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We Are Not Our Own

A letter from Dustin and Sherri Ellington serving in Zambia

March 2016

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Dear Friends,

Greetings from Zambia and from Justo Mwale University (JMU). Each calendar year the school chooses a theme for our chapel services and small groups. This year’s theme: “We are not our own.”

In our part of Africa most people don’t distinguish between the “R” sound and “L.” They’re interchangeable. You sometimes hear L, and you sometimes hear R, regardless of the customary spelling. So it took weeks for people to realize the theme was not “We are not alone,” since it sounds indistinguishable here from “We are not our own.” We had a memorable chapel sermon about how we are not alone because Jesus is always with us!

Our Dean of Studies and Lecturer in Practical Theology, Dr. Soko, models how the gospel overcomes distinctions between people

Our Dean of Studies and Lecturer in Practical Theology, Dr. Soko, models how the gospel overcomes distinctions between people

Each year our chaplain seeks input from faculty on the following year’s theme. I always enjoy thinking about possibilities, and “We are not our own” was my idea. I was thinking of Paul’s words about the impact of Christ’s death upon our lives: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). As I’ve sometimes mentioned, people here constantly hear the message that the Christian life is one that leads to gains in property and possessions. Probably the most common religious words are glory, power, blessing, and favor, and they tend to be understood in terms of monetary success in this life.

I was thinking that the Reformed and biblical emphasis on belonging to God might be a helpful antidote. Let’s pray it will be; but so far my JMU community has been interpreting the theme in a way that has been a good challenge to me personally.

Despite years of studying and teaching the Bible, I find that I am not nearly as able as the Africans around me at seeing Scripture’s emphasis on life lived in community with other Christians. It happens over and over that they help me see—on practically every page of the Bible—a stress on unity and togetherness among believers.

This time I find that my colleagues and students are saying, “We belong to one another” as the implication of “We belong to God.” I think they are very right even though, as the one who originally suggested the theme, that interpretation hadn’t occurred to me at all. The Africans around me have gradually helped me see that “We are not our own” and “We are not alone” really do go together. They may have been confused about the wording at first, but I was actually missing something in terms of how to think about it and how to live it.

Meanwhile, I see evidence around me that my fellow believers are taking our theme to heart. A band of intruders slipped over our campus wall one night about 10 days ago, and one of our two guards suffered numerous blows to the head with a machete. By God’s grace he is alive and just returned from the hospital. Our academic dean has put the guard up in his house and is offering him care. Zambia is a fairly hierarchical society, and yet even though the dean with a Ph.D. is thought to be of a rather higher status than a security guard, because we all belong to one another, as people who belong to God, social distinctions can be overcome. A security guard is welcome to live with a dean.

Justo Mwale students help us to understand the Bible’s teachings on living the Christian life in community with one another (Photos by Johanneke Kroesbergen)

Justo Mwale students help us to understand the Bible’s teachings on living the Christian life in community with one another (Photos by Johanneke Kroesbergen)

Another example: Quite a few of our students owed JMU money for short-term loans. The school decided a few weeks ago that it couldn’t go on without the students paying, so they were told they could not attend class until they made serious progress toward repayment. I was shocked and alarmed; this affected about half of the student body. I thought, given our students’ financial situations, it would be impossible for them to pay their bills. Many students didn’t show up for class. But when they weren’t in class, they were talking with others, making use of the reality that they are not their own. They take that theme to include the idea that they are “not alone”; they all belong to a group of African believers with whom they share all of life together. Within three or four days everything was back to normal. Everyone was in class. I was amazed by how, despite many students’ poverty, no one lacked access to what they needed. Among African Christians it seems that no one is on his own.

So I am learning from my fellow believers. I am much slower to see that we believers belong to one another. I tend to miss that, and sometimes I just want to be on my own. But when the Africans who surround me read Scripture, they are swift to observe implications for living the Christian life together. We belong to God, so we belong to one another.

I take great comfort in belonging to God—it inspires me to live toward much greater ends than my own life and possessions. But my African brothers and sisters are here to remind me that this is not just an individual thing but also something that we experience as a community. When we walk with Africans, we all get farther in our discipleship.

Another way in which we have experienced the reality of being part of God’s people is through all of you who shared in our ministry during 2015 through your prayers and giving. You may remember that our November update told of Presbyterian World Mission’s serious funding shortfall. Many of you stepped forward, and the full goal was met for our family’s sending and support for 2015. We truly felt your being with us in meeting the goal. We are also really touched to see an increase in those who are giving monthly. We would love for even more individuals to consider gifts like this, in order to avoid an end-of-year alarm like we sounded last year. To offer a gift now (and perhaps sign up for monthly giving), click here.

Finally, let me say thank you for praying that our family would survive the long heat wave that we experienced for about six months, and for God to sustain us through the electricity shortages. The weather has cooled some, and some days now we have electricity for all but maybe six hours/day. Improvement! Let me mention a few more prayer requests:

1. Let’s pray for God’s guidance as Sherri is interviewing people for the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program in Zambia.

2. Our city has seen a rise in violence/crime; we appreciate prayer for its safety and our safety.

3. Our son Clayton is making final decisions in the next few weeks about where to attend college in America, and we appreciate prayer for his wisdom and God’s involvement in that process!

Thank you so much for your partnership with us. Remember: we are not our own, and we are not alone!

Yours in Christ,
Dustin and Sherri Ellington

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