A letter from Bob and Kristi Rice in Congo
A New Hope
The Presbytery of Tshimayi is the oldest presbytery in South West Synod. It has birthed many other presbyteries. At the August 2012 General Assembly (GA) a delegation from Tshimayi came to plead their case. They told the gathering that if the punishment period was brought to an end for four church leaders in their presbytery, a large group of Christians would return to their churches. The GA leaders listened intently to their case and, feeling sympathetic and desiring to restore unity, agreed that it was expedient and prudent to override the synod’s ruling and bring an end to the discipline period. The GA also decreed that the Evangelism Department should visit Tshimayi Presbytery before the end of September to host a seminar and promote reconciliation.
On Wednesday, September 26, Pastor Mboyamba, Pastor Kazadi, Tatu Sammy, Robert Tshisua Bantu, Kristi and I loaded into the Land Cruiser to head 107 kilometers south to the prominent village of Tshimbulu, the district seat of a region comprising half the Province of West Kasai. On the way we picked up Mukulu Kumuamba, who serves as the Synod Executive and who has been greatly saddened by this entire affair. We arrived at nightfall and were welcomed with palm fronds and singing. The moon was nearly full, and it was a joyful feeling to sit under God’s lamp and to hear God’s people singing God’s praises. Thursday was spent visiting the different factions in the presbytery. We invited each group to come to the seminar on the following day. On Friday we hosted the seminar and invited delegates from each parish in the presbytery. We taught subjects such as servant leadership, the role of elders and deacons in the church, and the need for unity.
Saturday we toured Tshimbulu and again made ourselves available to different groups within the presbytery. I remember sitting on the veranda of the guesthouse in the afternoon during some downtime. I had brought a sermon that I was prepared to preach the following day. Now I could just sit back, read and relax. It was a nice feeling. However, in my reading I was struck by some important themes of hope. As I began to ponder these themes, I realized that the theme of “a new hope in the midst of despair” was the needed message.[i] Organizing and preparing a message in Tshiluba on short notice is never easy. It felt like a monumental task, but having felt a prompting from God, I also felt energized.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to God’s people who are in exile. They are in Babylon, and they are in the midnight of despair. All is bleak and hopeless. Yet, into this black backdrop bursts forth these prophetic words from the prophet—
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God (Isaiah 52:7-10).
While this text is often associated with proclaiming the Good News of the gospel, the initial intent was to introduce a new hope to God’s people mired in a bog of desolate despair. Isaiah reminds God’s people that God reigns. Indeed, they are in exile, but God still reigns! Moreover, Isaiah announces peace and salvation for God’s people. He tells them twice to sing once again! He tells them that God has comforted and redeemed His people. In the darkest night of despair, in exile, in a place where they thought God was absent, God reveals afresh His presence and gives them reasons to hope. Giving some personal examples and relating this text to their personal experiences and the experience within the presbytery, I shared this message in a crowded thatched church building Sunday morning. I was energized by the message, and it was well received. Sunday afternoon members from the entire presbytery gathered in one place to sing and rejoice about a future together. Members from the different parties washed each other’s hands and served each other water as symbolic signs of unity and reconciliation. These were the beginnings of a new hope in the midst of desolate despair.
Is it all better in the Presbytery of Tshimayi? Are all of the hurts and divisions healed? I do not know. What I do know is that our Evangelism Department was faithful in bringing forth a fresh word of life, encouragement, and faith. What I do know is that a somber and sullen Synod Executive whom we picked up along the way left us with a smile on his face. What I do know is that I have not seen such joy in a worship service as I witnessed Sunday afternoon in a long time. Members of Tshimanyi Presbytery were singing and dancing once again! In our low moments of despair and frustration, God speaks a new word of life. That is the message of Isaiah for God’s people in exile. That is God’s message for us today.
Kristi and I could not be serving in Congo without your faithful and faith-filled prayers. We also could not be serving in Congo without your generous gifts. Thank you, thank you, thank you! May our LORD Jesus bless you this day as you reflect on His goodness and love.
Bob and Kristi
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 102
[i] The book I was reading which inspired me is The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.