“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!