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, June 21, 2010

Preaching cannot be taught; it must be caught!

“But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
I have just returned from a weeklong preaching consultation at Wycliff Hall, Oxford University, which took place from Monday 14th to Saturday 19th June, 2010. Oxford University, as you may know, is a place that is rich with history. This is where Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were burnt at the stake for holding on to the Protestant Faith. This is where John Owen was Vice Chancellor, and where George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers met. What more can a man ask for? Just visiting these sights was worth the price of the air ticket!
About 15 to 20 homiletics instructors were gathered from the Majority World (i.e. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean Islands) to talk about how to improve the quality of homiletics instructions so as to deliver to the next generation an army of powerful expository preachers. For five days, we were locked up in honest, Bible-based, self-examination. I came away very refreshed because of the evangelical flavour and openness of these meetings. By the last day, one message was very clear: No great preaching is going to be produced in our seminaries and Bible colleges unless we have churches that already have great preachers as role models.
David Cook (on extreme right), principal of Sydney Missionary Bible School for over twenty years, put it this way during the consultation; “The best preachers we have in our seminaries come from churches where we have the best preachers in town. Preaching is not taught; it is caught.” He later added, “When Don Carson came to open the school of preaching at Sydney Missionary Bible School, he said, ‘If I were the evangelical Pope, I would take the ten best preachers in the country and put them in the pulpits of the city where the seminary is, so that the students could sit under their ministries as role models while undergoing training.’”
Dr Victor Nakah (next to David Cook), the former principal of the Evangelical College of Zimbabwe, said, “The church must take ownership of the process of training preachers, and then bring in the seminary to help in this process. Seminaries cannot train preachers apart from the church. They are specialist arms of the church, and so they must train preachers in partnership with the church. There is need to make this partnership work and grow.”
My mind went back to my own formative years as a preacher in the early 1980s. I sat under the preaching ministry of Joe Simfukwe (seen here with his family in 1984), then pastor of Lusaka Baptist Church. The preaching was electrifying. You could not move me from my favourite pew, right in front of the pulpit. I listened with pen and book in hand, taking down the sermon points and always ending with the phrase, “Lord, what would you have me to do?” I would not rise from that pew without answering that question. And, often, the answer was very clear from the sermon itself.
Those were perhaps the most glorious days of my Christian life. There, before my very eyes, was what Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones called, “Theology on fire!” Above the pulpit was a slightly faulty fan which made some noise after so many turns. I have never forgotten how the preaching would often be so powerful that the whole church was dead silent as we listened. When the preacher paused, you could hear a pin drop! The only sound we could hear in the entire auditorium was that fan. God was working. God was speaking to us. I rose from that pew many times saying, “Lord, if I can be used by you to preach like this, my life would have been worth living even if I died a pauper!”
I have now been pastoring Kabwata Baptist Church for almost a quarter of a century (makes it sound like a long time!). On the tenth and twentieth anniversary of my pastoral ministry, I wrote to my former pastor and acknowledged the incalculable debt I owed to his faithful ministry in those first five formative years of my Christian life. Hence, although I now have two Masters’ degrees in Theology, one of the most difficult situations I often meet with is when people hear me preaching and ask me afterwards where I trained. To say that I trained at the Cape Town Baptist Seminary is true, but that is not where I learnt to preach. If I said my homiletics training took place while sitting in a pew at Lusaka Baptist Church, I would be closer to the truth.
Please do not get me wrong. My studies since those early days have proved very educative. I gained a lot from reading books like Lloyd-Jones' Preaching and Preachers, and from men like Dr Gerard Venter who took me in homiletics at CTBS. What my reading and training in homiletics has done for me is to show me how I can be even more effective in my preaching. It has helped me to understand why my former pastor preached the way he did. Due to the training that I have now received, I am also better able to articulate the art of preaching to those whom I am training. However, I should not deceive myself that my classroom instruction will bring to birth in my students what was birthed in me when I sat under the ministry of Joe Simfukwe in the early 1980s. That cannot be taught. It must be caught.
So, I have returned to Zambia convinced that if our seminaries are going to produce great biblical preachers, there must be a welding of the church and the seminary. And it must not be with just any church. It must be with local churches where there is the best of preaching. So this coming Sunday, as the enthusiastic faithfuls occupy the pews at KBC, I will be asking myself, “Are they experiencing the power in preaching that I once experienced when I occupied the front pew at Lusaka Baptist Church?” Only if this is happening will we bring forth seedlings that can be further nurtured in seminaries into a great army of powerful expository preachers.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Undercover Revolution—by Iain H Murray

This book, written by one of my favourite authors, Iain H Murray, is subtitled “How Fiction Changed Britain”. It is an analysis showing us how the writing of fiction anaesthetized Britain while its morality was being pulled out of its social fibre. Reading it, you get alarmed to realize that the printed page in the hands of wrong people can have such long-term effects. Admittedly, what Mr Murray has done is simply to take one strand among many that changed Britain morally and tried to show its role in the “downgrade”. Any thinking person will know that there were many other forces at play.

This book is a fast read (about a hundred pages) and well-worth the effort. Half the book comprises two biographies—those of Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Hardy—and then the rest describes their colleagues—Bertrand Russell, George Moore, H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, etc. All of them lived in the late Victorian and early Edwardian England. The book goes on to argue a case for the way in which these men basically destroyed the moral fibre of Britain through their writing of fiction. It ends by showing that Christianity is not fiction but rooted in history. By closing the book in that way, Mr Murray points us to the gospel as the only hope for the world. Admittedly there seems to be a leap between this powerful closing section and what precedes it that may need to be filled in when a future edition of this book is published.

It was interesting but sad to note that each of the men referred to in this book grew up in very devout Christian homes, and yet they all turned away from the faith of their fathers as they entered into early adulthood. Some of them grew up in a very protected environment, but life at university soon swept them away from their religious moorings. In turning away from the Christian Faith, they used the power of the pen to turn away thousands—if not millions—from the faith.

Another interesting but sad feature about them all was their failure to uphold individual morality. Each of them failed to have a proper marriage and family life. They flirted around and went in and out of marriages. In the meantime, they were the heroes of the reading public of their day. The physicians, who wanted to cure the world, could not cure themselves. Sadly, we find precisely the same phenomenon today. Men and women who sway public opinion because they are talk-show hosts, and even give advice through their syndicated programs, yet their lives are moral disasters. Politicians who insist on being our heroes are often failures at home.

Mr Murray states in his preface that what he has written on “the influence of fiction on society—is worthy of much more expansion that I have given to it here. I hope I have said enough to alert others to the importance of what is too commonly overlooked.” In other words, this book was not intended to be exhaustive in any way. What it does is to simply raise an alarm. It gives us food for thought. I think that those of us who are Christians need to seriously think about its thesis. Should we look the other way while the popular mind is being molded by the pens of men and women who lack virtue in their personal lives? That is the question that Iain Murray’s book leaves ringing in my mind.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My first preaching trip to Australia and New Zealand (Part 1)

“When [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary…, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door…, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind….’ But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed” (Acts 12:12-16).

This is one blog entry that is long overdue. Many times I have sat down to write but never seem to have gone beyond the first few paragraphs. Reason? It was not a straightforward trip. As far as obtaining visas is concerned, my trip to Australia and New Zealand was one of the most frustrating trips I have ever made in over twenty years of international itinerant preaching. The mistake I have made in the past is that I have tried to tell the whole story—both the visa frustrations and the work of ministry—in one blog entry. It has proved impossible. So, I have decided to break it into two blog entries. This first one will be on the bad news—my frustrations in trying to obtain my visas. Then when I post my next blog, I will talk about the good news—my ministry in preaching God’s Word. Thankfully, in the “bad news” you also see the power of God in answer to the prayers of his people!

I was out in the bushes of rural Petauke at a Covenant College Trust meeting on Thursday, 25th March, when I got a text message from my ministry assistant, Seke Lupunga, that I had been denied a visa to Australia. I was too far away to do anything about it. When I returned to Lusaka on Saturday, 27th March, I found the elders under pressure from the brethren in Australia—especially from Israel and Carol Malekano (picture above)—to ensure that I travelled to South Africa to try again to obtain my visa. Monday, 29th March, was spent trying to get my passport back from South Africa. I got it just before midnight! So, on Tuesday morning, Ronald Kalifungwa rushed me off to the airport and I flew into OT International Airport in South Africa. I was picked up by Patrick Nwonganyi, a brother from Lynnwood Baptist Church. As we made our way from the airport to the Australian Embassy in Pretoria, we hit a traffic jam due to a car accident and lost nearly one and a half hours. Despite all this, we managed to submit my papers afresh a minute or two before the agency that accepts applications on behalf of the Australian Embassy closed. Phew!

The next day, Wednesday, 31st March, was spent trying to push the Embassy—by way of phone calls and visits—to do for me in one day what they said normally takes ten working days. They made it clear to me in less-than-friendly tones that I was going to have to wait for them to do things at their own pace. In fact, as it turned out, the Australian Embassy had not denied me a visa previously. It was the agent who told the person who was submitting my papers that I was applying on the wrong forms. That was all! So, as far as the Embassy was concerned, this was my first attempt at applying and they were, therefore, not going to give me any preferential treatment. It was frustrating but the Lord gave me peace.

Since I was to fly out to Australia that evening, I missed my flight. I was staying at the home of Wilhelm and Laura, who were members of Lynnwood Baptist Church, and that night they had a prayer meeting in their home. They fervently prayed to the Lord to intervene in my situation. I missed the prayer meeting because I had an out-of-town visitor who took me out for dinner. But even there we prayed for the Lord’s intervention. Israel and Carol Malekano told me, when I got to Australia, that they could neither eat nor sleep, as they also sought the Lord in much prayer. They said that they also rang up a number of Zambians in Australia in the middle of the night to wake up and pray. Back home, the elders at Kabwata Baptist Church got word out for the purpose of prayer.

The following day was Thursday, 1st April. I rang the Embassy and was told to check on them in the afternoon. By early afternoon I made a visit to the Embassy and, lo and behold, my visa was ready! I was driven to pick up my luggage at my hosts’ home by my out-of-town visitor (Musa Phiri) and we rushed off to the airport. I found there that the flight was fully booked and so I was wait-listed. In the Lord’s providence, after paying an extra $700, I was given a seat on the flight five hours later when they closed the gates. In fact they had to reopen them to just squeeze me in. As it turned out, the flight was delayed for another five hours, which meant that I travelled to Australia with irate passengers, who kept saying a lot of unprintables to airline officials. I tell you, it was not a pleasant flight. But, anyway, that is how I got to Australia on Good Friday in the evening. I had missed my first preaching engagement that same day in the morning (at the church pictured above, where we had yet another meeting a few days later), but all the others went on as scheduled. (Details of the time of ministry will be given in the next blog entry).

As soon as the Easter holiday was over, we sent my application for a New Zealand visa by express mail to the New Zealand Embassy in Sydney on the eastern end of Australia. That was on Tuesday, 6th April. On Thursday, 8th April, I flew across Australia from Perth to Sydney for ministry and was received at the airport by Luckson Silweya, a former member of Kabwata Baptist Church. Later in the evening, he took me to the home of Basil and Nicki Yakoubi, my new hosts (see family picture below). On Friday morning we got a call from the New Zealand Embassy that they could only issue me with a visa if the Australian Immigration would give me a transit visa on my way back home, since my airline itinerary showed that I needed to touch down in Perth en route to South Africa. When my hosts took my passport to the Australian Immigration, they were told that I could only get a transit visa if I went out of the country first. It was a catch-22 situation: I needed to go out of the country first (and New Zealand was the nearest place) in order to get a transit visa for Australia, and yet New Zealand could only accept me on their soil if I had a transit visa for Australia in my passport!

We were thrown back into a time of intense frustration and prayer. Clearly, this trip was receiving a lot of attention in both heaven and hell! It was with this confusion hanging over my head that I ministered across the weekend in Sydney (details in the next blog entry). Again, the Lord gave me much peace. My flight to New Zealand was set for Wednesday, 14th April. I spent Monday and Tuesday with Luckson shuttling between the New Zealand Embassy and the Australian Immigration. Thankfully, the Australian Immigration immediately saw that a mistake had been committed by their Embassy in South Africa. But they insisted that there was nothing they could do until their South African counterparts gave them the green light to make the correction. They asked us to check on them the next day. We passed through the New Zealand Embassy to let them know that we would be there the next day with the transit visa and asked if our application could be processed the same day. The man across the counter was non-compromising. He made it clear that it normally took at least three working days and he was not willing to start looking at the application until the passport was returned with the Australian transit visa inside it. We thanked him for being very helpful!

The next day, Israel Malekano, who was also pushing the Australian Embassy in South Africa to correct their mistake, got an email from them asking us to send my passport to South Africa for them to make the correction. When he wrote back emphasizing the fact that I was in Australia and my flight to New Zealand was the next day, he got a replying saying that they would get back to him—and they never did. The Australian Immigration also told us that they had heard nothing from the South African office and so there was nothing they could do. Luckson told the officer at the Australian Immigration office in an uncompromising tone that it was their department that messed things up, and so it was their department that needed to clean up the mess. With that, we spent some time in prayer and again experienced the power of God in answer to the prayers of his people.

Even before we said, “Amen,” Luckson’s phone rang. It was his wife (the two of them are on the photo above). She said that the Australian Immigration were frantically trying to get him because they wanted me to take my passport to their offices so that they could issue me with the transit visa. What suddenly made them change their minds? We believe God answered our prayers. We rushed there because time was of the essence. Upon walking into the visitor’s lobby, an officer asked us whether we were the ones trying to get a transit visa. When we confirmed, he shouted across the entire floor, “They are here! Chris, they are here!” He personally escorted us to a counter where I was immediately given a transit visa.

Now it was the gentleman at the New Zealand Embassy we needed to arm-twist. We rushed there and submitted the passport to him, remembering that he had told us that it normally takes no less than three working days. He produced my file, and upon going through it and asking for one or two more documents, he asked us to return just before they closed that afternoon to pick up the visa. And sure enough, when we returned at the agreed time, the New Zealand visa was in my passport. What was to take three working days took but a few hours. With my passport in my hands, I said to the officer, “Thank you. I know that everyone you help says, ‘Thank you,’ but I want you to know that this is from the depth of my heart. You have been very helpful.” He looked at me and smiled, saying, “Don’t believe it. Not everyone we help says, ‘Thank you.’”

From all this, I learnt the importance of prayer. Anyone who has ever dealt with Embassy officials knows that the wheels of bureaucracy grind very slowly. However, there is One in heaven who can move them at an amazingly quick pace—and that is God. He is sovereign. He can say, “No” or “Yes” in answer to prayer according to his own wisdom. What matters is that we lay our pleas before him and do what is in our utmost strength. After that, we must learn to leave the rest to him. When he shuts a door, no one can open it. But when he opens a door, no one can shut it. That is what happened in the case of the apostle Peter in the Book of Acts—much to the amazement of believers. I believe that this is what also happened a few weeks ago, much to our amazement. It was God who opened this door to Australia and New Zealand—and no power in heaven or earth could shut it. Let us, therefore, be encouraged to be a praying people. Amen!