A peep into life in Africa, through the eyes of an African Reformed Baptist pastor.

Water, water, water, everywhere. What else do you expect? I am a Baptist, and I live in the land of the mighty Victoria Falls!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Wanted: Burdened Preachers

The story is told of a nervous young man who once came before a selection panel for the Methodist ministry. During the interview, this rather shy young man took the opportunity of explaining that he was not gifted enough to set the River Thames on fire. One of the interviewers, Dr W E Sangster, responded with these words: “My dear young man, I’m not interested in knowing if you could set the Thames on fire. What I want to know is this: If I picked you up by the scruff of your neck and dropped you into the Thames, would it sizzle?” In short, what these interviewers were looking for, as of first importance, were not men of great learning and abilities but men set ablaze by the truth of God’s word. They wanted burdened preachers.

That this is one of the crying needs of our times must be obvious to all who have the prosperity of the church militant at heart. There is no shortage of men going by the titles of Pastor, Reverend, Bishop, Evangelist, etc., for they are being churned out of our Bible colleges and seminaries like comic booklets off the press. Never in the history of the church have we had so many BAs, BThs, MAs, PhDs, etc., in our pulpits. Yet, we must equally admit that very few of these men would sizzle if dropped into the Thames. Professionalism is the order of the day. Men prepare their sermons with the same cold-bloodedness with which they prepared their college assignments, and are therefore quite content when in the place of an A+ they get a “Thank you, Pastor, for that wonderful sermon” at the end of the service.

Obviously, something needs to be done to redress this situation, because no church can rise higher than its pulpit. The present prevalent deadness in the pew can be traced back to a lukewarmness in the pulpit. It is the lack of solid biblical conviction in the pulpit, which has begotten the almost total absence of decisiveness in the pews. If this be true, then all our efforts at restoring biblical Christianity in the pews will go to waste unless we remove the blight in the pulpit. If every Sunday, the opening of preachers’ mouths is like the opening of deep-freezers, then how can you expect the church to warm up to God’s bidding?

We need to begin by asserting that simply giving out a text of Scripture, and then droning along monotonously on a religious subject related to it is not preaching—at least not in the biblical sense. Read the messages delivered by the prophets in the Old Testament and by the apostles in the New Testament and see if you do not feel animated. These men were gripped by the word of God and there is no mistaking it. They did not just know their subject; they felt it! To them, preaching was more than an attempt at the art of communication; it was an unburdening of themselves. They all knew something of a Jeremiah-like experience when that prophet said, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:9).

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones notices this from the writings of the apostle Paul. He imagines someone saying, “If you have true scholarship you will not be animated; you will be dignified. You will read a great treatise quietly and without passion.” “Out of the question!” he retorts. “That is a quenching of the Spirit! The apostle Paul breaks some of the rules of grammar; he interrupts his own argument. It is because of the fire! We are so decorous, we are so controlled, we do everything with such decency and order that there is no life, there is no warmth, there is no power! But that is not New Testament Christianity.” (The Christian Warfare).

If this “articulate snoring” (as Charles Haddon Spurgeon calls it) is not preaching, biblically speaking, then what is preaching? Allow me to quote Dr Lloyd-Jones again, who, in answer to this question, says, “Preaching is logic on fire! Eloquent reason! …It is theology on fire… Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire!” (Preaching and Preachers). And to this definition, we give a hearty Amen!

This definition inevitably implies that the very truths we handle in the pulpit are calculated to develop the burden and passion in the preacher. A man talking about the weather may be forgiven if he sends half his hearers to sleep, but the preacher of the gospel handles issues of eternal life and death. How can we speak about the living God, the tragic fall of man, the glorious redemption in Christ, the omnipotent power of the Spirit, the blood-bought church of the Firstborn, the bliss of heaven and the torments of hell without so much as a tremor on our lips? It is the truth of God that made the prophets, the apostles, the reformers, and the evangelists to be the burning and shining lights they were.

Yet it also needs to be stated with real emphasis that unless the Holy Spirit burns these truths into our being, we may know them but without feeling their awesomeness. Two preachers can preach sermons with excellent theology in them; from one it feels as if you are getting it out of the deep freezer, while from the other your heart is melted and you are stirred to the very depths of your being. I am persuaded that the difference lies in the study. To the first, the study is but a workshop in which sermons are assembled; to the other, the study is a womb in which sermons are conceived by the help of the Holy Spirit.

The example of the great evangelist, George Whitefield, is worth noting. “Whitefield spent hours of each day on his knees with God’s word opened before him, and it was from the audience chamber of heaven he went forth to speak those marvellous words of power, which stirred the souls of the multitude. These eternal truths thus passed in him beyond mere intellections, they took possession of the whole man, and he could not but speak with tender pathos and holy boldness, as he saw light in God’s light, and the spiritual world was thus all ablaze with light around him” (Hezekiah Harvey’s The Pastor).

If we are going to know the return of powerful, biblical preaching in our pulpits, we will need a reformation in those rooms we call our studies. We will need to learn to look at our studies as the place we go to meet with God to receive a word from him for his people. Therefore, we will need to go about our sermon preparations with a devotional spirit, poring over the sacred Scriptures “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). Yes, we must refuse to rise and go into the pulpit until the messenger and the message have become one, welded together by the Torch of God—the Holy Spirit. Then, and only then, shall we be burdened preachers concerned to proclaim “the burden of the Lord” to a sin-sick world.

We must never look down upon ministerial training. Nor must we ever kid ourselves into believing that commentaries, concordances, lexicons, etc., are optional extras on which we can allow dust to accumulate. No, we must ever be grateful for all these tools. But let us ever remember the words of J W Alexander: “No man can be a great preacher without great feeling” (Thoughts on Preaching). Therefore, let us never stop at depending on our preparatory training and Bible helps. Rather, let us like Elijah of old turn to the Lord in prayer for that which he alone can give—fire from above.

O that out of our studies may rise the prayer of Elijah, as I am sure it did in the days of the Reformation! “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:36,37). Amen!

(NB: This article, with minor editorial changes, is being reproduced from the Canadian magazine The Gospel Witness of July 1994. It was reproduced from the now defunct Reformation Africa South magazine where I first submitted it for publication. A friend, Andre Pinard, sent it to me and later posted it on Facebook. When I read it, I was pleasantly surprised that I felt this way 23 years ago. My convictions have not changed and so I thought of turning it into a blog post and thus giving it extra life. I hope it blesses many more people!)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Facebook and Me

As I commence 2017, Facebook is among the many blessings I am thanking God for. Let me explain. My journey on Facebook began a few years ago. I remember the day quite vividly. I had been preaching for a pastoral friend in the USA and while there on a couple of occasions he asked me why I was not on Facebook. I cannot now recall what my answer was. He kept insisting that “a guy like you needs to get on Facebook” but I kept up with whatever excuse it was that I was giving him. Finally, as we came to my last night and I was preparing to go to bed, he told his eldest daughter to get my laptop and open a Facebook account for me. When I woke up in the morning I was given my laptop back with the news that changed my world: “Conrad, you are now on Facebook!”

I recalled that it was in precisely the same way that I started blogging. Again, I was preaching for an American pastor and while I was having lunch with him he raised the subject that I should start blogging. I gave every excuse in the book as to why I could not but he kept insisting, “A guy like you needs to have a blog”. Finally, with lunch out of the way, he took me to his son’s office and asked him to open a blog for me. Within a few minutes I was told that I had a blog.

But I digress. I was talking about Facebook and me. Once I got over the initial shock of seeing thousands of “friend” requests streaming in—compared to a few hundred followers on my blog—I sat back and asked myself the question, “How was I to use this power that was suddenly at my fingertips?” I noticed that many people used Facebook to talk about inconsequential aspects of their lives—what they ate the other day, what they saw yesterday, where they visited today, etc. I came to the conclusion that each person must determine what he or she will do with this power that was now in his or her hands. I felt that I wanted to use it for a greater purpose.

I decided that Facebook was going to do for me what my regular prayer letters did. Once I settled that in my mind, I was ready to fly. I processed it this way. Missionaries and pastors of a former generation kept journals, which were often published many years after events had happened, sometimes after the writers had already died. Readers were challenged to greater heights of Christian living and service by the feats of these servants of God. Although that was not my generation, I too became a pastor before I had access to the Internet. I would type out prayer letters on a manual typewriter, duplicate them, and send them by post. Within a week my friends would know what was going on in my life and ministry and feel a part of my life. Enter the Internet and Facebook! Now, in the providence of God, I can do what God’s servants were doing and what I used to do but this time the waiting period between writing and reading is a millisecond.

That is not the only change I am grateful to God for. I recall that I used to send my prayer letters to about 50 – 100 people around the world—largely around Africa, Great Britain, and the USA. Facebook has changed all that. Now I share what is happening in my ministry with about 10,000 “friends” all over the world at the click of a button. I have had to open a second Facebook account because the first one can only allow me to have 5,000 “friends”. Bear in mind also that some of my “friends” further share my posts. If you add Twitter to the list, the number doubles to about 20,000. Also, previously, by the time news got to many of my would-be recipients some of it was stale, but now the news is hot-off-the-press. I am able to post “as it happens”. I often meet people I have not seen in years that tell me, “We are following you on Facebook.” Oh, to turn a lot of that into prayer!

One more advantage with Facebook that my prayer letters could not do is to report to members of Kabwata Baptist Church about my itinerant ministry and other ministries outside the church. I always kept my fellow elders up-to-date with where I was and what was going on there, almost in real time. But the wider church only got to know when we had our members meetings, which only took place once every four months. It was too little too late. Enter Facebook. Now those members who are my “friends” on Facebook—and that accounts for almost all our younger members—get to know what is happening in their pastor’s life as it happens. They are able to comment on it and, I trust, pray for me while I am in the battlefield and the bullets are flying past my head. I really appreciate this.

Perhaps the bonus has been my love for photography. Initially, my prayer letters had no pictures due to the primitive nature of duplication in those days. Then when the personal computer became domesticated my prayer letters would have one or two photos, which I would scan in after the whole event was over. Now I am able to take digital photos and post them while an event is still in progress. This enables people to pray more intelligently as they see with their own eyes what is happening in real time in a place far away. It has made hauling my heavy camera paraphernalia around the planet worth all the trouble.

Facebook has both hindered and enhanced my blogging. It has hindered it because I now spend much more time writing short paragraphs for Facebook and quickly posting. It is easier. It is faster. And so I lack the time and enthusiasm that I once had to sit down and write my long blogs (like this one!). That is a loss…a major loss. However, Facebook has enhanced my blogging experience because when I write a blog I am able to share the link on Facebook and the traffic going there has grown exponentially. Many more people read my blog posts now because they see the link on my Facebook page. So, again, I am grateful for Facebook.

However, as with all human inventions, Facebook is riddled with minefields too. One of them is the fact that there is a very thin line between sharing what God is doing in the various ministries in which I am involved and “showing off”. The former glorifies God while the latter stinks. The warnings of Matthew 6 are relevant here. Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). He then went on to give three examples and in each case he had in mind aspects of our religion that are meant to be private—giving to the poor, personal prayer times, and fasting. Another issue Jesus was concerned about is the temptation towards ostentation—“to be seen by them”. It is an issue of motives. I have to ask myself the question every so often: What drives me to share on Facebook? I wish I would say that my motives are always God honouring and pure but as a fallen creature I sometimes catch myself wanting “to be seen” by men. O this carnal heart!

Looking back now, I thank God for Bill Ascol, who prevailed on me to get onto Facebook, just as much as I thank God for Tim Bayly for prevailing on me to start blogging. Between these two men, I have been able to use Internet technology in my ministry far beyond merely sending emails to a few friends. I have become a journalist without my writing passing through an editor. I can only pray that the many friends that I have acquired through these two avenues—especially through Facebook—will go beyond being entertained by reading what I post. I pray that they will often take a moment to pray for me. I am a sinner saved by grace. Left to myself I will mess up everything. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” Yet, with the prayers of God’s people, God can pour abundant grace into my life resulting in genuine spiritual growth in me and in the ministries I am involved in—to his glory!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why do missionaries take such embarrassing photos?

I flew into Freetown last week. As I was escorted from the arrivals gate I found a sea of humanity outside the airport calling out to arriving passengers for the exchange of money into the local currency or as taxis. Thankfully, someone was waiting for me and he took me straight to the place where I needed to pay for my fares to go across to the mainland using the “sea coach”. As I sat in the small bus that looked like its retirement from active service was long overdue the bags of other passengers were being heaped next to me until I felt as if my life was in danger. I got a picture of the heap of bags towering over my head. I thought to myself, “This is certainly worth posting on Facebook as I recount my travel tales”.

When the bus was full, we started out for the “sea coach” port. Within a few minutes, we left the tarred road and the bus went through a bush path with our bones rattling at every pothole we hit because the rickety bus’ shock absorbers were finished. As I was about to pull out my camera again to capture something of this humorous adventure for my Facebook update a thought struck me: “Imagine how my hosts will feel if they see my Facebook updates exposing their primitive transport and roads to the whole world. Will they be happy with me? I do not think so. Conrad, do to others as you would have them do to you.” So, I never took those shots that would have earned me quite a few “likes”.

As we crossed the water channel from the airport to the mainland, my mind began to race. I thought to myself, “Could this be why many missionaries end up taking and showing photos of only the primitive side of life in Africa?” The photos show what will be interesting to the people back home!

My mind went to my overseas visits. I carry my camera everywhere I go and I have been to all the continents on the planet, except the Antarctica—if you consider it a continent. What is it that causes me to whip out my camera and take shots for Facebook or for my own family’s consumption? It is almost always situations and scenery that are not common back home. In North America I want to capture the BIG things—big men and women (referred to as being obese), tall buildings, wide roads with myriads of lanes, shops with almost every conceivable item under one roof, etc. In South America I want to take photos of the simplicity of life that I see there—small beautiful homes, half-dressed men and women walking around in slippers, children playing football everywhere, beautiful graffiti, etc. In Asia I want to capture Hindu and Moslem culture—well dressed and sometimes over-dressed women, cows freely roaming the streets in the city centre, elegant mosques and temples, etc. When others come to Africa and take photos of what is not common back home, they end up producing the stereotypes that cause the world to think that we all live with lions, giraffes, and elephants in our back yards and in pre-historic mud huts.

I thought, “Could what motivates me to take pictures of things that will surprise my own people back home also be what motivates missionaries to take those embarrassing photos in Africa?” An American missionary will not want to take photos of themselves standing inside our state-of-the-art shopping malls. People back home may think the photo was taken inside Walmart, Best Buy or MacDonalds down the street. The temptation is to take a photo inside the most poverty stricken compound. Photos showing children with flies and mucus on their faces and with dirty torn clothes, standing next to a heap of stinking garbage…those are the “perfect” pictures to produce a “Wow!” back home. That is certainly not an everyday sight in the Western World.

I guess whereas the motive I have may be the same as that of the missionaries, the reaction will be different when people whose homeland is represented consistently in negative extremes see the presentation. I once suffered that embarrassment. Some years ago I saw a presentation of Africa at a church in the USA that made it look like I had come from wretched poverty before getting on the airplane to cross the Atlantic. I do not recall all that I saw but slide after slide showed women selling food in the open market with house flies on them, children who looked like they had not bathed for ages and were terribly malnourished, congested hospital wards with patients sleeping on the floors, roads that were more of potholes than tar, Christian congregations meeting under trees with mud huts in the background, etc. I waited for slides that would show the other side of Africa but they never came up. Understandably, the missionary was trying to show how needy Africa was so that his fellow Americans could be moved to give to his work and he probably achieved it. As an African in attendance I felt embarrassingly and grossly misrepresented.

Where does one draw the balance? That is a very difficult question. In the world of estates and property they say that the key is “location, location, location.” With respect to this subject the key is “context, context, context.” When missionaries return home on assignment their task will most likely not be that of showing off how beautiful Africa is. They are not marketing our tourism potential in order to bring more tourists to Africa. Neither do they expect a “Mbewe”—born and bred in Africa—with skin-deep sensitivity levels to show up in the meetings. So, they tailor-make their presentation to show in the shortest possible time the needs in Africa so that those who may never cross the Atlantic can see and give and pray. That is the context. Those of us who are of African origin and find ourselves in such meetings need sufficient maturity not to over-react. We need to keep in mind why the presentation is skewed towards very embarrassing data.

However, it would help missionaries who are making such presentations to realise that the world has been reduced into a very small global village and a “Mbewe” may show up in the audience. They would be wise to add a regular note somewhere at the start of their presentation that states that the continent they are coming from is a very wide and diverse place and what they are presenting only shows the little corner in which they are serving and does not represent the whole. That way the blushing “Mbewe” can at least say at the end of the presentation, “Yes, although where I live is different from what you have seen, that is how some places in Africa are and missionaries labouring there would really appreciate your generous financial support and ongoing prayers.”

Facebook is another context altogether. There is need for greater sensitivity when posting on the Internet and especially in social media because the presentation is not to a localised group. Although we often choose the “friends” who see our posts, those posts are often shared beyond our initial circle of “friends” and can end up upsetting the feelings of the local people who are all being painted with the same brush. That was why I stopped in my tracks last week in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I realised that my hosts would see my postings and get hurt. It is vital that we are more sensitive and balanced when posting photos on the Internet and commenting on them. Some comments add insult to injury. The photos are bad enough. The comments—which sometimes can be very sarcastic—suggest that the people being served by the missionary are stupid and need to be helped to think. This must be avoided at all costs.

The issue of context, and the sensitivity and understanding of the people back home, was once illustrated about 12 years ago when I took some American pastors with me to Lusaka’s Leopard’s Hill cemetery. As they saw the number of fresh graves, they were deeply affected. One of them asked if he could take some photos. He said, “Conrad, people back home need to see this. I never realised it was this bad!” I told him that he could do so as long as he was discreet. Well, my caution was too little too late. He was spotted and a few angry mourners came over to the car demanding that my guest deletes any photos he had taken. In defence of my friend, I said that the “white men” I was with were pastors and were taking these pictures to go and show their congregations back home in America so that they donate money to our church hospitals. That way we can have medicines there to prevent more of us from dying. One of them quickly said, “Oh, so they are pastors? That’s okay. We thought they were journalists who just want to embarrass us. We do not want to see ourselves in a report on television saying that we are dying like flies. Tell them to convince their churches quickly because things are bad here.” With those words, the men were appeased and they left. There you are: Context! Context! Context!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The death of a pet

A few days ago I stood by my study window and saw our youngest daughter, Mwape, standing helplessly as she saw her pregnant dog, Chelsea, breathe her last. Mwape had taken a day off from work because she was not feeling well herself. Little did she know that it was going to be her last day with her dog.

It was evident that the exceptionally territorial dog had been poisoned on Sunday while we were at church. (Thieves often do this when they want to steal and find your dog too ferocious). The whole day Monday Chelsea was not her usual active self but we all thought that perhaps she was getting close to delivering her puppies. Tuesday morning she was gone.

Mwape had tried her best to save Chelsea’s life. She brought in a vet who gave the dog all the attention and medication possible. The vet stuck around all morning. Chelsea slightly revived and we all became hopeful but it was only for a few moments. The poison had already done too much damage. Chelsea died.

As I looked at Mwape standing motionless and teary-eyed halfway between the lifeless body of Chelsea and me, I walked over to her and hugged her. What more could a dad do? I shared with her my own pain when a hit-and-run car killed my dog when I was only nine years old.

That was forty-five years ago, but retelling Mwape the events of that day revived those painful emotions. My dog’s name was Cary and I loved him like a brother. I always looked forward to his warm and enthusiastic welcome whenever I returned from school. I would only leave him when I was called in for lunch.

One Saturday morning, I woke up and rushed outside only to find Cary lying on the driveway dying. I sat down at the edge of the veranda and cried my heart out as I looked at my childhood companion breathing his last. I stroked his fur until he breathed his last. Time stood still. Many thoughts went through my young mind that day.

The biggest question was, “Why?” “Why did God allow this? Why did the people who did this not stop and take Cary to the vet? Why do people do such things? Why haven’t the police gone after them?” To my little mind these questions were overwhelming and my tears flowed freely. I remember one song going through my mind again and again:

What the world needs now is love sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love sweet love
No, not just for some but for everyone

Lord, we don’t need another mountain
There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb
There are oceans and rivers enough to cross
Enough to last ‘till the end of time

What the world needs now is love sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love sweet love
No, not just for some but for everyone

As the events of forty-fives years ago caused my chest to heave, I realised that I was standing with Mwape about a metre from the exact spot where I sat as a nine-year old boy mourning my first major loss in life. The body of Mwape’s dead Chelsea was now lying in the same driveway that my Cary’s lifeless body lay in 1971.

The one major difference, though, was that I was nine years old while Mwape is now in her early twenties. Another was that whereas I could take a moment to hug my mourning daughter, I do not remember anyone hugging me. Perhaps they did. All I recall is that all the big people were busy preparing to dispose of Cary’s body.

I recall dad, uncle, and our domestic servant (“ba Lazalo”) getting a spade and a sack. They put Cary’s body in the sack and carried it to its last resting place. I followed. As I sat on the grass nearby, I watched them with teary eyes as they dug a hole in the ground, let down the sack, and covered it with soil. “Good-bye, Cary,” I cried as we headed back home.

When my family returned to occupy my childhood home in the year 2012, the first place I visited was the place where Cary was buried. It was about 300 metres from our home. In 1971 it was the edge of a forest but it is now a built up area. I stood at the spot and let the emotions of those days touch my heart afresh.

It is amazing how much pets mean to us. They are animals but they are not just animals. There is a real bond that takes places between us humans and those animals. In a very strange way, they love us and we love them too. We look forward to being with them and they also look forward to being with us everyday. Amazing!

And I think this is true of dogs more than any other animal. No wonder they have gained the title, “Man’s best friend.” I think cats are not as attached to individuals as dogs are, but I am willing to be corrected. Dogs will fight to protect their owner and their owner’s territory, whereas cats will get onto the laps of anyone who gives them the chance.

Is there any biblical example of this attachment between humans and animals? I can think of at least one. Here it is (2 Samuel 12:1-6): “And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought.

‘And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

The Bible says, “Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’” Why did David respond with such anger? Could it be that he understood the emotional attachment between that man and his ewe lamb? Perhaps.

I am sure our daughter, Mwape, feels like David towards the thieves that poisoned her dog a few days ago. I certainly felt that rush of anger back then as a little nine-year old boy. How we can get so attached to pets is yet another puzzle we will only unravel when we are seated by the side of Jesus in eternity. Come, Lord Jesus. Come!