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No Longer a Rookie

I can’t remember how many years I’ve been coming to Africa. Bonnie would know (being at heart a numbers person), but she’s not here. For the sake of discussion, let’s say more than five (a very conservative figure). During those years I’ve learned what might be called “survival Swahili,” wrote a doctrinal statement and had it professionally translated into Swahili, taught that doctrinal statement to numerous pastors, preached to many churches, seen people converted, baptized them, made many friends and have loved the people and have been loved in return. That being said, this trip has been a trip of firsts.

For the first time I’ve officiated at the Lord’s Table. The Lord’s Supper has many names (I’ve just used two), but one of the more common names, “communion,” stresses the fellowship we share with our Lord and with each other at this sacred meal. There is a supernatural bond we feel as we jointly confess our faith in remembering the death of our Lord Jesus and his return (“you do proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”). It transcends culture and language. While this has always been basic to my understanding of the ordinance, it was proved true experientially last Sunday.

I mentioned that I speak “survival” Swahili. That means I can order a cup of coffee, ask the general location and direction of something, say the word bathroom, and so forth. But I’m a long, long way from preaching in the lingua franca. Everything I say and everything said must be translated for me. In fact, the church I was priviledged to minister in last weekend needed my message to be translated first into Swahili and then into Kirundi. But the curse brought about at Babel proved no barrier to the One who indwells us. What a blessed, sacred time it was.

Also for the first time I presided over a wedding. In fact, the wedding was for ten couples at once! What was particularly interesting about this wedding is that many of the couples had their children with them. Momma Marta, for example, had her six (!) daughters, ages 29 to around 12 (I’m guessing), beaming with joy at the wedding of their parents. No, Momma Marta and her husband, the pastor of one of the REMAC churches, weren’t living in sin. Evidently the common practice is to be married by the state and then to have a church wedding if desired. For whatever reason, about half of these couples had the civil union without the blessing of a church wedding. (Note: many churches in the US are considering moving to this same practice. No longer willing to be the agents of a state that constantly redefines marriage, these churches see this practice as a shield against legal intrusion.) So there stood before us ten couples, some with a consumated marriage and some without. 

What also made this wedding unusual was the kiss. We had the couples exchange rings at the same time. Each groom held his bride’s hand above their heads and when the time came, in unision they all rammed their bride’s rings down on the appropriate fingers. But the part, “You may kiss the bride” was individual. We moved from couple to couple as the congrgation elbowed one another for position to take pictures (think roller derby only slightly rougher). So much is pretty normal. But each bride—every bride—even Momma Marta with her six children—looked like they’d rather be shot in the head than kiss in public. They all leaned forward gingerly as if expecting a static electric shock. And the kisses were so brief and so faint I swear in some cases only a couple of molocules actually made contact. Flory told me that kissing is actually a western concept. I find that difficult to comprehend, especially with the abundance of children you see everywhere. But then again, what do I know?

For the first time I conducted a baby dedication. I can’t honestly say how many mothers with children came forward, but they were many. I started to count when my eyes fell upon a woman who was dangerously thin. If you would see her in the US you would immediatley think of anorexia. Here that’s not a problem. Here the issue is poverty. My eyes moved from her to her little baby, and my heart broke. All the pastors gathered around and took a child in their arms. I moved to her and took her baby from the pastor standing in front of her. Little Naomi was so very small and appeared listless to my grandfatherly eyes. I held her close and quietly wept as I prayed diligently for her. There was nothing I could do, of course. Any help I might give would be used up quickly, and there is a vast company of such women. Still, the scene was heart rending and one that I will not forget quickly.

Finally, for the first time I helped dedicate a church. What made this special is that much of the funding for this building came from the selfless giving of my congregation and other like-minded friends. The floor is dirt. The platform is dirt behind a retaining wall of stones. There are no windows or doors. The tin for the roof is only partially complete. This made my teaching similar to an afternoon game at Minute Maid Stadium. We kept moving the lecturn and the benches to stay clear of the sun as it traversed the sanctuary. Still, we set this humble dwelling apart for the sole use of God and his people. We prayed that this holy ground (Note: “holy” means “set apart”) would never again be used for common purposes. 

The president of Slavic Gospel Association, upon hearing that I baptized when ministering in Russia, commented, “When you’ve baptized in Russia, you’re no longer a rookie.” Considering all that the Almighty has allowed me to do these past two years, I feel I can honestly say I’m no longer a rookie. I’m not claiming veteran status…yet. But, God willing it, I’ll get there. 


Gas Lines and a Nurse Named "Funny"

My sister Amy spent her first day in the clinic today. I tagged along to scope out the operation with the full understanding that I would be of little help. It’s a good thing that I was there because Amy had a little trouble, in the beginning, in getting past the accent of those who spoke English. In fairness, this is her first trip to Africa. For those who have never been there, being in a foreign country with no means of communication can be more than a bit daunting. So when Flory left for other business, I stuck around for moral support. After about an hour, Amy had tuned her ear and communication came easier. By the end of the day she had made friends and was eager to return.

It’s hard to communicate the essence of a place: the smells, the sounds, the texture, all the sensations you’ve experienced before but never in the unique concentrations or combinations of a particular location. This morning I was struck by the smell of the maternity ward. It consisted of a single bed, a lamp, and a pole for an IV. It had the smell of a room cleaned as well as soap and water could clean it without the benefit of antiseptics. Right now, as I sit in the café and write, there are songs being blared over loudspeakers across the street. It’s a Pentecostal church holding midweek service. This afternoon Flory and I fought the traffic and finally (after five previous tries) found a gas station that still had fuel to sell. People jockeyed for position in line, afraid the supply might be exhausted before their turn. We filled up for our trip to Rugombo tomorrow.

Still, the essence of a place is its people. Lost people always behave as lost people. But with those with whom share the same Spirit, the people of God, there is a link which those on the outside simply don’t have the ability to comprehend. Amy worked with Jackson, the nurse who sees people initially. He is an extremely pleasant man who smiles quickly and often. But his smile, broad by US standards, doesn’t hold a candle to one of the other nurses.

Her given name is Françiose, but she’s earned the nickname “Funny.” She explained that she always smiles and likes to laugh and that’s why everyone agreed on her new name. She sat down next to me and, with a conspiratorial smile, told me that since I smiled and laughed so much that should be my name as well. So she started calling me “Funny” from that point forward.

You’d think that with a name like that, her life would have been easy. But that’s seldom the case in central Africa. She was a refugee from the violence in Burundi and was taken to Tanzania as a little girl. It was there that she learned English. She moved back to Burundi after going to school to be a nurse. Currently she has six children ages 2-15. Her husband is a plumber, and she loves him very much. Considering her past, she feels extraordinarily blessed.

Some people travel just to travel. They enjoy the unique sensations of new places. People like that seldom come to central Africa. For me, the joy of travel is to connect with God’s people. It’s getting to fellowship and share in the joy of other members of the Body of Christ. There’s no denying that ministry is hard. But the rewards are great as well.


The Good and the Bad

I’m sitting here in the café at the Hotel Dorado in muggy Bujumbura, Burundi, reflecting on the events of the previous day and the events of the day before us. Amy will be taken to the clinic today for some initial orientation. I’m traveling to Rugombo tomorrow to start the conference.
The highlight of yesterday was the extended witnessing I did on the plane. The first flight (from Washington to Addis Ababa) was 12 hours long. Me being me, I roamed the plane and struck up a number of conversations. I had the joy of speaking to a number of individual missionaries and at least one missions group.
But it was on the flight from Addis Ababa to Bujumbura that I had the opportunity to share the Gospel. I was seated next to a pretty young woman from Austria. She was about my daughter’s age. Me being me, we quickly struck up a conversation.
The Gospel came up when, after a wide-ranging discussion of Icelandic horses, mules (of course), language, and so forth, I asked her if she had a young man. She said no. “Men don’t want to act like men anymore. They are all metrosexual and in touch with their feelings.” I asked her what she wanted in a man. She mentioned the fidelity of her father to her mother, a marriage of 40+ years. I told her that Bonnie and I had been married almost 33. Then I told her that the only way to achieve such fidelity was to have a sense of permanent and unchanging right and wrong. And from there we went into the good news of Jesus Christ.
We talked about that for a long time. When I was finished, I asked her if she had ever heard this before, she said, “no—never.” It was like nothing she and ever heard from the churches in Austria. They were places of fear. She said my story of forgiveness was beautiful. I asked her what was stopping her from trusting Christ right now. The problem was, she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the concept of faith, of trust, of reliance on the work of Christ.
We ended the conversation as the plane landed. I gave her Washington County Bible Church’s web site and told her to start with the sermons on Mark. I told her if she wrote me (I didn’t give her my email address on purpose so she would have to go to the web site to get it), I would send her a copy of my book. She seemed genuinely interested in that and even excited. We’ll see what happens. Her name is Christine if you want to pray for her.
Other than conversation, not much has gone right. I fell pretty hard the day I left and wrenched my neck and back. I’ve fallen twice since I’ve been here and banged up my left hand pretty badly. We have one lost bag from the trip with ALL of Amy’s clothes. (“I know I should have divided them between the suitcases…I just forgot”) The money we wired down here for expenses won’t be ready when we thought it would be. 
Still, I got to give the Gospel to an open heart yesterday. So that made it a good day, all things considered. 
Oh yeah, Flory thinks I’ve lost weight from last year and that my Swahili is much improved. That’s good too! :-)



Tragedy, Providence, and Faith

(I wrote this post several months ago. Since that time my father-in-law has graduated this life and is at home with the Lord. Why I never published this when I wrote it I don’t recall. But seeing as my readers don’t know these events and this still expresses truth, I’ve decided to post it now.)

An email hits my desk this morning, telling of the death of a 45-year-old pastor, as he prepared to leave for church one Sunday morning.

It leads me pondering on what a mystery are the works of God. At the same second I read about this young preacher being snatched away from family and flock, my father-in-law lies lingering in horrible health and great pain.  While he is ordained, he can no longer actively minister and repeatedly states his desire to be home with the Lord.  Yet God chooses to take a young man with children in the prime of ministry years. And so suddenly … preparing for church on Sunday morning only to be found unconscious on the floor by his wife. No chance to say goodbye or tell his family he loved them. No final message to his flock about what he considered most important for them to remember. No chance to make amends with those who were estranged (and we all have those in our lives, don’t we?) It’s the same mystery I guess that Job wrestled with.

God is not a capricious God who acts on mere whims. Indeed, “Precious in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Ps 116:15) As I recall, the word for “precious” refers to something valuable, something treasured, not to be used or traded away without careful consideration. Therefore, the LORD our God has a reason for this just as he has for all that he does. We evaluate what he does not on the basis of our finite reasoning, but rather on the knowledge of his character … that he is the definition of good and the sum of all perfections. So the apparent evil of the death of a 45 year old faithful pastor who leaves behind a wife and 6 children is not an evil at all but the best of all possible circumstances.

Still, knowing these things to be true does not remove the mystery from our finite minds; it does not lift the thick fog that blankets our thoughts from all except what God has revealed. And the truth of the matter is that God may never reveal why this occurred. His answer gave no response to the question that burned in Job’s mind: Why? 

While the Scriptures don’t really indicate such, still many people in the pew believe that these mysteries will be revealed to us when we are finally at rest in that eternal city. But I’m not so sure. Proverbs 25:2 teaches that in some way these mysteries enhance God’s glory. They work to remind us that he is the Creator, and we are the creatures, that he is completely other, that the vastness of his wisdom we will never discover. 

Perhaps I’m wrong, about eternity. Perhaps, because we are now friends of God (and more than friends, but children!), he will reveal these things to us. After all, John 15 15 records Jesus as saying, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” But who knows? Here again is another mystery about God we cannot know until then. 

At the end of the day we must remember that “the just will live by faith.” Not only is faith required to remain sane in this inexplicable world, but also because God commands it. Like the mysteries he chooses not to reveal, our faith in response to them enhances his glory. And even if we never find out the answers and eternal faith is required of us, when we are at home with him we will say with joy that this is good enough. 


A Great Day In Uvira

Thank you for praying. Here’s what happened today.

Liz and I started the day early by walking the short walk to the shore of Lake Tanganyika which is right behind the Villa Ilac where we are staying. We were both taking videos and both of us think we got some powerful shots of people coming to the lake at sunrise to wash their clothes, brush their teeth, and so forth. The sunrise was nice as well.

Then came the unpleasant discovery that, unlike last year when I stayed here, this year there is no hot water…..ever……period. We compared notes at breakfast and discovered that our coping skills for a cold shower were remarkably similar! We met a woman about my age in the cafe tonight that has stayed here for several years as have I. Every time I come back, it’s just a little bit more run down. This is what you should expect from everything here in Central Africa.

We walked the short distance to the “university” where the teaching and meetings were to be held. The teaching started out a little rough as the concepts I was teaching were completely unfamiliar with the students. Unlike last year, we had both men and women, and the classroom was packed by the end of the lesson. Even though the concepts were tough, all were very attentive and by the end of the day, I think most understood the concept of a dispensation, how they are derived from the Bible, and what characterizes all the dispensations.

Flory got up after I was finished (he came late and had one of his students translating for me in his absence). He insisted that people ask questions. There had be few prior to that. I asked him later why he did that and he said that in previous years, people save their questions till after I’m gone and then ask him! He wanted all the questions out while I was there.

The interest in the topic was intense. Some of the men complained that I wouldn’t be there long enough to finish the topic and insisted that I stay an extra day. We were planning on heading back to Bujumbura on Monday, but Tuesday afternoon will work just as well.

After the lesson was over, Liz and I came back to the hotel for rest and lunch. We discussed better ways to get the video that we wanted.

When we returned (at about 3 PM), we were shocked. The crowd was so large that in was overflowing into the street and taking up about a third of the road. We had to press our way through the mass of people that was literally packed in together.

After the choirs finished singing and dancing (a part I always love), I got up to preach. I wasn’t expecting much because in past years its been difficult for me to keep the attention of the (mostly) young crowd. I confess that while the choirs were singing, I was praying earnestly that God would bless my sermon.

People come to me all the time with short-fused requests and say something like, “Oh I’m sure it won’t be any problem for you. You’re so smart you can just wing it.” They say that only because I never wing it. My goal is always to be studied and prepared before I speak anywhere.

But I wasn’t expecting to preach today. I had no time to prepare. So…….I winged it. God, being ever merciful, made this the most effective sermon I have ever preached here. The crowd was large, they were attentive all the way through, and at the end, two people came forward for salvation.

The altar call was given by Pastor Timothy, but when they came forward, I was called forward to pray with them. They handed me the mic and I took the time to explain the Gospel as simply but as completely as I know how. I explained how we are all sinners, how our sins have earned us a wage, how wages must be paid, and how Christ paid that wage for us by dying in our place. When I was sure they understood, I prayed with them and they returned to their seats. Thus, not only did they get the gospel explained to them, but everyone else in the overflow crowd heard it as well.

Bottom line: as usual, all the glory goes to God, who condescends to help unprepared preachers. He uses his word as he sees fit, even when it is being translated into another language from a preacher speaking with notes.

It is true that there is nothing to wonderful for the Lord.

PostScript: There are not photos are movies in this blog post because I’ll be lucky (as Calvin would say) to get this text posted at all. There’s no point with the fragile internet here to even try anything more complicated. We we get home, I *promise that videos and pictures will be posted.*