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“But who do you say that I am?” Matt. 16:15

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A letter from Jan Heckler in Madagascar

Winter 2014

The oncoming storm darkened the sky and the wind thrashed the trees.  In more protected corners where building walls join, the wind was twirling in small tornado-like swirls, but in the broad expanse of the arena debris flew across the way and small branches were tearing away from the limbs of the trees.  Violent clashes of thunder and lightning were closing fast as well.  The crowd of 4,000 attending their church’s worship sat stunned by this sudden and alarming display of raw natural power.  We all waited to see what harm or calamity the fast-arriving tempest might bring.

The FJKM (the PC(USA)’s partner church in Madagascar) annually celebrates the New Year with special ‘greeting’ events—social events at which people wish one another well, celebrate their good health and fortune, and thank their Creator for all of their blessings and the new year.  Greetings occur throughout Madagascar in nearly every form of social structure and group—family, church, work, and so on.  The greetings are always festive and occur well into the New Year, but mostly concluding by the end of February.

The FJKM has its own smaller versions of greetings earlier in the month of January.  These may be held in individual churches and offices, but then it always has a churchwide special, outdoor worship.  The special worship underscores that from its perspective the greetings begin and end with giving thanks to our Creator, expressing gratitude to our triune God for the New Year and all that it may bring.  So we gathered at the Antsahamanitra outdoor arena in downtown Antananarivo to worship God.

More than 4,000 souls assembled on this beautiful summer morning.  Madagascar, being in the southern hemisphere, experiences its summer while North America is still locked in by the cold of its winter.  There were low-lying puffies in the sky framed by the deep azure blue of the Indian Ocean sky when we first began.  And, while the sun was warm, it was on the comfortable side of hot and a nice breeze kept us all feeling fresh.  But later during the three-hour service as the morning warmed up, we heard the first sounds of trouble as the rumble of nearby thunder reverberated off the city buildings, rattling windowpanes around our place of worship.

The Antsahamanitra arena is built into the side of one of the steeper mountainous hills of this capital city.  Therefore the seating of the crowd rises on the one side of the arena so that the people are relatively close to the podium and the guests who sit on the canvas-covered stage.  All of the missionaries sat behind the pastors who were leading worship as part as the FJKM’s reminder of the strong and valued partnerships that are embraced by the 4-million-strong FJKM church.

Antsahamanitra out-door arena

During this special service Communion is served using the separate bread and wine method in which each participant is provided a wafer and a small cup of grape juice to consume at the appropriate moment together with everyone else who is present.  The Lord’s Supper is of course an important part of a Christian’s worship, but today the storm threatened to completely disrupt everything—what a disappointment!  And what about all of these poor people sitting out in the open??  What would happen to them?

As the storm approached, growing in ferocity by the moment, many of the ordained and lay people on the stage became concerned that the storm would ruin the special worship service, prevent Communion, and drown the crowd of 4,000 in heavy, unremitting rain.  Later, more than a few of us confessed that we prayed at that moment, asking God to spare the many from being drenched, from being chased from their seats:  “Oh, Great Provider, will you not prevent the storm from drenching the crowd and ruining the worship service?  Can you please spare them this?” . . . or other prayers to this affect.

To our utter dismay, though, the storm came on, releasing the full force of its torrential downpour.  The wind blew and the skies opened up on the people as if a faucet had been turned full open.

But then a miracle did happen, astounding and teaching us in a way those present will never forget.  Instead of scurrying for the exits to gain shelter from the storm, these people—every one of the 4,000!—stood their ground to finish the worship they had begun.  Then, with the rain pouring from the sky, each took their wafer, grasping the body of Christ.  And they received their cup and held it, preparing to drink the blood of their Savior.  And Pastor Rasendrahasina, president of the FJKM, said the words Jesus said for the last supper and together we all ate of this bread and drank from that cup.

Overcoming the natural tendancy to run away, to seek shelter, the people had not abandoned the service. And the greater good of allowing the people—each and every one of them—to demonstrate their faith by completing the worship ceremony brought greater glory to God than any of our well-intentioned prayers could have and allowed all of us who were present to be lifted up thy this simple yet nevertheless profound expression of faith.  We finally could only smile at one another and then laugh at being so warmed by the resolute faith of these people before us and their steadfast devotion to God.

Stories like this one do not happen every day in Madagascar, but the struggle of good people against a host of pressing life problems including poverty, hunger, oppression, and various forms of injustice does in a place like this island nation where more than 20 million people survive on $2 or less each day. 

Your gifts of prayer support, your words of encouragement, and your financial contributions are what make my presence here possible, and I thank you for them. If you are able to consider increasing your gift, of whatever sort it may be, I will be most grateful. Thanks be to God for the privilege to serve, and for each of you who supports and who accompanies me on this remarkable journey.

Jan Heckler

The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 147
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