Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Spirit of Grace Ministries
-- Feeding Jesus' sheep
-- Equipping His servants
-- Proclaiming His Gospel

 

Lessons from Africa

Den & Ben in Geita

By Dennis Pollock

When I minister in Africa I am nearly always struck by the parallels between my time in Africa and the Christian life in general. Here are a few points to illustrate what I mean:

First, in Africa I am a stranger. As much as I love Africa and enjoy my African brothers and sisters, the truth is that I am in a land and a culture that are not my own. I am a Midwestern boy. I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. I ate hamburgers and played little league baseball. I watched cartoons on Saturday morning (Mighty Mouse was one of my favorites) and played cowboys and Indians with my friends. I was in the cub scouts for several years and my mom was "den leader." My life was the quintessential American middle class experience. The first time I went to Africa my eyes felt as big as saucers, so different was the culture, the look, and the feel of this mysterious continent. They preferred ugali (a type of doughy corn flour substance) to pizza, lived in conditions Americans would never tolerate, and experienced hardships most Americans could never dream of.

On one of my early trips I asked an African pastor if he had ever had malaria. He laughed and laughed at the question. When I asked him what was so funny, he told me that everybody in Africa gets malaria, and that if I stayed there six months I would get it too. I was truly a stranger in a strange land. What saved me and equipped me to minister to a people with a culture so radically different was the love of God that the Holy Spirit gave me for the Africans and the universality of the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I have since become much more comfortable with and adjusted to Africa, but I will never feel truly home there. My roots and culture run too deep. And I have come to realize that in a larger sense, this is precisely the case with Christians and the world in general. The Bible calls us strangers and pilgrims and plainly tells us that this world is not our home. We are citizens of heaven and are called to embrace a radically different culture from the ungodly world in which we live. The Bible says of the ancient heroes of the faith: "But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them" (Hebrews 11:16).

Danger

African WomenSecondly, Africa is a dangerous place. I am well aware that the minute I step off the plane and make my way through the streets of Kenya, Tanzania, or Nigeria, I am operating at an increased level of danger. My white skin makes me a target for thieves and kidnappers. Malaria is potentially present with every buzzing mosquito. In many places there are Muslims who would love to turn my head into a trophy. Dar es salaam, Tanzania is a far cry from Topeka, Kansas. I try to be wise and live conservatively while I am there. We hire security when necessary. I avoid uncooked vegetables and only drink bottled water. And I don't go jogging in the streets as I do when I am home in McKinney, Texas. Still, just being in Africa presents an inherent possibility of danger, and if one is unwilling to accept the increased risks, he had better stay home and watch television.

But in another sense life itself is a dangerous place. Temptations abound. Africans are not the only ones that face disease and early death. Relationships are fragile and break easily. Marriages in America fail at a staggering rate of fifty percent. People who once professed a burning love for Christ sometimes falter and end up bitter, disillusioned, and far from God. The truth is, whether we live in Nairobi, Kenya or Davenport, Iowa we need a Keeper – One who is able to keep us in spirit, soul, and body until we leave this place. And Jesus Christ perfectly fills the bill. He who taught us to pray, "Deliver us from evil" is the One who is able to do just that. One of the greatest and most encouraging words that ever came out of the mouth of the Savior are these: "Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost…" (John 17:12).

Ministry

When I travel to Africa I know that I am there for one primary purpose: to serve Christ by ministering to others. Sometimes I run into tourists on the plane, who are planning various expeditions or safaris. Others go there to shop for expensive souvenirs and come home with all sorts of precious and exotic African treasures to decorate their homes. In my case the situation is radically different. Often I go and return without seeing one tourist site. On some trips I have returned and placed a zero in the customs form blank where you describe how much money you have spent on various items and souvenirs. Other times I come back with a box of tea bags or a coffee mug I have picked up in a local shop – something for me to remember my mission by as I sip my tea during my daily tea time and talk to the Lord.

Fun is not really the best word to describe these African missions. They involve a lot of hard work and pressure; they mercilessly expose my weaknesses and constantly demand my strengths. They almost never go perfectly according to plan, and often require on-the-fly problem solving from day to day. If my goal were simply to have a good time, an African mission would be a pretty poor choice of activities. But they are incredibly satisfying, particularly when we experience a rich anointing of the Holy Spirit throughout the meetings, as we often do. Indeed it can be absolutely thrilling to watch the Holy Spirit do His work so beautifully in drawing men and women to Christ, and in equipping Jesus' servants for ministry.

What I've been describing is pretty much the way life is supposed to be, whether you preach in Africa or live out your days from birth to death in Alabama or Indiana. Contrary to popular opinion, fun is not the goal of life. Gathering toys and playing games is not the purpose for which Christ apprehended us. We were called to make a difference, saved to minister salvation to others, blessed to bless those around us. Working hard, living responsibly, denying the lusts of our flesh, and always choosing the high road are not always easy and they are not always fun, but they are life Jesus had in mind when He challenged us, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23).

When you read the stories of the great men and women throughout church history so signally used by God, you find that most of them lived with a lot of pressure. Their lives weren't especially fun. They saw great challenges and experienced great victories. They worked tirelessly in the cause of Christ. They all had their flaws, but laziness and indifference were not among them. And they persevered despite tremendous difficulties. Paul seemed to anticipate the need for hardships in the lives of those wanting the fullness of Christ, when he wrote:

And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9,10).

Then Comes the End

Finally, my missions in Africa always come to an end. With all the meetings and ministry, the days pass quickly. As I reach the last few days of my time there, my thoughts increasingly turn toward home. As wonderful as the ministry is, there is a tiredness, ever-present, that increases with each day. My voice grows weaker from strain, my snacks I brought from home begin to run out, and I begin to think about how nice it will be to be home and sleep in my own bed.

There is also an appreciation for God's faithfulness in providing for all our needs while we have been on this mission. It becomes clear that we are going to be OK. My peanut butter is going to last to the end, I will have enough socks, and the money we brought with us is going to be enough to pay all our bills with a little left over. Finally I preach the final meeting. My normal closing message is an old favorite about the Day of Jesus Christ. I give that last invitation to receivesitting on stump Christ, we see the final group of Africans moving forward and gathering at the front to indicate their desire to have Jesus in their lives. Finally the last prayer is prayed, I give a farewell word to the people, and am taken back to my hotel. There are no more sermons to be preached, I have painted a word picture of Jesus' cross and resurrection for the last time. The meetings are over.

There is a huge emotional relief. God has done well. There has been anointing, people have been touched, miracles wrought. The mission has been accomplished. It wasn't perfect, of course. I can often think of sermons I wish were more anointed or things I should have said differently. No one knows any better than I that the evangelist was fully human, complete with flaws and warts. Others could have done much better. Still, as I enter the plane there is almost a euphoria that envelops me. I have done what I came to do, I am exhausted but still healthy and can now relax, watch a movie or two on the plane, read a book, and be free from responsibilities for a while. Sometimes I just want to vegetate, put on my headphones and listen to some gentle instrumental music while I close my eyes and try to settle into the uncomfortable airplane seats for the next ten hours (and that just gets me to Europe).

As we reach our golden years it is natural for the thoughts of believers to turn more and more toward home. We look back over our lives, our struggles, our joys, our tears, our successes and our failures, and we recognize the goodness of our God and our good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ. We are going to make it. Christ has been faithful. Our bodies don't work so well as they used to. We don't look so pretty (some of us were never all that pretty to start with!). And it may be that in our last years we have to limp our way into Christ's kingdom. But whether limping or jogging, the main thing is that we get there. And get there we shall, for He who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it until the Day of Jesus Christ.

Some friends may have turned away from us. Some relationships that were precious to us in our early years may have broken. We didn't want them to, we prayed diligently and tried very hard to hold them together, but still they broke. We didn't understand it, but we knew we would continue to follow Jesus. As Peter put it, that there was no one else to whom we could go. Jesus has the words of eternal life and those who are His discover an inner drive that keeps picking them up and moving them forward, despite the falls and failures.

We haven't lived our lives perfectly, we have made our mistakes, but Jesus has kept us and we are still in the faith. Or to put it in Paul's words: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing" (2 Timothy 4:7,8). As the great apostle made that final flight home, I'm sure he must have experienced a joy and euphoria beyond anything he had ever known in this world. "Cares all past, home at last, ever to rejoice."

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