Friday, July 24, 2015

One Half-Step Out of a Hobbit Hole

This article by Bob Rice was published in the online journal Unbound. You can find the original at this link: http://justiceunbound.org/carousel/one-half-step-out-of-a-hobbit-hole

“When you set out on this adventure, you will never be the same.”

These are the grave but hopeful words spoken by Gandalf the Grey to a young hobbit named Bilbo;[1] and thus begins the epic tale of The Hobbit. In many ways, following Christ mirrors this classic tale of a hobbit, twelve dwarfs, and the tall, brim-hatted wizard. We have a destination. We have a leader. There are travails throughout. We travel together. We will never be the same.

But there is more held in common between these two adventures; both also allow us to discover our true selves. Bilbo discovers the adventurous and courageous ‘Took’ side of himself. He discovers that he is resourceful, clever, and wise. He bonds with a bunch of dwarves. We too will discover gifts we never thought we had. We will pray prayers that have never been prayed before. We will go places never dreamed. We will eat different things and learn new tongues. We will welcome as friends those once strangers. In all of this newness, we will not only discover our true selves, we will also discover one another and re-discover the greatness of the One who called us. For of course, it all begins with this One – the God of all times and places, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Caller of the called and the Dreamer who forges unreality into reality.

Bilbo leaving the Shire

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It starts with one half-step out of a hobbit’s hole. It begins with a brazen act of courage and goodness in the face of uncertainty and even tyranny. It begins with a holy and passionate “yes” when all the world about screams an unholy “no.”
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So, what is the call? What is the dream? What is this mysterious missio dei that echoes throughout conversations of what it means to be ‘missional’? The answer is simultaneously simple and complex. Quite plainly, God’s mission is to redeem and restore God’s original creation. Mission begins and ends with God’s passionate love for us.

Yet what comes in between is quite complex. The puzzle has been created; the puzzle has fallen into disorder; and the pieces of the puzzle are now being put together again. These pieces are vast and complicated, comprised with historical and cultural realities, persons and personalities that do not fit well together. Moreover, this mysterious God is always on the move. This wild, untamable madwoman of a God always has something new up her sleeve!

Thankfully God’s hutzpah is equaled only by God’s humility. And that, I believe, is where we the Church come in. Honest to goodness, what crazy God would choose the broken fragments of our lives to restore created order? That is what we are, isn’t it? A loose and broken slinky of stubborn and half-blind hopes and ambitions, tangled both good and bad. Why would God stoop so low, work with human matter so frail? Why would this all-powerful God choose to work with us so weak?

Maybe this God knows something we do not. Just as Gandalf saw something in Bilbo, maybe God sees something in us. Maybe we actually have the ‘stuff’ necessary. Maybe we actually have the right DNA to match God’s grand plan for redemption. After all, is it not true that we are made in God’s image? Maybe that means we have a part to play. Maybe it means that we are God’s partners in this gamely plan to rescue and restore created order. We, grafted into the Vine of goodness, love and mercy, climbing over and conquering all.

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Friends, what holes do we need to step out of? From which holes do our congregations need to step forth? What holes do our communities of faith and denominational bodies need to launch beyond?
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And where does it all start? As with Bilbo, it starts with one half-step out of a hobbit’s hole. It begins with a brazen act of courage and goodness in the face of uncertainty and even tyranny. It begins with a holy and passionate “yes” when all the world about screams an unholy “no.” It begins simple and small; Jesus compares it to a mustard seed. In the aftermath of the Rwanda Genocide, it begins with Tutsis and Hutus sitting together and sharing their pain. For churches in the Middle East, it begins with Christians helping and housing refugees. In Brazil, it begins with one woman who sees the needs of the marginalized and destitute. For a church in California, it begins with giving up a day of their typical worship to worship God in a new way, through serving the needs of the community.

For me, it begins in earnest when I hear a man from Rwanda named Antoine Rutayisire speak about the horrors and hopes of his homeland. He speaks passionately about our complicity with evil and unwillingness to stand against injustice. He speaks of God’s love coupled with our need to forgive and love our enemies. Antoine shares with us his love of visiting the prisons of Rwanda, sharing God’s mercy and love with the very people who killed his people. He invites us to come and see. I go, and I see, and I go again. I prayerfully decide to move there. The people of Rwanda and the generosity of Africa now shape my life and faith forever. It begins small. A “yes” buried deep inside. A rediscovery of the One. A half-step taken out of a hobbit hole.

Friends, what holes do we need to step out of? From which holes do our congregations need to step forth? What holes do our communities of faith and denominational bodies need to launch beyond?

Let me name a few that I see: complacency, comfort, control, safety, security, respectability, and affluence. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34–35). Jesus turns away an earnest young man because he isn’t willing to part with his wealth. He tells a would-be-follower that “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

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There is nothing safe or secure about God’s kingdom. There is no pension plan or stock option or even a house with a yard.
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Jesus’ message is one which comforts the afflicted but afflicts the comfortable. Jesus is not looking for lukewarm watchers to fill the sidelines on the field of life; he is looking for risk takers. The Caller of the called is seeking to put the puzzle pieces back together, and she is looking for helping hands. Everything our western culture prizes are the very things Jesus challenges. There is nothing safe or secure about God’s kingdom. There is no pension plan or stock option or even a house with a yard. There is only this – self-denial, and the promise of eternal reward.

In a climactic scene from the epic film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo is forced to tell why he has decided to join this traveling band. He states that while he truly belongs to the Shire, he has joined this risky venture to help the dwarves find and win back their home. It is a moving scene where even the hardest-hearted of dwarves begins to soften. It is a poignant moment, a statement of self-denial and sacrifice for the sake of others. Likewise, Paul tells us, Jesus left all that was known and comfortable. He left his position of glory and made himself like us, submitting to death, even to the shame and dishonor of the cross. Theologian Nestor Medina refers to Jesus’ action as kenosis, the “self-emptying of God”. To show his true power, Jesus gives up all power. God relinquishes privilege, power, and position so that others may be lifted up. Jesus leaves his home that we might find our true home.

Friends, in an age of entitlement, efforts to protect ourselves from the unknown, and self-seeking pleasure, God lays down the gauntlet. There is no easy shortcut on the road that leads to Life. We the Church must give up all for the sake of Christ and his eternal kingdom. None of our sacred cows will escape the flames of God’s lasting judgment. There is the need for urgency. There is the need for prophetic acts and words, speaking truth to power and unjust systems. There is the need for the Church to truly be a hospital for sinners, not a showcase for the saints. There is the need to go beyond what is comfortable and known.

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For our shrinking denominations, may we embrace this change with alacrity and vision. May we consider new structures of being a connectional body that force us to live according to kingdom values.
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In the United States, there is the need for the Church to welcome the immigrant with open arms and to advocate for the refugee. Amongst our church mission committees, there is the need to commit and recommit our pledge to serve worldwide partners through generous giving. There is the need to support our mission workers and long-term volunteers who have left the comforts of home to walk alongside the Majority World Church in places of great physical need. For our aging congregations, there is the need to thank God for God’s generous provision over the decades and to pray about how God might seek to do a new thing among us. For the younger amongst us, there is the need to recognize how the Gospel speaks into our culture and how God’s values shape our lives.

For those of us with white complexion and European ancestry, there is the need to recognize the culmination of the Modern Western Missionary Movement[2] and the dawn of a new era of mission – one in which we in the West are no longer the Apostolic Paul prototypes but rather the Barnabas accompaniers, coming alongside and assisting and encouraging our sisters and brothers who have grabbed the baton of faith, zealously proclaiming God’s kingdom in places formerly unknown and unreached. For those of us organizing and going on short-term mission trips, we must ask ourselves why are we going and in what ways can we serve and partner with those whom we visit over the long haul. For our shrinking denominations, may we embrace this change with alacrity and vision. May we consider new structures of being a connectional body that force us to live according to kingdom values.

Fourteen years ago I sat with my parents and my Rwandan friend Antoine in the lounge of the Marriot Hotel, just across from the San Francisco airport. Antoine said to us plainly, “When Bob comes to live and serve with us in Rwanda, please know that he will never be the same.” God calls each of us in different ways to different things. God is calling God’s people to give thanks for the past and to embrace what is new.  God is calling us to forgo the safe, the seemingly sane, the comfortable and the known. All it takes, friends, is one half-step out of a hobbit’s hole. Will you take it? Will your church take it? Will our communities and denominational bodies take it? I pray that the answer is a “yes”, even if small, and buried deep within us.

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[1] This is a loose quote from the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Venture.
[2] In short, the Modern Western Missionary Movement refers roughly to the time period between 1800 and 2000, when thousands upon thousands of Protestant missionaries ventured from Europe and North America into the rest of the world to share the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and deed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Bread of Life

 

This month, we are excited to have Bibles to sell. People come to our office every day looking for Bibles, and I get the pleasure of sometimes getting to know them a little bit in the process. I thought you might enjoy just a few testimonies of people who have come to buy Bibles from our department this month.Pastor Nzuala with Bible - Kazumba

Pastor Nzuala is the pastor of a congregation near Kazumba, about 2 days travel from Kananga. He also oversees 3 “evangelistic circles” (like a church plant) in his vicinity, visiting them each month and supporting the elders or lay-people who are serving those new congregations. He has a Bible, but it is so well-worn that he said he had only half of Genesis, and in the New Testament only Matthew remained. The rest had been lost over the years. He was very excited to finally have a complete Bible in Tshiluba! Pastor Mukenge, our colleague in Mbuji-Mayi, reported a similar situation recently. In the tropical climate and harsh living conditions that people have here, after keeping a Bible for 20-30 years, it is often missing some pages – or big chunks!

Pastor Mande Mukeni serves a thriving new congregation in a village called Tshiela Kalombayi. He was serving as pastor of a church in the mining city of Tshikapa, but then in 2009 felt called to begin a church in a new rural area. He began doing evangelism in the area, and gathered a group together to hold services in the shade of a tree. He said that villagers at first wanted to see ‘ceremonies’ like other churches performed, but he gradually impressed them with the importance of understanding God’s truth and the message of salvation. In 2011 their congregation was recognized as a full-fledged parish and member of the presbytery. They now average about 150 people in worship, including 70-80 kids. He said that he, as the pastor, only had a small New Testament Bible; in fact, NO ONE in the whole church had a whole Bible, just a few scattered New Testaments among the members.

Nkaji is a young woman studying theology at UPRECO, the Protestant University in Kananga. She came to buy a Bible for herself – she said that it has been difficult studying theology and not having her own Bible in her native language of Tshiluba. When I asked why she chose to study theology, she said it was because she really loves the Word of God. She comes from a distant village about 300 km south of Kananga. Her parents own a Bible, but she has never owned one for herself.

Mulami Musuamba with bibleMamu Musuamba is a deacon in her church and a very active leader of the network of women in her presbytery. We have encountered her before in a rural village a full day’s walk from her home, where she traveled just to pay her condolences on the death of the spouse of one of the other women in the presbytery. More than a year ago, thieves broke into her house at night, and stole all the books and clothes, including her Bible and songbook. Since that tragic event, whenever she was called to teach at a woman’s meeting, she had to borrow a Bible from someone. But this week she was very excited to finally be able to buy a new Bible for herself.

A big ‘thank you’ to all the individuals and churches that have helped us to have this privilege of helping people get their own Bibles. The demand for Bibles continues to be huge. If you would like to give towards Bibles in Congo, you can find instructions and a link for online giving on our projects page (see #4). And if you want more details about how and why we subsidize Bibles, we have a recent blog post that explains more.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Happy Report-card Day!

On Saturday, I attended a joyful ceremony marking the end of the school year for the kids in the Ditekemena program. Three of the youngest kids attended first grade at a local public school. Another two attended secondary school at a nearby Presbyterian-run school. The remaining 17 school-age kids were in a ‘catch-up’ school environment based at the center where they are staying – I’ll call that the Ditekemena school. Most of them had spent a few years out of school while they were just trying to survive in the midst of broken family situations or living on the street. So – all of them were THRILLED about the opportunity to go to school this year, and very eager to learn. I want to walk you through the highlights of the ceremony and hopefully you will feel the reason to celebrate too!

The kids who had attended the catch-up school at the Ditekemena center all wore their school uniforms,and everyone was scrubbed clean and looking their best. The ceremony/service resembled a worship service, with hymns, choirs, prayers, and a short message. A youth choir from a nearby congregation joined in the celebratory atmosphere and the choir of Ditekemena kids of course got the limelight. Pastor Manyayi gave a short message about King David – the humble shepherd who probably didn’t go to school, but God chose him, anointed him, and used him in significant ways. He expressed that only by the grace of God were these kids able to go to school this year and reach this significant day.
Ditekemena Manyayi speaking broad
Pastor Manyayi encourages the kids

Ditekemena choir1
The Ditekemena choir

Then, each of the kids in the Ditekemana school were given an opportunity to do a ‘recitation’. They had memorized a text (in French, the language of education in DRC) about a topic such as their country, their school, or family. It was moving to hear from these young kids who had worked so hard and improved so much this year. Aimé, in her recitation, said that before the start of school this year she was not able to read or write, but that now she can read and write “without fault”. Pastor Manyayi shared with me afterward that she literally could not write her name when she came to the center, despite the fact that she had attended a few years of school.
Ditekemena Aime
Aimé, with her report card.

Then, you have the near-miracle of Eric. Not only could he barely write his name at the beginning of the year, but he was combative with the other kids and often disruptive. They put him in level 2 of the catch-up school (covering 3rd and 4th grades). In the final month of the school year, they were advised to give him a chance at taking the national primary-school completion exam, simply because he is so tall and wouldn’t fit in very well in primary school. So they bumped him up to level 3 and he reviewed for the exam with the other students. Now, you would never guess from his gentle, respectful, loving demeanor about his difficult background on the street.
Ditekemena Ntumba Eric ShambuyiEric (middle) with Jean and Shambuyi

Each of the kids was called up individually to receive their report card. The three little guys who were in first grade came in 8th, 12th, and 18th in their class of 20+ students. Not bad!
Andre, Junior, and Papy, on their way to first grade one morning.
Then, of course, every good party in Congo includes food and music. They had found a small generator for this day, and the kids let loose with the dancing. Then off for a big meal of bidia, greens, and goat meat!



Ditekemena eating bidia
We praise God for His provision for each of these kids this year. Please continue to pray that God would guide and provide for each of them in terms of being placed or reunited with families. And we continue to celebrate the unique and special individuals that God created them to be!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Youth Sunday

There is a designated ‘Youth Sunday’ In the Presbyterian Church in Congo, The youth preach, lead worship, fill as ushers and deacons, and do all of the roles that make the church service happen. It is always a joyful day full of energy as they highlight their work and role in the church. This past Sunday we enjoyed worshipping with the youth of the Kananga 1 congregation. They had decorated the church with paper chains, and most of them were wearing matching ‘uniforms’ just for this special occasion (a significant expense for these families!). They typically spend all night at the church the night before, worshipping and preparing for the service.


The youth had a combined choir this Sunday,
and encouraged everyone with their songs.


One of the youth preaches from Acts 2: 11-12
about the importance of unity in the church.


All of the leaders of the youth ministry at the Kananga 1 congregation are introduced.
The youth ministry is led completely by the youth themselves, although people are
considered ‘youth’ well into their 30’s in Congo. They have an overall president and
‘cabinet’, including leaders in the areas of evangelism, intercession, and
community development projects.


This short video is the offertory song, led by the youth. Everyone gets into it!

After the service, EVERYONE (all 300+people) got a meal of bidia, greens, fish, beans, and rice. That was a feat, feeding everyone! They had some help from the ‘mamas’ in cooking all the food.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Partnership

The Presbyterian Mission Agency does mission in partnership. Recently we wrestled with some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of what this means for us in Congo. We had been struggling for more than a year with frustration about a colleague who’s actions were hindering the work of Christian Education. We wondered why he was not disciplined for his irresponsible actions, or even removed from his position. We wondered how exactly we were to respond and what role we were to play. We shared our concerns with a couple of church leaders, and one wisely told us “this is a process”; that is, there are many steps involved in disciplining someone and it often takes a long time.

As we prayed, talked, and waited, we thought about the cultural differences. This is a generalization, but Americans tend to value truth, justice, and transparency, and Congolese tend to value harmony. Americans (the “cool” culture) also value productivity, results, and effectiveness, while Congolese (the “warm” culture) tend to place more importance on loyalty, honor (hierarchy), and trust. We realized that this colleague we were frustrated with was a relative of one of the top church leaders in his region – if other church leaders pushed hard for his removal, there could be negative repercussions for them in other areas as a result.

We wondered what approach to take. In this case, he had taken some money sent for a specific project and used it for another purpose. Part of the accountability that PC(USA) provides is that they require that funds that are sent be used for the intended purpose, and that they get reported on before more funds are sent. Since a valid report was not able to be submitted, more funds for ministry in Christian Education were blocked from coming. As ‘bridge people’ working with both PC(USA) and CPC, we were tempted to say “because of the ways this colleague has disregarded the correct procedures of the use of funds, we refuse to work with Christian Education or raise more money for projects unless he is removed from his position”. However, we realized that would be rather ‘heavy handed’ and impose our values on our partner, the CPC. Yet, the other approach, of sitting back and saying “we respect the leadership of CPC and whatever decisions they take” while continuing to watch this struggle drag on also seemed irresponsible. This is the crux – where is the balance in partnership? Each side has things to give, goals to work towards, and requirements to abide by.

We decided to write a letter, expressing our concerns and outlining what we saw as the serious mistakes our colleague had done that was hindering the work. We wrote the letter in February. Then we let it be, continuing to think, pray and discuss. In April, we showed the letter to two church leaders who we work with – we said to them “We wrote this letter, but before we officially send it, we want to know your thoughts and advice about it. Is it a good idea to send this letter?” Both of them affirmed us for expressing our concerns, and the highest leader encouraged us to send it to the Department of Evangelism. So, in May we sent it, and waited rather nervously to see how it would be received.

The board meeting for Evangelism was in May. Our letter was read out loud in the meeting (with the colleague concerned present), and then everyone was invited to discuss and ask questions for clarification. It was a good, open discussion, and people expressed appreciation that we were willing to share this concern rather than just holding it in. The board made a decision to issue a written warning and give him a fixed time period to repay the funds that had been taken (so that they could then be used for the intended purpose). We felt that it was as good a result as we could have hoped. At least it was stressed to him in the context of other leaders the importance of respecting the structure that their partner, PC(USA), has put in place for the use of funds. Now, we wait to see how things pan out. Either way, we have to be willing to work with this colleague, forgive him, and continue in relationship with him. We have to respect how the CPC seeks to handle the problem. But, it doesn’t mean that we have to pretend to be blind to mistakes or that we can’t work together for resolution. There is a proverb in Tshiluba that goes “Tshikuyi, batshikulula misenga; muntu wa tshilema bamubelela mu bantu.” Literally, “They scrape the bark of the black tshikuyi tree and find white powder; a person who has erred is counseled in the midst of other people.” Figuratively, the point is that wise counselors can give needed correction to someone who has made mistakes, and help them back on the right path.

We welcome you to share with us your thoughts and experiences on the challenges of cross-cultural partnership. And we welcome your prayers too, that we would be faithful partners for the good of God’s Kingdom.