The Man Who Looks and Looks and Doesn’t See

David and Jane Newsome, from the UK, have been close friends of Hands at Work for about six years. Both David and Jane are pastors and the Hands family at the Hub in South Africa recently had the privilege of hearing David speak. Below we'd like to share his timely and humble (as well as humbling) message.

This is our sixth year of visiting Hands at Work and yet we still feel very much as beginners. I was reflecting this time, as we visited communities, that I think I probably understand only about ten to twenty per cent of each encounter. I have been reminded of our first visit to South Africa, which wasn’t to Hands. We first came as a family as tourists in 2001. I had a colleague who was South African and we came with her to stay with her family. Her brother-in-law was a zoologist with the Natal Parks Board and so we spent a week with him and his family at the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. It was wonderful, it was like having our own private game guide, taking us on bush walks every day and benefiting from his expertise. I always remember him telling me one night as we sat around a camp fire watching the moon rise, how their Zulu trackers gave nicknames to all the zoologists. One of his colleagues they called in Zulu ‘The man who looks and looks and doesn’t see.’ What an indictment and what a challenge! ‘The man who looks and looks and doesn’t see.’

How then are we to attend effectively, to truly look and listen?

Modern writers on mission talk about the importance of ‘double listening’. Firstly, listening to God - through his word, through prayer and through his people. Secondly, listening to the culture and community in which we are set. What are the values, attitudes and beliefs of that culture, how is God already at work there and how is he speaking through it?

Whilst we have been away I have been reading a book which has reminded me of the work of the American theologian Walter Wink. Wink explores the notion of the Angel of the Church in the book of Revelation which he sees as an embodiment of the personality, character and attitudes of the particular church. He then extends this notion to the consideration of societies, organisations and groups and asks what is their Angel – their corporate personality. This got me thinking about what is the Angel of Swaziland? Swaziland, the world’s only remaining absolute monarchy, without political parties or an official opposition, a culture of hierarchy and deference.

How are we to overcome such an Angel?

Firstly, with prayer and intercession. Walter Wink stresses the importance of intercession. In a memorable passage he states how when “unprotected by prayer our social activism runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, the wells of love run dry and,” and in a chilling warning, “we are slowly changed into the likeness of the beast.”

But with intercession, he argues, “we visualise an alternative future … it infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocating atmosphere of the present.”

All of this emphasises the importance of what you do here today and the priority you give to prayer during the week. It shows, too, how crucial it is to have time out like George [Snyman, Hands at Work founder and currently on sabbatical] is doing in order to reflect and take stock before God. Waiting on the Lord, and being still and knowing that he is God.

One of my greatest memories of our first visit to South Africa, and the time we spent in the game park, was when Martin, our guide, took us at midday to a hide by a waterhole. We sat and had our lunch and looked out on an empty waterhole and I wondered at wasting our time in such an apparently fruitless way. But it was only as we waited in the stillness that I slowly became aware that the scene in front of us was teeming with life. The ‘log’ floating by the side of the pool suddenly ‘became’ a crocodile, the area around the pool was alive with a rich variety of birds and gradually warthogs, impala and other small animals began to approach the water. It was in the stillness and the waiting that the signs of life were seen.

Secondly, by remembering: Levy [Mwende from Zambia and a leader at Hands] helped me in thinking about this. He was talking about a project where he said “they talk a great deal about money and funders, but not about God. They need to remember what he has already done.”

One of the advantages of coming over the years is that we are able to see the changes. It is a bit like when you are parents of small children, it is only when you look at photographs taken previously that you become aware of just how much thy have changed. I guess for you working here on the ground it can be equally hard to see to see the developments.

When we first came to Masoyi, Levy was working as a nurse doing home-based care visits in the day-time and running the youth group at night. We were very concerned at how hard he was working and used to take him to Mugg & Bean and mop his brow! Asking if we could help, he gave us his youth group to run for a month whilst he took the evenings off. This was an adventure in itself! But how wonderful it was to hear this time of how Elvis, Fortunate, Selby [all high schoolers who were a part of the Forward Education programme] and others are now doing.

Visitors are perhaps able to see all of this in a way that you can’t always. Remember what the Lord has done and before which kings will shut their mouths.

Thirdly, recognising our strength when working together: At the [weekly] men’s prayer [meeting at the Hub] last week James [a volunteer from Australia] led us in a reflection on Belonging which reminded me of the way that Desmond Tutu speaks so much about Ubuntu that ‘I am, only in relation to others’: “The quality of ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanise them.” Our identity and strength is bound up in one another as part of the Body of Christ.

Finally, in our home in England which the church provides for me to live in I have a lovely study. It has a prayer corner and there I have a picture which a friend gave me from my first visit to Africa, to Malawi. It is a photo of a young girl with a baby, and written in calligraphy below are the words of the South African national anthem: ‘Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika’ – God bless Africa. Each day I look at it and it reminds me of you all and I remember you in my prayers. And like St. Paul “I thank God in every remembrance of you.” I know that you often use The Message translation for your watchwords and Eugene Peterson’s rendering of these verses is just so apt:

“Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer.”

Then a bit further on, in chapter four, Paul urges us not to be anxious. Years ago a friend of mine used to paraphrase this as ‘worry about nothing, pray about everything.’ Once again Peterson hits the mark with:

“Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.”

Please pray for us in the UK as we pray for you, especially, that we can breathe further life into the work of Hands there. AMEN.