June 3, 2009

Lighting a Fire

I wrote in my last monthly e-mail that if mission is a journey we choose to take with others, the greatest challenge I am finding lately is how to encourage people in Itipini and Mthatha to take that journey with each other, independent of my presence. This is especially important, of course, as I prepare to leave in just a few weeks.

I was at a prayer service on Saturday at a hospice in Mthatha for people with AIDS. One thing the people in this hospice desperately need is transport to the health clinic to get ARVs. It is something Jenny and I have recently been providing as we have become aware of the need. One of the men leading the prayer - who had driven to the event in his own vehicle - said something like, “We pray these people will get the help they need.” It has apparently never occurred to him that he might be able to provide the help they need. How do I encourage this man to journey with these patients with AIDS?

It is convenient that my own departure is coming in the season of the church year when we focus on Jesus’ departure from his followers. I don’t want to compare my ministry in Itipini to that of Jesus in the Holy Land but the Bible readings these past few weeks have given me some comfort. For one thing, Jesus talked a lot with his followers before he died and before he ascended about his departure and how they couldn’t come with him. I’ve been trying to do the same.

(In one touching moment, a student I know, upon hearing I was leaving, asked if she could come along. I explained it was a long way. “That’s OK,” she said. “We’ll take the bakkie,” meaning Jenny’s truck that people often pile into when they need a ride someplace. I didn’t know how to explain the bakkie couldn’t make it across the ocean. A long way for people in Itipini is like, say, here to East London, a three-hour trip. How do I explain what a 17-hour plane flight is like?)

And even though Jesus encouraged his followers to carry on his ministry in his absence, I’ve realized recently they didn’t initially do a great job of it. After Jesus was crucified, they huddled in an upper room for fear of arrest. After Jesus ascended, they huddled in a room “for fear of the Jews.” It was only when the Holy Spirit came upon them in their huddle that they went out to preach the Gospel in every language.

I take a lot of comfort from that story. Even Jesus - though he gave his followers the Great Commandment - couldn’t get his followers to journey together in his absence. Jesus had to send the Holy Spirit to light a fire under (actually, over) them and get them out into the world.

It’s not just up to me to get people to take this journey together. In fact, it’s probably not even primarily or mostly up to me. There’s always another Actor. As my time winds down, I find that a reassuring thought.