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Brazil 2010 - a Back Pew View

A Bit to Read

Brazil 2010 - a Back Pew View

It’s Thursday evening, 7:45.  Together with two seminary students (Elton and Marcel) I’m sitting on the back pew of a Congregational Church in a back suburb of Recife.  Rev Julius vanSpronsen had been asked to speak to the congregation here on the Spirituality of John Calvin, and so the four of us had hoped into the mission vehicle and found our way through the city to this church.  Not that this group was reformed in its thinking, for it was a congregational church.  But via contacts established through a study of Calvin’s Institutes put on by the Training Centre (a study organization sponsered by the Aldeia Training Centre), the minister of this Congregational Church got to know “Pastor Julius”, this led to that, and an invitation came to Rev vanSpronsen to tell the group something about how John Calvin lived out the spirituality that ought to characterize the reformed Christian.  It was an opportunity Rev vanSpronsen did not think he ought to pass by.  Yet (as he told me), he would not give detail about how Calvin demonstrated piety in the details of his life, for Calvin was and remained but a sinful man, and so his example about when he prayed, how he read the Bible (or how often per day), etc, doesn’t help other sinners all that much.  Far more important would be to draw out the instruction of the same Scripture that Calvin drew from.  So here I sit on this wooden pew, understanding scarcely a word of his address, and so take the opportunity to share my experiences with the dear folk at home while the people assembled here are being instructed from God’s word.

The drive in was quite instructive.  The church itself is on a relatively short street, yet as we navigated the street (it’s narrow, and there’s cars parked who knows where, and people walk anywhere), we spotted three churches before we got to the one we sought – and directly beside this church is a fifth.  Each church is open on this Thursday evening, for the Brazilians (I gather) are rather religious.  So many of these churches are variations of the Brazilian brand of Pentecostalism, where the thought is that through your efforts and contributions (eg, diligent church attendance, even during the week) you can twist God’s arm to bless you.  Whether that thought exists in the church we’re in this evening I don’t know.  There must be 30 adults present, and half as many children, and Yes, they listen attentively.  I’m curious (and I know my companions are too) as to what the reaction of this crowd will be to an opening of the Scripture on the topic of what the renewing work of the Holy Spirit looks like in the life of the child of God.

I didn’t have to come along with Pastor Julius this evening.  I’d lectured three hours this morning and two more this afternoon, and tomorrow will be another full day – and I haven’t begun the preparations for tomorrow’s lectures.  But here was a chance to see something of what challenges face our missionaries and how they meet these challenges, and so I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity.

Actually, this evening is the second time that I’m on the road with one of the missionaries on an unpredictable outing.  As a result of a contact established in the Reformed Reading Room, Rev Ken Wieske had been asked to preach for the Independent Reformed Church last Sunday evening.  This was a group that had sought to be reformed in doctrine and so was squeezed out of their federation some time ago.  They couldn’t find a church to join, and so this group had been on their own for a couple of years, had eventually come across the Reformed Churches of Brazil, and so requested Rev Wieske to preach.  Six Brazilians were in attendance last Sunday evening in a ‘church’ a little bit bigger than a one car garage (for the interested, a photo of that little group with us present is posted on Rev Wieske’s facebook), but the small number did not deter Rev Wieske.  These six, he told me, were the sheep the Lord gave him to feed that evening, and so he did – with all he had.  Reaction to the preaching of Christ crucified for sinners was very positive.  The elder of this group turned up this past Monday evening at the Reformed Reading Room (where I spoke on the Fencing of the Lord’s Supper), and Tuesday he had a meeting with Rev Wieske.  The result: our missionaries have another preaching point in the city of Recife, for this little group wants their help….  It will take some time for the missionaries (and the office bearers of the church in Recife) to get to know what makes this little church tick, and yet getting to know them is imperative if this church is to be received into the federation.  And if this isn’t enough, Rev Wiekse left this afternoon for a visit to some town somewhere in the jungle of the Amazon….  Another contact that called out for help, and so a missionary went….  Meanwhile, Rev vanSpronsen had just returned Monday from a visit to contact in Manaus and on the way home visited with the fledging church in Fortaleza….  And so it goes, cry for help after cry for help….  The brothers are running off their feet….  It’s not just the travel that goes with the visiting, but the mental work that’s required to understand the nuance of a particular group (no two are the same) and then take them by the hand from where they’re at and lead them further down the road to being reformed in all their thinking, both confessionally as well as church politically.  There’s too much to do – and that’s why they’re desperate to train more ministers, men able to address the crying need….  But training ministers is itself fulltime work!  Revs Wieske and vanSpronsen are teaching the seminar students some courses here and there, and getting help also from some of the native ministers as well as Hamilton’s missionary in Maceio, but these men are also running off their feet.  Again, the teaching isn’t only the hours it takes to give the instruction, but obviously also the hours it takes to get the material straight in your own mind and cast it into lesson format.  And then there are the exams the follow the courses or perhaps marking the essays the students have to write….  And I’ve said yet nothing of their preaching schedule….  Truly, the work expected of these men makes my head spin. 

What I’m doing with my time here then?  Well, I arrived Friday afternoon after a 23 hour trip from Vancouver.  Saturday morning I addressed the group that habitually gathers in the Aldeia Training Centre for Men’s Training.  Three lectures of one hour each on the Baptism Form took us till lunch time, then a communal meal that took till 2 PM.  Sunday morning I preached a sermon on Lord's Day 40 in the church in the suburb of Caramabige.  In the evening, as mentioned above, I accompanied Rev Wieske to that Independent Church on the far side of the city.  Monday morning I began lectures on the Belgic Confession, then spent the afternoon preparing for the evening’s lecture at the Reformed Reading Room as well as the lectures for Tuesday morning.  Tuesday and Wednesday we put in six hours of lectures each day.  I’m certainly enjoying the work, but this trip is no holiday!

Well, Rev vanSpronsen is still lecturing, the crowd is still very attentive, and slowly growing.  I have no idea whether the latecomers are congregation members just free from work and/or domestic duties on this Thursday evening.  It’s also possible that, because the doors of the church are open and there’s no glass in the windows, and the speakers are turned all the way up, that folk from the street are drifting in to have a listen.  Unlike Canadians, Brazilians are not at all squeamish to speak about matters of faith, or to drift into an assembly to hear what’s being said about the Scripture.  So who knows who’s here or why…. 

Back to the lectures at the ATC.  Two men are enrolled in the seminary course.  It seems so small…, but I recall that when I enrolled in the Theological Seminary in Hamilton back in the late 70’s there was a total of 5 students – and in the year I started I sat alone with the professor in the classroom.  Then two doesn’t sound all that bad!  A third brother joined the class on Tuesday; he’d been a minister in a congregational church, had preached in a Biblically faithful manner, and was booted out of his church and job.  He hopes to become a minister in the Reformed Churches of Brazil, but it will be some time before the churches have a Synod to entertain his request.  So he bussed in from far away on Tuesday to join the classes for a few days.  There are a couple other brothers from the area who have fulltime jobs but are hoping to begin studies for the ministry in the next year or two.  As they have opportunity, they take time off work and/or come for the evening to join the lectures.  And a couple of neighborhood men join as they have opportunity.  So the number now floats from three in the mornings to six or seven in the evening classes.  Worth it??  These young men are drinking it in.  I hear from them time and again that it’s the way the Scriptures are tied together in the explanation of the Belgic Confession that they absolutely love – and to them that’s rather new.  They’re taping everything in audio as well as video format, in both English and translation, and the idea is that this material be uploaded to the seminary website for future reference.  Wow, this pew is not very comfortable…, but I see I’m the only one fidgeting a bit – and Rev vanSpronsen has been talking now for nearly an hour…, richly sprinkling his talk with various references to passages of Scripture, if the fact that the folk are paging to specific passages of Scripture from time to time means what I think it means.

You’ll wonder about the physical premises of the Aldeia Training Centre.  It’s a kilometer or so off the main highway down a dirt track, but wow, what a property!  The existing infrastructure is fantastic as far as it goes, be it that it needs maintenance – as does every building in Recife.  It’s rainforest country, with daily temperatures around 28 degrees in both winter and summer.  That mixture of heat and humidity makes everything growth quickly, including moss.  It also means that moisture gets into any wall and eats away at the mortar and the plaster.  So buildings look old and moldy very quickly, and it’s not just looks….  Then there’s the challenge posed by the termites; they eat timber for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and so soon enough another building begins to sag….  Perhaps using better materials will help, but maintenance will obviously remain an item requiring ongoing attention – and now Rev vanSrponsen has just finished his paper…, and the local minister has a talk – of application? Of appreciation?  Or correction?  The tone certainly doesn’t sound like the latter…, but time will tell.  Rev vanSpronsen is wearing a big smile….  I learn on the way home that the minister summed up the speech very well for his congregation, and that he was very appreciative of the message his people received.  A number of leading men also spoke with Rev vanSpronsen after the meeting, and the signals were all very positive.  Reason for gratitude!  Who knows where this contact will go.  Meanwhile, the Scriptures were opened for the benefit and edification of the hungry.  And that’s a blessing!

It’s now Friday morning, and I’d better get this little Bit to Read finished for a sendoff to the printer.  But let me add an anecdote experienced on the way home last evening.  We were approaching the ATC when we spotted a bicycle on the side of the road with a young man beside it.  Slow down a bit…, and we spot a car that had gone off the road and hit a tree.  So Rev vanSpronsen did what we would all do; stop, roll down a window and ask whether all was OK or was help needed….  Answer: all was fine.  OK, so we continue on our way.  One of the two seminary students travelling with us used to be a policeman.  After a bit he spoke up with his advice to Rev vanSpronsen never again to do what he’d just done.  For that damaged car needs to be replaced…, and the car we were driving was as good an option as any.  Yet they wouldn’t take the car without killing the occupants, for dead bodies don’t talk….  Oops, advice appreciated….  So we were thankful to arrive safely home.

Breakfast time at the vanSpronsens….  I’ll sign off, and wish you all God’s indispensable blessing.  My thoughts and prayers are with you.

C Bouwman

November 12, 2010