Saturday, 16 March 2013

At the End of a Perfect Day

And all I really want to do
Is sing songs for you,
Then it's been a perfect day,
Yes it's been a perfect day.

                                                              Chris de Burgh, 1977
Alright. It wasn´t a perfect day. It was hot and sticky as only the tropics can be. We missed the people we love as much as we do every day. It´s lonely being the only Europeans in West Africa. It´s frustrating having to communicate in French and lacking the wherewithal to express all the nuances a language deserves. And when we finally sat down to relax, and started to share our feelings, we were once again emotionally overwhelmed by the vast divide between what should be and what is.
And still, the phrase kept coming to mind: at the end of a perfect day.
We ate broiled fish, buttered peas and carrots, rice with mustard sauce, and fresh rucola salad (from our own garden), with a mango-pineapple fruit salad for dessert. Was that at least not the perfect end of a day? Temperature inside has dropped to 33.2, outside has just reached 30.0. Dishes are done and in about half an hour we will tune in to the same (Dutch) news broadcast we regularly watch at home.
This morning was meeting of church council. When I arrived at 9.45, the brothers were meditating on Romans 12.1,2: “Je vous exhorte donc, frères, par les compassions de Dieu, à offrir vos corps comme un sacrifice vivant, saint, agréable à Dieu, ce qui sera de votre part un culte raisonnable. Ne vous conformez pas au siècle présent, mais soyez transformés par le renouvellement de l’intelligence, afin que vous discerniez quelle est la volonté de Dieu, ce qui est bon, agréable et parfait.” The beauty of the moment was that they we doing so in Adja. Normally, the meetings are conducted in French, for the benefit of the Pasteur Missionnaire, who is also usually asked to lead the Bible study. But since Romain has returned to the Mono-Couffo, after recently graduating from the Bible school in Bangui, Centrafrique, there is someone who can lead the elders in devotions in their own language. And behold: Victor and Guillaume, for the first time in my memory, were actively participating! I sat and observed, understanding not a word, but enjoying every minute.
During the meeting, I was pleased to be able to announce the decision of DVN-GoWa that there would be a contribution towards the present food problem. It being the time of the year that the harvest is still some way off, the people of the region are dependent on what they have been able to store up from the previous season. And because the harvests at the end of 2012 were meagre, there are many people who aren’t able to 'manger à sa faim', that is to say: eat to their fill. True, said Pasteur Théophile, when I asked him. Look at the pale reddish hair colouring of many in the villages, a sure sign of malnutrition. Two years ago, there was the same difficulty. And it seems to be endemic. Too many people living off too limited productive capacity of the land. The dilemma: what does it help to provide food (short term) when it is not possible to provide real productivity solutions (long term)? But when all is said and done: malnutrition kills faster than you might think. Long term is too long. I was happy to be able to offer help.
But there were more happy moments. For instance, as the brothers were discussing a pastoral problem in Ayomi. There was an issue between a man and his wife. One of the elders (not the elder from Ayomi, but a teacher at the school there) knew more about the situation. This elder had invited the woman to meet with him at school, alone, in order to look for a solution. General approval around the table, it seemed. But then one of their number spoke up: not a good thing, he said. For you to speak with someone’s wife without her husband being involved. You need to respect the relations within the family unit, and you need to protect the woman against gossip. I’m not really sure of all of the complexities involved in African family relations, but I was impressed. This was seriously well thought through, and properly addressed, I thought.
Then this afternoon we went to Kpodaha. Twenty-three young people, from 16 to 27, eager to be trained in church work, have been attending our Saturday school. Faithfully, actively, and decidedly with an un-African determination to be there on time. We begin with a Bible study or sermon outline, then we have two lessons in a program covering the various aspects of church life: worship, mutual support, community service and evangelism, church government and administration. Since the start of the school year, we have covered General Introduction to Theology, Knowledge of the New Testament, Church History, and Principles of Worship. And today we started with two new modules: Christian Family Life and Church Education. As an educator in my previous life, I have been really, really enjoying setting up the program, working with the teachers, and teaching the students. And once again, today it was a real joy. The sermon outline was based on Deuteronomy 6. 4-9: Teach my children well… Romain, in his first lesson, surveyed the rather complicated extent of the African family, and its various possible permutations: with still hugely common polygamy, exceptionally high mortality rates, and the ever-present pagan/Christian divide. And I explored the Scriptural foundations, the distinct purposes, and the general contents of Sunday school and of catechism class. Okay, at this point, you’re bored. But for us it was a rewarding and worthwhile afternoon.
But very, very tiring. Which brings me back to the possibility that it was a perfect day after all. But then in the Biblical sense of ‘made perfect’. That is to say: accomplishing its intended purpose. No, it’s not at all easy to be here. For all the reasons I have enumerated above, and plenty more. But there are moments when, hugely tired, we have been so energized by the day’s events that there just needs to be a blog.

Friday, 1 March 2013


Feeling a bit unbloggy in these hot weeks. Marijke said: so why don't you post the devotions you have been writing for Edudeo? Edudeo has its own site ( ) but for those of you who don't frequent it, here's a free peek.

What’s your role?
Vince Knowles lowered his head, and when he raised it and spoke his next line, his voice was thick and hitching. It was a simulacrum of sorrow he’d never approached even in his best rehearsals… That was when I heard the first low sob from the audience… (Stephen King: 11/22/63)
Oh, the reach of an actor! Of the one who submerges himself in his role, who for the sake of his audience and for the power of the story changes for a moment into someone else, a character quite different from himself. We admire his performance. We are moved. And sometimes we are profoundly changed ourselves.
That’s what I thought of, first off, when I was asked to participate in writing these devotions, with as theme:  ‘What’s your role?’ I thought of actors. Each with his or her own part to play. Hoping to change lives by their performance. In this case: on the stage of world missions.
And then I remembered 1 Peter 2.1. Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Did you know that the word hypocrisy is from the ancient Greek? That in the context of Greek drama, it was applied to an actor on the theatre stage? Someone pretending to be someone else? And yes, what admiration the performance of a hypocrite could evoke!
In the New Testament, however, ‘playing a role’ is not an admirable thing. It is condemned by Christ and rebuked by the apostles. Service in God’s kingdom is not only to be selfless, it is to be genuine. Perhaps we could even say: not what you do, but whom you are, whom you really are, is what matters.
It’s one of the lessons we have been learning on the field here in Benin. As missionaries, we struggle with our role. And every time again we discover that God acts most effectively, when we stop being actors.

Don’t hold your breath
Remember? God acts most effectively when we stop being actors. Thinking about your role begins with being real. Not what you do but who you really are is what matters.
One of the most authentic Christians whom I have the honour of knowing is Gregoire. He drives a taxi back and forth to Cotonou all day. For about 10 dollars, after deducting the lease of his 20-year-old Peugeot and the price of fuel and maintenance.
Yesterday we were discussing the details of a sports evangelism project to be held next July. Gregoire’s expertise in Beninese public transport could make all the difference, we knew. But we weren’t actually prepared for this: We need to pray, Gregoire said. We need to pray that the government will look the other way and let the roadside sellers sell fuel again.
What you need to know is that Benin has a lively (and dangerous and hugely polluting) black market in fuel smuggled in from Nigeria. Crude oil tapped from international pipelines, distilled in primitive bush refineries, and sold from bottles and jerry cans, this fuel  powers most of Benin’s vehicles. Periodically the government clamps down on this illegal trade and prices skyrocket.
Gregoire doesn’t grasp all the moral dilemmas here. And there are plenty. But one thing is as natural to him as breathing: prayer. If our sports evangelism team is get around, the price of fuel will need to come down. And God is in charge, isn’t He? Well, then. The government needs to look the other way.
Pray continually, Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5.17. For Christians, prayer is like breathing. You don’t need to think about it. In fact, it is more difficult to hold your breath than to breathe. Are you planning to get active in God’s kingdom? Before anything else: pray. That’s what I’m learning from Gregoire.

Before anything else, pray! Remember? So we prayed that morning. And then drove the four-wheel-drive along the red-dirt track to Fanahenhoue. There is a little crowd waiting for us in the church. Things are not as they should be, it turns out. Sunday attendance has dwindled, family worship is non-existent, the local elder is dispirited, the Sunday-school teacher has moved away. Good people, but the burden of maintaining healthy spiritual life has grown too heavy. And all look to us for the solution.
What’s our role? As missionary couple we could take over. Start weekly visits to relieve the local elder. Be there on Sundays to lead the services. Arrange for the neighbouring parish of Kpodaha to send someone for the Sunday-school . And who knows, that might well break through the malaise which has taken hold of Fanahenhoue. Carry each other’s burdens, the apostle says in  Galatians 6.2.
But here’s one of the greatest temptations in missions. When you see inability: to take over. When you see hunger: to provide food. When you see lack of education: to build schools. Well-meant, and sometimes effective. But too often our desire to help, to carry each other’s burdens, gets in the way of enabling the other to do what he could well learn to do himself. And that is why the apostle says something else a few verses later: for each one should carry his own load.
So instead of helping, we helped them help themselves. We asked a teenage girl: if we bring you a children’s Bible next Sunday, would you read a Bible story to the children before church starts? Yes, she said, of course. And two others offered to assist. And during the service, we asked the elder, would you be able to ask the children to share what they have learned? We turned to the mothers: and would you be willing to ask your children, when they get home, to tell the story again, and to talk and pray about it together? Their eyes lit up: why, yes. Of course we could!
We didn’t do so much, that morning at Fanahenhoue. But when we left there seemed to be something new in the air. Renewed confidence. Excitement even. A burden shared always seems lighter, doesn’t it?