Personally, I like a payphone😊

Personally, I like a landline. When you’re home, you’re home; when you’re out, you’re out. That’s exactly what Alexander Graham Bell had in mind when he said, “When one door closes, another opens.”

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“Just Outside the Nest.”

Fresh from the nest, a speckled, newborn robin lifts a head toward the sun,
One tiny chick awash in an endless bed of green replete with creeping morsels at his feet,
A lavish spread for the burrowing beak, while tiny bugs and flitting flies dance for their new guest; Discovering paradise, just outside the nest.

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“She Carried Little Elvis on Her Back!”

 

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We had a big surprise arriving home from college last week. Mop and pail in the middle of the hall, cleaning supplies strewn all around – it looked like Victoria had left in a hurry! She comes by in the mornings to keep the dust down.

We tried a few numbers. No answer. So we just left the mops where they were and assumed she’d be back.

Sure enough, Victoria came through the gate a bit later – loaded down with Elvis, her little grandson! She had walked to Kitwe Central Hospital, as much a mortuary as a hospital, checked the child out, scolded what staff she could find, and walked the kilometer back to our place with the boy on her back!

“They were not helping!,” she said, very upset. “The boy, he just get worse! Those people, they just want money! I took the boy with me!” She looked at us as though we could fix this.

We called a former student who is a medical aid. He came over by nightfall. “This is very serious,” said Shaka, looking at the swollen little arm. “This is bone infection, probably caused by an unclean needle. Has he had an injection?”

Indeed, Elvis had been injected with Quinine a week earlier for severe malaria. Kitwe Central Hospital! The procedure had infected the upper arm, which was now swollen up to twice its size.

Shaka helped us admit the boy to the Chinese Mine Hospital where he works. They slated the lad for surgery first thing in the week — even though it was Chinese New Year!  Next day he came out of surgery with a reasonable report.

“We just did that operation in time,” said Shaka. “The infection had attacked the bone and it was quite critical. Within a week…?” He shook his head at what might have been.

Sometimes you help save a life just by being on the ground. We hope and pray for that these days. It’s the story of Africa missions.  Your presence is probably your greatest gift.

Once in awhile you just lend a hand to those who carry the sick on their back.

“Much Better Clean”

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We were washing down the truck after a long day on the Kawama roads. Fine, misty rain. Instant rinse.

“You sure that’s worth the effort?,” asked a visiting friend. He was joining our faculty for ten days at the college and knew about our rainy-season mud holes. “I’d say you guys are fighting a losing battle!”

But our car-wash team was not to be dissuaded, blasting water on the wheel wells and pushing the soapy sponge into the rims. I assured our friend that you just have to keep on top of the mud. Otherwise, your vehicle changes colour in the course of a week, from white to reddish-brown — a very popular colour these days!

“Besides,” I said, “it’s always nice to start the day clean. The vehicle runs better, you feel better — it’s only right! The deeper the filth, the more frequent the washes! It’s like sanctification!”

Later, I thought our muddy analogy was pretty good! Sanctification in the modern world? This is it exactly! “The deeper the filth, the more frequent the washes!” Who would deny that our 21st Century filth must be deeper than ever? As British author Stephen Bayley puts it, “If you were born in Britain after World War II, you see a continuous atmosphere of decline — moral and economic and political.” Radio host Erwin Lutzer says of America, “Our culture is now dominated by television and movies whose profanity and lewdness tramp God’s honor into the mud every single day, inculcating non-Christian values from infancy.” And, alas, such decline is another “benefit” of globalization.

No wonder a daily moral wash is a must. When you move up and down in a world like ours, you might even need “The Deluxe Wash” — complete with soap, wax and rust inhibitors! Much-read theologian Wayne Grudem puts it thus: “Christians have a daily personal role in sanctification. We need to ‘strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (Heb 12:14).” He notes the call to “abstain from immorality” and so obey the will of God: “Those who hope to be like Christ when he appears will ‘purify themselves as he is pure’ (I John 3:3).” “Shun immorality,” says Paul to the Corinthians, “and do not to partner with unbelievers…”. “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (II Cor 6-7). “Make every effort to grow in godliness,” says the apostle Peter (II Peter 1:5). In The Message paraphrase James calls upon us, to “throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage” (1:21). And all of this, says Grudem, is “the regular process of sanctification and maturity, producing ‘faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil’ (Heb 5:14).

Keeping a clean car, keeping a clean life — it seems there are no short-cuts. Sunday morning wash-downs will not do. We just need to turn aside daily to the old-fashioned, time-honoured means of Bible reading and mediation, “cleansed by the washing with water through the word” (Ephesians 5:19). Add to that prayer, worship, witnessing, fellowship, self-discipline — these are the regular Christian wash cycles that keep life clean.

Oh, it takes a bit of effort, washing off the grunge. But the results are well worth it. In fact, Grudem concludes his discussion on sanctification with how good it feels! “The more we grow in likeness to Christ, the more we will personally experience joy and peace… the closer we get to our life in heaven… It’s all about ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’… As we grow in holiness, more and more of the beauty of Christ’s character is seen in our lives. This is the goal of maximized living!”

As for my Isuzu, it just runs better clean! Wheel-wells sprayed down, tires clear of caked-on mud, the hood and intake screen blasted free of dirt, steering mechanism unclogged — the truck takes off with a roar of gratitude! “Thank you, I needed that!” It’s like it’s youthful energy and vitality have been restored! It’s bright white identity is resplendent again! All that gross rusty-red, all that splashed-up filth over the license plate and grill and hood — all gone, cleansed and washed away!

“You are washed! You are sanctified!,” exults the apostle Paul to his young believers. “You are justified!” (I Cor 6:11) It reads like a celebration of a power wash! It’s a recovered identity! You are now recognizable as squeaky clean, authentically you! And that is the best feeling on earth.

So let us never think that we somehow function better under camouflage. That we fit in better dirty. That we can forego the daily cleanse. That we’re fighting a losing battle against filth. That we can just let the mud pile up.

Take it from our college road: you are much better clean.

“You Know it’s going to be a Good Year when…”

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You know it’s going to be a good year when the milk comes out in lumps.

2016!  A year to move from fluid to solids!  To deal in substance! (not to abuse it, of course).  A year to stop floating on the shifting tide like a quivering bead of butter fat.  Nay, tis a year to take a position!  To coalesce!  To come down hard on some things!  Like a ton of compacted calcium on life’s shimmering stream!

Now, if we can just figure out what to do with the cereal.

“Before the Children Are in Bed”

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It was tough going out there Saturday morning, on the fringes of Racecourse. We were in the Shanty Town neighbourhood which sprawls around our campus with some 400,000 souls. It was the long-awaited day to lay out the footprint and pour the footings for our new Barnabas Youth Centre — a gift from Canadian donors to a very disadvantaged community. Our college had organized the Soccer League which was drawing over seven-hundred ShantyTown Youth to monthly competitions and events. And now it was time to build a Youth Centre for these young people. Even at 6 o’clock in the morning, it felt pretty good to bounce along the back roads and roll up to the site. The project was finally underway! Shovels were in the ground today! In ShantyTowns as hopeless as Racecourse, projects like this one were like beacons of hope fallen out of the sky!

But things went downhill from there. Staking out the corners of the building, tying the string line, getting ready to dig the square holes for the pylons — nothing was easy. The whole stretch was overgrown with thick stubble and bushes. Our hired men were trampling their way through the underbrush, hacking away with slashers, trying to clear the areas where the holes would be dug for the pylons. And they were not happy. They hadn’t signed up for this kind of hard labor. Worse still was what awaited them: layers of compacted red laterite running beneath the soil like lines of concrete, calling for heavy work with the pick. By 10 o’clock, five holes were half-way dug with hoe, pick and shovel. Shirts had been tossed. The day-labourers glistened with sweat.

Then came the worst news. It turned out that we were off line. The project manager had squared up the string lines again, re-checking the distance from the perimeter wall, measuring corner to corner — and sure enough. He informed the hired hands that they would have to commence digging again! The pylons needed to be poured some four feet to the right!

The Zambian sun was now blazing down at about 40 degrees Centigrade. There was no water out there on the fringes of the Racecourse compound. Rumblings of Bemba discontent started like distant thunder and then began to escalate to a crescendo. We had hit a wall, not just layers of laterite!  Chris and Ben, our coordinators, called the agitated workers together into the shade and handed out water bottles. They tried to settle them down, while a couple of the weary youth were acting like union leaders, loud and mad. We would have to renegotiate terms! There would have to be food! And more money! And water!

Meanwhile, the project was at a standstill, the work site abandoned for the negotiations. And I was pretty steamed myself, listening to all the complaining and the grumbling. I went back to the truck, rolled down the windows and tuned into BBC, there in the shade. I looked over the site and tried to envision the Youth Centre, “Barnabas Place,” a haven for the disadvantaged youth of the Shanties who lived in the mud-brick structures I could see above the tall grass. Little home-made hovels…  not only an unpromising home environment, but a downright dangerous one. If any youth anywhere needed a safe place, a place of their own, a place to make friends, a wholesome community, it was the youth of Racecourse. And now to be set back by a few malcontents?

Above our site on a little hill, a band of children made their way out of the tall grass. They stopped in front of a field of maize and looked us over, like a cluster of small birds. Who are these people, they must have wondered, making a clearing in our territory? They had such an air of complete composure as they looked us over, it was as though they were in fact in charge here. I caught them with my telephoto lens there on the hill, corn stalks behind making them seem even tinier.

As I brought the picture up close and looked at our little friends, I thought I saw a rebuke there in their placid gaze. How could we allow minor setbacks to bring us to a standstill? Barnabas Place belonged to them!  This was the generation of Zambians that was growing up all around us like maize, seventy-five per-cent of the nation’s fourteen million people. Where were they to go when their carefree world of childhood gave way to cruel initiations into the world of young adulthood, when their serenity would be threatened every day by violence and abuse, pain and loss, intimidation and crime?  Barnabas Place would have to be there for them! A safe place. A place where childhood peace could be restored. Where childhood dreams could be rekindled.

I jumped out of the truck and joined the circle of negotiation. “Let’s get on with this!,” I said.  And I began to shell out a few more kwacha.  Of course there would be more money for the job!  And yes, we can find food and water!  In fact, we will even cook nshima on site!

People were suddenly on their feet and back in the trenches!  And there was only one condition.  It came from the top of a small hill.

The job must be finished before the children are in bed!

“The Slightly Askew, Off-Balanced Church”

2015…. Some churches got badly off-balanced.  Let’s hope they straighten up this year!

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  • In some regions, the extremes revolve around fetishes. Holy water, anointing oil, even sacred brooms: for a fee, also known as a “faith offering” or “planting a seed,” you can go home with your fetish and “watch miracles happen!”
  • Another extreme is the popular would-be prophets. Having a “word from the prophet” means more to many churchgoers than receiving your own word from God or sound biblical exposition. And the latter gets dumped in some circles for the sake of the more popular “prophetic word.”
  • Others who offload biblical exposition do so to attract non-Christians. “Seeker-sensitivity” is grounds for everything from Clint Eastwood video clips to rivers of coffee. It’s all about making the unchurched comfortable inside the walls.
  • There is a form of simony which also has knocked a few churches off-kilter. The idea of paying for services rendered. This has found such a welcome home among some clergy, that when you come for pastoral counsel or prayer, you better be prepared to leave a gift behind!
  • Other legalistic extremes revolve around the tithe. In these slightly askew times, it is sometimes taught that, premise one, “according to the Bible, no robber shall enter heaven.” Premise two: “Those who do not tithe are ‘robbing God’” (Mal3:9).  Ergo, we conclude: that “no non-tither will enter heaven!”
  • The opposite extreme is around grace. “Let us sin that grace may abound!” was the catchword in NT times. If God’s grace abounds in proportion to our sin, why not draw upon this reservoir to the full? Paul’s response to such still stands: “Their condemnation is just.”

Maybe the worst extreme of all?  Biblically speaking, you might have to give an edge to “the good news gospel,” which omits  all reference to sin, judgment and the need for repentance.  I call it the worst because of the severe penalties levied on its spokesmen, false prophets like Shallum, Hananiah and Shamaiah.  If these fellows did not drop dead within weeks of being called out, they were to “die a donkey’s death..dragged out of Jerusalem and dumped” (Jer 22).  All of this for what? “Preaching rebellion against the Lord,” which was proclaiming “good news” before the bad news of the sins of Judaism, “peace, peace” when no peace was to be had.

Still, we must not minimize the wonderful good news: the church is built on a sure foundation.  And no matter how loud the howling winds of error, as the apostle said, “the foundation of God stands sure… let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”

 

Austerity: A Dangerous Idea?

For those who like to have their Håagen Daz and eat it too, there is good news from Ivy League professor Mark Blyth: “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.”

Blyth’s recent book says you do not help a country like Greece by imposing tax hikes, spending cuts and the like. You help Greece by focusing on growth. As the economy expands, so says Blyth, the next generation will have less proportional debt than their parents. This is because the economy will be bigger. It’s all about the cardinal truth of macroeconomics: “the whole is different from the sum of its parts.”

In round figures, I think this means we can have our dish of Håagen Daz — Macademia Nut preferred — and eat it too!

Mind you, the IMF is not going to be happy with your numbers. Cholesterol numbers, that is.
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“Song in the Air!”

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There was joy in the air as I walked the neighbourhood this morning. A woman singing as she walked along Jambo. A gardener raising a tune as he worked the fringes of Chandawali. Big smiles from the man pushing his wheel-barrow down Kenyanta, dodging the potholes.
“Are you opening your grocery today? But it’s a holiday!”
“Yes, Madala, I open this morning. This afternoon I cast my ballot!”

But of course! It’s Election day! Zambia will have a new President tomorrow! The people’s choice! You can sense the whole country pulsating with excitement over this. Everybody feels so good! This is about a free and fair election, such a rarity and a novelty in much of the world! No one would think about missing the opportunity to vote! In fact, some of our students will spend $50 dollars and take an overnight bus, just to cast their ballot in their home town!

We have a slate of a dozen or so serious candidates, each representing their own party: Edgar Lungu, a lawyer; Hoachim Hichilema, a businessman and entrepreneur; Nevers Mumba, a former pastor-evangelist…. It’s wonderful to see the Democratic process unfold in these campaigns. You don’t need a fortune to run. You can give a speech wherever you find a vacant podium. Captivate enough enrapt hearers with some inspired oratory, build your national party — you’ve got a chance to win! Basic democratic process.

Most important, people can vote for whoever they want in Zambia. Nobody gets pushed around, bought or intimidated. How special is that? With all the would-be czars and half-baked dictators in our world? No wonder half the country is singing!

Yes, Zambia has good reason to sing. Despite its many challenges, the country is under the favour of God. It’s response to the Gospel has been absolutely wholehearted over the last century. As a result, all of the blessings of democratic freedoms are flowing down! As Hebrews says, “Land that has drunk the rain falling on it, and produced a harvest, receives blessing from God.”

In fact, singing is a national distinctive in Zambia. We sponsored a recent music and worship workshop and were rocked by the sound of a hundred praise and worship leaders from across our District. Theme song for the event was “All the Praise Belongs to God!” We ended the day with a mass choir which really brought that song to a climax — and the crowd to its feet!

As for the local church, we visited a newly-planted assembly — complete with a maxed-out keyboard and sound-system. We were amazed at how a young couple had turned the most humble, house of God into a very attractive sanctuary in their first year. Their praise team filled Chimwemwe with the songs of worship sung by God’s people world-wide.

Yes we have much to celebrate! There’s a song in the air! The Lord of the Church is alive! He is transforming people!

And transforming nations.

“You Still Drive That Thing?”

 

We drive a Buick.  It doesn’t really feel like it, but it’s getting to be an “old” Buick.  Getting close to 300,000 kms on the clock.  It’s a 1996, inherited from Ruth’s late parents, Myrrl and Ethel.

I keep a supply of answers ready for the ever-new crowd, always upgrading everything from iPhones to counter tops: “Like, are you still driving that thing?”

“We’ve got our sights set on 300,000 kms,” I say.  “It’s so quiet and comfy on a long trip… we just can’t bear to part with it.”  “We like the cushy velour.  There’s nothing better for a comfortable snooze in the back — as long as Ruth stays off the rumble strips!”

But my favourite stock response is, “Unless somebody decides to be counter-cultural, H. Richard Niebuhr will have laboured in vain.”  I like the way eyes glaze over at this one.  Plus, it harks up a favourite old text, Christ and Culture, which we treated as inspired back in college.  While H. Richard doesn’t extol a rabid Christian anti-culturalism, he does call for a kind of prophetic stance against culture.  Like, we can’t just allow the culture to call the tunes for the Christian community.  And that could include the “planned obsolescence” of our western economies.

To put it in the man’s own words:  “The disorder of secularism is perhaps nowhere more apparent in our contemporary Church than in the extent to which we have permitted the order of the world to creep into the order of the Church… That the church should carry out its mission to the men in the middle classes of capitalist society is doubtless a part of the it’s calling; but that the mission should result in the formation of a middle-class church which defends the secular outlook and interests of that class is an evident corruption.”

Maybe I need to put that on a Buick bumper sticker.  Condensed version of course!