Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Land of Milk and Honey

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the 2011 Rally for the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). For those who are not aware of the church structure of ELCSA, my congregation is part of the Masealama Parish which is part of the Mphome Circuit, which is one of the six circuits in the Northern Diocese spread across Limpopo and parts of Mpumalanga. Our rally was held this year in Nelspruit, a rather distant location for most of the circuits. Travelling with Dean Sikhwari of the Mphome Circuit, we woke up at 2:00 am on a Sunday morning to make it to the service in time by 8:00 am. All in all that day we spent around 11 hours in a car travelling to and from church, and six hours in the actual service- now that is dedication!

The service was not the best attended due to its distant location, but we still filled a high school stadium with many highly energetic ELCSA members. Most of the service was conducted in Sepedi even though there were also Tswanas and Vendas in the audience, but I am used to that by now. However, during one of the two sermons of the day, the pastor would emphasize the main points by speaking extra loud and slow in English. Consequently, I received the Cliffs Notes version of the sermon without getting lost in the details and explanations placed amidst the sermon.

The theme of the rally was “ELCSA: My Responsibility,” and as the pastor started speaking, he used the famous words of JFK to set the tone- “Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.” And what can we do for the church? What can we do for God? The speaker then went on to say that we should do our best to bring God’s people to the land of milk and honey. People so often preach and speak on the gospel that often times the Old Testament kind of gets sidelined as irrelevant to our current times. Consequently, when we read about Moses leading God’s chosen people to the land of milk and honey, we view it as a historical documentation of what happened in the past and rarely take it past surface value to figure out what this can mean to us in the present day.

So what dos the land of milk and honey mean to us? Why use milk and honey to represent the Promised Land? Let’s start with milk- milk provides us with necessary vitamins to help us grow strong. It is nourishing, life-sustaining, strengthening, and calming. As for honey- it provides us with a natural sweetness which can sweeten even the most bitter or bland things in life. Both milk and honey are given to us in this world as products of God’s creation. They are not from us, but rather from God. Let’s bring God’s people to a land where they will be strengthened, nourished, sustained, and sweetened by something which God has given us.

Jesus is the milk and honey of life, given to us and for us by God. Coming to the “land” of Jesus involves us living in Jesus Christ and letting him dwell in us. Once we enter the “land” of togetherness, we come to know and understand God who strengthens and sweetens us and gives us eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3. When we enter into the land of milk and honey, we enter into the kingdom of God. So our speaker for the day said that it is our responsibility to help others find this kingdom of God.

But how can we bring others to the kingdom when we ourselves have not tasted it? During the sermon, the pastor pulled out a bottle of honey and jug of milk. He then proceeded to share it with the bishops, who then shared it with the deans, who then shared it with the pastors, who then shared it with their congregations. In order to share the kingdom with others, you must first receive it. You can not teach without first learning, you can not give without first receiving- which is potentially one of the hardest and most meaningful lessons I have learned this year, and is something that South Africans do very well.

When you enter into someone’s house in South Africa, you are immediately put into the position of receiver. You are given tea and biscuits, you are given a specially prepared meal, you are given food to take home with you, all whether you want it or not. At first it was hard for me just to sit and eat, especially when I was not allowed to help with the preparations or clean up or do any sort of giving at all. I realized how uncomfortable I am with receiving from others, and I was soon called out on it. When asked if I needed tea at the Dean’s, I would respond with “No thank you, I am fine” because I did not want her to go through the hassle of preparing tea (and biscuits) just for me when I was not really hungry in the first place. One day Dean said, “I know you. You will say you are fine because you do not want to burden others. You are very much independent; you need to let others help you.” She went on to explain how important it is to South Africans to be able to give to others, and how the reception of these gifts- food or help or whatever- is a sign of acceptance and respect toward the giver. From then on whenever I say “No thank you, I am fine,” Dean will proceed to give me whatever she is offering anyway. She is teaching me how to receive, and how to let others help me.

However, this South African culture of giving and receiving means much more than just food. This hospitality and welcoming is a portrayal of God’s love, and it’s contagious. The more you receive from others, the more you want to give- to both return the love and spread it to others. I think South Africa is doing a great job of bringing others into the “land of milk and honey” as they realize that first and foremost you must receive. By being immersed in this culture for almost a year now, I have come to know God and the abundance of his love so much deeper and with more understanding than ever before, because I have let the people here lead me into the “land of milk and honey.” As I return home, I look forward to giving back what I have received here, and more as I continue to open myself up to receiving God’s love.

~Heather Anne Nelson

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