Sunday, October 31, 2010

Faith on Fire

A few weeks ago I got in a car with four other ladies from the church. I had no clue where we were going or what we were doing, but I did not even bother to ask- I guess I am getting used to the unexpected. As we travelled down the road, carefully avoiding the cattle being herded into their pen for the evening, I looked out the window and smiled- embracing the landscape, the people, the moment, and the element of surprise.

Just as the sun was setting we pulled into the Mankweng Clinic which up to this point I had only seen in passing. Fantastic, I thought, a hospital- my favorite. For those who are unaware, I have a tendency to faint at the sight, smell, or thought of blood, needles, or anything medically related, so obviously a hospital setting is a bit of a challenge for me. Still uncertain of our purpose at the clinic, I took a deep breath and followed the other ladies with me into the sterilized air. We asked directions from a worker there, who led us down a maze of whitewashed walls, slick tiled floors, and florescent lights until we arrived at the surgical ward. Even better- open wounds and IVs. I looked straight forward, carefully avoiding glancing into the windows of the patients for fear of seeing something that I could not handle. We turned into one of the rooms with six ladies who appeared to all be breast cancer patients at various stages. A few were standing, most were sitting on their beds preparing for the night ahead, and one was sprawled out on her bed hooked up with IV’s and relatively unresponsive to our entrance. Breathe- God give me strength. The lady whom we were visiting was an active member of the youth in our congregation, and she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and was in the hospital preparing for her upcoming operation.

We sat around her bed and chatted for a bit, except in Sepedi so I mostly just observed. She looked happy to have company and comforted by our support but, despite her bright smile and cheery countenance, I could sense worry in her eyes, just as in the ladies around her. When the chatter subsided we stood to pray. Our prayers were full of cries to the Lord to help our dear friend be healed because we the church needed her; we can not survive without her. I know the collective prayers not because I have suddenly developed telepathic abilities, but because prayer here is not silent. Each person was standing with their heads and hands lifted to God, ready to receive his blessings and shouting their prayers up to him in the language of their choice- some in Sepedi, and some in English. As you can imagine, six ladies screaming in various languages to God at the same time creates quite the cacophony, but it does not shock me… anymore.

As our cries were dying down, in walked some members of another church and asked if they could pray for the patients. They began their prayers, which were once again spoken aloud and shouting, but they spoke with more fervor than us Lutherans. They went to each patient and, with their hands on their foreheads or waving up and down the required spot of healing, they shouted prayers to the Lord. What caught my attention was not the shouting, but exactly what they were shouting. The man to my left was standing with the unresponsive lady with his hands on her head screaming for instant healing of her ailments. A man to my right was waving his hands over a standing patient while shouting “FIRE, from the top of the head, to the sole of the feet! FIRE of the Lord!” What is going on? Do they really expect these people to be instantly healed? But as I scanned the ladies of the room once again, I saw each one of them with their heads bowed and their eyes squeezed shut, hoping earnestly for a miracle from God to heal them.

Churches and prayers such as this are very popular here in South Africa. They are given the name of “charismatic Christians” because of that fervor with which they pray, preach, and sing. This passion even carries into the Lutheran church, with frequent outburst of “Amen, Hallelujah!” while the breathless pastor continues on with long powerful sentences delivering a dramatic message. At the ELCSA Young Adult gathering that I attended in Durban last month, a lady close by me started having a seizure during a particularly powerful prayer and instead of stopping the prayer and calling an ambulance, she was surrounded with hundreds of people putting their hands on her and shouting up to God for healing from her suffering.

You would not get this at a Lutheran church in the United States. I guess it is our sometimes conservative nature and closeness to our European roots, but if I were to stand up shouting during the prayer of the day I think every head in the church would turn to stare at me. At times this passion and fervor can seem overwhelming, especially at first to someone who is so used to praying internally- almost as if asleep. But it has made me question why I pray the way I do. Prayer is our conversation with God, whether it is a conversation of thanks, a cry for help, or just a friendly chat, it is still a conversation. I know that we bow our heads and fold our hands out of reverence to our mighty Lord, but how then can you expect to hear his response, see his signs, and receive his gifts if you are bowed with your eyes closed? Do we expect this conversation to be one-sided? Do we have the faith to believe that our prayers will be answered?

If I had a seizure in church I would want immediate medical attention, not a thousand hands trying to heal me with the power of God. But how amazing is it that the power of prayer is so well respected and believed in that it exceeds the power of medicine? Is that not how it is supposed to be balanced- God first, then the knowledge and ability of man second? “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:14. No matter what we can do here on this earth, God is the all-powerful ruler, and in him is where our future lies, not in the hands of the doctors.

This seems to create a large split between the world of medicine and our religious beliefs. Is it wrong to take advantage of the advances in medicine to boost our health and prolong our life? I would like to suggest that instead of working against each other, medicine and religion are actually working in tandem. Perhaps the cries for “instant healing” go deeper than meets the eye. Those men may have been flailing their arms and encouraging the Holy Spirit to come heal those ladies- but what exactly is healing? According to the ELCA's social statement on health, healing, and healthcare, which I encourage you to read, healing is more than simply curing a disease or illness; it encompasses both the body and the spirit, and speaks of restoration of well-being in God. The cry for the fire of the Holy Spirit may not have any physical repercussions, but the ladies were restored in God and healed of their worldly worries. In this light, medicine can help cure bodily ailments but, in order to be in full health, the spirit must also be healed and strengthened in the Lord. Together, medicine and religion can create a strong, healthy follower of Jesus.

It is encouraging to see the unfaltering FAITH with which the people around me believe in prayer and the ability of God to heal. It is a FAITH which is full of fire and fervor and calls for miracles from God. Although instant healing was not given to those six ladies in the hospital, the incredible FAITH with which those prayers were given healed and strengthened the souls of the patients in the Lord, so they could proceed with the road ahead believing in him and his miraculous work. Do not be afraid to shout to the Lord your praise, thanks, and cries for help- you may just receive a miracle of healing in return for your faith.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Here in the Northern Diocese we have a devotional given out yearly to guide our daily worship and prayer life. It has verses and prayers listed for each day, and although they are all in Sepedi, I have been using it recently for our youth services as I have been asked to prepare a sermon on the lesson of the day. This little pink book pictured is entitled T┼íhupa Mabaka which is not pronounced as you would expect— phonetically it is pronounced Choo-pah Mah-bach-ah—or that’s how I would write it out phonetically, I know it is not the “correct” way. Take out the middle sounds of “pah and Mah” and you get Chewbacca. Star Wars will follow me anywhere I go.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Divine Coincidence

Since I arrived here in Masealama, unexplainable coincidences keep occurring. We all experience these at some point in our lives- whether it be meeting someone from your hometown in a foreign country or finding $20 in your pocket when you are running low on cash. Recently, I have been experiencing them in an unusual rapid succession.

A week after I arrived, I was greeted by a young man named Gift who said “Come with me.” After glancing at the ladies I work with for approval to follow this stranger, I got up and followed him. He led me up the hill to one of the old German mission buildings that had fallen into disrepair where I found a van full of volunteers from a nearby town hard at work cleaning this building and setting up for the festivities of the afternoon. As Gift took me around and introduced me to the volunteers from various places all over the world who were setting up this youth centre here in Masealama, I saw a guitar out of the corner of my eye. This centre is being established to teach music, arts, sports, and more to the children of this town to keep them off of the streets and learning life skills which can be applied to their schooling and all aspects of their lives. As it turns out, they had six guitars donated, but no one knew how to play so they couldn’t teach the children. This past year I started learning the guitar, and I happened to bring all of my music with me so I could teach the people here some songs, but I decided not to bring the guitar here to South Africa. Turns out I didn’t need to! They desperately needed someone who could play the guitar, and I desperately wanted a guitar to play.

This occurrence was the beginning of my parade of the strange and unexplainable. My “Feeding Chickens Chicken” blog was posted as a movie came out featuring chicken cannibalism, my last newsletter was released at the same time as one of Pastor Chris Heavner’s morning devotions which focused on making a blessing out of a curse, and my daily bible readings have frequently matched my reflections on my experience here to a pin. So why are these coincidences rapidly occurring? Can they be explained by the influx of ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses as they prepare for All Hallows Eve? Are they simply coincidences that I am becoming aware of because of my increased state of observation? Or are they divine- small “gifts” from God to help guide me along my journey here in South Africa?
It is easy to label these occurrences as mere coincidences or supernatural, but I now see them as trail markers of God’s presence in our lives. They are subtle reminders of his awesome power and ability to provide for us in ways we cannot fathom. While we wander though the woods to make our own decisions on which paths to take, his trail markers remind us that we are not guiding, we are being guided. There is no such thing as coincidence; it is just a sign of the presence of the divine within us- guiding our ways.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cooking for Three

On Monday we were visited by some members of the sister congregation to the Mphome Circuit from Berlin, Germany. Heine, Siglinda, and Lilly have been travelling around various parishes in the circuit, and Monday was their day to visit Masealama and get a feel for what is currently taking place there, and how they can best aid us in the future. Since I have been working in the kitchen mainly, I got to spend all Monday morning preparing lunch for these three Germans, which by the looks of the food we prepared you would guess we were feeding about 30 Germans. This is the South African style though (at least here in Masealama)- prepare food in large portions and then force newcomers to eat it all- trust me I know! So we prepared a typical meal from this region (except without fruit because it is not yet in season…) which included chicken (boiled and baked), pap (for the South African’s present who physically need pap every day), rice (for those of us who can do without pap), cooked cabbage, cole slaw, beetroot, green salad, soup, and juice. It was quite the feast, and although I didn’t do any of the actual cooking I did help slice most of the vegetables that were used to make the soup, cabbage, and salad,, so if you can see the finely sliced zucchini and carrots in the salad- that was my doing. After this meal I did not have to cook dinner all week because 1) I was still full from this meal on Monday, and 2) I was given enough leftovers to feed a small army. When I return to the states I will be able to prepare all of these dishes from scratch, so you can look forward to that!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Feeding Chickens Chicken

Recently we have been cooking quite a lot of chicken. Partly because I have mentioned my dislike of fish and beans which leaves chicken and a variety of animal intestines, and partly because it is easy to buy in bulk and prepare for the children. This chicken we boil, bake, or braai throughout the day in our kitchen, while we sit around the oven for warmth and conversations. The ladies that I work with daily are quite talkative, but I typically have very little to contribute to the conversation because it is mostly in Sepedi, the main language of this region of Limpopo. Being used to being the most talkative in a group, I now find myself sitting back, listening, and observing more than usual. As I try to magically absorb the language I am constantly pushing my ears to listen and my mind to comprehend, and amidst all this listening I hear the rustling of chickens and their young scouring the dried ground for some food. They may find some bits of edible food here and there, but the aroma of cooking chicken coming from our kitchen draws them near. If chickens could drool, I imagine these would be as they peck outside our door begging for food. In the evening, we oblige them by washing the cooking pots and dumping the remains outside. It’s like Christmas morning for those little chicks. But in my newfound state of observation, I realize that we are feeding chickens chicken… Each day we taunt them with the smell of their friends slowly simmering in a pot, eat them in front of the hungry chicks, and then feed the uneaten remains to them.

I know the chickens couldn’t care less about what is being fed to them. All they know is the constant struggle to satisfy their aching stomachs and those of their children, and when they come across sustenance, they eat rapidly, thankful for the blessing of food. Their struggles remind me of what I have for which I should be thankful. The holiday celebrated in America known as Thanksgiving is very suiting- each year we celebrate the blessings of our lives by preparing enormous amounts of delicious food. What better way could we express how lucky we are than preparing a smorgasbord of food, which sustains us from day to day? In the book Kaffir Boy, Mark Methabane vividly describing his childhood during apartheid when he remembers only being able to afford cow’s blood which his mother simmered into a soup to try to make more bearable- but it kept them alive. For him and many, there is no sweet potato casserole or stuffing on Thanksgiving Day, but the food which they do have is a blessing. Those without do not have the luxury to be picky-eaters, something that I myself am guilty of in the United States. However, never again will I turn down perfectly edible food without thinking of the struggles of the people across the world that would be thankful for such a well-prepared meal.

Why are these chickens forced to eat their own kind in the first place? Partly because their environment has forced them into these starving situations and partly because those who have the power to change their situation do not. As the one in power, I could purchase feed for the chickens and fatten them into happy, healthy birds, but instead I am so concerned with feeding myself breakfast, lunch, and dinner to notice their strife or care about how well they are fed. I mean, after all these are chickens we are talking about right? I, being a homosapien with a significantly larger body and brain than a chicken (not to mention a more developed thinking process), certainly deserve to be better fed than these low lying chickens! But what happens when we start to apply this logic to our fellow people on this planet? We certainly have a history of doing so- Europe with its colonization of Africa, the settlers of the United States with their treatment of Native Americans, the enslavement and mistreatment of all those of a varying race, stature, or class such as the Africans, the Jews, the Japanese, the homeless, and even the system of apartheid well known to those here in South Africa. All are examples of people determining by some seemingly sound logic that they are better than others and therefore deserve to live a better life. We have been treating each other like these chickens.

I’ll admit, this is not always done intentionally. By being overly self-concerned often times we do not notice how others are affected by how we live our lives. As I concentrate on feeding myself and the children who come to this Information Centre after school, I overlook the lowly chickens that are starving themselves into cannibalism by my oversight. When you go grocery shopping, what typically drives your decision on which fruits and vegetables you purchase? It’s usually cost, right? The cost affects you directly, so it is natural to guide your decisions based on that. But looking further down the road, what is the end result of buying the cheaper fruits and vegetables besides padding your wallet? By purchasing food with more bang for the buck from a major company, the local small business farmers are suffering. By helping yourself, you are hurting others regardless of your intentions.

Here in South Africa people are very familiar with how selfish actions of one person in power can affect others, even in post-apartheid times. Like most countries they have had their own struggles with corruption within the government which results in actions that benefit a few, but may not be best for the majority. Currently in South Africa, people are speaking out through strikes to let their government know what they want and need, forcing the government to resolve issues that they previously may not have noticed. But what about those who don’t have the voice to speak out about the injustices with which they are living? It’s up to us to open our eyes and ears, and to observe what is going on around us. To hear the cries of the hungry or read the abuse present in another’s eyes.

As I opened my eyes and ears and concentrated on observing everything around me, I was surprised and astonished by what I found. Unknowingly, I was feeding chickens chicken, contributing to their own cannibalism. While that is rather insignificant, it makes me wonder, what other injustices do I witness and maybe even contribute to on a daily basis that I simply overlook?

~Heather Anne Nelson

For more blog posts from other South African YAGM's like this go here :