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  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
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Entries in AIDS (9)

Wednesday
Dec012010

World AIDS day - I am positive

Please take a few minutes to watch this wonderful TED video featuring Mitchel Besser, a doctor who is doing extraordinary work in supporting some of the most vulnerable people, who undergo immense suffering, with a very simple and effective Mother2Mother HIV AIDS support system.

The title of this post may be shocking - indeed, I it is intended to be so!  I believe that if one person suffers we all suffer.  So, to understand my statement 'I am positive' please read these posts.

 

 

Today is World AIDS day. Today we remember that the Church has AIDS. We do not minister to people who are HIV positive, as if they were people outside of the body of Christ. Rather, we ask God to heal us, for all of us suffer from this disease.

 

Whether you are HIV+ or not, this disease reminds us that we shall all face death. It reminds us that we shall all be ill at some stage. It reminds us that we need one another to be strengthened and encouraged to face the reality of struggle. It reminds us that society can be cruel and that people can be judged for something that afflicts them. Most of all, this disease reminds us that we have a God who cares and longs to bring us healing and hope.

Prayer of invocation:

Loving God, you are our parent. You look upon us with mercy and compassion. You understand our weakness. Our suffering breaks your heart. Look upon us with love, grace, and compassion today. Father, you know the pain of losing your only son to death. Jesus, you know the pain of dying and leaving those whom you love behind. Spirit you are the giver and sustainer of life. With confidence we approach your throne of grace that there we may receive mercy.

Renew our spirits and draw our hearts, bodies, and minds close to yours. All of us are subject to the frailties of life. Strengthen us in our weakness, bring us wholeness in spite of disease. For those who live under the impending threat of death, offer them comfort and strength in the knowledge that death does not have the final victory and that in you there is true, eternal, and blissful life that lasts for eternity. For those who feel the pain of seeing a loved one die, fill them with courage through the power of your Spirit of life. Surround them with caring and loving people who will show to them the love that you want to give them in their time of need.

Help each of us to strengthen our resolve to obedience and service. Give us courage so that we would not shy away from facing our own frailty and pain. Move us to go to the places of death, like your beloved disciple John went to your cross, so that we may offer love and healing to those whom you love.

Let us delight in doing those acts of mercy that will bring healing and honour Your name.

Today we declare the faith that neither height, nor depth, neither life, nor death, neither angel, nor demon, nor anything in all creation can separate us from Your love. You are the creator God. You make a way where it seems none can be found, your bring forth living waters in the wilderness. We place our trust in You, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN

 

A meditation to guide your prayers and actions today


Nosipho's story - no greater gift.

 

Nosipho is just thirteen years old - tonight she is lying awake next to her 8 year old brother and her 5 year old sister. Her father named her Nosipho when she was born. She remembers that tonight. Her name has a very special meaning. Nosipho was born to her proud parents, Mxolisi and Vuyisile, in a remote part of South Africa called northern Kwazulu Natal. There was no work there for Mxolisi so he went to the city to find work as a labourer working on the roads. Mxolisi wanted to live a good life and take care of his family as best as he could. So, he faithfully brought money back to his Vuyisile and Nosipho at every opportunity. He and Vuyisile were blessed with a son who they named Andile (meaning 'the family is growing'). They loved their children very much and had great dreams for their future.

However, with each year that passed it became more difficult for Mxolisi to be alone in the city. The months that Mxolisi and Vuyisile spent living apart took a toll upon their marriage and they would often disagree and argue. Once, when they argued, he told her that 'he had needs', 'like all men do'. And so, he decided to take a 'city wife', as many of his friends had done. Sadly, his city wife was HIV+, and so when Mxolisi returned home one December, himself HIV+ by this time, he gave Vuyisile another child, Thandi (which means 'nurturing love'), but, he also gave her the killer virus that would take both their lives.

Mxolisi and Vuyisile discovered that they were HIV+ in the year that Nosipho turned 8 years old. Andile was 5, and little Thandi was just 2. Thandi had already been infected with the virus her mother was carrying through the milk she drank from her mother?s breast. Sadly, both Mxolisi and Vuyisile died of AIDS within 3 years of discovering their status, Thandi, however, is still alive and now a little girl of 5.

Nosipho is a clever little girl. However, she hasn't been to school since her father died when she was 11 years old. By that stage her mother was already very ill and confined to bed, but at least then Andile and Thandi could stay with their mother while Nosipho begged for food and money at a traffic intersection on the edge of the township. She watched the other children going to school dressed in their smart school uniforms, with book bags that had pencils, paper, and no doubt some lunch to eat. She wished that she could be like them, but that would not happen - her mother eventually died as well.

Tonight as she lay in bed she was no longer a child, but a parent, overnight she had become a 13 year old head of a household of three. She knew that she had a much greater responsibility than other 13 year old children. Each day she has to get enough money from the cars and commuters that come whizzing by to feed her two siblings and herself. She has a small cardboard sign on which she has written in a child's handwriting 'No parents, no food, no work, 3 people to feed. Please help. God bless you'. She also needs to get a few rand extra every month to help pay for Andile's school fees. She wants him to stay in school and learn so that he doesn't have to suffer like his father did. She doesn't want him to suffer like she is suffering now. Whatever money she has left after she has paid his fees, when there is any, is given to the 'aunty' who looks after her sick sister, Thandi, while Andile is at school and she is begging at the traffic lights. She doesn't trust the aunty, she drinks, and she's sure that she hits Thandi. But, she has no option. It is too dangerous for Thandi to be with her at a busy traffic intersection.

There are other girls like Nosipho. In fact most of the child headed households in South Africa are headed by girls under the age of 15. Nosipho knows this because she meets some of them every Sunday at a little group for children like her that is held in the tin church near her shack. They sing songs, some kind ladies read stories to them from the Bible, and then they say prayers and get some food to eat. The church has also given her clothes and shoes for her and for her brother and sister. There is a lady from the government clinic who comes to visit their group once a month. She always asks Nosipho if she is safe, and asks if she and her brother and sister are getting enough to eat. You see, Thandi needs special medicine to keep her healthy, but she can only take her medicine if she eats properly, or else the medicine will make her sick instead of healthy. So on days when Nosipho does not get enough money, or food, to feed all three of them she lets Thandi eat first, so that she can take her medicine. Andile eats next, because he can't learn when his stomach is empty. Nosipho often lies awake at night hungry, but she knows that she is a 'gift' from her parents to Andile and Thandi ? that?s what her name means. Nosipho means 'a gift'. It?s the name her father gave her. She doesn't play anymore, she simply lives to be a gift to her brother and sister. Tonight she prayed to ask God to help her because a man has said he will give her R20 if she takes her clothes off and sleeps with him. She's praying because she is afraid. She has been told at church, and she has seen the posters, and heard the stories - Nosipho knows that's how little girls get sick and die ? but she needs the money. She wants to be a gift. She doesn't know what to do. Maybe God will do something to help her tomorrow? It is Sunday, she will ask one of the ladies to help her.

Reflection: Stories such as this are common in South Africa. In KwaZulu Natal the death rate is higher than the birth rate because of AIDS. Recent statistics from UNICEF have suggested that up to 50% of children are HIV+ and an increasing number of children are growing up without their parents. Children like Nosipho face a stark and dreary existence. They are robbed of their childhood and dignity in a quest to survive. Very often their only support comes from community organisations such as churches and civic groups. For most children the lack of access to food, or poor nutrition and feeding practises, coupled with infection, leads to their untimely death. Children who are born in rural areas who do not have 'bar-coded' South African Identity documents do not qualify for medical care, schooling, or any form of government grant. Sometimes the most basic of help, like helping children register for an ID Book, or offering children a daily meal, and seeing that they take their medication can mean the difference between life and death. Methodist Churches in Southern Africa train all of their ministers to offer support and care to persons who are infected and affected by HIV. It is a central part of their training for ministry. In the region of the world that has the highest rate of HIV infection it cannot be any different. The Gospel demands that we bring healing and transformation. Perhaps the work of the Church near Nosipho could keep her from turning to prostitution at the age of 13? All that is needed is a courageous group of caring people who will see her plight, understand what she needs, and help her to find it - food, shelter, and loving adult support. This is what Jesus would do.


[I wrote this story as a case study for a book that is in publication in the Cambridge Theological federation, UK. Please do not copy it without contacting me. I shall put you in touch with the publishers to get permission. Thank you.]

Silent reflection and prayer.

 

 

  • What do you feel? What do these feelings tell you about yourself?
  • What does this story tell you about the world, and others in the world?
  • What do you think God feels? What would God want you, or your Church, to do?
  • Knowing this, what do you need to pray to have the courage to do?
  • What will you do today? What will you plan to do tomorrow? What will you want to achieve by next year this time?

A benediction for today

 

Almighty God, by the power of your Holy Spirit open my eyes to see the world as You see it, my ears to hear the cries that You hear, my heart to have the courage to feel what You feel, and my life to be present to You and all those whom You love this day. Give me the courage to worship and serve you in faithfulness, to be a blessed and healing reminder of Your love to all whose lives I will touch. I offer this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.


If you're looking for some facts on HIV / AIDS here are a few that may be of interest:

 

Have you ever taken time to consider the relationship between faith, economics, globalization and the suffering of people

?

 

Well, recently I did a post about the neurological causes of greed, and how these can be managed as a 'value transaction' in order to address some of the economic inequalities that we face across the world.

Let me show you a few basic analogous maps of the world to illustrate the economic inequalities that exist in the world.

First, here is a basic map of the world based on geographical land mass (i.e., this is the traditional manner in which maps are drawn - the area of each land mass is a represented equivalent of the actual land mass drawn to scale).

Now, take a look at this next map - this map is analogous of the world's wealth. In other words, the more wealth a nation has the larger it will appear on the map. Look how large North America and Europe are in relation to the rest of the world - it is also worth noting how rich Japan is on this map. Clearly, the world's wealth is concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere, and it is largely concentrated in the West. I shall, however, say something about the shifts that are taking place in the world's economy at a later stage.

Next, take a look at this map which analogous of poverty across the world. It is almost an inverse representation of the wealth map above - this map shows nations that are poorer as larger masses on the map.

Now, take a look at this map which shows HIV / AIDS infection across the world - it is interesting to note that 68% of all HIV+ people live in Southern Africa (that is 22.8 million out of the 33 million persons who are HIV+). I have just written a study on this for a new book on a Christian response to HIV / AIDS - it is shocking to see the prevelance of AIDS deaths in Africa. But please do take a look at the last map in this series.

This last map gives an analogous representation of where the world's Christian population lives. Isn't it sad to see that Christians live in most of the places where wealth, poverty and HIV / AIDS are significant problems? Clearly we have a few things to learn about money, God's economy, health care, reproductive care, women's rights, and sex!

OK, now I made mention of the fact that the world's wealth is concentrated predominantly in the North and the West - this is changing! Within the next 10 years the economies of the USA (North America), and most of Europe will show negative growth in some instances, and decline in others. The economies that are on the rise are China, India and Brazil (Australia is also a Southern Hemisphere economy that is growing at a significant rate). In other words, by 2020 we will see a completely different picture in global economic power! My advice is that you send your kids for a 'gap year' in China! As for me, I'm starting to study Mandarin!

If you're interested in a more detailed discussion of these shifts you can read this paper that I wrote for the Stellenbosch University Business school in 2009.

Sadly, Africa's economy will only show marginal growth since it is crippled by the impact of AIDS, political instability, underdevelopment and international debt. However, if we play our cards carefully the continent could be the next economic powerhouse after China and India since we are one of the only continents on earth that still has natural resources!

So, here's the point - did you realise that if we spent just 10% (190bn US$) of the annual world budget for military expenditure (1235bn US$) we could BOTH restore the earth's natural resources (cleaning up our water, replanting trees, creating environmentally friendly and more sustainable energy source), AND meet the basic water, sanitation, education and health care needs of the whole world! Just 10%... You can read about that research from Brown 2008 (entitled Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to save civilization) here.

Christians make up more than 40% of the world's population - surely we could take up our responsibility to manage the 'household of God' (oikos nomos - economy) for the transformation of the world?

What do you think? How do we do it? What practical steps can you suggest to start making a difference within your sphere of influence... As I've been doing this research in recent weeks I've been praying one text consistently:

The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. (Psalm 24.1 NIV)


If you're interested in an article / chapter that I have published on the subject of the environment and earthkeeping you can read  

 

 

  • More red than green ? a response to global warming and the environment from within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Forster, DA in The Epworth Review - the Journal of Methodist ecclesiology and mission Vol 35, No 2 (2008). This paper was also published in
  • Forster DA, 'More red than Green', in What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists. Forster, DA and Bentley, W. 2008. Methodist Publishing House, Cape Town. ISBN: 978-91988352-6. (2008:117ff. Chapter 7)


(This is not my area of expertise by the way, I am far more interested in justice and economics, but there was not much being written on this topic from our perspective so I took it upon myself to do some research in the area).

 

If you're interested in reading a chapter that I wrote on the Christian's response to Greed and Economics please see:

 

  • Upon the Lord's sermon on the mount - discourse 8 (a contemporary exposition of John Wesley's sermon on stewardship and the use of money from an African Liberation Theology perspective) in Shier Jones, A and Reisman, KD 44 Sermons to serve the present age (2007), London: Methodist Publishing house. ISBN: 97807162063


Oh, and if you're looking for my 'other' post on maps of the world please go here. This is the MOST clicked linked on my blog - isn't that amazing!?

 

For more posts on HIV / AIDS please follow this link.

 

Friday
Sep172010

The body of Christ has HIV AIDS - an update

Some weeks ago I posted and entry entitled 'Christian and positive - when the body of Christ has HIV AIDS' A short while before writing that post I had recorded a brief video describing my thoughts on this matter. I only managed to upload my video last night. So I am posting it as an update here. Please see the video towards the bottom of this post. God bless, Dion Here's that original post with the new video inserted towards the bottom of the post:

Today my friend Grant Russell alerted me to an article posted in the Guardian Online Newspaper entitled Pastor's 'Jesus had HIV' sermon angers South African Christians by David Smith.

I can understand why the preacher in question, Xola Skosana, would preach such a sermon.  However, I can also understand why South African Christians may take offense to both the title of his message and the sermon's title.

First, let me say that I agree with Rev Skosana - the body of Christ does have AIDS!  

In an article that I have just published in the Epworth Review, Vol 32, No 2, 2010 (a theological journal that is published in England) I made exactly the same point.  You can read the article here: The Church has AIDS: Towards a positive theology for an HIV+ Church.

Here are two excerpts from my introduction to the article:

One of the most controversial statements in the contemporary Church is surely the assertion that ‘The Church has AIDS’! This statement challenges Christians to recognize that it is impossible to do theology and engage in Christian life and ministry without taking into account the impact of HIV and AIDS on the world...

Within the Church – the Body of Christ – there are many persons who are HIV+. This reality changes not only who we are as a Church, it also changes how we are the Church. In our creeds we affirm that the Church is ‘One’ – this unity is more than just a structural unity. Solidarity is central to the unity of the Church. It was out of this reality of true solidarity that the Methodist Church of Southern Africa adopted the following statement at its annual conference in 2005: ‘The Church has HIV/AIDS: We care. “When one part of the body is affected the whole body suffers” 1 Corinthians 12:26.’

This image is a photograph of a poster that was circulated in Methodist Churches in Southern Africa.  It bears the bold, and true, statement "The Church has HIV/AIDS - we care".

The point is this, Christians believe, according to Paul's theology, that the Church is the "body of Christ" (see for example 1 Corinthians 12:12, Colossians 1:18).  If there are members of the Church that are HIV positive then the Body of Christ is HIV positive.

That is controversial, but it is true.  If one part of the body suffers the whole body suffers 1 Corinthians 12:26.

In my article I argue something similar to what the Guardian reports on Rev Xola Skosana - we are responsible for one another, and as such the whole Church (all across the world) must consider itself HIV +.  The HI virus infects the whole of the body.  Unlike cancer one cannot remove the ailing part of the body.  The virus affects every part of the body.  

Here are some statistics about HIV from the article in the Epworth Review:

South Africa’s HIV/AIDS statistics are fairly well known.6 Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest precedence of HIV infection in the world. Where it is left completely unchecked the HIV infection rate has risen to as high as 1 in every 2 persons (50 per cent of some population groups in Botswana).7 Of the estimated 33.2 million persons living with AIDS globally, more than 22.5 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa – that amounts to 68 per cent of all HIV+ persons in less that 10 per cent of the world’s geographic land mass. Each day more than 1,600 persons are infected with the virus. In most government hospitals more than half of the patients are HIV+. By 2009 the life expectancy of a person living in Swaziland8 had declined from 60 years of age to just 32 years.9 Compare this to the United King- dom where the life expectancy of the average person born in 2009 is 79 years.10 Approximately 4,500 people in Sub-Saharan Africa die of HIV/ AIDS-related medical causes each day.

In a chapter that I wrote for a forthcoming book entitled Alienation and Connection: Suffering in a global age. (edited by Lisa Withrow and Joerg Rieger) I developed this argument in a slightly different way.  The chapter is entitled Empire, economics and apathy: A theological reflection on suffering as a result of HIV AIDS.

I introduced the concept with another rather controversial statement, saying that any Southern African Church that does not have an HIV AIDS ministry cannot be a Christian Church!  [yes, I know that I will get into trouble for this one!]

My contention is this - if 68% of all HIV+ persons in the world live in this region, then the Church has a massive responsibility to see that God's loving will is brought to bear on this situation.  God cares about every person!  The Church is God's instrument, the instrument of the mission Dei (the mission, or work, of God).

So, yes, I agree with Rev Skosana - the Body of Christ is HIV+.  Perhaps I would have titled the message slightly differently.  Instead of saying 'Jesus had HIV', I would say that 'The body of Christ is HIV+'.

As a result I can understand how Christians may respond with shock at the statement that Jesus HIV.  That statement is not accurate.  But, I do believe that the point is well made.  As Christians we need to understand that we have a critical role to play in ministering to God's World.  And since this world includes HIV positive persons it is not a matter of 'us' and 'them'.  Rather it is a matter of 'us'.

Here is a video reflection that offers some further thoughts on this very important issue!

The body of Christ has HIV AIDS from Dion Forster on Vimeo.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, reflections, and ideas!

You can find the Guardian article on Rev Skosana here.

Thursday
Aug262010

Christian and positive - when Christ's Body has HIV AIDS

Today my friend Grant Russell alerted me to an article posted in the Guardian Online Newspaper entitled Pastor's 'Jesus had HIV' sermon angers South African Christians by David Smith.

I can understand why the preacher in question, Xola Skosana, would preach such a sermon.  However, I can also understand why South African Christians may take offense to both the title of his message and the sermon's title.

First, let me say that I agree with Rev Skosana - the body of Christ does have AIDS!  

In an article that I have just published in the Epworth Review, Vol 32, No 2, 2010 (a theological journal that is published in England) I made exactly the same point.  You can read the article here: The Church has AIDS: Towards a positive theology for an HIV+ Church.

Here are two excerpts from my introduction to the article:

One of the most controversial statements in the contemporary Church is surely the assertion that ‘The Church has AIDS’! This statement challenges Christians to recognize that it is impossible to do theology and engage in Christian life and ministry without taking into account the impact of HIV and AIDS on the world...

Within the Church – the Body of Christ – there are many persons who are HIV+. This reality changes not only who we are as a Church, it also changes how we are the Church. In our creeds we affirm that the Church is ‘One’ – this unity is more than just a structural unity. Solidarity is central to the unity of the Church. It was out of this reality of true solidarity that the Methodist Church of Southern Africa adopted the following statement at its annual conference in 2005: ‘The Church has HIV/AIDS: We care. “When one part of the body is affected the whole body suffers” 1 Corinthians 12:26.’

This image is a photograph of a poster that was circulated in Methodist Churches in Southern Africa.  It bears the bold, and true, statement "The Church has HIV/AIDS - we care".

The point is this, Christians believe, according to Paul's theology, that the Church is the "body of Christ" (see for example 1 Corinthians 12:12, Colossians 1:18).  If there are members of the Church that are HIV positive then the Body of Christ is HIV positive.

That is controversial, but it is true.  If one part of the body suffers the whole body suffers 1 Corinthians 12:26.

In my article I argue something similar to what the Guardian reports on Rev Xola Skosana - we are responsible for one another, and as such the whole Church (all across the world) must consider itself HIV +.  The HI virus infects the whole of the body.  Unlike cancer one cannot remove the ailing part of the body.  The virus affects every part of the body.  

Here are some statistics about HIV from the article in the Epworth Review:

South Africa’s HIV/AIDS statistics are fairly well known.6 Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest precedence of HIV infection in the world. Where it is left completely unchecked the HIV infection rate has risen to as high as 1 in every 2 persons (50 per cent of some population groups in Botswana).7 Of the estimated 33.2 million persons living with AIDS globally, more than 22.5 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa – that amounts to 68 per cent of all HIV+ persons in less that 10 per cent of the world’s geographic land mass. Each day more than 1,600 persons are infected with the virus. In most government hospitals more than half of the patients are HIV+. By 2009 the life expectancy of a person living in Swaziland8 had declined from 60 years of age to just 32 years.9 Compare this to the United King- dom where the life expectancy of the average person born in 2009 is 79 years.10 Approximately 4,500 people in Sub-Saharan Africa die of HIV/ AIDS-related medical causes each day.

In a chapter that I wrote for a forthcoming book entitled Alienation and Connection: Suffering in a global age. (edited by Lisa Withrow and Joerg Rieger) I developed this argument in a slightly different way.  The chapter is entitled Empire, economics and apathy: A theological reflection on suffering as a result of HIV AIDS.

I introduced the concept with another rather controversial statement, saying that any Southern African Church that does not have an HIV AIDS ministry cannot be a Christian Church!  [yes, I know that I will get into trouble for this one!]

My contention is this - if 68% of all HIV+ persons in the world live in this region, then the Church has a massive responsibility to see that God's loving will is brought to bear on this situation.  God cares about every person!  The Church is God's instrument, the instrument of the mission Dei (the mission, or work, of God).

So, yes, I agree with Rev Skosana - the Body of Christ is HIV+.  Perhaps I would have titled the message slightly differently.  Instead of saying 'Jesus had HIV', I would say that 'The body of Christ is HIV+'.

As a result I can understand how Christians may respond with shock at the statement that Jesus HIV.  That statement is not accurate.  But, I do believe that the point is well made.  As Christians we need to understand that we have a critical role to play in ministering to God's World.  And since this world includes HIV positive persons it is not a matter of 'us' and 'them'.  Rather it is a matter of 'us'.

Here is a video reflection that offers some further thoughts on this very important issue!

The body of Christ has HIV AIDS from Dion Forster on Vimeo.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, reflections, and ideas!

You can find the Guardian article on Rev Skosana here.

Sunday
Aug152010

Social holiness and personal holiness... and the color purple

Today I had the joy of meeting with about 20 students and faculty from Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I had the privelage of meeting their group leader, Professor Lisa Withrow in Chicago in 2005, and then again in Oxford at the Oxford Institute in 2007.

Lisa and another mutual friend (Professor Joer Rieger, who I also first met at Oxford, and then got to know quite well when he and his family visited with us in Pretoria in 2008) very kindly asked me to contribute a chapter to their new book Alienation and Connection: Suffering in a global age. (Lexington books, 2010).  I wrote a chapter in which I discussed how 'empire, economics and apathy' compound the suffering of persons with HIV AIDS in Southern Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Lisa and her group are doing an immersion visit in South Africa to consider some of the complexity of the relationship between the social situation in our context and our Christian faith.  As part of that visit they set up an opportunity for us to be together to discuss our perspectives on being Christian in an HIV+ world.  If you would like to read some of my thoughts on this subject please follow this link.

I was struck by two things.  First, through our conversation I was reminded that one can never separate devotion to Christ from a desire to be part of God's plan to transform the world. Personal holiness, no matter how sincere, if it is not expressed in tangible acts of transforming Christian love, is simply not authentic.  If you love God you have to express that love by loving the people that God loves and loving engaging the world that God loves.

Second, the venue for our meeting was a wonderful reminder of the richness of our South African history.  Here's what I posted on my tumbrl blog.  The Purple shall govern.

No, it is not a typographical error - ‘the purple shall govern’

This memorial is placed on the corner of Burg and Church streets in Cape Town. In 1989 a group of protesters were on their way to Parliament when they were stopped by police. So they staged a sit down in the street. The police unleashed a new weapon - a water canon that contained a permanent purple dye. It stained the skin of the protesters so that they could be marked - visible to the Apartheid police. One of the protesters managed to get onto the canon, spraying the police and buildings (even the National Party headquarters!)

That week a graffiti slogan was sprayed throughout the city saying ‘The purple shall govern!’

11 days later a crowd of 30 000 persons marched unretrained through the city. In 1994 Apartheid ended in South Africa.

Let us remember and give thanks for their courage that won our freedom!

Indeed, I was reminded of the relationship between work and worship, between spirituality and everday life, between personal holiness and social holiness!

 

Tuesday
Mar022010

Is it possible to be a Christian and not do anything about HIV / AIDS?

Did you know that a child is orphaned every 14 seconds because of HIV / AIDS?  Did you know that 33 million people across the world at HIV+.  23 million of those people live in Southern Africa.  

Sadly, the Christian Church has not risen to the challenge to be an agent of comfort, hope and life in this very sad situation.  Partly I think it is because we lack a positive theology of for an HIV+ world.  In a recent chapter that I wrote for a book entitled 'Alienation and Connection' (edited by Lisa Withrow and Joerg Rieger, Lexington books, 2010.  My chapter is entitled 'Empire, apathy and economics:  Reflections on being Christian in an HIV+ world') I argued that there are 4 different approaches to HIV AIDS in Christendom.

 

  • Some say that AIDS is not an issue.  This view is common in Western countries, and regions of the world where HIV infection is not very high.
  • Some say that AIDS is a punishment from God.  This view is fundamentally wrong!
  • Some say that the Church should 'care for' HIV+ persons (as if the Church is free from AIDS while others outside of the Church have AIDS and require care).  This is a paternalistic approach to HIV positive persons.
  • Finally, there are those who have come to realise that the Church has AIDS!  We are all in this together and we have a responsibility to care for one another, as we should care for ourselves.

 

What is your view on AIDS?  What do you think God's perspective is on a world where children are infected through their parents?  Or what is God's view of the HIV positive person who contracted the disease through a poor sexual choice?  Your theological perspective will shape your ministry!  It is important to work out what you believe, and what you should believe, about this disease.

Please take a few minutes to watch this incredible video from TED.  Thanks to my friend Jon Hirst for pointing me to this great video resource.  Please could I also encourage you to visit the Lausanne World Pulse for some great articles on Christianity and HIV/AIDS?

Here is the blurb about the incredible statistics:

In this talk at the TED conference in Feb. 2009, Hans Rosling explains the HIV epidemic. 

He converts the best available data from UNAIDS and WHO into understandable Gapminder bubbles.

The two key messages are that the global HIV epidemic has reached a “steady state” with 1% of the adult world population infected and that there are huge differences in HIV occurrence between and within African countries. Many African countries have the same, relatively low, HIV levels as can be found in most of the world, whereas 50% of the world’s HIV infected persons live in a few countries in Eastern and Southern Africa (with 4% of the world population).

Hans Rosling closes his speech by summarizing probable reasons for the high HIV burden in parts of Eastern and Southern Africa and he also claims that the focus must be on preventing further HIV transmission in these highly affected populations.

So, let me ask this question - is it possible to be truly Christian and do nothing about HIV AIDS?

Thursday
Oct182007

What every South African Church MUST do... If it is to be obedient.

Each year I have challenged my students, and my congregation, to look around them and understand the needs of our society. The basic principle is:

God will not consider how you pastored your congregation, but how you ministered to your community.

In the light of this I have become convinced that any Church in Southern Africa that does not have an effective HIV AIDS ministry has some growing to do in order to be obedient to God, and to participate in God's mission of bringing Christ's healing and transformation to the world.

Central to my theology is the question "What must the Gospel look like?" - we so often hear what the Gospel sounds like, but ask yourself the question, what does the Gospel LOOK LIKE in nation where there are more deaths than births? What does the Gospel look like where there are millions of Child headed households? What does the Gospel look like where people have monitised life saving drugs, turning the suffering of others into their profit? What does the Gospel look like? What is Good News to the dying? Of course the Gospel looks like our Churches - isn't it amazing that in a country where 78% of the population indicated that they were Christians we face social problems such as this?

I still have some work to do!

Today this shocking news report was released:

South Africa is in danger of losing the battle against HIV/Aids, the United Nations children's agency has warned.

Unicef's South Africa representative, Macharia Kamau, said infection and death rates were outpacing treatment.

This was having a devastating effect on children whose parents died of Aids, and sent out a dire message for the future, he said.

Mr Kamau said if present trends continued, there could be five million orphans in South Africa by 2015.

Huge risk

South Africa is one of just nine countries worldwide where infant mortality is rising - from 60 deaths per 1,000 births in 1990, to 95 deaths today.

The main reason, Unicef says, is HIV/Aids.

The average infection rate is almost 30% of the population - and in some regions it is closer to 50%.

Speaking in Geneva, Mr Kamau said the effect on children was devastating, and that infants whose mothers died of Aids were at huge risk of dying themselves.

Older children who have lost one or more parents faced a struggle to survive and to go to school, he added.

In South Africa today there are 1.5 million Aids orphans. If the trend of 400,000 deaths from Aids per year continues, by 2015, the number of orphans will have reached five million.

Mr Kamau said that the numbers of people in South Africa being treated for Aids were constantly being outstripped by the numbers becoming infected and dying.

He described this as a dire message for the future because although 380,000 South African Aids patients were receiving anti-retroviral drugs, 1.2 million were not receiving treatment.

As long as infection and death rates continued to outpace treatment, South Africa would lose the battle against Aids, he said.

Unicef says an aggressive expansion of treatment is needed immediately, alongside a much more open Aids prevention campaign from the government, to challenge the stigma which still surrounds the disease in South Africa.

Thursday
Oct112007

God's politics - The silence of the Church's prophetic voice

Why has the South African Church become so silent on matters that blatantly negate and deny the love, mercy, justice, and grace of the Kingdom of God?

As a minister of a denomination that was very prophetic (both in word and deed) during South Africa's apartheid era I have found it alarming to gauge the general lack of prophetic witness in Southern African Methodist Churches at the moment. (For a more detailed, although admittedly somewhat hagiographic, account of some of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa's prophetic stances please read the following paper that I presented at the Oxford Institute).

My friend, Wessel Bentley attempted to have a resolution passed at our recent Methodist Annual Conference that noted concern and alarm about a couple of things:

1. Concerns about the minister of health's (Manto Tshabalala Msimang) general conduct and the questions surrounding her management of public resources.

2. Grave concerns about how the South African health services are dealing with the pandemic of HIV / AIDS - it needs to be remembered that we have the highest HIV infection rate in the world!

Instead, we ended up with a vague, indirect, empty resolution that will not change or impact significantly on health care for people who are dying of a disease that we can stem! Sadly, it was members of our own Church, some who used to be pastors in Churhces, some who were leaders of the apartheid struggle, who now drive Mercedes, BMW's and occupy high positions in the new ANC government, some who win lucrative tenders for Government contracts, who were the main proponents of protecting the government, and seeking to cover over and silence the Church's call for radical action.

I remember some years ago (1992) as a young minister being 'hauled over the coals' by my Bishop at the time, Rev Peter Storey, for participating in a student march against the Apartheid government. The protest action was quite controversial, our in service training convener (Rev Paul Verryn) took us to the march in Potchefstroom on the University campus. Peter was concerned that many of us were being co-opted, uncritically, into movements that did not necessarily have the good of the people at heart. Paul of course was trying to help uncritical young white fundamentalists like me to realise that preaching the Gospel had radical consequences for the way in which society is structured! You cannot preach love, equity, justice and acceptance, without doing something to try and bring it about! However, there were some real issues among the organizers of the protest, and so Bishop Peter admonished us with these words (or something close to them) - "When the struggle is won, and the majority take power, and the injustice continues, then we shall see who the true prophets are - those who fall silent, or are co-opted, will be shown for who they truly are. True prophets will speak, not because of where they are, but because of who God is - a true prophet always speaks, and lives, the truth of God regardless of who is in power".

Let us never forget, this struggle is about someone who is lying in a bed, in a shack, in a rural area of our country, not receiving primary health care because of inadequate high level, and local, management! As the media, leading up to the Conference, reported - the health department has huge unspent budgets for equipment, staff and medicines, yet our clinics and hospitals are empty, our doctors and nurses are fleeing South Africa in search of better pay and better working conditions, and antiretrovirals are not reaching the poorest of the poor! Thankfully, the minister of health can get herself bumped to the top of the donor list, and disregard the fact that he liver damage was caused by Alcohol abuse (or so it is alleged, I cannot be certain).

Wessel, and Comrade Manto Matsepe, also sent a resolution to Conference through DEWCOM noting with concern how many ordained Methodist ministers are now serving in senior positions, and in the official structures, of the ruling party in South Africa... It was toned down... In the past we did not allow Methodist clergy to hold political office, now we "request them to consider their motives for doing so, and consider whether they are compromising the Church's prophetic witness". Again, this is my paraphrasing of the resolution. Of course we need Christians to be active in politics, in fact we need Christians to hold political office, but I am not convinced that we need Christian ministers to do so - who must remain objective, free to speak and challenge, yet also open to affirm and assist. The office of a pastor, the power of the pulpit, and the station of a servant in society, need to remain very carefully located in a 'God space' - political, but not aligned to party politics.

Yet, sadly, the Church is silent. And, let me say, it is not our leaders who are silent, it is the Church! I am amused by how we tend to sit on both sides of the fence when we speak of 'the church'. When it suits us we emphasize the role, importance, and power of the term that Rick Warren and Bill Hybels (Willowcreek) have made so popular - the local Church! Yet, when it comes to actually doing something about it we turn our eyes to the leaders of the Church, expecting them to be the one's who set the pace for mission, witness, and community transformation. I remember doing a SYNOD Bible study a few years back in which I challenged the SYNOD to realize that 'structures' don't do mission! People, filled with the Spirit of God, convicted by the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, living in areas of need and concern do mission!

Something I have had to repent of is my tendency to want to blame others - I find it easy, as many others do, to lament how others don't do the things that I should be doing.

On this blog, more than once, I have made critical comments about the silence of the United Methodist Church about one of its members gross misconduct and un-Christian behavior, George W Bush (yes, he is a Methodist)! However, I need to repent that I have been slow to criticise my own silence of our State President (who has indicated that he is a Christian) when he removes people who ask tough questions, sidesteps issues of national concern (like the accusations of criminal misconduct against the National Police commissioner Mr Selebi).

I am silent. Forgive me Lord! I am sure you are much more vocal, much more prophetic. I am sure that even now you are setting the captives free, healing the sick, proclaiming good news and jubilee for the impoverished, and not allowing injustice to go unnoticed. Give me the courage to be part of your work in the world, your mission, your uncompromising love.

A fantastic new book is out - I have read some reviews, and already ordered my copy. As with all Mclaren's works I am sure that it will ruffle some feathers: Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.

For a little taste of Mclaren's prophetic perspective (a separate commentary from that in the book) you can read the article below from the soujourners website 'God and politics'.

I remember about eight years ago when then presidential candidate George W. Bush repeatedly claimed that he would restore honor to the presidency, soiled as it had been by our previous president's infamous affair. I remember hoping he would succeed. But a new kind of shame has come to the office and to our nation as reports surface about our government's secret authorization of torture. We all share in this shame.

Conservative columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan expresses what many of us feel. He reminds his readers:

... my first response to reports of abuse and torture at Gitmo was to accuse the accusers of exaggeration or deliberate deception ... It struck me as a no-brainer that this stuff was being invented by the far left or was part of al Qaeda propaganda. After all, they train captives to lie about this stuff. Bottom line: I trusted this president in a time of war to obey the rule of law that we were and are defending.

Sadly, he laments, that trust was betrayed:

And then I was forced to confront the evidence. He betrayed all of us. He lied. He authorized torture in secret, and then, when busted after Abu Ghraib, blamed it on low-level grunts. This was not a mistake. It was a betrayal.

The word "betrayal," of course, recalls Moveon.org's Sept. 26 ad. Many considered the pun childish at best, politically unsavvy at least, or worse. There was a rush to condemn anyone who failed to condemn the ad. But Sullivan's use of the word strikes me as anything but childish.

Our nation's reputation, not to mention that of the presidency, has been dishonored by this betrayal of trust. Honorable people - conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat - need to follow Andrew Sullivan's example, coming together to express our grief and outrage about the political hypocrisy and betrayal to which we have been subjected by people we elected.

This is challenging stuff! I am also currently reading the book of my friend Joerg Rieger "Christ and empire". This is a much more scholarly, carefully researched, and hard hitting prophetic theology! Joerg, who is from Southern Methodist University, will be visiting us early next year. He is coming to do some sabbatical work at the University of Kwazulu Natal (that has the exceptional Theology and Development program), and he will take some time to visit John Wesley College whilst here.

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Friday
Aug242007

A few lingering quotes and thoughts...

As I have been processing some of the papers and presentations of the Oxford Institute there are a few lingering thoughts and quotes that have remained with me.

A Latin-American theologian, Nestor Miquez, said: "When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist".

Joerg Reiger (the author of "God and the excluded" 2001, Fortress Press, Minneapolis) asked the question "What is the difference between the poor and the impoverished?" His answer was, something along the lines of "poverty does not truly exist (i.e., there are enough resources in the world for no person to have to be in abject poverty), yet impoverishment is real (i.e., greed and sin have caused us to MAKE people poor - victimization is at the heart of poverty, and so it has not only to do with wealth, but also power and choice)." Joerg then asked the question why we are so slow to consider 'enrichment' as the oppressive process of 'making people and institutions rich'? Very challenging indeed! I think that sometimes we objectify "the poor" and "the rich" and forget that God's economy is sufficient for all creation, yet it is our choices that make some (like me) rich, and others poor. These are not objects, they are chosen processes - hence they have great theological significance. They tell us about the kind of God we believe in, and the way in which we view all of what God loves...

Theodore Jennings said "One cannot follow Jesus in the Church", he then went on to say that "the function of the Church is to prepare one for discipleship (i.e., the faithful response of a disciple to participate in God's mission in the world)". I am still wrestling with this one. I have often wondered whether the Church is merely a functional, human, construct. Something that we have created out of our necessity to facilitate our response to God, or whether the Church is an ontological community (a primary place of identity, belonging, fellowship, and discipleship - much like a representation of the perichoretic life of the Trinity)? Was the Church of our design, or God's will? Of course my good friend Dr Bentley is much more able to answer such questions. I guess that the answer is both and neither. Both, in that the Church has the potential to be God's will, and neither in that churches so often fall from that plan.

Joerg Reiger also challenged us theologians (particularly the systematic theologians whose responsibility it is to deal with all 8 areas of doctrine, yet in reality we tend towards one of the areas that interest us). His challenge was something along the lines of "the question is not who we are (anthropology), or what we do (ecclesiology), but rather who God is, and what God wants done (the doctrine of God)."

Another interesting thought that arose from Henk Pieterse's paper was about where the 'center' of the Church is. By this I mean, that we often think that our Church is 'normal' and that other Churches are a bit different, strange, perhaps "special interest". Most often we think that middle class, sub-urban churches are the norm and inner city, poor, or marginal communities are "special interest" churches. However, Henk reminded us that middle class Churches are ALSO "special interest" churches that require a particular kind of prophetic engagement in order to bring those on the margins into the center. This thought was informed by a reading of Rieger (who, by the way, will be spending some time here in South Africa from January! So, keep your eyes and ears open for that - we hope to be able to get him to do some work with EMMU for both our students and interested laity and clergy).

Douglas Meeks reminded us in Wesley's theology works of mercy were regarded as a 'means of grace' (i.e., something that facilitated the growth, exposure, and experience of God's grace). He went on to remind us that works of mercy (as a means of grace) are a two way street - we don't just minister TO others, that ministry encounters, engages, and changes who we are as well (so, in that process we also receive the grace of being ministered to). Joerg then challenged us to consider that the other means of grace also need to be a two way street, i.e., when last did we allow the Bible to read us, instead of just reading the Bible? When last did we listen to God, rather than just praying? He reminded us that "Wesley believed that people who gave up on works of mercy were falling from grace".

Two statements from my own context that made a significant impact, and generated some discussion, were the Methodist Church of Southern Africa's radical stance in 2005 to adopt the slogan "The Church has AIDS" - this was radical because it spoke of where the Church sees itself located, i.e. among the sick, the suffering, and the needy. It forces us to break down the dividing walls of class, race, gender, and even health! We don't just minister to people who are infected, and affected, by HIV, we are HIV+... Radical! (Thanks to Emily Oliver for the picture).

Another statement, which I made in relation to our Church's education and training policy, was that when we come to design and formulate our training programs one of our primary questions is "What does the Gospel look like in this situation?" Hence, we do not just ask the traditional knowledge based (content) questions about our theology (i.e., what should the Gospel say?) rather, we ask the contextually motivated mission question, "what would a 'Gospel encountered society' look like? If that is so, then what do we need to do in order to get there?"

This is one of the great blessings of the pragmatic (practical divinity) Wesleyan approach to the world that is expressed in a devotion to Jesus that requires both personal piety and social holiness.

I end with this quote from my paper:

...the gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. 'Faith working by love' is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.

(from Wesley, J. Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Pref. 5. Quoted in Baker, F. Practical divinity.)

Sunday
Aug192007

Never too small to remember

This week has been amazing in so many ways. I have met and interacted with great scholars. I have spent time in ancient churches and centres of learning. I have discovered new friends, and been reaquanted with old ones. I have learnt so much, and had a few chances to teach.

However, as I think back on this week the experience is run through with one overarching idea - the fact that everyone, and every story, matters.

Before leaving for South Africa I was asked to write a chapter for a book on HIV / AIDS. I have been doing some research and reading, talking with Christian AIDS workers, and spending time with persons who are HIV positive, and those who have felt the great loss of loosing a loved one to this dissease. The reality is that very few of those persons' stories will ever be told. That matters. However, at another level their stories make up the very fabric of who each one of us is. They are our world.

This week I have been moved to tears (in private - this is England after all!) whilst reading Pehlippe Denis little book 'Never too small to remember: Memory work and resilience in times of AIDS' (2005, Cluster Publications, Pietermaritzburg). The book tells of the marvelous work that is being done among AIDS orphans in Kwazulu Natal through the use of 'memory boxes'. The aim of the project is to build a greater resilience in children and child headed households where both parents have been lost to AIDS. Of course there is very little that could ever be done to remove the agony of such a loss, but there is a great deal that can be done to help such young people. Naturally pragmatic and practical solutions seek to educate, clothe, and feed the children. This is necessary. It challenges me to think if I could not give and do more to help make their lives a little easier. But such generosity does not deal with the deep hurt and stigma associated with their loss. Morover, if the children themselves are HIV positive they will need more than just food, clothing, and education, to make meaning of their lives, to do more than just survive, but to truly live.

I have spent quite a lot of time with my friend Clive Marsh this week. He and I have been talking about the importance of experience and memory as a source of healing, yet also an essential source of good theology.

The memory box, which is the 'memory tool' Philippe Denis uses, allows the children and their care givers to make use of narrative, story-telling, to recount the memories that they have of their parents (both the good and the bad). It allows them to articulate, analyse, understand, and move through these memories (note that I don't say move beyond - to move through means that one takes something of the memory with you into your future). In doing so the children are given a far greater resilience to cope with their past, make choices in their present life, and form a new future. They can learn to live with the virtues and grace of belonging to the wider community (which as you know is essential as an expression of ubuntu in African communities), but they can also learn how to solve the problems that their parents and caregivers faced.

Memory is a wonderful thing. Today I remember where I come from. The picture above was taken in 1989. I was in my final year in high school [yes, I had a porno 80's hairstyle - although the mullet I had on my wedding day was even worse!].

So much has happened in the 18 years since then, and so much had gone before. My parents were divorced when I was 2, we left Zimbabwe, the land of my birth, came to South Africa to start again and encountered many more severe challenges and hardship than most. I was raised in my early years by my mother who struggled - the struggle was within herself and often caused great hardship around her. She was married, and in relationships, many times. My early childhood is filled with memories of terror, physical and emotional violence, yet also with tenacity and a will to live - it was however, also the dawning of my faith. I remember praying ernestly for the first time when I was 9. My mother's husband at the time had come home in a drunken rage and had beaten her to the point of breaking her back. My brother of 11 had tried to defend her yet was unable and also faced the madman's wrath. I was afraid for my life, and for the life of my mother and brother, and so in desperation I grabbed a hammer and hit the man on his head. He fell to the ground bleeding.

I remember praying, a frightened 9 year old, fearful that everyone was dead - my mother, my brother, and my mother's husband. Somehow the knowledge that there was a person - not a power but a person - named Jesus who could see, hear, and answer my prayers gave me the hope that I needed to get beyond that night.

Of course, such scars remain with one. By the time the picture above was taken I had been off the rails a few times. I had used (and abused) most of the drugs that were popular in the 80's, sought refuge in popularity and rebelion, and given my poor father and step mother many sleepless nights and gray hairs! I had been arrested, asked to leave church groups, and caused a lot of unhapiness to many people. I also had two tatoos and many earings as a reminder of those times.... In some ways it was because I had not built up a spiritual resilience that I sought comfort and meaning in physical and psychosocial remedies.

Perhaps it was when I discovered Christ, not just as a saviour, but as a friend, that my life changed most. That was in 1987. It was the first time that I knew that I was loved unconditionaly, that there was no threat, no need to impress, no expectation, just love.

Of course a great deal has taken place since that photo was taken. I have been married to Megan for almost 14 years now. She completes me in ways I could never have imagined. I have my two miracle children, Courtney and Liam, both of whom have stretched my heart and filled me with a new kind of wild passion. This passion moves me inwardly, to find ways of loving them and caring for them by showing them the kind of grace I have experienced in Christ. Yet, it also moves me outwards - to seek to change our world so that what they grow into will not be a place of fear, hate, and danger - this too is the work of Christ in me.

My life is very different now - as I write this I am sitting in one of the oldest, and most prestigious, academic institutions in the world, Christ Church, Oxford University. Who would ever have thought? But I am different in otherways: I am taller, fatter, balder, and richer than I was when I was 9... I also have more debt... But, I am also happier, more grateful, and much more privelaged. Remembering who I am helps me to savor these moments and experiences. They cannot be taken for granted!

Even though my life is different, I guess I am still the same. I am still Dion, I remember my past and long for a better future. I still enjoy adventures and love to pray. My memory box makes me more resilient. God has never forsaken me - God heard my prayer when I was 9, God heard my prayer last year when Liam was born, God still hears my prayer today.