Thursday, August 21, 2014

Seeds of Hope

The demonstration flowed through the center of town. Bodies of those killed during the previous night were carried along to accentuate the point that international security forces were far from making this city a place of peace. This time it was primarily Muslims protesting the indiscriminate killing of their kind by the Antibalaka—a self-proclaimed vigilante group committed to ridding Central Africa Republic (CAR) of Islam. Although the international media consistently identifies the Antibalaka as Christians fighting again Muslims, nothing could be farther from the truth. Claiming powers from witch-doctor hexes, these animistic-background groups believe they are impervious to the bullets (bals in French) from AK-47 rifles. Thus their name: Anti-bal-AK. Meanwhile most Protestant churches remain proponents of non-violence and peace.

One of the many armored personnel carriers used by
French troops on mission in CAR
Because of the demonstration, Bertin, director of ACATBA*, was late in picking us up for our ride to the airport. But then, our Air France flight was also late—like a whole day late! Problems with non-functioning runway lights yesterday forced the flight to divert to Yaounde, Cameroon instead. So finally, a day later, I’m seated onboard and glad to finally be going home, even though I know I’ve missed all my on-going connections in Paris. There’s something about spending so many years in Africa that helps one appreciate and live out the meaning of the popular phrase, “Il faut patient√©” (You must be patient.)

Area of downtown Bangui where demonstrations happened
the next day
As I leave this past week in CAR behind, I wonder what the future will bring this troubled country. I’ve experienced the results of a dysfunctional government that can’t even fix street potholes in its capital let alone provide basic services for its people. I’ve seen the discouragement in the eyes of those weary of wanton killing that still occurs somewhere almost every day. I’ve talked to national church leaders who can hardly talk when they recount stories of churches burned, pastors executed and their wives raped. But I’ve also witnessed the resilience of people whose faith in God gives them hope to endure.

I’m impressed that ACATBA is “hanging in there” committed to Bible translation for the forty-some tribal languages of CAR. And I’m even more touched by their desire to add elements of community care to their village translation work—like offering basic health services or simple water projects. As Bertin says, “How can we only be interested in bringing them the Gospel message if we are not also willing to demonstrate Gospel action?” He also believes this is an important way to help people regain credibility in Christianity, especially for those who are actively rejecting their faith believing God did not protect their loved ones during the atrocities of this civil war.

With this sort of determination to press on, I’m so glad ACATBA will have the on-going support and assistance of Wycliffe Associates as expressed through several practical projects that Africa Area Director, Al Hawthorne hopes to provide. And I count it a privilege to be a part of that help by continuing to provide organizational training, mentoring and encouragement for Bertin, his team and his board of directors. God willing, during this next year, I will help them develop a church relations strategy, create a PR video and possibly even accompany Bertin on a fund-raising trip abroad to develop some new donor relationships for the future.

More than anything, I’d love to see those seeds of hope still present in these CAR friends blossom into continued fruitful ministry for many years to come.


Myself with Bertin, director of ACATBA


* ACATBA stands for Association Centreafricaine pour Traduction de la Bible et Alphabetization

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Cold Showers and Bullet Holes

The instructions next to the shower said, “One-Turn on water, Two-Turn heater knob to position 1 or 2, Three-When finished, reverse process.” But, no matter where I turned the knob, even to position 3, no hot water was produced. So as I stepped under the showerhead and endured the rush of yet another cold morning shower, I thought to myself, “Oh well, that’s Africa for you. You just can trust things like this to work here when you need them.”

Downtown Bangui
It was my first morning in Bangui, Central Africa Republic and after breakfast at the Grace Brethern Guesthouse, Al Hawthorne, Africa Director for Wycliffe Associates (WA) and I headed over to ACATBA, the national Bible translation organization for this country. The plan was to spend the day with Bertin Oundagnon-Basso, the director, learning how well his organization had survived the past eighteen months of rebel crisis and civil war. It didn’t take long, however, for casual chatting to evaporate as Bertin began explaining the realities they had experienced.

Showing the scars of the warning bullets fired at him
For those who have already forgotten that CAR has even been in a crisis, here’s a quick review: About two years ago, radical Muslim foreign militia began pouring over the Chad and Sudan borders and quickly gathering national Islamic groups together into a loose network, called SELEKA. Within months, they had toppled the current, weak, government and put in place their own leaders.  Specifically targeting Protestants and Catholics, SELEKA, led primarily by the Arab foreigners burned and looted churches, homes and businesses with accompanying killing and rape. This immediately created street clashes with non-Muslim gangs (called Anita-Balaka) looking for methods of revenge. Hundreds of people were slaughtered on the streets causing thousands to flee the country. Now with French and UN troops holding a lid on things, there seems to be an uneasy cessation of hostilities.
Bertin showing where he was pushed
up against a wall by rebel militia

All of this became very real for Bertin on March 24 last year when two different groups stormed the ACATBA compound and looted vehicles, computers and anything else they could haul away. Most sobering of all was hearing the account of SELEKA men shoving Bertin up against a wall, demanding keys to everything and giving him five minutes to deliver. They then fired two shots from an AK-47 into the wall inches from his feet to show him how serious they were.

Even more sobering was hearing that one of ACATBA’s translators himself was shot and killed by rebel militia while attempting to hide out in a hospital.

As amazing as Bertin’s account was, what was more amazing yet was to learn that despite these tragedies and difficulties, ACATBA continues on involved in every single translation project they were doing before except one which is out East, located in the heart of the SELEKA – controlled territory. To meet the men and women of ACATBA and witness their personal dedication in translating God’s Word firsthand is as moving an experience for me as any I've had on any recent trip to Africa.

In light of all that I've seen and heard this day, enduring a cold shower all of a sudden seems pretty petty.  Maybe the things that really count are working just fine here in Africa after all.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Beyond Good Enough

We have expressions for it, such as “notching it up a level” or “a whole new order of magnitude.” But these simply are not adequate to describe what Anita and I recently experienced at the Salzburg Music Festival.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as seen from our wonderful
center section seats in the Salzburg Festival Music Hall
One of Anita's “bucket list” dreams has been to hear a live concert of the Vienna Philharmonic in their native Austria. So, after ironing out the wrinkles in her dress and my shirt after our trip from Nigeria, we prepared for a special evening during our holiday stop in Salzburg on our way home to Spokane.

Married to someone who has been singing for the past forty years in community and symphony choirs, I am no stranger to classical concerts; but nothing I’ve heard in the past equaled this experience in Austria. With renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim on the podium, world-class principals soloing in each section of the orchestra, and each member of the orchestra playing with their whole being, I learned just how amazing orchestral music can sound. The newly remodeled, wood-paneled Festival Music Hall seemed perfectly tuned to enhance the symphonic richness and vibrancy of this event. Also, it was a special treat for Anita to hear opera superstar Placido Domingo as guest soloist and the excellent Vienna Singverein as the choir for Reger's Requiem.  

Why a blog post about a classical music concert? Because there is much that reminds me of what it means to serve God with excellence. So often I feel that I (and many of my fellow Christians) become all too satisfied with OK performances in ministry endeavor. Worse yet, when I make OK good enough, it quickly becomes my performance standard, and I don’t even stop to think about what true excellence could or should be. Maybe I’ve become too influenced by an American culture overly sensitive to building up self-esteem by cheering every Little Leaguer who strikes out or giving a standing ovation at every single concert, regardless of the performance quality. Whatever the case, I realize that striving for something more—something really excellent—has not always been my top priority.

Anita had the special privilege of meeting  Placido Domingo after the
concert and getting his autograph on our concert program
That is one reason listening to this concert was such a stunning experience. From the execution of the first notes of the Adagio movement of Mozart's Maurerische Trauermusik in C minor, which were played so quietly that I wasn’t even sure the concert had begun, to the gripping themes of Bruckner’s Symphony  No. 4, I felt I was in the presence of something truly special. The orchestra could play so softly and exquisitely in one section of a piece; then it could expand in volume and palpable power to a truly magnificent finale. It was as if my soul was telling me, “Yes! This is the way a great performance sounds.”

On top of that, I was personally inspired to see outstanding musicians like Barenboim and Domingo, who have been performing for several decades, still demonstrating uncompromising professionalism in the execution of their craft. It was clear they have not allowed OK to be good enough for them.

And neither should I. 


Friday, August 1, 2014

Getting It Wrong

New Megachurch in Abuja, Nigeria
One of the lingering impressions I’m taking away from this trip to Nigeria is how possible it is for well- meaning Christians to get it wrong. Today, the overwhelming theme among many Christian churches in Nigeria is the prosperity gospel. Teaching that God wants to bless his faithful with health and wealth, the “name it, claim it” theology now dominates Christian areas of the country. Even here, there are now massive megachurches sprouting up, led by pastors who point to their personal biz jets as evidence of God’s blessing. But more often than not, these church kingdoms are built on the contributed earnings of poor people taught that, if they give sacrificially, God will eventually reward them with the desires of their hearts. To me, this theology is closer to the mindset of a casino gambler than that of solidly biblical Christian.

As Anita and I spend a few days in Austria on our way home, we’ve seen another form of Christianity that has gotten it wrong. This time it’s the old, traditional Catholicism present in the many historic churches and cathedrals we’ve visited. The two dominant pictures we see in every case are Jesus as a tiny, helpless child or as a suffering, crucified criminal. In either case, the Son of God does not come across as a conquering victor over sin and death, but as an uncompelling symbol of weakness. As one Austrian Christian brother put it, most Austrians rarely view Jesus as someone with whom they need a personal relationship because they believe in God and have been baptized. Why do they need a relationship with Jesus?

Here are two representations of what I'm talking about, the first taken from a church in Salzburg, the second from St. Stephen's cathedral in Vienna.




Both these experiences in Nigeria and Austria have been good reminders that Christians everywhere must be careful how to apply God’s Truth lest they simply get it wrong!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Biblical Balance or Contrast?

Our third and final Ministry and Marriage seminar was held here in the city of Jos, Nigeria over the span of three evenings. Anita and I were delighted to have over forty people, mostly couples but also some singles, joining us for our sessions.


The event was hosted by the Nigeria Bible Translation Trust (NBTT) that allowed us to use their Hall of Praise for the event. Better yet, they helped us out by running their back-up generator so that we could keep our PowerPoint projector running during the frequent city power outages that occurred.

Jos is located four hour’s drive north of the capital city, Abuja, where we held our first two seminars.
As a result, it is much closer to what Nigerian’s call the northern belt which is where the largest percentage of Muslim’s live. We also learned that people appear here seem to be more impacted by traditional African culture when it comes to practices of marriage and family. Many of our interactive discussion times centered on how to practically apply biblical teaching which is often in stark contrast with common cultural marriage habits.

One participant stated, “When a man pays such a large bride price to marry his wife, the usual attitude is that he has bought her and that she is therefore his possession that he can do with as he pleases. That is why the biblical principle of sacrificial service of husbands toward their wives is such a challenge, even for those engaged in church and ministry work.”


Anita and I have been learning so much about Nigerian culture during this trip. It’s been great receiving affirmation for our seminar and plenty of invitations to return for more training in the future, but we see how what we have offered has only cracked the door open on a truly significant topic of interest and concern Our hope and prayer is that all of those who participated in our seminars will be challenged to continue thinking through just what they many need to do to truly bring biblical balance to their ministry and marriage.


Armed Robbery!

No. It did not occur to Anita and me. But it did happen two nights ago to eight friends of ours, some of whom were our hosts for the Ministry and Marriage seminars we gave in the city of Abuja.

The group of eight were in a hotel having a debrief meeting after a regional gathering for the MANI network. (MANI stands for Movement of Africa National Initiatives.) Several armed men came into their room and forced them to give up money, laptops, iPads, wristwatches and other valuables. Thankfully, none of them were physically harmed, apart from the emotional trauma that such an event produces.

One of our friends, Reuben Ezemadu, was able to slip his cell phone under a sofa and that is how he was able to call for the police afterwards plus send us an email note telling of this tragic incident.

Having been robbed in our home years ago when we lived in Kinshasa, DRC, Anita and I know how abused and violated one feels when something like this occurs. It also has made us realize this country of Nigeria continues to offer huge challenges to anyone wanting to be engaged in active ministry here.

The good news part of this story is that one of the folks had their iPad security system alive and therefore was able to trace exactly where it was a few hours later. The police were able to make a raid on that house and found one of the men with some of the stolen property.

Thanks for all of you who have been praying for our own safety during these two weeks.  We have a day to go before we fly out for Europe and then home.

Under His wings,


Jon

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ministry and Marriage--Nigeria Style!

My wife, Anita, and I have now completed our first full week here in Nigeria and have finished two of three scheduled seminars on balancing ministry and marriage. For me, it’s been a special treat to have Anita accompany me this time, as opposed to working solo as I have the past two years.

The emphasis of our presentation has been to challenge couples involved in ministry work to find biblical balance between the demands of work and the priority of their marriage. We’ve been contrasting perspectives on both of these from current popular culture and Scripture. We’re trying hard not to let our Western cultural biases color our conclusions but, instead, help participants make their own comparisons between traditional Nigerian viewpoints and what the Bible has to say about it.

As a result, we’ve learned so many interesting aspects about traditions and habits here in Nigeria even among couples who are strongly committed to their Christian faith. Here are a few:

·         ***African culture says that men should always be the authoritative and domineering head of the home. Men in ministry struggle with living out this expectation from their extended family along with also knowing the Bible says they should love their wife sacrificially, as Christ loved the church.

*** Nigerian pastors have inherited the role of the tribal high priest, whom everyone venerates with the highest respect and seeks out for all life decisions. As a result, many pastors experience a status of huge respect among their parishioners that sets them apart and easily leads to excesses of pride and self-glorification. 

*** A wife’s expectation of submission to her husband often extends to the extended family as well, meaning that she can be routinely ordered around by her husband’s parents or elder brothers.

All of these realities and many more have led to some stimulating discussion times during our sessions as we’ve attempted to encourage a biblical worldview on both ministry and marriage.

Frequent power outages have impacted our seminars, causing major interruptions in our PowerPoint presentations.  Then there are the heightened security conditions. This has meant that some participants have been delayed up to several hours just trying to get to our meeting venue because of the multiple police checkpoints along the way. In one case, we waited for over an hour to start the session and had only three people there. By the end of the session, however, there were twenty-five!


Tomorrow we will begin our third seminar, this time in the city of Jos that is higher in elevation than Abuja, so the weather is quite comfortable. We’ve learned that announcements have been made on the radio, and posters with our picture have been displayed all over town. So, we’ll see just how many people show up this time. Whatever the case, we’re praying that God brings those who will benefit the most from our seminar and, therefore, become more effective than ever in both their ministry and their marriage.