I love summertime. I have always loved it. It brings back some of my best memories of childhood, which includes, at the very top of the list, trips to Surfside Beach. Every summer my family would rent a small cottage down near the beach and spend a week there. Dad was always a little less stressed and we would play in the sand, swim until we were waterlogged, look for shark’s teeth, fish off the surf, and get sunburned. Getting burned wasn’t much fun but the rest of it was a blast. The day ended with showers for all and a trip down to Murrell’s Inlet for some of the best seafood in the world. We were usually there with my Mom’s parents, and a lot of the talk at the table included stories about previous beach trips and childhood stories from my grandparents about growing up in the 1920s. My granddad would talk about some of the crazy things that happened to him when he was a deliveryman for a laundry and then later a journeyman electrician. My grandmother was a receptionist at Whitaker Park in Winston-Salem, and would regale us with stories about meeting people like Lucille Ball and Gary Moore.
After supper we would often walk down to one of the docks at the inlet where the deep sea fisherman were cleaning up from a day out at sea. As a little boy I would stand with my mouth agape at some of the big marlins, giant bluefin tuna, and other game fish that were on display on the docks. Occasionally someone would have a hammerhead or tiger shark strung up on the scales, and we three boys would ogle and point and threaten to push one another into their fearsome and jagged rows of teeth. Dad would almost always get one of the fishermen into a conversation about his big catch, and I learned from my father that you really don’t have to be afraid to talk to anybody as long as you are asking them about themselves.
We would spend the rest of the evening back at the cottage, either playing cards or working on a 1,000-piece puzzle in the living room, or sitting on the front porch and listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. The conversation again would turn to childhood stories, and I would listen and learn of my heritage. I also learned what a good story sounds like and would practice telling the stories of my own life in my head, pretending at times that I would write them all down in a book one day.
The next day at Surfside Beach would be very much like the previous day. But we never got tired of it, and by May every year my brothers and I were counting the days until summer vacation and dreaming of the trip to the beach. It was one week of family time without any interruption from school or chores or friends.
Jesus told His disciples on more than one occasion, “Come apart by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile.” Vance Havner used to say that if we don’t come apart and rest awhile, then we will come apart. I for one am very thankful for my parents’ commitment to taking an annual vacation with their three sons. I don’t remember exotic trips to far away places. I remember salty, sunny seascapes, simple fun, sprinkled with stories and lots of laughter.
It nourished my young soul.
I just learned last week that a longtime ministry partner, Simon Mkolo, has died. Simon was 81 years old and left behind six children and a wife. I met Simon in Zimbabwe, where he lived, in 1999. I had the privilege to go back in 2007, at Simon’s invitation, to speak to a church leaders conference in the village of Manjolo. Here are some memories I wrote down about that journey.
Its name means “the big house of stone.” Zimbabwe is bordered by two rivers and boasts one of the largest waterfalls in the world. “Smoke that Thunders,” known as Victoria Falls, is a sight to behold. The wildlife reserves of Zimbabwe draw tourists from all over the world. The breathtaking beauty of this country’s landscape, however, stands in stark contrast to the bone-crushing poverty of its people. Nearly 75% of the people live in chronic poverty.
I did not go there to try and fix the economy or to confront the political landscape. Nether did I go to address the AIDS epidemic, though more than one-fifth of the nation then was infected with HIV, and more than 500 adults and children were being infected every day. One doctor said, “People are dying of AIDS before they can starve to death.” I did not go to try and help the orphan problem, though there were more orphans per capita in Zimbabwe than anywhere else in the world.
I went to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He alone has the power to change a nation. I went to serve alongside Simon Mkolo. Simon met the Lord Jesus as a young man while serving a prison term for being a political rabble-rouser in the 1970s. He came out of prison with a different message and life purpose. Instead of trying to change Zimbabwe from the top down, Simon began to work from the bottom up. He went to the common people, the laborers, the farmers, the merchants. He told them the story of how his life was transformed by a Galilean carpenter, and he invited them to meet the Savior. His message took hold in the hearts of thousands, because the gospel of Jesus Christ “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Since he became a Christian, Simon has planted over 300 churches, and each of those churches is making a difference in the towns and villages of a suffering nation.
There were hundreds of people in attendance at the conference in Manjolo, many of whom had walked for four or five hours to get there. They slept on concrete floors in cinderblock school buildings during the week. They gathered under two huge trees and sat from nine o’clock in the morning until nine in the evening. They ate sadsa, the staple food made of maize “flour” and water.
And they worshipped God in the most exuberant and refreshing way I have ever experienced. Singing at the tops of their lungs, they leapt and danced in such a way that huge clouds of dust rose up and danced with them. When we stood up to speak, they applauded wildly, not for us but for the opportunity to hear someone preach the Word of God. They listened patiently as the interpreter spoke our words in their native tongue, Tonga. They took notes, flipping through their Bibles to every passage mentioned. And when the message ended, they bowed their heads to pray.
There was one moment during the week that made me tremble. Dozens of church leaders were standing at the front, having responded to an invitation by Simon Mkolo and the local pastor. Simon turned and asked me to speak a word of encouragement to them, and my mind went to the book of Esther, the story of a young Jewish woman who became Queen of Persia at the same time there was a plan to destroy all of the Jewish people. Mordecai said to her, “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” I challenged them that God has brought them to a place of leadership at such a time as this, when the stability of their nation stands on the brink. As I spoke, some of the people began to weep and then to wail. They were crying for their country and they were crying out to God for strength and wisdom and for help.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives. It changes hearts. It gives hope where there is none. It changes sinful and deadly health habits and calls people to repentance and faith. It changes sexual behavior and calls people to biblical marriage. The Gospel moves people to have compassion on the hungry and to provide shelter for the orphans.
Zimbabwe is in dire straits, and I don’t suggest for a moment that we need to stop giving money and medical supplies to organizations like the Red Cross and others. But money and supplies are temporary solutions that improve the quality of life for a day or a week. It is the church in Zimbabwe, led by men like Simon Mkolo, that is changing lives for eternity.
That’s why I traveled to the “big house of stone.” I went to help Simon tell Zimbabwe about the rock of ages.