22 September 2007

Madagascar… not the movie

We’ve seen six different species of very cute lemurs, but none of them have spoken, sung or broken into a jig. The only fosa (lemur predator) we saw was sleeping so it didn’t seem quite as vicious as in the movie. I did see a Yankees’ hat but we didn’t run in to any New York Giants. It’s not surprising, but the movie isn’t a very realistic depiction of Madagascar. The only possible similarity to the movie is the radiant beauty of the rain forest which left us in awe.

Other than that our experience in Madagascar took us back into a 3rd world culture with no traffic lights, dodgy “taxi-brousses” (or “taxibes”) for public transportation, intermittent & undependable public services, and masses of people staring at us (the “vazaha” or foreigners) walking through the crowded markets filled with persistent sales people. Some differences to our other 3rd-world experiences in African are the extended mid-day lunch break for many shop keepers, the lack of any lines on the road (except for a few lines put in for the India Ocean Games a month ago), and the multitude of smokers… maybe a because of the French influence.

We flew into Antananarivo (or “Tana”) a week and a half ago and were greeted by an affectionate, unique couple Nelly & Solo, both alumni of the International Sports Leadership School (ISLS) in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Nelly is Bulgarian and Solo is Malagasy; an interesting mix and a gracious duo facilitating amazing work with Kids Games. Their three kids (Gabby, Mickael, & Sonja) showered us with affection, and we adopted their 17-year-old neighbor Vero for an adventure down to Andasibe. Solo & Nelly are gearing up for a huge Kids Games event at the end of October where they expect over 100,000 children and 5,000 youth workers to participate! We joined them for a “counselors” training in which 2,000 of the leaders showed up. It’s incredible how God is opening so many doors for them.

We also squeezed in a short yet very meaningful visit with the family of our new friend, Hanitra Raharinosy, who we met at the Cultural Studies workshop that we attended at ISLS in collaboration with the community development program ALICT. Her sister, Vololoniaina, and brother set up an insightful meeting with Fafah, the Deacon overseeing youth for their FJKM Ziona Fanantenana Ambatobe Church.
Then we rushed to catch a beautiful choir competition. Along the way, we randomly witnessed a “famadihana” ceremony in passing (a strange ceremonial exhumation and reburial to revere Malagasy ancestors). The Ziona choir, led by Hanitra’s husband, won the competition, and we went out for a celebration dinner with him and their two beautiful daughters.

Next, we took a mini-“vacation” to the lusciously green Andasibe (between Tana and the east coast) — our first ‘touristy’ experience in 2 ½ months since we’ve been so blessed to be graciously hosted and richly surrounded by the family of faith. As our first hotel & sight-seeing endeavor, it was beautifully serene, but being amidst so many other tourists made us want to minimize these sorts of ‘touristy’ things because it diluted our cultural experience. Our time hiking through the rainforests was amazing yet a bit wet and soggy.

We finished our extremely short visit to Madagascar by joining the Turks—a PC-USA missionary family that has been here more than 14 years and that has given us a wonderful perspective of this unique culture. Dan shared his expertise on Malagasy agriculture and environment while Elizabeth shared her outlook on the country’s health issues. As a couple, their partnership lends an incredible amount of expertise to the relationship between the Malagasy FJKM and the PC-USA. They graciously welcomed us into their family (son-Robert & daughter-Francis) and community (Betsy-former Nieu Communities-Pretoria participant & Noro-“older sister”). They took us to visit both the Topaza and the Akany Avoko orphanages. And they helped me facilitate a recreational evangelism workshop for 35 youth workers.
It’s been a very fruitful yet busy end to our stay in Madagascar.

We wish we had more time here, just like everywhere we go. It’s a struggle to travel in and out of communities and cultures so quickly. We always wish we could stay for longer in each place, but we’re just getting a taste of everywhere we go—just grazing the surface. We realize that connecting with ministry communities and missionaries is vital to our gaining perspective more efficiently. Please pray that God will continue to bless us with these connections. We’re flying back to South Africa tomorrow for a less than 24 hour layover before we fly on the India Monday. We’re a bit nervous about our time (and especially our arrival) in India. As usual God hasn’t revealed His plan to us, but I know it will all work out… it always does… His sovereignty is more real to me than it ever has been.

07 September 2007

don't be nominal... break out of the box

Cassie Carstens shared with us his ideas of a more "practical implication to ministry," and he said something that resonated with me... "Kick people out of the church and into the streets." I think many of us can relate to this frustration -- whether it be toward our local church, our denomination or even political leaders using a "Christian" platform to push their own agendas. However, instead of turning his back on the church or writing off the spiritual/political struggle, Cassie pursued ordination. What a proactive approach to facilitating and engaging the Body of Christ in social justice.

I've been inspired by so many Christians throughout our trip who live out their faith rather than letting their faith become nominal. It's not a Sunday ritual for them; it's everyday life.

Last week, Hope and I attended part of the "Cultural Studies" training at ISLS (International Sports Leadership School), and we had the opportunity to meet and share ideas with nearly 60 people from 30 countries all around the world. A couple times during the training, we divided into small groups according to our national/regional origin to discuss the barriers & possible solutions to sharing our faith. One common barrier shared among these groups was this problem of "nominal Christianity."

Basically, the church is a body of believers, not a building to visit once in a while. It's like Bruce Taylor from Walk in the Light pointed out: if you take the "ch" off either side of "church" you're left with U-R... you are the church. Similarly, a former ISLS participant pointed out to us the tendency of many Christians to live on "an island" -- only leaving now and again to go recruit someone to come join the island... No wonder so many Christians come across as legalistic isolationists. A solution to this "nominal Christianity" is found in the way we live out our faith in the world, not in isolation. It's like what Paul Moses shared with us last week: one of the best ways anyone can be a witness of the Gospel is through "lifestyle evangelism."

The last week and a half, we spent in one of the most beautiful places in South Africa: the Western Cape (Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Paarl). The beauty of God's creation surrounded us with a majestic landscapes and a Spirit-filled communities. We began our week in Cape Town with Arrie Hougaardt and his family (wife-Erika and daughters-Jana & Sune). We toured some of the city, and we worshiped at Lighthouse Ministries, a racially & culturally diverse church which formed in the late 70's as a call against Apartheid.

Monday afternoon, we interviewed Cassie Carstens and Paul & Grace Moses (who we will visit next month in Chennai, India). Then Tuesday afternoon we served with Kuyasa, a community center in the Kayamandi Township, which is led by Cassie's wife Jenny and directed by an American named Cindy.

Wednesday, Thursday and then Friday morning, we attended ISLS, and we were warmly embraced by some brothers and sisters of faith from all over the world. Once again, God's timing amazed us. You see, in the 3 months of training each year (August-October), the school invites various teachers from around the world to give insight to a specific subject they specialize in. Just last week Paul Moses taught "Cultural Studies," which aligns with a huge part of my call... gaining perspective. Not only did the subject fit in perfectly to our trip, so did the classroom diversity as it immediately provided practical application for us. To top it all off, the Cultural Night event on Thursday captivated and mesmerized us! Each participant (including us) had to present something from our respective cultures. The one other American in the group (ironically also named Heather) brainstormed with us... It was nearly impossible to think of something "American" that we were equipped to do, but we finally came up with sharing S'mores and doing the Hokey-Pokey -- in the good old-fashion silly American way. The only challenge was finding similar ingredients to Graham Crackers and Hershey Bars, but the substitues we found were yummy! (picture: Paul Moses' first S'more.)

Then, we spent the weekend with Greg & Jebs (or JT) Oefinger and the Monte Christo Ministries (MCM) in Paarl. Even after recent events (in Pietermartzburg & Durban), our introduction to their ministry shook us a bit. As soon as we arrived, Jebs asked if we would be okay with joining her & a new minitry staff, Laura, at a memorial service for a young girl who had been raped and murdered in the Mbekweni Township where they serve. As we arrived in the midst of rain, the familiar sounds of African harmony filled our ears. We had a chance to pray with some people there and to hear from the girl's father. It was a profound memorial.

After only planning to stay with them one night, we ended up staying for 3 nights. We felt His love poured out through the open-arms and nurture of our amazing new friends, even after they had just been through one of the most difficult weeks in their 3 1/2 years ministering there.

Monday afternoon, we returned to Cape Town with just enough time to tour a bit of the Cape's extraordinarily beautiful peninsula with our new friend Juanita and then to visit with Craig Stewart and the incredible staff at The Warehouse. In just a few years, the staff of the Warehouse have developed an effective urban ministry -- one which focuses on equipping the church around Cape Town, encouraging empowerment as a Body, and building relational ministries. I'm amazed at how effective they have become in such a short period. I believe the reason for this is that they are committed to spending the first hour of each and every work day in prayer together. What would happen in ministries and churches world-wide if they were that committed to prayer? Craig shared that when they see a need in the community they begin to address that need by praying for workers who are called to that need and who are driven to lead. He pointed out that we as Believers don't usually allow room for God to be God. Craig has a healthy approach to serving in the Kingdom: focus on prayer, community, and celebration, and know that sustainability can't always be quantified.

We're now back in Johannesburg, the so-called Los Angeles of South Africa. While here, we're catching up with our friends Mutodi & Leslee and the whole Neshehe family, and we're trying to work on administrative things, like emailing and posting a blog (way over-due, sorry). We also got to meet Cecile & Andries Louw's newborn daughter, Marisje.

We leave for our 11-day visit to Madagascar on Wednesday and, just now (within the last week), our time there is beginning to "jell." 'Tis the nature of our adventure. I'm really learning to not fret and to really trust that God will direct our path.