Sunday, 3 November 2013

A family affair

Sunday all over. Today was pretty special! It began for me as we were reading from the Bible after breakfast. (Yes, our kids can vouch for the fact that their father doesn’t properly return to the land of the living until after breakfast…) We were reading Psalm 133: Voici, oh! qu’il est agréable, qu’il est doux pour des frères de demeurer ensemble! I started thinking about the fact that – at least for myself, but I’m fairly sure for most Reformed Christians – these words apply to the covenant community, the people of God. Right, dear reader? Let’s have a show of hands here: how many of you have that association? Aaah, well over 75%... That’s the first thing we think of: this is the brotherhood of the church. And then we read the superscription of the psalm:  a song of ascents, that is to say, a song for the yearly pilgrimage to the sanctuary, and we are confirmed in our thinking.
But what if we just let the psalm speak for itself? How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! Where does one find brothers (and sisters, okay) living together? Right: in the family. So if we just forget about our primary association, what do we read here? What a wonderful thing it is when a family lives in unity. When it is united in common purpose, shared values, and peaceful harmony. What a wonderful thing to strive for! Living here in Benin, we’ve been reinforced in our focus on the family. There is so much rot and wild growth here when it comes to family, and the effects are so devastating: of polygamy, of children being sent off to live with assorted aunts and vaguer relatives, of absent fathers and overworked mothers. The writer of Psalm 133 knew what he was talking about. And yes, as believers were on pilgrimage to the holy place, it was good to be reminded: a healthy family is comparable to (and probably as important as) what you will be experiencing there, the priest’s anointing, the mark of his authority to bring about peace between yourself and your God! Go there and worship, but not at the neglect of the home front! It reminds me a bit of what Jesus said once (or, knowing Him, probably lots of times): "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Family first. No family, no worship. I’ll leave the implications of the message of Psalm 133 to you. (And yes, of course, there is an extended application to the family of faith, but first of all…)
We’ve been missing our own family lots, being here in Benin. Alwin and Erika with Anne and Aline and Gerard and Willemijn, Alice and Allan with Jacoba and Jonah and Simon and Allie, Ian and Lydia with Rosa and Gabriel, Evelene and Arjan with Jan and Eva and Benthe, Maarten and Marchien with Jonathan and Teun, Maria and Bastiaan with Micha, Hannah and…. (Yes, things have gotten complicated for Hannah in the past year, all the more reason it’s difficult for us to be far away much of the time.) And with that in mind, we’re thankful that – at the end of this month – we’ll be going back home.

At the same time, we’ve been blessed with our brothers and sisters in the church family here. Today, for instance, when we worshipped in Agame. Agame has some very nasty associations for us: not more than a kilometre from where the church stands, stands the house where we were almost taken away from our family, where we were drugged and incapacitated prior to the robbery which we underwent in February last year. Coming Thursday the case against the man who did this to us will at last come to trial, but it’s been a long and complicated road getting there. However, that’s not what occupied us this morning at Agame. It was a final church service there with brothers and sisters in the Lord. Speaking of unity: from old to very young, man, woman and child, (almost) everyone was dressed in the same pagnes. We didn’t discover until after the service how that had come about. About half a year ago, one of the members there suffered the loss by fire of her tailoring workshop: building, sewing machine, and bolts of pagne brought by her customers. A true disaster: the pagnes needed to be repaid, but her only means of income – precarious as that is here anyway – had been destroyed. Thankfully, while in the Netherlands, Marijke and I had found a barely used Singer hand-cranker at a secondhand store in Hoogezand. After having had it professionally serviced (free of charge!) by Zijlstra Naaimachines in Groningen, we took it back to Benin with us. Our sister Juliette was dumbfounded. Not just any old machine (like the ubiquitous but rather nasty Chinese Butterfly machines which are all that most tailors here can afford), but a genuine Singer, in top condition. Spurred on by this fortuitous find, the congregation at Agame got into gear. It being close to the end of the year, when – traditionally – most people try to have a new set of clothes made for the Christmas fête, the congregation organised an action de grace, Sunday a week ago. They do this yearly in Agame, but this time there was special reason. And to honour this special service, they decided to each buy identical pagnes, and to bring them to Juliette so that she could turn the cloth into a set of clothes. I don’t know how she managed, but there it was: the whole congregation, 40 persons or more, dressed to a tee, and Juliette out of financial trouble. How good and pleasant…That’s (church) family. We were thrilled to be part of it.
Then there was this afternoon. We decided to tune in to the church service in Groningen-Zuid, where Marijke’s brother Jurrien and her mother Oma Jongman are members. What a joy! In this special baptism service two young adults were engrafted into the church family. Leonie, in a simple but moving testimony, glorified God for how He brought her from ignorance to a living faith in Jesus Christ. Beside her stood Mehrdad, an Iranian refugee without permanent status or fixed address, but thankful for the church community which had become a family to him. We were especially touched by the words spoken by his elder ‘brother’, Jurrien, who had been very instrumental in the process of Mehrdad’s arriving at this impressive moment. Yes, that’s the Jurrien you may remember from a few blogs back, Marijke’s only brother. He wasn’t announced by name, but the moment he started speaking there was no doubt: four and a half thousand kilometres away, and right here in our living room. He referred to something Mehrdad’s mother had said (she herself now also become a Christian): my son has been born all over again!
And finally, this evening. Another worship service, almost as far away, this time in Goes, where Evelene and Arjan live. Making this Sunday even more international: a minister from India, preaching in English, in a church in the Netherlands. Towards the end of the service, we heard our own grandchild Eva – 12 years old – making a presentation on behalf of the children of the church, and that in English! I don’t need to tell you how very proud we are! And I’m almost certain I heard Evelene’s voice above that of the congregation singing out: elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth…
Which brings us to the end of a good Sunday. Sunday all over. A family affair, in various senses of the Word. And with that in mind, back to Psalm 133: How good and pleasant…  for there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for evermore.

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