If you stumbled upon this post, you’ve come to join me as I write ‘The 9th City’.
I would like you to be my accomplice in this. Subscribe to ‘sevencitys’, by clicking on ‘sign me up!’ & over the next few months leave comments on each new chapter. If I use your input, I will credit you as conspirator when ‘The 9th City’ is published.
So let’s get started on chapter 3.
F is for Faith: something God has more than he expects, I think.
It wasn’t long after I spent time reading & thinking about the story of Job that life changed for me & us.
It is a terrible thing. My Zuko and our children dragged along into the messiness of my existence as adversity overcame me.
I did not lose everything, like Job did.
I wasn’t even caught by surprise, as he was.
I saw it coming.
In many ways I chose the adversity as the only route I could.
About two years earlier something that was brewing in my heart for a long time was finally ripe.
I had been a pastor for six years.
I was thirty-three years old.
As a twenty-seven year old I started full-time ministry officially called to a small congregation of white commercial farmers making their living on the Botswana-border. I served them. I served their laborers and I served a group of former-soldiers. Portuguese speaking families from Angola who had settled in the area after the very long war on the border of South West Africa and Angola had stumbled to an end.
They knew adversity, these former soldiers.
On a hot Sunday afternoon as they streamed into the ramshackle building which served as Church, I could see it in their faces.
Legs and arms absent.
Too much war.
I could not see it in their eyes though.
And so they ministered to me, more than I ministered to them.
I could not understand how they had so much faith in God, so much earnestness, despite the war and death and loss they suffered.
On one occasion, Pappa Dongwa, their leader came to me & Zuko as our dusty vehicle stopped in front of their place of worship. He was smiling as I had not seen him smile before. ‘My daughter is back!’, he announced. ‘She is alive!’ Then followed the tale of war I could not comprehend. Twenty years before there was a skirmish at their village. One of many, which marked their daily life. After the gunfire had ended, as they were counting their losses, they realized that their seven-year-old daughter was nowhere to be seen. They never found a body. They never held a funeral. For twenty years they prayed. ‘Dear God, if she is alive, be with her, protect her as she makes her way through life. And if she is not in this life anymore, thank you. Thank you for saving her from this terrible destruction.’
Twenty years later she finds them in the forgotten town of Pomfret.
When the skirmish started she fled into the forest, as they had instructed her. Away from the bullets and death. She ran right into the arms of more soldiers. Who grabbed her and took her. They did not hurt her. They did not rape her. They made her work. Cook food. Wash clothes and dishes and dress wounds. Three years later she managed to escape. And after another year she found her way back to their village, but it was no more. She feared that they had died that day when she was captured, but never stopped searching. Enquiring. Hoping. She found a family who took her in. Who gave her a home. Now twenty-seven, she was married to a good man. She had three children of her own. And she was reunited with a family she had not known for two decades.
I have no idea what suffering is.
I know not what adversity means.
And I did not understand that these Angolese were not prostitutes.
That their love for God was a love, not in exchange for something, but just because.
After five years on the Botswana border we returned to the city in which we grew up. My father asked if I could come and help him at the Church he was leading. He was sixty-three years old. He was tired. He could not manage on his own anymore.
Yes, the same father who did not know what unconditional love is.
And I came. And I served. And it was good.
It was good, not because it was without difficulty, but because it was here that I learnt some more of unconditional love.
I served two years alongside my father.
The work of my hands flourished.
The Church’s membership increased by 60%.
The Church’s income increased by 30%.
That is how pastors measure success, is it not?
Not by the freedom realized in individuals hearts or the faith grown or the boundaries laid or the depth of relationship or the restoration of lives.
The number of members & the cash in the bank.
And I was a pastor.
And I was ‘succesful’.
And I was not.
For I knew, and this was the ‘something’ brewing inside of me which finally came to be ripe for the picking – I knew I was playing games.
I knew this wasn’t what ‘Church’ should be.
And I could not deny it.
So one evening I invited my father to dinner. We spoke about where he was at sixty-three, at the end of a lifetime of ministry. We spoke about where I found myself, at thirty-three. I shared with him, in uncommon honesty, exactly what was brewing in my heart. My conviction that I cannot ‘spend’ my life on this. That I need to pursue another way. I promised him that I would not remain in Nelson Mandela Bay. That I would not start another Church. One that might be perceived as ‘competing’ with his.
For that is how pastors often think.
Churches competing with one another for membership & income.
On that evening I did not know what I would do.
I merely knew that I could not continue doing what I have been doing.
Perhaps I tasted something in the half a decade we spent in the Kalahari amongst an eclectic and disconnected people?
Perhaps there it wasn’t about membership and income?
Personal achievement & prosperity?
Perhaps that was what my heart was longing after – that it be about people?
About ‘becoming’ as we live?
I translated this into the desire to create a space where people could just explore together.
Regardless of who they were or how they lived.
Regardless of how much they were willing to commit.
This was all I knew, that evening.
This was what I shared with my father.
It was October. Spring in our little bit of world.
I thought my father heard me. He said as much. He said he understood. That he respected my decision. That he would be grateful if I stayed until the February of the next year. That he would let me go with blessing.
And I was grateful.
I did not want to hurt him or do him in, in any way.
Three days later we were having coffee. He said he had been thinking about our conversation. He said he wanted to join me. That we should do this together. To say I was surprised would be an under statement. ‘Do you understand what lives in my heart?’ I asked. ‘I dream of something which is not Church as you’ve known Church your entire life? An open space in which people are accepted & welcome. Full stop. A space in which people’s lifestyles and choices aren’t even seen, much less judged? Where people can have the opportunity to do just one thing – explore God & faith & living in relationship?’
‘Yes. I love it. It would be perfect if we did this together.’
And it was.
For a moment.
But it never was.
And suddenly life changed.
Never to be the same again.
Now don’t forget to take part in this process. Tell me what you’re missing from this chapter. Or what expectations it creates.
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