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!
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.
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!