HEAVY LIFTERS

…which end will you lift on?

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

STRONG PREACHING

A couple of Fridays ago Reverend Tito – my favorite Tito among ALL the Titos here (and believe me, there’s a lot!) – came by. He’s kind of a bigwig in the Episcopal diocese here. More importantly, though, PBT is working on the Old Testament translation in his mother tongue, so he has a vested interest in what we’re doing. We recently published the Book of Jonah, and Tito came by to discuss the dedication ceremony which would be that following Sunday.

During the discussion, Tito asked my teammate Leah to preach. Leah insisted that she was too busy and wouldn’t have time to prepare a sermon in that time. Tito turned to me and said, “You will hold the shoes.”

Now, let me explain something at this point. Tito’s English is admittedly better than my Arabic, but sometimes I understand the words that he’s saying, but can’t quite make out the meaning. Now I know how others feel when I’m trying to communicate something to them in Arabic!

Besides that, Africans have a very indirect way of making requests. They simply will not come straight out and ask for something; it’s just not their culture. So I’m used to deciphering cryptic phrases like “You will hold the shoes” – but for some reason it didn’t click for me what he was saying. Don’t ask me what I was thinking, but it obviously wasn’t the correct interpretation.

Later that day Leah and I were talking about the dedication service. She said, “You realize you’re preaching, right?” So that’s what Tito was saying! Duh, Melinda!

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Time to go into planning overdrive. I read the Book of Jonah a few times and really thought about the key message of this short book. I prayed hard about what the Lord would have me say to His people. I put out a call for ideas on facebook.

Essentially, the Book of Jonah shows the heart of God in contrast to Jonah’s heart. While Jonah hated the Ninevites and wanted them to die, God loved them and didn’t want to destroy them.  It’s interesting to ponder why God sent Jonah to the Ninevites, when Jonah was so hateful and disobedient. Maybe God wanted Jonah to experience His heart for the lost; I don’t know.

This message was easy to prepare, but once I thought about delivering it to these particular people, I balked. Suddenly I was Jonah! Get me on the first boat out of here!

Here’s why I didn’t want to deliver this particular message to these particular people. The main point of the message was: God loves your enemies and wants you to love them like He does. As it says in 2 Peter 3:9, “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Not wanting anyone to perish. Even our enemies. Even the oppressors who have been brutalizing us in war for 50 years. Even the LRA, who still terrorize us.

I felt SO unworthy and SO hypocritical when I thought about delivering this message! I had NO right to tell these people to love and forgive their enemies, and even bring the Gospel to them. No right at all. I was safely in America while these people were living in the bush, running for their lives from marauding enemy soldiers. I was probably watching tv while my friend who stood right by my side translating was captured by the LRA and for five terrifying days was forced to carry their gear to Congo. He still has nightmares about it. I have never in my life suffered at the hands of someone else like these people have. I don’t even have “enemies”, for pete’s sake. I’m just a pampered, clueless American with no right to tell someone to forgive. I can’t with 100% honesty say I’d have an easy time forgiving someone who captured me at gunpoint. I really can’t.

But then the Lord reminded me what He was saying through Jonah: it’s not about the messenger, it’s about the message. The Lord uses many unlikely conduits for His truth. (Remember Baalam’s donkey?) So even though I’m a very fortunate American, He can speak through me to bring a message of forgiveness and love to people who really need to hear it.

So with a lot of prayer I decided to let God send His message without my interference. With a dry mouth and a pounding heart, I stood up that Sunday and gave the hardest message I’ve ever had to give in my life. I explained to them how I myself felt like Jonah. I showed them God’s heart for the lost, and showed them how we all have Jonah’s evil, selfish heart. With an encouraging smile at my translator, I told them that God loves even Joseph Kony and if He wanted us to witness to Kony, we should. He looked at me, paused, and I listened carefully to see if he actually would translate what I’d said. He did.

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Afterwards, many people were telling me with great seriousness what a “strong” message I had given. I kept hearing over and over again: Tabashiir gowi! (Strong preaching!) I could tell people were impacted, and more importantly, were thinking hard. Later that day I was able to sit down with my translator friend and sort of apologize for making him say such hard things. I explained to him how I didn’t even WANT to say those things, but that I HAD to say those things. My friend nodded in understanding and thanked me for giving them something so important to think about. He did admit that he was afraid to say the bit about Kony, and I said, “I knew you would be – so was I!” He told me that people were stopping him after church saying, “I never thought about that before! I didn’t know that’s what Jonah was about!”

So I’m living proof that God can speak through anyone. Just get out of the way and let Him speak. May His purpose be fulfilled on this earth through His people!

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NEW LIFE, NEW BEHAVIOR

In the market one Friday I spotted one of my former students, Simon, going into a shop. I chased him down to greet him, and we had a happy reunion. It’s so fun to see him around, because whenever we meet he always looks pleasantly surprised and says, “Ohhhh! Teacher!” EVERY time. It makes me smile even thinking about it.

Simon was with the pastor of his church. Theirs is a small church at the army barracks where all the people who attend are from a well-known (and somewhat feared) tribe. So we went through the usual greeting stuff: how’s your health, happy new year, etc. I promised him that I would visit his church that coming Sunday and then I went on my way.

Not two minutes later I heard, “Teacher!” and Simon was striding towards me. I thought, “Uh-oh” and braced myself for what I knew was coming. Simon and the pastor had put their heads together – quickly – and decided I should preach that Sunday. As long as I’d be there, why not preach, right? Riiiiiight.

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For about five seconds I selfishly thought of myself and the inconvenience of putting together a sermon – and then translating it into the local Arabic – in a day and a half. But quickly I reminded myself that it’s an honor to talk about God’s Word anytime, and so I accepted. Besides, that’s kind of why I’m here, right? I didn’t really sign up for the whole “preaching at the church of a tribe with violent and unpredictable tendencies” thing, but if that’s what God wants, who am I to argue?

Sunday came, and I felt as ready as I could. My neighbor/sidekick Graham went with me for moral support. The first challenge came when we couldn’t find the church. Sure, I’d been there once before, but someone had met me at the main road to lead me to the church. It’s a good ways off the main road, back in the bush.

And so we forged ahead, stopping at the occasional hut settlement, asking staring women and giggling children, “Kanisa wenu?” (Where’s the church?) This is actually quite an effective way of getting around here, as there are no addresses and the main landmarks are mango trees. You just ask someone how to get somewhere and move in the direction that they point until you see another person. It has worked for me without fail, and I highly recommend it, should you find yourself looking for a church deep in the bush. 

ImageAfter about thirty minutes (and an unfortunate detour that I won’t bother telling you about), we arrived at the church. Never mind that we were twenty minutes late; no one was worried. They’d probably heard through the grapevine that we’d been spotted and were heading (indirectly) that way. Graham and I were ushered to the two plastic chairs placed in the shade of the mango tree, and sat patiently while people came to greet us and kids stood at a safe distance, staring at us.

Who knows what the secret signal is, but suddenly everyone (but me) knows that it’s time to go in to church. Graham and I went to the designated “white people” seats on the stage, but then I was fetched, telling me that I was needed. What on earth..?

Ah, yes. The assorted clergy and what-not assemble in a small hut near the church so that they can make a solemn procession into the back of the church and down the center aisle to the stage. I’d witnessed plenty of these processions, but never had been part of one. But hey, this is a time full of “firsts” for me.

So there we moved in a (for me) surreal procession, entering into a dim grass-roof church while the drums beat and the women cried their high pitched “Ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai!” I was thinking, “Is this my life? How in the world did I get here?  Is this a dream?”

We made it to the front and I sat in one of the main chairs on the center of the stage. Since the service was in their tribal language and not in the local Arabic, I had NO IDEA what was going on. I simply stood up and sat down when the others did. And I bowed my head when I saw others do so, concentrating on hearing the word “Amen” so I could look back up. Hey, not the most meaningful and worshipful experience, but I have my times with the Lord at home.

Suddenly everyone was looking at me and Simon said, “Now you preach.” And I, ever smooth and professional, said, “What? Me? Right now? NOW?” 

The rest was a blur after that. I read the sermon a friend had helped me write in local Arabic while Simon translated into the tribal language. I preached on “New year, new country, new life, new behavior”.  At one point, I said in Arabic, “When you receive Christ as your Savior you get a new life, so your behavior also must change.” And Simon looked at me and said with realization, “Ohhhhhhhh!” It was so sweet and refreshing, but at the same time sad, because such an old-hat concept to us is something brand-new to them.

After the service, the custom is for the people on the stage to file out and line up outside the church. After you exit the church you shake the hands of people in the “receiving line,” and when you reach the end you join the line. By the time the church is cleared out, everyone is in a big circle and everyone has shaken everyone else’s hand. Yes, it’s a bit time-consuming, but yes, it’s AWESOME.  Did I mention that kids with drums bring up the rear? Yep, awesome.

When everyone had shaken hands, we clergy trooped back to the small “prep” hut for a closing prayer. Then I went back to the church yard area to say goodbye to people. The older women standing around chatting were VERY enthusiastic about my sermon! They kept saying, “Tamaam, tamaam!” (Good, good!) I’m pleased it was received so heartily, and pray that my message fell on fertile soil

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See, like I’d said, this tribe is known around here as the troublemakers. They’re kind of the bully on the block. They have been pushed down to our area because of war and in search of new grazing land for their cattle. They like to settle disputes with violence. Actually, they like violence even if there are no disputes to settle. Many, many of these people are soldiers, so many are in our town because the military placed them here. Their tribe is not indigenous to our area. So when I told people that I’d be preaching at this particular church, they had plenty of sermon ideas: “Preach about peace!” “Preach about unity among tribes!” Everyone had an agenda item for me.

Hopefully, my message about putting on new behavior with your new life in Christ covered all those bases. I know people haven’t forgotten the message, because two Sundays later I saw a few older women at a different church in town. After church they were shaking my hand enthusiastically and telling me once again how tamaam my message was. Praise God! I hope these women aren’t the only ones who received the Lord’s message so openly. I pray that the Holy Spirit is working among these people to empower them to change their disruptive behavior. May God be glorified in this town!

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