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!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

My great friend, Pastor Choolwe Mwetwa

“The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18).

Anniversaries are important. Although the world uses them only for drinking parties, for the children of light anniversaries are a time for stock-taking—reflecting upon the goodness of God and resolving to do better in the years ahead. This month (November 2008) marks twenty years of the outstanding pastoral ministry of one of my closest friends in the ministry, Choolwe Mwetwa, of Central Baptist Church in Chingola, Zambia. I had hoped to participate in some commemorative events to mark such an important milestone, but upon realising that the month was drawing to an end with nothing happening, I opted to use this blog to muse over my friend’s remarkable ministry.

[For those of you who are unfamiliar with Zambia, I have included a map below. Chingola is between Mufulira and Solwezi, while Luanshya is just next to Ndola]

I first met Choolwe when we were both non-Christians and schooling in Ndola. Ronald Kalifungwa, another close ministerial friend who was also in Ndola at that time, recalls that Choolwe was famous for his soccer prowess. In the soccer field he used to be called “Choo-weey”.
The next time we met was at a Zambia Fellowship of Evangelical Students (ZAFES) camp in 1980 or 1981 when I was at the University of Zambia and he was at Luanshya Vocational Training Institute studying electrical technology. “What are you doing here?” I said to him, and he quickly replied, “And what are you doing here?” So, we found a quiet corner somewhere and shared how the Lord Jesus Christ had saved us from sin. We were both overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace!

When I graduated from the University of Zambia and went to work in the Mufulira copper mines in 1984, I found Choolwe managing a men’s clothing outlet in that town. Since I had just been allocated a two-bedroomed apartment in an up-market residential area, I invited him to come and occupy the second bedroom. Again, since both of us were working, we also invited a schoolboy (Alan Ndambasha, now married and living in the USA) to come and live with us, so that he could take care of the house chores. Those were wonderful days indeed! Choolwe had just bade farewell to the Pentecostal Assemblies of God and was attending a new Brethren in Christ Church in town. I recall that he was a late sleeper and late riser, while I was an early sleeper and early riser. There were times when, in the middle of the night, we would cross each other in the corridor as he would be going to sleep after reading and I would be waking up to start my reading!

Another highlight in those days was the way we spent our money on Christian books. We would set aside money from our salaries for the basics of what we needed that month and then we would find out who between us would have time the following day to go to Luanshya by bus where there was a Christian bookstore that had a good supply of Banner of Truth titles. I recall once being the one to travel and I came back to Mufulira late at night, heavy-laden with the coveted merchandise. We went into the wee hours of the night reading the blurbs on the covers. We then proceeded to share the books using the “one for you, one for me” method. In the end, we had one book remaining and it proved quite a task to decide who would get it. Finally, my less selfish friend let me have it as a reward for the long trek I undertook ferrying the merchandise across the Copperbelt!

Choolwe left me in Mufulira when he was transferred to Kitwe, where he found Ronald and they formed a formidable pair of young Reformed preachers. The Lord was definitely working in our hearts at the same time because, in a period of slightly more than one year (1987-1988), we all left secular employment and went straight into the ministry without going for formal theological training. Kabwata Baptist Church called me to be their pastor in September 1987, Central Baptist Church in Mufulira called Ronald to be their pastor in May 1988, and Central Baptist Church in Chingola called Choolwe to be their pastor in November 1988. These churches were all very new and had no church buildings. They could not even afford to pay our salaries (Lusaka Baptist Church, the church that Ronald is presently pastoring, helped these churches to do so for the first three years). We also all married nurses soon after becoming pastors. Since then, apart from Ronald’s short stint in South Africa (1998-2006), we have laboured very closely together in providing leadership to our local churches and spearheading the Reformed movement in Zambia (see picture above, with Erroll Hulse and Trevor Roberts in 1991). For Choolwe, this has meant twenty years of faithful ministry in that corner of God’s vineyard called Chingola. I trust his church has some idea how much their pulpit is coveted!

I often tell people that, among the Reformed Baptists in Zambia, Choolwe is the great mind while Ronald is the pastor par excellence (In case you are wondering what I think I am, I am the dreamer!). If God ever gave a John Owen to Zambia, he did so in the person of Choolwe. I can well understand why he left Pentecostal/Charismatic circles in the mid 1980s. I cannot see how a mind that painstakingly follows an argument so perceptibly to its logical end can be satisfied with the superficiality and contradictions that are so glaring in those circles. Choolwe and I call each other “twiny” because we have often found that we have a lot in common. For one, we both love writing and have sustained columns in national newspapers for years. There is, however, one area in which we are certainly different. I write booklets, but he writes tomes! Be that as it may, over the years I have appreciated Choolwe’s clarity of mind when I have had a knotty problem to deal with and have sought his counsel. After a few perceptive questions from him, all based squarely on the Scriptures, I have seen the way ahead so clearly that I have often wondered how I failed to see it in the first place.

This gift of God has also been an asset to the Reformed movement in Zambia generally. In the early days of the Reformed movement in Zambia, Choolwe (together with Ronald) came up with a simple duplicated magazine called Sola Scriptura. During its short lifespan, it enabled us to think through the basics of the Reformed Faith and their application to our churches and our culture. Choolwe also came up with yet another vehicle that has been greatly used of God to sharpen our understanding of the application of the Reformed Faith to various aspects of church life. This was the not-so-regular Parson’s Diet (see picture). This was a conference among Reformed Baptist pastors where knotty theological and practical issues were debated year after year.

This gift of God has also been a great asset to the nation of Zambia in the political realm in times of crisis. Who can forget how Choolwe’s one message at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in 2001 rallied the whole nation together against our former Republican President FJT Chiluba’s efforts to change the constitution so that he could run for a third term as Republican President? Similarly, when his successor, the late Republican President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, expressed reluctance to use a more popular method to adopt a new national constitution, civil society again turned to Choolwe for help. Choolwe took the nation by storm with just one message at the Mulungushi International Conference Centre. His arguments were devastating, and it was clear to all that the battle was won. Yet, Choolwe is not a politician but a preacher of the gospel. So, as soon as his duty is done in the hour of crisis, he has always retired to his quiet pastorate in Chingola. Going from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and the Mulungushi International Conference Centre to his normal church building (compare buildings above) must take quite some adjusting—but he does it all the time!

“Behind every successful man there is a woman.” I recall the day Choolwe broke the news to me that he had found his “missing rib” in a lady called Marilyn Katyoka (see picture), and on 4 August 1990 they were married. That was eighteen years ago. Since then I have seen this domestic reformer turn my friend’s house into a home and her warm personality has given it the glow that attracts us all there. Since then God has also given them three wonderful children—Wajula (boy), Tolai (girl) and Nkwali (boy). Marilyn’s green fingers have kept a vegetable garden going in their backyard that always leaves me green with envy each time I visit their home in Chingola.

Now, with twenty years of “the book” already written, one wonders what the other pages will look like in Choolwe’s life. Only God knows. However, from God’s Word, one verse that keeps coming to mind as I think of the ministry of this dear friend of mine and servant of God is Proverbs 4:18, “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” Here is a very consistent life that has been growing in its understanding of God’s truth and in its fruitfulness over the years. Therefore, we can only expect better things with each succeeding year. One of my greatest privileges in life, for which I will ever remain grateful to God, has been to be a friend to one of God’s choicest servants in my generation in my country. Thank you, Lord. Amen!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Brazilian Encontro Da Fe Reformada Conferences

“I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12).

My first visit to Brazil was in 1998, when Richard Denham invited me to preach at the FIEL conference (mentioned in my last blog). It was during this conference that I was invited to preach at the first Reformed conference among the Presbyterians in the northern state of Amazonas in 2000. I still vividly recall Pastor Jaime Marcelino (picture below), pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Cidade Nova in Manaus, coming to me at the end of the FIEL conference and giving me a gift of Brazilian snacks prepared by his wife. With a very soft unassuming voice and looking very timid as he pieced a few English words together, he asked for my contact details and told me “not to worry” but to accept his wife’s gift. He said that he would want to invite me to come back to Brazil to preach for him at a new conference in his church. I carried the home-made gift all the way back to Zambia and shared it with my family. Sure enough in 2000 he invited me to preach at the very first Encontro da Fe Reformada (Encounter the Reformed Faith) conference. It was the first conference of its kind among the Presbyterians in Brazil, drawing its inspiration from the FIEL conference.

I got another invitation in 2002. In 2003, the Encontro da Fe Reformada conference grew into two conferences and was not only held in Manaus but also in Goiania at the First Presbyterian Church (Pastor, Joer Correia Batista, picture on the left). The following year, I had the opportunity to participate in both the Goiania and the Manaus conferences for the first time and was greatly encouraged to see the growth of these two conferences. Other international preachers who have preached at these conferences include Iain Murray (see his report) and Brian Edwards from the UK. Although I was back in Brazil twice in 2006, both visits of that year were with newer and smaller Reformed conferences (also among Presbyterians). One visit involved two conferences in Fortaleza and Sao Luis, and the other was a conference in Salvador. This year, the Encontro da Fe Reformada conference had its 9th gathering in Manaus and its 6th gathering in Goiania. I had the inestimable privilege of being invited back to preach at both conferences. The conference organizers also paid for my wife to come along with me, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

The hospitality provided by all our hosts was really “worth writing home about”. How can one forget the Brazilian meals served by the wives of Pastor Jaime and Elder Erivelto to all the speakers and guests from afar? I hear it is an annual tradition at the Manaus conference. For those of you who may one day visit Brazil, let me tell you about the special fish dish called "pirarucu a casaca" (Brazilian equivalent to cod, served in a tropical fashion with layers of bananas and manioc flour plus vegetables). And then there are the mouth-watering desserts made from unique Brazilian fruits like açai and cupuaçu. They are worth crossing the Amazon forest on foot and swiming across the Amazon river for! We had a similar meal with our hosts in Goiania, Abe and June Berberian. These very tasty and nutritious meals enriched the excellent spiritual fellowship we had with the brethren.

Conferences such as the Encontro da Fe Reformada play an all-important role in the progress of the Reformed Faith in any country. An obvious example is the Founders Conference among the Southern Baptists in the USA, which must be given some credit for the resurgence of a robust Calvinism among Southern Baptists in that country. Churches and seminaries in that great denomination have been reclaimed to “the faith of our fathers” in an extraordinary way. Brazil is no exception. Like the Southern Baptists in the USA, the Presbyterian Church of Brazil has seen its best and worst times. With a membership of about half a million, broken down into sixty-eight synods (compare with Zambia which only has one synod), it must be obvious to anybody that this is indeed a big denomination. Over time, it had become a mixed grill, with the Reformed Faith being at its lowest ebb. However, it is very clear that these conferences are becoming a rallying point for those who want to see their denomination return to its historic position. In 2001, some local scholars who held on to the historic Reformed position (like Augustus Nicodemus and Mauro Meister) were expelled from the theological faculty of the Andrew Jumper Post Graduate Center that exists side by sidewith Mackenzie Presbyterian University, and is maintained by Instituto Presbyterian Mackenzie. However, all that has since turned around and they were not only restored in an astonishing General Assembly, in 2002, when the conservative wing of the Church elected the new moderator and denominational officers, but—as you will notice from their present positions mentioned below—they are now all in key spots in Mackenzie educational institutions with its post-graduate school (the Andrew Jumper Post Graduate Centre).

Again, like the Southern Baptists in the USA, those who are now at the helm of the number one ministerial training institution of the denomination are solidly behind these Encontro da Fe Reformada conferences. Thus on this trip, apart from preaching with other visiting preachers like Ronaldo Lidorio and Ageu Magalhaes, I also preached with Dr Augustus Nicodemus (chancellor of Mackenzie Presbyterian University and professor of New Testament), Dr Mauro Meister (professor of Old Testament, translating for me above), Dr Heber Carlos de Campos (professor of Systematic Theology) and Mr Solano Portela (the chief financial officer of the University and chairman of the Theological Training Board of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil that oversees the church’s eight seminaries and three official Bible Institutes of the denomination). Previously, I have also preached with Dr Valdeci da Silva Santos (professor of Pastoral Theology). All these men are solid in their Reformed convictions and warmly evangelical.

The humility of these men and their commitment to these conferences is amazing! For instance, Solano Portela (translating for me above) had to return to Sao Paulo for a day during the conference in Manaus in order to attend to some urgent business at the Mackenzie University. This necessitated a three-and-a-half hours flight each way (the distance is further than Lusaka to Cape Town). He interpreted for me in the evening, took an overnight flight to Sao Paulo, chaired a meeting the following day from morning up to midnight, and then flew back the next morning to come and continue interpreting for me at the conference! In the meantime, his wife, Betty (seen in action here), was translating all the sermons for Felistas and me, by typing them out on her laptop as they were being preached! Also, a day before the Goiania conference started, news reached the organizers that my fellow speaker, Daniel Doriani (from St Louis, USA), could not make it. As soon as word got to the brethren in Sao Paulo, Augustus Nicodemus and Heber de Campos quickly made changes to their already-busy schedules and travelled over nine hundred kilometres to Goiania to rescue the situation. They both did an excellent job. Augustus’ three sermons on the first three chapters of James are the best expositions I have ever heard on that book; and that, despite the fact that I was hearing them through an interpreter!

Another aspect I have found challenging about the Brazilian conferences is the role played by the members of the local churches that host them. In Manaus, Pastor Jaime Marcelino asked those in the organizing team to come forward at the end of the conference so that their labours would be publicly acknowledged—and I counted no less than fifty members coming forward—fifty! Add to this the fact that many who were not necessarily in the actual organizing teams for the two conferences helped to sponsor the conferences financially. At the back of the folder given out to the conference participants in Goiania were no less than twelve companies, obviously owned by church members, which helped to sponsor that conference. Some paid for the air-tickets of the preachers, others took up the cost of all the tea breaks, others paid for those pastors who needed help, etc. This is truly a wise use of worldly “mammon” (see Luke 16:9-13). I am glad that this is beginning to happen in Zambia, but we still have a long way to go in this area.

Before I “put my pen down”, I need to mention one more aspect of the conferences that I found most challenging. It was the area of books. Making available the best books at the best possible prices must be the goal of all conferences that seek to see the Reformed Faith make progress in the land. In this way, even when the conferences are over, the truths being expounded there are carried home not only in the hearts of the pastors but also in the books they have purchased. Brazil was no exception. The pastors and church leaders coming from various parts of the country for these conferences also came to stock up on their libraries. When the bookshops at both conferences were opened, a swarm of delegates besieged the books. Looking at the enthusiasm with which the books were being snatched up, one would have thought they were being given out free, but they were actually being bought—albeit at reduced conference prices. At the conference in Goiania, R$35,000 (about K60 million) worth of books were sold. The smiles on the faces of the successful ones, as they went away with the booty, betrayed the satisfaction in their hearts. I long to see such a day in Zambia!

Let me end by saying that I returned to Zambia with a heart enriched by the ministry of the brethren in Brazil, and can only pray that they were also enriched by my ministry. To borrow the words of Paul to the Romans, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12). I trust that this was fulfilled in the last two weeks as I ministered in Brazil. Although we may not all have the opportunity to visit Brazil, one thing we should do is pray for the brethren there as they continue to labour with all their might to further the Reformed Faith across Brazil. They have a mammoth task on their hands.

I now set my eyes on my next international preaching engagement. I am scheduled to preach in South Africa, at the Grace Ministers’ Conferences in January 2009. Please, remember me in your prayers as I prepare the messages and as I deliver them to the pastors in South Africa who long to see a better day in their land also. To God alone be the glory. Amen!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Brazil – the land of Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka

“He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26, ESV).

I am a Zambian—born and bred in Zambia. The more I visit other nations of the world the more conscious I am of my Zambian-ness and the more I thank God for making me a Zambian. That is not to say that there is nothing embarrassing about being a Zambian—there is! But there is also a lot to thank God for. Every nation has a similar mixture because we are all fallen nations comprising fallen creatures. Thus, when Felistas and I got off the plane on my seventh visit to Brazil, I was aware that I was entering a country which, like my own, has its pros and cons. What are some of those?

To begin with, Brazil is a vast, vast country. It is the fifth largest country in the world, with 8.5 million square kilometers of land. It is also the fifth most populated country in the world, with approximately 190 million people. The population of Sao Paulo alone is the same as the population of the whole of Zambia! Economically, Brazil has the largest national economy in Latin America. It has over 700 airports with paved runways (compared to 10 for Zambia). I need to add to this the fact that Brazilians are very friendly people. They will go out of their way to make you as comfortable and welcome as possible. Because of this, Felistas and I have always thoroughly enjoyed visiting Brazil.

Brazil is also the land of motorbikes and multi-purpose VW kombis that have been turned into anything and everything conceivable under the sun. It is a land of long buses that bend in the middle. Well known for coffee, it is also a land of guarana—its own refreshing drink made from a local fruit—which competes favourably with Coca-Cola. Then there is the churrascaria cuisine in restaurants. If you have not yet been treated to this, then you have not yet visited Brazil. This is a meal where, for no extra cost, waiters with smiling faces and very sharp knives keep bringing to your table all kinds of meats hanging on a rod, straight from the grill, until you too full to eat any more!

What else would make a Brazilian proud of his country? It is their achievement in the world of sports—especially soccer. This is the land of Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka! Its national soccer team has won the FIFA World Cup a whooping five times. Pele (in white t-shirt on left) is still the world’s top football scorer (1,281 goals), despite having retired over 35 years ago, while Ronaldo is the current FIFA World Cup top scorer (15 goals). The current FIFA World Footballer of the Year is Kaka, who ensures he uses every opportunity to share his faith in Christ—often pulling up his t-shirt when he scores, to show the cameras another t-shirt underneath with the words “I belong to Jesus”. I can say more about him, but let me limit myself to this for now: Kaka openly states that he, together with his childhood sweetheart, Caroline (see picture of them on their wedding day), maintained their virginity until they got married in 2005. How is that for the world’s number one soccer player? Any nation ought to be proud of producing such a son!

I must admit that I also admire the way in which Brazilians look after their homes. Because of their high population, most middle income people live on very small plots (like Merzaf Flats in Chilenje, Lusaka). However, each year we have gone there we have noted with interest that they keep developing their little homes with ceramic tiles, more modern ceilings and lighting, glass doors, air conditioning, etc. The way they use ceramic tiles to decorate their perimeter walls makes me wonder why we Zambians have not thought about doing something like that. They look beautiful!

Spiritually, however, Brazil has many challenges. The official language is Portuguese, hence their ignorance of the vast spiritual heritage in the English language. The predominant religion by far is Roman Catholicism (about 75%), with all forms of Pentecostalism making inroads into the country in the recent past. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God was born here some 30 years ago! Thankfully, there are movements in the country that are working towards redressing these negatives. My first visit to Brazil was at the invitation of American missionary, Richard Denham, in 1998. Richard and his wife, Pearl (see photo below), have been missionaries in Brazil for over fifty years. One of their greatest achievements has been the establishing of the Editora FIEL Publishing house, which has translated many Reformed books from the English language and made them available to the Portuguese-speaking world. He also hosts an annual conference called the FIEL Conference in the city of Águas de Lindóia; which is where I preached in 1998 together with Michael Horton (from USA). It was during this conference that I first met Andrew King (from England), who subsequently moved to Brazil as a missionary and has greatly helped the brothers there in developing expository preaching skills. The FIEL Conference (now in its 24th year) last month had about 1,300 people listening to Joel Beeke, Phil Newton, Sam Waldron, Stuart Olyott, etc, and sold over 12,000 books at special conference prices. That is “overwhelming” by any standard anywhere in the world!

The ministry of FIEL has given birth to other publishing houses and conferences that are keen to see the Reformed Faith grow in Brazil. One of them is the Puritan Project and another is the Encontro da fe Reformada conferences in Manaus and Goiania (more on these conferences in the next posting). These are mainly among the Presbyterians. Yet, when you realize that Brazil has about 190 million people, then you know that this is still a drop in the ocean. Those who are laboring for the Reformed cause in this vast country will continue to value our prayers.

One of my two 2006 visits to Brazil coincided with the world famous Brazilian festival of the Carnival, with its spectacular street parades and vibrant music. It is totally indescribable. I have never seen anything like it. Morally speaking, it is like all hell breaks loose and so I would not encourage any Christian to make it a tourist destination. Many Brazilians say that the festival is morally bankrupt!

Having said that, one must quickly add that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Our first day on this trip was spent in Sao Paulo at the home of our hosts, Solano and Betty Portela. While “the girls” went out for lunch, I went with Solano to have lunch with some friends who are Presyterian theologians, including Dr Augustus Nicodemus (seated on my left below), the present Chancellor of the Mackenzie Presbyterian University (over 45,000 students). The discussion over the churrascaria lunch was on doctrine. Although we were all convinced cessationists, we could not agree on the place of 1 Corinthians 13 in this matter. As the discussion heated up, cellphones-cum-PDAs popped out of pockets like pistols, with all the Greek and Hebrew lexicons, various translations of the Bible, commentaries, etc. These 21st century theologians would have made John Calvin green with envy! One thing is sure, the debate that ensued from this was more satisfying than the Brazilian churrascaria itself.

I always come away from Brazil grateful for the heritage we have in Zambia—the English Language—that has enabled us to dig deep into the rich veins of the Reformation and Puritan writings. Where would the present Reformed movement in Zambia be if it were not for the many books from the golden eras of previous centuries that have been republished without needing to be translated into another language? Also, although we have a fair share of Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism to contend with, the Reformed movement in Zambia is certainly not a drop in an ocean in terms of its impact on the nation and its neighbouring countries. It looks like it is slowly becoming the “Geneva” of Africa! We must be grateful to God for the gains made thus far and make the most of this day of opportunity that we have. In that sense, we are a very privileged people. But, as we bask in the sunshine of this reality, let us never forget that to him to whom much is given, much more shall be required. Remember, “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” There must be a reason!