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.
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.
After 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
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!