Madagascar Diary – Post 5

In marked contrast to the shoddy ramshackle construction of the buildings in the towns and nearby villages, the hospital is very well built. You can get a sense of the size of the hospital from the photos on their web site. But one or two from me may help.

But it’s not merely the construction that’s impressive. It’s what goes on within the walls that’s most worthy of comment. All the staff are Christians. And they share an unswerving commitment to their responsibility to care for the person in a holistic sense. And so they attend not only to the very real and serious physical needs that they encounter. But they also provide for the social needs through the Community Health Team. They deliver health education, vaccinations and instruction in water sanitation. But it’s perhaps in their provision of care for the spiritual needs that sets this mission hospital apart. I’ve not been to other mission hospitals so I need to be careful. But I’d be surprised if they’re as single minded about their responsibility before God to minister to their patients with the gospel. It is wonderfully encouraging to see and hear of what takes place.

The HVM web site will tell you most of what you need to know. But here’s what I remember from my Thursday morning tour with Peter.

  • An evangelistic meeting is held every morning at 0730 in the outpatient department so that everyone gets to hear the gospel at least once.
  • Twice daily an evangelistic meeting is held in the wards where there’s a captive audience!
  • Gospel tracts in Malagasy and sermon tapes with accompanying booklets are available for inpatients.
  • Doctors and Nurses take every opportunity to explain the gospel to their patients.
  • With the agreement of the patient, the surgeon and operating theatre staff pray for the patient and commit the operation to God.
  • The hospital employs at least one full time Malagasy evangelist who goes into the wards and helps answer people’s questions.

These are just some of the reasons why we’re so happy at CCB to support our mission partners, the Judkins, at HVM. This is a mission hospital that understands that its mission is much broader than attending to the serious medical needs that they encounter.

Madagascar Diary – Post 4

Perhaps it wasn’t the right context but I’ll admit to being a little disappointed. I was so looking forward to my first ever African church experience. I’m a strait laced Englishman who likes things orderly and planned. I’ll jig but I don’t dance; not in church (and rarely anywhere else for that matter). It doesn’t matter how emotionally moved I am, I’m just not that expressive. And I’m comfortable with that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care or that I’m not feeling. But I’ll admit to looking forward to being a little out of my comfort zone in Madagascar. After all, Pete had come back from his ‘rogue’ ordination in Kenya with footage of great exuberance from the assembled congregation and so I had to have a story to match!

I’d been asked to prepare a talk for the staff at the Hospital to give at their weekly Thursday service. There were about 150 of them from the doctors to the maintenance men (many of whom were unconverted). And so it was quite a crowd. I’d written something that I thought would be a simple, clear explanation of the gospel. I’d gone for Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It was going to be translated into Malagasy and so I needed short sentences that would hang together. I had no real idea what to preach on or where to pitch it. No one had given me a steer. But in the Lord’s kindness, I think it was helpful.

It’s got to be one of the first evangelical churches I’ve been to where the notices lasted longer than the sermon. You must get that all the time in churches that have no respect for the word of God. But this was a Baptist church! Dr Adrien led the meeting and he clearly had lots to pass on. I then cottoned on to the fact that his ‘notices’ were long introductions to an invitation to pray. Nevertheless you can overdo the chat in church meetings!

Now back to that singing. We sang a handful of songs in Malagasy. Wonderfully they’d been written down and so I could attempt to follow and even join in. And though there was no sign of a music group, I was expecting a different praise experience to that of CCB (even evening church). But no. It was tuneful and sincere. But you couldn’t describe it as massively animated. Where was the clapping and the dancing? I felt short-changed! This is Africa. I asked about this afterwards. And though one or two admitted that the Baptistic influence may have restrained the high-spirited, they felt that the Malagasy as a people didn’t go in for massive shows of emotion. Stoic was how one missionary described them. For example, they tend not to weep when a child dies. Go figure, not all Africans are the same! And so when someone tried to tell me, as they did the other day, that Africans don’t think we believe anything because we don’t get as visibly excited as they do about the Lord, I’m going to tell them about the Malagasy. Because not all Africans fit our African stereotype!

Madagascar Diary – Post 3

The transit time to Mandritsara from Antanarivo was spent sleeping (sort of), looking at the countryside around us, shifting my weight onto alternate butt cheeks and in conversation with Dr Adrien Ralaimiarison. Of all those subjects I thought I’d talk about my chat with Adrien, though you know I’d most love to talk about just how painful a journey it was. And so I will, a little. After all it took 27 hours of my life that I’m never going to get back. In total, from Balham to Mandritsara was 64 hours; that’s just a little shy of three whole days. There can’t be many places in the world left that take that long to get to.

Anyway, we got to our Toyota Space Cruiser for the scheduled 3.30pm departure time from the bus depot. We left at 6.30pm. This is Africa after all.  All our stuff was put on top and covered over with a tarpaulin. Now a more inappropriately named vehicle than the Toyota Space Cruiser, I struggle to think of. It was neither spacious nor did it cruise. But I’m not sure Toyota was at fault. The sheer numbers of people crammed into the back denied anyone any hope of space. There were four rows of seats and about 20 of us in total. Adrien and I had booked three seats between the two of us so that we had a little leg room. But not much. And the condition of the roads meant that cruising was never really going to be an option.

We were due to cover 900kms on road. I’d been told that 700kms of those would pass without much incident, once we’d got out of the urban shambles of Antanarivo. But the remaining 200kms would be a nightmare. And they were. We averaged single figure km/h for those 200kms. The road condition was unbelievable. I’ll include some photos but the two-dimensional image simply cannot do justice to the state of the road. You can imagine what this was doing to my backside.

I slept in fits and starts through the night (which started at about 6.30pm and ended at just before 5am). As the sun came up so did the temperature. It was a consistent 35 degrees and my bottled water was running out. I wasn’t going near anything that didn’t first come to me sealed. All I’d eaten since the flight was a packet of biscuits. I’d been warned not to touch any food until we arrived at Mandritsara. I was famished. And wonderfully, when we got to Antsohihy Adrien took me to a ‘hotel’ and we grabbed a petit dejeuner. Baguette and apricot jam never tasted so good!

Dr Adrien Ralaimiarison, is one of the two senior surgeons at the Hopitaly Vaovao Mahafaly (HVM). He’s married to Giselle, the Head Teacher of the new Christian schools in Mandritsara. Together they have three boys, one of whom is studying in France and the other two staying with family members in Antanarivo where they attend secondary school. Adrien is a consultant surgeon and yet here he was, sat in a Toyota Space Cruiser having met me at the airport so that he could accompany me to Mandritsara. He heads up the hospital with Dr David Mann and, being Malagasy, provides significant liaison with the authorities. In chatting I discovered that his father was a carpenter and his mother a teacher. And he became a surgeon, having studied Medicine initially at the University in Antanarivo and then subsequently trained in surgery in Zaire and studied at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Tropical. My point is this; he’s a very well-qualified man who could find employment in any number of countries where his standard of living would be significantly higher than it was in Madagascar. He could have his own private practice and earn a fortune if he wanted. He could afford his own Toyota instead of travelling in this one. I asked him why he stayed and why he hadn’t taken the opportunity to forge a new life for him and for his family overseas. He replied simply, ‘the gospel’. Here is a man so committed to the salvation of people in Mandritsara that he’s prepared to forego a more comfortable lifestyle to be a part of that. You can’t help but be impressed by that. And challenged. Mainly challenged if I’m honest. Most London Christians, like me, leave London and leave our churches assuming (if we think at all) that someone else will do the gospel work necessary to bring the gospel to this city. I suspect there’s something that we could learn from Dr Adrien.

Madagascar Diary – Post 2

So far it’s been a tale of two Islands. In the past few hours I’ve already visited two tropical destinations in the Indian Ocean. But I’ve recently learnt that I won’t be visiting a third. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

First, some disclaimers that ought to save me from being taken to the cleaners for a hopelessly superficial and naïve analysis!

I won’t be able to plumb the complexities of these two Island economies. Not even my hugely impressive (and some would say, unexpected) Grade A in A Level Economics is able to help me do that. I’ll just fire from the hip. Neither Island will get a second chance to make a first impression. But I’m fine with that. It’s all I’m dealing with at this stage. So far I’ve not seen a whole load of either Island. But I don’t think I’ll need to. They are poles apart and that’s what’s been so surprising.

First up is St Denis de la Reunion. To all intents and purposes it was like being in France, because that’s what it is. It’s a French Department. And it shows. It was just like being in the South of France but with more palm trees. The plane out of Charles de Gaulle was full of French holiday makers heading off for a few weeks in the sun. I’d never heard of it much to the surprise of the Air France customer services lady who rearranged my flights after missing the plane out of Paris. But a few conversations with my neighbours on the flight filled in the significant holes in my knowledge. From what I saw in the hours I was allowed out of the airport, it’s an ordered, well governed tropical island paradise. It demonstrates what’s possible when a country is well run and allowed to flourish.

The second island is Madagascar. It’s the fourth biggest Island in the world. It’s also one of the poorest countries in the world. One website had it at 35th. I thought it was poorer than that; someone told me it was the fourth poorest country but I’ve not been able to find any statistics to verify that. But nevertheless, even at 35th that’s poorer than Kenya, Ghana, Bangladesh and Cameroon.

Arriving in Antananarivo, the capital brings you face to face with urban poverty straight from the off. I’m happy to use the word ‘squalor’ to describe much of what I saw. In the bus depot, bare footed kids walked through roads littered with discarded animals’ entrails. The place was filthy. And I’m not sure how it could be otherwise. The volume of traffic, the huge numbers of people, the chaos of the inadequate road system and the absence of urban planning brings everything to a predictably noisy grid lock. And in the midst of that traffic jam, life was nevertheless hectic. It was a complete chaotic mess. But you should have seen our taxi driver. The man would excel on the starting grid at any Formula 1 Grand Prix. And he could teach Felipe Massa a thing or two about avoiding collisions. I never feared for my life. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be a epdestrian.

Of course, it may be different out in the rural areas but I’m not expecting it. I’m going to need to ditch all my Pixar influenced notions of a lush green tropical paradise. It may have a whole load of wildlife that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. But this is a country where 90% of the rainforests have been systematically plundered. I’m expecting rice fields, small villages and rural poverty. It’s the dry season at the moment and so it’s perhaps a little unfair to judge it on that. But I’ll let you know what I find on my 900kms taxi ride to Mandritsara. It may grow on me. But it’s not really got under my skin yet; just on my nerves!

The third island was supposed to be Isle Ste Marie. It’s where the missionaries were due to be taking themselves and their families for their long weekend spiritual retreat. That’sw hy I’m here. But it’s not happening. There’s something wrong with the Missionary Aviation Fellowship plane and so it’s been grounded. They must be gutted. I’m not. Not in the same way, at least. Coming to Madagascar is an adventure anyway. Ste Marie would have been the icing on the cake. What’s not to love about swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean. But not this time.  I suspect that they missionaries are putting a brave face on it. They’ll be looking forward to welcoming me and hearing God speak to them in 1 Corinthians. But I bet they’d have much preferred to be doing that near the beach. I’ll be with them sometime tomorrow, after the world’s longest taxi ride.

Madagascar Diary – Post 1

An inauspicious start, it would be fair to say. It’s five o’clock in the afternoon and I should be in the air somewhere over Africa. I ought to be reclining in a comfortable seat, gin and tonic in one hand enjoying a film I’d never pay to see, and due to arrive in Madagascar in a few hours’ time. But I’m not. I’m in Paris. Charles de Gaulle airport to be precise. Fog over France meant that my connecting flight from London Heathrow didn’t get here in time. We were delayed by over an hour and they left without me. But the wonderful customer services staff of Air France has found an alternative way to get me to my destination. And so, instead of arriving tonight, having a night in a hotel and travelling up to Mandritsara in the morning, I’m going via an Island in the Indian Ocean I’ve never heard of. Sadly there won’t be an opportunity to stop off and savour the delights of the beach but I may make up for that in Madagascar.

I guess I need to back track and say something about why I’m going. The church of which I’m the senior minister supports a medical missionary couple who we’ve known and loved for years. Peter and Claire-Lise Judkins were some of the first people to join us when we planted CCB. A few years later they headed off to Benin for a years’ short term mission project. And they got the taste for mission. Peter then did a two year part-time apprenticeship with us, funded by working part-time at St George’s Hospital Tooting. He and Claire-Lise, now with their two girls Keziah and Naomi, are living in a town called Mandritsara in the north of Madagascar. They’re involved in the Good News Hospital, which was set up twenty years ago by Dr David Mann, a missionary from the UK. I’ll say more about this work in subsequent posts. At this stage all I know is what I’ve read and what others have told me. I’m looking forward to getting some firsthand knowledge of what’s going on there. David has kindly asked me to come out to Madagascar and teach on the spiritual retreat for the missionary staff. The CCB elders were enthusiastic, the International Support Group from Co-Mission was supportive and David was persuasive. I took it to the Chief of Staff and she wasn’t obstructive! She actually thought it’d be a good thing for me and a real encouragement to Peter and Claire-Lise. And so, it was an invitation I didn’t feel I could turn down.

Until very recently I’ve been reluctant to go on missionary trips. At university I developed a suspicion of the enthusiasm shown for short term mission trips. I nearly went on one. I’m glad I didn’t. I went to camp and have turned out much more useful for the gospel than I suspect I would if I had gone to West Africa as I’d planned. For me, and for my peers, short term mission had much more to do with going somewhere exciting than telling people the gospel. I’m not saying that everyone who goes has that motive. But I am saying that it’s a risk. For my money, people do more evangelism on a UK beach mission than those who sign up for missionary tourism. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe in missionary work. After all Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations and I’m not going to correct him. I support overseas mission; four of the guys we’ve had as apprentices are currently overseas. It’s just that my heart is for the church and the people in our neighbourhood. I’m not a Jonah; honest. Madagascar is not my Nineveh. I believe that the Malagasy people should have the gospel preached to them in a language that they can understand. I’m thrilled that Peter and Claire-Lise, and others like them are over there working flat out in gospel ministry. And I’m really looking forward to being a part of that. It’s just that I want the church and the congregations I serve back in the UK to believe that they’re doing missionary work by explaining the gospel to their neighbours. Mark Driscoll says something like ‘missional living isn’t simply crossing the world to take the gospel to the nations but also crossing the street to take the gospel to our neighbours’? I don’t agree with him on everything but I’m with him on this one. And so I want every Christian in our church to think of themselves as a missionary and to commit to the mission of the church. I don’t want to be one of those Christians who communicates that all the action is overseas. So I guess my lack of campaigning on the overseas mission of the church and my moderate temperature for it derives from a good and godly desire to emphasise the evangelistic mission of the local church. Don’t nail me for that. But I guess it doesn’t need to be an either-or and so I’m exploring the both-and! And for what it’s worth, one of the aspects of the missionary work in Madagascar that I’m most looking forward to is the work that Mat Linley does with the local Baptist Pastor in training church leaders. I think I‘ll have lots to ponder after seeing what they do.

But back to my reluctance. Up until five this morning, when I kissed goodbye to Rosslyn, part of me really didn’t want to go. And then it was too late; the taxi was waiting outside. I’m not sure many people are persuaded by my lack of enthusiasm for going. They couldn’t get passed the opportunity for travel. But I’m not that enamoured by travel; people matter more to me than places. And so I really don’t like leaving my family and I don’t like the disruption it causes. They need me and I enjoy having responsibility for them. I feel like I’m ditching that by being away for almost two weeks. The kids are still pretty young and can be quite full on when they want to be. And I do feel like I’m dumping Roslyn in it. And knowing that at least part of my time away won’t be spent in impoverished Malagasy countryside but on an idyllic island paradise does little to assuage my guilt! But that’s not going to stop me from making the most of it!

As you might expect, I didn’t sleep brilliantly last night. I was a little preoccupied. I spent a lot of the evening sorting and packing. I got up at five so that I could grab a shower and some breakfast before heading out to the airport for check in. I needn’t have bothered. I could have left London at the time of writing this and I’d still be able to make the flight out of Paris. But the Lord knows what He’s doing and I trust Him. It makes no sense to me whatsoever to get me out of the house before the kids were up after a weekend where I was away with our evening congregation to spend the day wandering around Paris CDG. But I’m not omniscient. And I’ve benefited from pondering that! Sadly, I’ve not been able to work as I’d hoped; a combination of standing in queues, collecting baggage and just being plain bushed. I’m currently stood in the check in queue for the 7.45pm Austral Airlines flight to St Denis de la Reunion. No? Me neither! I’m hoping to get a bit of work done on the plane but I’ve just heard the wailing cry of a small child. Forgive me for a moment, I just need to pray! OK, done.

On the spiritual retreat, I’m giving seven talks on 1 Corinthians 1-4.  Don Carson’s written a book for pastors on those chapters. I suspect it’ll be helpful. I’ve loved working hard on the text over the last couple of weeks. And I’ve been profoundly challenged by some Corinthian tendencies in my own motives and methods. But Carson’s a genius with the Bible and he gets ministry so I owe it to the missionaries to at least have responded to his material. He may have some helpful pointers on lines of application. On the first flight to Paris I began Paul Miller’s book ‘A Praying Life’. It’s been an encouraging start though the combination of turbulence and a craving for a cup of tea did little to aid my concentration. But these were only the opening chapters. He’s just limbering up. It’d be good to have finished the book by the time I get back. For that reason I only brought one secular book with me; an Alistair MacClean. I don’t want to waste the time and regret feeding my spiritual flabbiness!

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on what we do and what I made of it. I board, God willing in 45 minutes.

We have a … Pulse (Number 18, in fact)

You may have been wondering whether the Urban Pastor had a pulse these last few months. You may not have noticed that the world-wide web has been denied his theologically astute observations, his socially insightful analysis and his witty reflection on all things current. In all likelihood, you may not have cared.

The start of term has been hectic. Manic. Ridiculously so. It’s too soon to say that I can wholeheartedly return to the blogosphere. But I thought I’d post a link to the latest edition of Pulse, the Co-Mission Magazine. In it I provide a snapshot of life at CCB and Jay Marriner, our latest apprentice minister, talks about his hope to plant a church in Brixton.

In my humble opinion, it’s worth a read. Anyway, here’s the link. It’s Issue 18 that you’re after.