A letter from Sherri Ellington in Zambia
Do you tend to think of New Year’s Eve as a religious holiday? Over the past three December 31sts in Zambia I have noticed that while we at the Ellington home may be hosting a hastily arranged game night, many of our Zambian friends and students spend the night at church, praying and worshipping to bring in the new year. I’ve not yet made it to one of these New Year’s church services, partly because my husband has trouble staying up until midnight even for a New Year’s gathering at our home. (“Wake me up at 11:45, honey!”) But I have asked people what goes on. The most common answer is something like, “We thank God for letting us live to see another year.
We continue to hear prayers along these lines into January—people thanking God to have lived another year. I find the prominence of this simple prayer refreshing, and also noteworthy on a few levels. It is a response of the heart to God who gives life. The gratitude it represents is a poignant reminder of life’s fragility, especially in a part of the world where life expectancy has only recently risen to 51, where for many even one good daily meal is not a given, and where 1 in 6 people are HIV-positive. The prayer also reminds me of the gift life is—don’t we all appreciate our years on earth more when we realize how fleeting they are?
Unfortunately, there is another January refrain we also hear frequently in Zambia, one of expectancy and hope but which raises some concerns. On the radio and in churches, on bumper stickers and billboards, there is a flood of assertions about the good health and financial breakthroughs God will surely give in the coming year to those who believe. Now, it’s true that God sends blessings to his people each and every day, in big ways and in small, and yet we also know that God doesn’t always operate according to our desires and expectations. Life doesn’t always look and feel blessed in the ways we might hope and imagine.
So when the preacher of a large church in Lusaka told his congregation and radio audience last January that no one in his church would die in 2013—well, we were disturbed. And we were dumbfounded that he could get by with saying such a thing. Did his large congregation actually believe his guarantee that no one would die this year? What would happen if and when someone did die? How is the long-term faith of an individual or a church body affected by being told to believe such things that don’t end up being true?
The prosperity message is all too common in Zambia, and especially as a fresh new year begins. We aren’t exactly sure why so many believe it. Maybe they have felt God’s real touch in their lives and been thankful, so want to believe the suggestion that God will also give them the new suit, the imported car, the private airplane, or multiples of the money they put in the offering plate.
Though most of our students are from Presbyterian and Reformed churches, the heady amount of prosperity gospel in the air affects them and their congregations as well. This is the context in which Dustin and his faculty colleagues teach.
It is one reason why Dustin’s ministry of giving future pastors skills for reading and interpreting the Bible wisely feels particularly important in the southern African context. Wise and responsible Bible reading means looking at verses, thought pieces, and books of the Bible in their larger context, rather than pulling out a verse here or there promising God’s blessings.
As part of engaging with the prosperity gospel’s influence in modern African culture, our faculty at Justo Mwale wrote a book about it last year, with each professor contributing an essay from his or her own point of view and area of expertise. Dustin of course wrote from his perspective as a New Testament scholar. Our church historian wrote from his point of view; our practical theologian from his; our sociology of religion person from hers, and so forth. Normally the Justo Mwale faculty puts out a journal like this each year, focused on a current cultural topic. It’s called Word & Context. Last year’s prosperity gospel topic was unique in that it was published as a book—in South Africa in 2013, and forthcoming in the U.S.A. in 2014.
Our students and graduates receive a lot of pressure from churchgoers to preach the message of health and wealth. We invite you to pray for them. We also invite you to pray for Justo Mwale Theological University College to make a difference in leading the church in southern Africa to a mature and biblically balanced perspective on God’s good gifts.
And as we celebrate our Savior’s birth this Christmas season and ring in 2014, we invite you to join with our brothers and sisters in Zambia and southern Africa in heartfelt worship and gratitude to God for being given another year of life. “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations” (Psalm 108:3). May we learn wisdom from our African brothers and sisters who see each year, even each day, as a gift from God. Our days on earth are short. The time we have really is a gift.
As 2013 draws to an end, our family is grateful for all of you who have chosen to help make our ministry possible through your encouragement, prayers, and financial commitment. We invite you to keep this ministry in prayer and to consider partnering with us financially in the year to come.
Yours in Christ,
Sherri and Dustin Ellington
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