie both believed God was calling them to mission work in Africa. Independently of each other they both realized that God was actually calling them to India. Each of them wrote a letter to each other breaking the engagement to follow God’s call. Henry’s letter travelled from Pennsylvania to California at the same time as Katie’s letter went from California to Pennsylvania. When they each got the other’s letter, they realized God had confirmed God’s call in their lives in a wonderful way.

I love these stories. God speaks to us – sometimes so directly and clearly that we know for sure what God wants us to do. But there stories contain a serious problem: They imply that the real work of a Christian is overseas missions, and that the best Christians are those who receive this kind of marvellous call. What happens to the rest of us? Does God call us too?

1 Samuel 3: 1-10
The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

You know the story. Hannah is married to Elkanah. We don’t know the details, but in their culture marriages were between families and for the purpose of having children. When Hannah had no children, no one would have been surprised that Elkanah took a second wife, and they would have rejoiced with him when she had children.

Imagine Hannah’s despair. Elkanah loved her more than he loved Peninnah, but she had no children. During their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, she went into the Tabernacle and prayed desperately for a son. Eli the priest saw her and pronounced God’s blessing on her: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” God granted her request, and Samuel was born.

In her joy, she promises to give the child to God to live in the Tabernacle with Eli. When Samuel is born, she fulfills her vow and takes him to Shiloh and leaves him there, probably soon after he learned to walk. In chapter 2, then, Hannah sings a song of praise that serves as the model for Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1.

So we come to chapter three. Samuel’s name may mean “Heard of God”, since God heard Hannah’s prayer. Certainly, his life was changed by hearing God’s call in the night. We don’t know how old he was, but he had been in the Tabernacle for some years when this event took place. The writer sets the stage: The people in general do not hear or see much of God, and Eli himself is failing, old and in poor health. Samuel was sleeping that night in the tabernacle itself when he heard the voice call, “Samuel!” He got up and went to Eli to see what he wanted. Eli hadn’t called him, and he went back to lie down and sleep. Again he heard the voice, and again Eli told him to go and lie down.

Verse seven signals a change in the action: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” This night was God’s call on his life. When he heard the voice a third time and went to Eli, Eli realized what was happening. Eli was an important figure – the first of the high priests, descendant of Aaron, priest and judge in Shiloh. Although he was a flawed person, unable to teach or control his sons, here he acted as God’s person for that moment. He told Samuel what to do. “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Samuel did as he was told. The voice called twice this time: “Samuel! Samuel!” He replied as Eli told him: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And the course of his life was set. He was the last of the judges, the priest at Shiloh, the leader of Israel who helped bring in the monarchy and the house of David. Since the Messiah is “Son of David”, Samuel’s life was basic to God’s great redeeming work, coming in the person of Jesus to reconcile the world to God.

The story reinforces our perceptions that God’s call is for special people, people like the leader of Israel. Consider, however, who Samuel was: A small boy, serving and growing up in the Tabernacle. God came to a child, not simply to some great leader. Another point in the story is of greater importance: God call is the formative event in a person’s life. When God calls you, you are never the same again – whether you heed God’s call or not.

To think more about God’s call, we turn to John 1: 35-42

John 1
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

We join the action of chapter one as John the Baptist pursues his work. He sees Jesus passing by and identifies him as the Messiah. Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus and ask where he lives. Jesus invites them to “come and see”. In effect, he says, “Follow me.” They do.

One of these two was Andrew, and he brought his brother Simon. Simon also came to Jesus, and Jesus renamed him “Cephas” – or “Peter”, that is “Rock”. Matthew’s gospel explains this name in 16: 18 as “the rock on which Christ builds his church”. Again we see the importance of God’s call, which is life-changing. Peter does not immediately become a steadfast reliable person. The greater change in his life comes in the resurrection of Jesus and the events leading up to Pentecost, but here Jesus begins the process.

So God’s call is life-changing, but the call in John is quieter, less dramatic than in 1 Samuel. “Where do you live?” “Come and See.” In understand this to mean that Jesus invites the disciples to walk with him and live with him, and the invitation changes their lives. If the story about Samuel involves a child, at least that child was especially dedicated to life in God’s house. In John, the call is more prosaic. John’s disciples are so very ordinary, they could be you or me! So let’s put these together and ask what we can say about God’s call for us today.

Applying to Life
1) My first thought is that God’s call is actually basic to every one of us. God’s call is not just important to future apostles, or priests at Shiloh, or other religious specialists. As we read the gospels, we find that Jesus had only one response when people came to him and asked what they should do: “Follow Me.” That is still true today. Whether you are 15 or 50, finishing school and ready to work, or finishing work and ready to retire, God calls you and God calls me to follow Jesus, to live with Jesus.

I was talking recently with Reg, and he noted the way that people saw his going to MCC USA from government service as “following God’s Call”, although it seemed rather less dramatic than that to him and Phyllis. I would say that they were right: Reg and Phyllis were following God’s call. I would add that moving to the RHA more recently was another example of following God’s call. I think that Phyllis was following God’s call when she established a business in Pennsylvania making and selling crafts. God’s call is the foundation of life for every one of us.

2) A second thought is that God’s call is life-changing. Simon’s name-change symbolizes more than just a new nickname. God is at work to make him a completely new person. Samuel’s response to God’s voice changed his life.

We have often thought that a life-changing call has to do with “full-time Christian service”, but actually it just has to do with life. God calls a young woman entering the work force to live as God’s person in a Steinbach business so that the people she works with and interacts with each day see Jesus. God calls a middle-aged man to start his own business so that the people he serves can see Jesus. God calls a retired couple to take people into their home through a ministry of hospitality so that the people they meet will see Jesus.

God’s call has less to do with age than with our openness to God’s voice. Like John’s disciples in John 1, we are looking for God, and when God comes to us, we respond. We say with the boy Samuel, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

3) A third thought is that God’s call changes the world. Peter was renamed for the sake of the church and the world, not just for his own sake. Samuel’s call led to new life for the Children of Israel. God calls you and God calls me to be “salt and light” in our world, so that through our response other people also come to know Jesus.

I think of an international student at Providence who moved to Winnipeg after graduation. She later said that, living at Providence, she thought Canadians were a warm and welcoming people. Then she moved to Winnipeg and changed her mind. Now she says that the people at Providence are a warm and welcoming people. That is an example of a community responding to God’s call together.

I think of another friend from Japan whom Lois used to teach. She invited him for supper and told him to bring any friends he wanted to. As we sat and talked together, he said, “This one is from Indonesia, and he is a Christian. This one is also from Indonesia, and he is also a Christian. This one if from Madagascar, and he is a Christian. I am not a Christian.” An unusual statement! Lois asked if they were his roommates, since he had invited them to join him. He said, “No. They are just the best people at the place where I work!” That is an example of three young men answer God’s call and making a difference in the world around them.

4) Two final thoughts. One: We find God’s call together. The stories I began with this morning can lead us to think that we find God’s call is a personal and individual thing. There is an individual component: You must respond for yourself. Nobody else can listen to and respond for you. There is also a vital community component: We listen for God’s voice together. God may speak through a brother or sister to tell us what to do. When we think God is speaking, it is good to check with our sisters and brothers – in care groups, over a cup of coffee, making sure that we are not just engaging in wishful thinking.

Two: Some people try to make this whole conversation into God’s pre-planned blueprint for our lives. I don’t think that makes sense. God drew Samuel and Jesus invited his disciples into a life lived together. In any given moment, God may present us with several choices, with two or three right answers to the questions that face us. Like the time that my parents, older sister, and I were crossing the ocean by ship on our way home from Africa. My sister was nine years old, and there was a game going on in the ship dining room – a horse race around a small track with models of horses that raced based on the roll of the dice. One of the women there saw my sister watching and gave her a small amount of money to bet on the horses. She asked my Dad what she should do, and he told her to choose for herself. She chose to bet the money, which was probably not what he would have done! The lesson to choose for herself proved to be more important than a prohibition on gambling, and she was still safely in my parents’ will, even though their choice would have been not to gamble.


God speaks to us through our likes and our interests. God speaks to us through to opportunities that present themselves. God speaks to us through each other. Together we respond and witness to the presence of Jesus in our world. A dramatic call to Africa is part of this picture. An ordinary step into a new situation is part of this picture. At any age, for all of our lives, Jesus says, “Come and see where I live. Walk with me. Live with me.” Like Samuel, we say, “Speak. We’re listening.” Like Peter and Andrew and James and John, we respond by walking with Jesus in everything that we do.


Steinbach Mennonite Church
21 January 2018

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Life hurts, but ... (Let it Be So)

We know the passages we heard this morning well. We have heard them many times before, so that we may have trouble grasping how deeply they probe into our human condition. In the reading from Isaiah, we hear the prophet’s commission to speak words of comfort and new life. In the reading from Mark, we hear how John the Baptist intentionally grounded his ministry in these same words of comfort and new life.

At the centre of the readings, we see the affirmation with which Mark begins his gospel: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” I have a friend from Afghanistan who was arrested once on his way back into the country, carrying Mark’s Gospel on MP3 players. He told how his luggage was searched at the airport in Kabul and the guard found the MP3 players he was carrying. The guard asked what these players were for, and my friend said they were for his friends. Then the guard began to push buttons until the player began in the Dari language: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” When the guard heard these words, he held the player up in the air and yelled, “I got one!” Uniformed people came running from every direction, and my friend spent the next week in jail being interrogated, before they allowed him to spend time with his friends.

The guard had it right: These passages are more revolutionary than we realize. They recognize the broken condition of our world, and they call us to healing and new life when we have lost hope that such is possible. Listen to the texts with me.

Isaiah 40
The Children of Israel had spent 70 years in exile – from about 600 years before Christ to about 530 BC. Now their exile is about to end. The prophet tells the story.
Verses 1 and 2: Through the prophet, God announces comfort and relief. Israel’s sin has been paid for, and Israel therefore receives tender comfort in place of a bitter and painful time. The proclamation makes a statement and raises a question.
1) Although not all misfortune in life comes directly from our own sin, in Israel’s case, her exile was indeed the result of her own rebellion. Exile was the just reward for Israel’s rebellion.
2) The just reward has been paid, which asks a question: Why can’t God just forgive Israel? The people were truly sorry for their sin; isn’t that enough? Why must she “receive at the Lord’s hand double for her sin”? We will return to this question.
Verses 3 to 5: A voice [I assume, God] calls out the announcement:
1) Prepare the way for the King to come [if you prefer, roll out the red carpet]! Remove all obstacles in his way. The way the prophet phrases this announcement highlights the size of the obstacles and suggests that in fact such a massive engineering project is something that only God can achieve, but God calls on God’s people to do it. In fact, God has already done it, as verses 1 and 2 say.
2) God’s coming reveals God’s glory, which everyone in the world will see.
Verses 6 to 8: The voice bases our confidence in God’s coming on the permanence of God’s Word. Human actions and words are temporary; they die. We die. Isaiah puts it starkly: God breathes on us, and we die. As human beings, we are made for this earth and for a short time.
God does not die. God does not end. God will do what God intends to do. The reference to God’s Word – “the word of our God endures forever” – is picked up in John’s gospel as “the Word made flesh”. It is no accident that we read this prophecy of the Return to the Promised Land in the Advent Season. We wait for God’s Word, who is eternal and forever.
Verses 9 to 11: All of this is for our benefit. God is coming – to gather us in, gently and forever. It may be that we, as human beings, are made for a short time on this earth, but we as God’s people [his flock] are made to be with God forever.
So the voice announces God’s coming with a shout: “Here is your God!” Shout it from the mountain tops! Shout it from the roof tops. God is here, and our lives are changed forever!

Now of course the Return from Exile was less dramatic than this announcement. God’s presence was veiled again over the next 500+ years until Jesus was born. For a few years, Jesus shone on earth, and the first church burst into life, but then the veil fell again over the light of God’s presence. God is here, but God’s presence is often veiled. We are waiting again for God to come, waiting again for God’s Return.

Mark 1
Verses 1 to 3: Mark’s gospel begins, as we noted earlier, with the title, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Mark then connects this good news with the passage from Isaiah 40. He uses this connection to call on the people of his day – and of Jesus’ own day – to prepare the way for God to come.
Verses 4 to 8: In verse 4, Mark defines the preparation as repentance. The work that was already done [repentance and forgiveness] in Isaiah 40 is the work the people now need to do. They immediately set to work, confessing their sins and receiving John’s baptism.
Mark mentions John’s unusual diet and dress, but only in passing. Rather, he moves directly on to the message: “You are repenting, as is right. Now the Messiah will come, and he will give you God’s Holy Spirit.”
God’s coming is both political and spiritual – all of life is changed when the people repent of their rebellion and turn to God.

Why This Emphasis on “Repent!”
We have this basic situation in both passages. Life is hard. At least some of the problems the people face, they can trace clearly to their own choices. The people recognize that they have disregarded the people they should have listened to, and more importantly, they have rebelled against God. They repent, but, for some reason, they must “receive at the Lord’s hands double for their sins.” We have the old saying about sin, “it must be paid for.” Why? Why can’t God just forgive? Why did they have to pay?

You have heard of the various scandals in the USA, as well as in Canada, about sexual harassment. The most high profile situation this past week involved the senator from Minnesota. I will not detail the actions that led to his resignation, but note only his careful and thorough apology at the beginning to the first and most serious of the accusations. One of the facts that becomes evident is that there is no apology good enough to prevent the senator from paying the price. The old saying is true, “It must be paid for.”

Another recent apology comes from our Prime Minister to the First Nations of Canada, most recently to survivors of Newfoundland’s residential schools. As we waited for the apology, I read a comment from one of the survivors, who said that he was not impressed with any words Trudeau might say. He was waiting for actions, he said. To put it another way, “‘Sorry’ isn’t enough; it must be paid for.”

We know this in our own lives. Words are easy, and an easy repentance does not deserve forgiveness. If we know this in our own lives, why would we expect any less of God? True love will not accept easy words of repentance. God knows us too well to accept what we don’t mean. Rebellion must be paid for so that the rebels mean it when they end their rebellion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this kind of thing in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship (in German, Nachfolge – the act of following). He writes:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

We can see Bonhoeffer’s idea of costly grace in both Isaiah 40 and Mark 1: Salvation is created as God comes on the scene – that is grace, and salvation comes because the price has been paid – that is costly.

What is the price? Real repentance. Real change. Isaiah calls on God’s people to prepare the way by removing all obstacles to God’s coming. Mark makes it clear that the work of preparation is confession and repentance. The trouble is that human beings cannot in themselves repent deeply enough. The abusers (whether making unwanted sexual advances, or abusing children in the residential schools) both apologize and self-justify. That’s the way we are. Only God can dig deep enough into our souls to bring about the full repentance necessary for God’s grace to have its full effect.

Working Our Advent Theme
How does all of this work with our Advent Theme? Last Sunday Julia Thiessen started us off with the theme “Let it be.” She spoke about the way that we find the light when we are willing to stir up trouble, embracing the darkness and broken bits of our lives. Next Sunday Lee will speak on the theme, “Let it be whole”, and on Christmas Eve on “Yes, Let it be now.”

Out theme this morning is “Let it Be So.” The focus statement states: “We long to be comforted, we long for change. Moving from uncertainty and fear, we call upon God to make things ready – the mountains leveled, the paths made straight, our hearts prepared.” Life is hard and full of pain, but God is coming. How do we prepare the way for God to work in our world?

1) We recognise God’s part and our part: We call on God to move mountains and fill in chasms. We call on God to do what we cannot do. In turn, God calls on us to do our part, which in Mark is “Repent”. Sometimes we think that we can fix whatever is wrong with us. Such thinking is simply wrong. We are not wise enough or strong enough to fix our world, so we call on God to do what we cannot do. Sometimes we think that God has to do everything for us. Such thinking is equally wrong. God enables us to deal with the problems around us, so we get to work and do what we can. As Garfield Todd (a former missionary and Prime Minister in Southern Rhodesia) said, “When Jesus came to Lazarus’ grave, he asked the young men to move the stone from the tomb. We do what we can, and we leave it to Jesus to raise the dead.”

2) We take responsibility for ourselves: Part of what we must do is repent of our rebellion. We are at fault for some of the problems around us. We ask God’s Spirit to show us where any resistance to God’s ways is at work in us, and then we repent and wait for God’s Spirit to go to work. God changes us and works through us when we confess our failures.

3) Look at the whole world: This is not just a matter of individual spiritual health: “Is your heart right with God?” The brokenness of our world is bigger than we can see. When God comes to set things right, God looks at the hatred and division of our political systems as well as broken relationships in a small town. God cares for the whole of creation as well as for hurting people in Steinbach.

A Story
This past month a group of six people from Providence travelled to Kachin State in Myanmar. Our President, David Johnson, led the group to participate in a ceremony in the Kachin Baptist Church, conferring an honorary doctorate on Samson Hkalam, president of the KBC. Samson studied at Providence 20 years ago, and he has provided critical leadership for his people through difficult times.

A bit of background: There are about one million people in Kachin State, of which 400,000 belong to the KBC. There are 18 divisions (we would call them “municipalities) in Kachin State, but the Burmese government has placed no Kachin administrators to govern them. The Burmese military controls the area, and there is a low grade ongoing civil war between the Kachin people and the Burmese government. As a result, there were somewhere around 80,000 IDPs in Kachin and Shan states (two states in Myanmar bordering China).

The KBC today hosts a number of camps, some of which members of the Providence group visited – 2,000 in one camp and 1,400 in another. The church has also collected money to build a hospital in the main city the group visited, since the government has not provided one. The church is engaged in a long-lasting major effort to provide for people in every area of life, when conditions under government control have deteriorated significantly.

Go back 40 years. In 1977, the KBC celebrated their 100th anniversary. Following the celebration, the church decided to appoint 300 evangelists to spend three years travelling around Kachin State in evangelistic work. They gathered the young men together, but they discovered that many of these men were scruffy, using drugs, drinking to excess, and clearly unsuitable for the work they had been called to do. But when they tried to send them home instead, the young men refused to leave. They said that they had been called and would do the work. So the church gave them some directions: No more drinking or drugs and get cleaned up, and then they gave them 40 days of intensive training.

The numbers are intentionally significant, our group was told: three years, for the three years of Jesus’ ministry; 300 young men for the number in Gideon’s army; and 40 days for Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. The result of their ministry was also significant. God has used these 300 young men to bring almost half of the Kachin people into the church. God has used their ministry to prepare them to deal with the problems they now face, especially the overwhelming need of the internally displaced people among them. They prepared the way for the Lord to come, and God came. Not the final return of Christ yet, but God came and is at work among the Kachin people.

God is still coming in Kachin State. Dave taught the pastors from the book of Romans, and Stan taught them from the book of Nehemiah. They asked hard questions, “How can we forgive our enemies [in this 20+ year-long civil war]?” Stan’s thoughts went back to our own Mennonite history in Russia, in which the State tried to kill our own people, and we have had to learn to live for peace – and to forgive.

God is ready to come in our lives also. We live on a much smaller scale than the one I have just described – in Steinbach, a small city of 16,000 people. But people here also need God’s presence, and we prepare the way for God’s entry into their lives, and into our own lives as well. Live is difficult and hard, but God is coming to bring comfort and strength and new life. Let it be so!

Steinbach Mennonite Church
10 December 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
40 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Imagination and History

Introduction
I am going to talk about imagination and history. I am not talking about imagining what happened in order to write historical fiction. One uses the imagination in historical fiction, but I am not looking at that task. Nor am I using “imagination” as a code word for “guess”. Sometimes we do guess at what happened and then seek confirmation, but I am not looking at that task either.

Rather I am listening to the texts I read with my imagination alive to notes that the recorder of the event may not have recognized in order to set questions for further inquiry. I am using especially my training in cultural studies to hear echoes from reports written over 100 years ago.

I am in the process of researching and writing a history of Brethren in Christ World Missions. I worked with the BIC in Zambia and Zimbabwe for seven years. My parents in their turn served with BICWM from 1946 to 1965. Before them, my grandparents were with the mission from 1921 to 1929. It is important to note that I am investigating and writing the history of my own home church, so that the reader can be aware of any bias or special pleading in my work. I am using the written reports that the missionaries sent to the home church to provide the basic story.

The story of BICWM breaks naturally into three periods:
1896 to 1920, Beginnings and first missionaries: The BIC sent their first missionary party to Zimbabwe in 1898. The first period of work culminated with World War One, and I take the story up to the influx of new missionaries following the war, in about 1920.
1920 to 1945, Institutionalization of the mission in Africa and India: The period between the wars, culminating in World War Two.
1945 to 1980, Apex and Withdrawal: The 1950s were the high water mark of BIC missions in Africa and India, with work beginning also in Japan and Nicaragua. The withdrawal of missionaries from Zimbabwe during the Liberation War there marks the shift into a new pattern of missionary outreach that continues today. I end my story when the North American missionaries returned home from Zimbabwe.

The Love Feast
I want to look at an incident in 1899, less than a year after the missionaries entered Zimbabwe. In the middle of 1898, four pioneering missionaries arrived at Matopo Mission: Jesse and Elizabeth Engle, Alice Heisey, and Frances Davidson. The following May they were joined by Clifford and Sara Cress and by Isaac Lehman. These seven missionaries immediately held what the Brethren in Christ call a Love Feast.

The basic process of a Love Feast is as follows: A common meal (or several meals) eaten together, a baptismal service (if there are any candidates for baptism), a service of “washing the saints feet”, and finally a communion service. This first Love Feast in Zimbabwe was significantly abbreviated, given that it was held among the seven pioneer missionaries only, with the Ndebele people looking on. Here is Clifford Cress’ description of the event, written for the Evangelical Visitor ( the BIC church paper, issued twice a month):
"Before the appointed time all were in their places and then followed a solemn and impressive season as we seven in childlike simplicity and love poured water into basins and washed each others’ feet, the kiss of love following. The usual Scriptures were read in the Zulu tongue and then followed the commemoration of the death and sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was an occasion long to be remembered, probably never to be forgotten by us and the congregation who sat before us in silence and for the first time in their darkened lives witnessed these solemn ceremonies. Some were aged and silvered for the tomb and yet had never seen these blessed and precious services: and until our workers told them had never heard the story of the cross. Many tears were shed throughout the entire day and at eventide we felt that God had indeed been with us. As the sun was lowering toward the western mountains the natives gave us a farewell salutation and one by one began winding their homeward way among the rocks and trees that line the valleys."

We see the following elements of the Love Feast in this account: Washing the Saints’ Feet, and the Lord’s Table. The common meal and baptisms were not a part of this first celebration.

Cress himself may have had similar questions as I do, most importantly: What did the Ndebele people watching them think that this ceremony meant? Consider again what the assembled people saw.
1) The four missionary women would have gathered in one place, and the two missionary men would have gathered in another.
2) The participants removed their shoes and socks/stockings. The three men would have washed each other’s feet – one kneeling before the other, placing the other’s feet in the basin of water (one at a time) and washing them, then drying them with a large towel tied around his waist. The second would repeat the process with the third, and the third would complete the circle with the first.
The four women would also have formed a circle. The first would have knelt before the second and washed her feet, the second before the third, the third before the fourth, and the fourth would have completed the circle. In each case, once the feet have been washed and dried, the two participants would have stood and embraced and kissed each other on the cheek.
3) All six would then have proceeded to the Lord’s Table for the communion service. The lead minister (Jesse Engle) would have prayed over the bread (a special, unleavened bread used at communion services). Traditionally, each one serves the next, so we can assume that they passed the bread down the row, and that the last person probably served Engle to complete the process. Then Engle would have prayed over the cup, which would have been juice (what kind of juice in their context, we do not know), and then passed the cup down the row in the same way as the bread. We do not know if they used individual cups or a common cup.

So we have the question, “what did the watching people think this meant?” This is where we must use our cultural imagination.

To gain some insight into this question, we consider briefly the history and religious culture of the Ndebele people. The Ndebele migrated from Botswana to southwestern Zimbabwe in the late 1830s. A small group of the larger Zulu People within the KwaZulu Natal area of South Africa had migrated north and west under their leader, Mzilikazi, who fled from the threat posed to him and the Ndebele by Tshaka, the king of the Zulu People. They moved first to modern Botswana, where they incorporated a large number of Tswana and Swazi people. Under further threat from the Boer farmers who were also seeking control of the area, they move further north to the area around modern Bulawayo in southwestern Zimbabwe. 

In the 60 years between establishing their new home and the arrival of the first BIC missionaries, the Ndebele established control over a large territory and brought into their population the people who already lived there. Their basic social structure included a strong military focus, which made them a formidable force opposing the expansion of White Settler society.

White Settlers were on the move in any case. In 1888, Cecil Rhodes negotiated permission for his agents to explore for gold and other minerals in the area north and east of Ndebele territory. The Ndebele ruler then was the son of Mzilikazi, named Lobengula. Lobengula saw clearly that this movement from Cecil Rhodes’ emissaries would cost him control of the Ndebele homeland, but also could see no way to resist it. As he foresaw, White Settlers moved into the area east of his homeland, and in 1893, they provoked hostilities with the Ndebele People. This conflict ended with Lobengula’s death, and the Ndebele People retreated into the Matopo Hills, south of Bulawayo. Three years later, they rose up against the White Settlers, who had built a new city on the ruins of Lobengula’s capital. At first it appeared that they might throw the Whites out of the country, but reinforcements sent by Rhodes in South Africa eventually forced the Ndebele to hide in the Matopo Hills, until finally, in October 1897, they made a peace treaty, allowing the White Settlers to take control of the country. Less than a year later, the BIC missionaries – good pacifists all – arrived in the Matopo Hills, in the very centre of the place where the Ndebele had taken final refuge from the White Settlers.

So much for a brief overview of the historical background. The cultural and religious background is also complex. We do not have time to look at it properly, so I will note simply three basic features of traditional Ndebele culture and religion.
The Ndebele believed in a creator God, remote from people and accessible only through the ancestors.
The ancestors – those who had died recently – remained in close contact with those still alive.
The whole of life was seen as thoroughly spiritual. Many things had a spiritual cause – from early death in a family to sickness to drought to excessive rainfall. The normal response to such events was a ritual involving the spirits of the ancestors and mediated by the spiritual specialists (diviners and herbalists).

Put your imagination to work as you read/hear about the first Love Feast.

1) The Ndebele watching the event knew the White Settlers first as people who had dispossessed them of the land. That dispossession had begun, but was not nearly complete, when this Love Feast took place. The site of the Love Feast was the home of the people who had been killing White Settlers less than two years before, and defending themselves against attack less than a year before. Yet here were White people, taking off their shoes and socks and carrying out a ceremony that could hardly have looked more different than anything the invading settlers did.

The first baptisms took place within the next few months, and then the people saw these white missionaries embracing the newly baptised members of the church and giving them “the kiss of love”. Again, they would have recognized an important ritual, and they must have wondered about these strange amakhiwa who looked like the soldiers they had fought against, but who embraced them as brothers and sisters.

2) As a deeply spiritual people, the Ndebele recognized rituals when they saw them, so they would have understood that the missionaries were doing something significant. Most of their own rituals involved communicating with the ancestors, so they might have interpreted the words about remembering what Jesus said in that light.

3) As a spiritual people, the Ndebele would have assumed spiritual causes and consequences to having been dispossessed of control over their land. They may have wondered if they were watching ritual activities designed to give the White settlers the power to have entered their land against their united opposition.

Conclusion
These are the kinds of questions that I have put down on paper to guide further research into the coming of the first missionaries and their contact with the host people in the Matopo Hills. Clifford Cress clearly saw that the Love Feast was strange to the observers. I wonder if the missionaries fully understood just how strange all of this would have looked. I suspect that one central dynamic was to set the missionaries apart from the White settlers as different, and perhaps as worth developing a relationship with. I keep reading, and asking questions, and talking with the BIC Church in Zimbabwe, searching for answers to the questions of historical imagination.

Daryl Climenhaga
30 Nov 2017