Shia LaBeouf, the "F-Bomb," and an Argument so Bad it Isn't Even Wrong

Dear _________,

I’m pleased to respond to your inquiry concerning the web article in question. The fact that you asked for my guidance shows a level of trust that I don’t take for granted. Plus, my great love for you makes me eager to help you think this through in any way I can. 

Before I deal with the argument of this blog post, I must plead a thorough lack of familiarity with the subject at hand. Specifically, I had never heard of Shia LaBeouf prior to this article. Yes, yes, I know—my ignorance of contemporary culture is truly profound and marveled at by many. 

Background

This being said, I’ve done my homework. I’ve read the article by Elvis Mitchell entitled (appropriately) Shia LaBeouf in Interview Magazine. In this article, Mitchell describes LaBeouf as someone who has a “stubbornness in recognizing boundaries [that] seems consonant with LaBeouf’s public conduct of late.” This behavior includes

…his 2013 dustup with Alec Baldwin during rehearsals for the play Orphans, from which LaBeouf was later ousted, and continues through his recent arrest in New York City for criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, and harassment, after disturbing a Broadway performance of Cabaret. In 2013, when it turned out that the plot of LaBeouf’s short film HowardCantour.com (2012) had been purloined from graphic novelist Daniel Clowes’ 2007 comic Justin M. Damiano, the actor-director responded with a series of tweet apologies that also appeared to be shoplifted. 

The interview that follows is profanity-laced and utterly forgettable, at least from the point of view of someone who doesn’t share the culture’s view of acting as a noble profession. Still, one section of it is noteworthy. LaBeouf remarks that, during the filming of the movie Fury where he plays a religious character, “I became a Christian man.… in a very real way. I could have just said the prayers that were on the page. But it was a real thing that really saved me. And you can’t identify unless you’re really going through it. It’s a full-blown exchange of heart, a surrender of control.”

Evidently, the two individuals most influential in this decision were Brad Pitt and director David Ayers. Brad Pitt was raised in a Christian environment but has since rejected religion as the “people’s opium, almost like a Marxist view on religion,” while Ayers is “a full subscriber to Christianity.” Nevertheless, according to LaBeouf, “these two diametrically opposed positions both lead to the same spot.” I’m not exactly sure how this works, but there it is. Such an explanation leaves much unanswered. It seems reasonable to presume that there was some kind of Christian tract involved as he didn’t just say “the prayers that were on the page.” But one really doesn’t know. 

While one never knows what goes on in the heart, and Christian charity goads one into taking LaBeouf at his word, one does wonder about the excessive profanity in his profession of faith. Even if his control of his language is … incomplete … one must assume that he had the opportunity to edit the interview after giving it. With a Jewish mother and a Pentecostal father, LaBeouf must know how offensive such language would be to his fellow believers. But perhaps this is the “stubbornness in recognizing boundaries” commented on above.

Enter Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle, (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is the author of the blog Theology in the Raw. Dr. Sprinkle is evidently incensed that some believers wonder about the confessed conversion of Mr. LaBeouf. He has written about it under the provocative title “F-Bomb and Bikinis: What it Really Means to be a ‘Christian.’” (Note: This same article, with only minor revisions, is posted one year earlier under the title “Christians Are Quick to Judge this Famous New Believer, But How Different is He from the Disciples?” What is peculiar is that the earlier article has the byline of Brian Orme, while at the same time having a blurb about Preston Sprinkle at the bottom of the page. One is forced to conclude that either Dr. Sprinkle is a blatant plagiarist or that this is an issue he cares about deeply, having posted the same article under two different titles one year apart.)

In this article, Sprinkle’s argument is nothing more than one long, drawn-out straw man. Here is his argument in a nutshell: Different Christian communities find different activities not in keeping with applied Christianity (Note: Paul addresses this in Romans 14). In his argument, Sprinkle cites example after example of believers with differing values. From this fact, Sprinkle draws the following conclusion: 

When you try to cut out Christians with a religious cookie cutter, you not only tarnish diversity, but you trample on grace. It’s one thing for Christian subcultures to cultivate unique values. But it becomes destructive when those values are chiseled on Sinaitic tablets for all to obey. It’s even worse when Christians expect instant holiness from recent converts—holiness, that is, in areas where we think we’ve nailed it.

The statement “2 + 2 = 5,” is wrong. In contrast, the statement “2 + 2 = an egg sandwich” isn’t even wrong. It’s beyond wrong. It’s incoherent. Sprinkle’s argument is so bad, it’s not even wrong. 

No one that I know argues that the use of the “F-Bomb” is a matter of conscience. As Paul teaches, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Eph 4:29 NIV). Therefore, to expect some restraint in this area is not expecting “cookie cutter” Christians. It is clearly a matter of personal holiness. To ask LaBeouf to curtail his language in this regard is not trampling on grace. Grace should never be used as a license to sin.

What makes Sprinkle’s argument incoherent is that he suddenly shifts the substance of his argument and reasons from the contrary of his previous position. Instead of assuming that censuring such language tramples on grace, he argues that expecting restraint in language is to “expect instant holiness from recent converts.” Here he evidently concedes that the “F-Bomb” is not in keeping with personal holiness and not a matter of conscience. The fault lies in people expecting holiness from a recent convert. 

Thus, either those who object to Mr. LaBeouf’s language are seeking cookie-cutter Christians, or they are expecting instant holiness from recent converts. One appeals to Dr. Sprinkle to make up his mind. To which crime does he wish us to plead guilty?

But Dr. Sprinkle is not done. His final argument may be laid out this way: Shia LaBeouf is a sinner. The 12 disciples were sinners. Therefore, to condemn LaBeouf’s actions is to condemn the 12 disciples. This is a textbook example of the fallacy of questionable analogy. The logical structure is this: (1) A and B are similar. (2) A has a certain characteristic. (3) Therefore B must have that characteristic too. A brief review of his argument hopefully will make this more plain.

Sprinkle describes the 12 disciples this way: “I know we’re programmed to see the 12 apostles as saints with halos and contemplative faces. But actually, they were criminals. These guys were more like prisoners than pastors, and few of them would have been let inside our churches today.” This is so wrong on so many levels that one hardly knows where to begin. 

First, there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the 12 disciples were criminals. It is unquestionably true that they were flawed men. But criminals? Please. Second, the assumption is made that criminals wouldn’t be allowed in our churches? Really? Every pastor I know would LOVE to have criminals attend their service and hear the gospel. This type of negative stereotype isn’t worthy of a serious response. It is a straw man of the worst order. Third, even if the 12 disciples were criminals (which they were not), they didn’t remain criminals. And it should be remembered that Jesus didn’t hesitate to tell them when they were wrong.

I don’t want to misrepresent Dr. Sprinkle, nor be unkind to him, but it appears, at least to me, that he holds a deep contempt for the traditional church and finds its condemnation of sin offensive. This may be seen not only in his understanding of homosexual marriage and transgender pastors, but also in the summation of his article.

You cannot sanitize grace. You can’t stuff it into a blue blazer and make it wear khakis. Grace is messy, offensive and it sometimes misses church. To expect God to pump prefabricated plastic moral people out of a religious factory is to neuter grace and chain it inside a gated community. If God’s scandalous relationship with the 12 thugs means anything, then we should expect a variegated spectrum of righteousness and be patient—or repentant—when such sanctification doesn’t meet out expectations. God meets us in our mess and pushes holiness out the other side.

It is true that God “meets us in our mess” and “pushes holiness out the other side.” But grace never excuses our sin. The grace of God acknowledges our sin and loves us in spite of it. But such love never allows us to remain in it. And this is the distinction that Dr. Sprinkle has chosen to forget.

Conclusion

In the end, there is little to commend this article. It is filled with straw men, false “facts,” and borders on the incoherent. My advise is to pay it as little attention as possible. As for the conversion of Shia LaBeouf, I have little to say. I don’t know his heart and, to be completely candid, I’m not called to have an opinion. 

I hope this has helped.

Your affectionate friend,

Bruce

 

Risking Reconciliation

Dear ______,

Let me begin by lightening your heart. I assure you there is no problem between us. I haven't been offended in any way. There is absolutely no damage done to our friendship and relationship in Christ. 

I want to thank you for your email. In fact, I'd like to commend you for even writing in the first place. Most people wouldn't. To write in such a way as to make yourself vulnerable and open to criticism, all for the sake of harmony in the body, is a bold move. To ask if your actions have offended invites a critical, even hostile, response.

Similarly, to speak in favor of another brother, taking the side of love and assuming the very best of intentions, risks being dragged into a dispute not of your making. For the record, I am aware of no issues between myself and the brother you mention. Still, you had no way of knowing that. 

People are unpredictable. And since all people have had their lives ravaged by sin, that volatility all too often expresses itself in bitterness, malice, and hostility. Everyone has experienced, at one time or another, shock and bewilderment as rancor and venom spew from the lips of those we considered friends over some completely unintended word or slight. Sometimes we are able to repair the damage done, but all too often we cannot. The hopelessness, the feeling of loss at such times is overpowering. 

On the other hand, it seems more common for people to take offense at some snub (real or imagined) but never let you know. Oh, over time you notice a difference in the relationship. The warm camaraderie that was previously enjoyed is now merely a cordial exterior. There is always some reason why the invitation to spend time together is not accepted. The friendly slap on the back eventually turns to a cold shoulder. When you begin to search for the basis of the change you are assured there is nothing wrong or (more likely) that they don't want to talk about it.

In the very worst cases you later learn from a mutual "friend" the real problem. You discover that many others know as well. Enough time has passed that hurt feelings have hardened into permanent resentment. As the story has gotten round (each time worse in the telling), your reputation is damaged, your character besmirched, your good name slandered.

And the real tradgedy is that all of this is avoidable. If people…if believers……if brothers and sisters in Christwould simply love more, repent quickly, forgive freely, be tender always, the shambles that exist in so many churches would be gone. To be more explicit, if more people would reach out in love early, at the first hint of trouble, and seek reconciliation (as you have done) then Jesus' prediction would be a reality (John 13:35).

Oh to be certain, such a loving response is not really optional. We are commanded to reconcile with each other. In fact according to Jesus, being reconciled to a brother is more important than worship (Matt 5:23). But few in the body seem to take that seriously. 

I'm thankful you're one of the few.

With much gratitude and tender affection in Christ,

Bruce

When a Believer Dies

I read an article recently that encouraged the blogging of letters that others might find valuable. I've decided to start posting such letters as they occur, omitting those items which may identify the recipient. My prayer is that God will use these public letters to strengthen his people.

     ______________________

    Dear _________,

    Please accept my most sincere condolences on the death of your mother. Even though her illness made such an event only a matter of time, the actual death is always so painful. Oh, we think we are prepared, but in reality one can never really be prepared for the death of one we love. 

    I'm thankful that God heard our prayers uttered over these many months and that "her passing was peaceful." It is also an indescribable blessing to know that "she was at peace with death and confident in her faith in Jesus." You are quite correct that such knowledge gives peace and hope for the future. 

    As a pastor for many years, and having mourned the death of both my parents, I've discovered a few truths about death that people who have never gone through it don't realize. These aren't Bible truths, but the numerous funerals in which I've participated have proven them true.

    1. When a parent dies, you're nine years old again. It doesn't matter how old you really are, what responsibilities you carry, what marks of maturity are evident in your life. The basic relationship that defined the bond between you and your mom overrides all other truths. Oh, you may continue to act the part of a mature adult, but the raw emotions that burrow a hole in your stomach are those of a child. 
       
    2. When the second parent dies, you're an orphan. The safety net that parents provide may not have functioned for decades. In fact, you may have been the caregiver for your parent. But even though the roles are reversed, your memories of the ones who could "make it better" overwhelm you. The loneliness that is an integral part of all grief is even more intense when the second parent dies.
       
    3. It hurts a lot more than other people know. Even those who have endured the grief you now experience have had the memory of the gnawing, devastating grief dulled somewhat by time. This is just another reason why the mind-numbing pain we experience makes us feel so alone.
       
    4. It hurts a lot longer than other people realize. In a few weeks, other people's lives will return to normal, but yours won't. It will take about a year before the ache truly begins to subside, for it will take a year to get by all the "firsts": the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first Easter, etc. You will get better, but not as quickly as others imagine. And no, you can't just "get over it" even though others may expect you to.
       

    All of the above is merely the fruit of my experience and observation. But at a time like this, what we really need is God's perspective, not merely on death, but on the death of a believer. Because even though I may be able to describe the grief we experience, there is nothing in my words that can comfort. Only God's Word can do that.

    The Old Testament's standard way to describe God's character is that he is "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love" (Psalm 103:8 among many other passages). Because God is who he is, death for a believer is changed from a terrible curse to a good and gracious gift. 

    To say that death can be a good and gracious gift is not to deny the evils associated with death. Death, the Bible teaches, is the consequence of sin. Death brings separation and sorrow. In fact, the Bible always portrays death as an enemy that has invaded the land of the living.

    Even the Lord Jesus did not look forward to his death, despite his confidence that he would be raised from the grave. But the Bible does teach us that God is able to use what is, in and of itself, evil, in order to bring about what is good. 

    Rom. 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

     Understanding that God works things together for good, even an evil such as death, it seems appropriate to ask what happens when a believer dies. What is it about a believer's death that so changes the experience? Well, there are at least four truths concerning death that apply to all believers.

    So what is death for a believer?

    1. Death is a key in a Door

    Rev. 1:18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

    The fact that he holds the key to death means that no one dies unless he puts the key in the door. In other words, no army no matter how great can kill me unless Christ puts the key in the door (I remind people of this truth every time I go to Africa). In the same way, no team of doctors can save me if he uses the key.

    This is a great comfort when you understand who God is. As I stated above, the standard way to describe God is that he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Knowing this to be true, we can be assured that he waits until the absolute best time, having weighed the alternatives, to put the key in the door. In the same way, we can also be assured that if we had the ability to go back and undo that doctor’s report, undo all the tests, undo the illness, we would only make things worse. Jesus knew the right time before he put the key in the door.

    And this also shows that this was really no mere chance occurrence. There is no such thing for a believer. God knew the best time and so arranged circumstances that he brought about the best for your mother and for you, for her entire family and even her friends. 

    2. Death is a Change in Location

    2Cor. 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.  7 We live by faith, not by sight.  8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

     We must remember that the body that was laid to rest was not your mother. She experienced a change in location when she died. If death were all that there is, if it was really the end, then we would have the right to mourn without ceasing because there would be no way to ever see our loved ones again. But death isn’t the end.

    Instead your mother is now experiencing the joys of heaven where there are pleasures at the right hand of God forever more. She now looks upon the unveiled face of God in all his holiness, and experiences freedom from the sins that plagued her and the physical ills that were her constant companions. Her body is laid to rest here, but your mother is not here. 

    She is in heaven waiting for that great day "when Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with him in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." (1 Thess 4:16-17)

    3. Death is an Answer to Prayer

    John 17:24  “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

      Jesus so loved your mother that he prayed that she would one day be with him in heaven and would be able to behold his glory, a glory far greater and more wonderful than anything that this world could produce. And so, even though our hearts are breaking, God has said no to our prayers for just a while, so that he could answer the prayer of his Son. 

      Of course, one day this prayer will be answered for us all. We will all be gathered together with those that have gone on ahead, and we will all together behold his glory forever more. Still, until that time, we can rejoice that your mom is there now, experiencing the glory of God, even though we must wait a while longer.

      4. Death is the Delivery of a Gift

      Eph. 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God —  9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

      In one sense it is true that we may enjoy eternal life in the here and now, but it is also true that the entire benefits of this gift of God are not realized until we are in his presence. Your mother has received this gift. She knew what it meant to be saved by grace alone apart from works. And now, because of God’s grace, she has received in full the gift that God has promised to all who believe.

      Understanding this gift means that we realize that this is not our true life, or final life.  There is something so much greater and so much more significant than the life we now live in the flesh.  There is something beyond the present, so much more important than the present, that what is now is scarcely worthy to be compared with it.  

      The present life can be compared to the training ground for eternity.  It is the mere entrance, like a porch on a great mansion.  It is like the preface to a book which contains many chapters.  And while the porch of a mansion might be beautiful, it is vastly inferior to the wonders that lie inside.  The preface of a book gives us some clue as to the author’s purpose, but it is not the important feature.  Both the porch and the preface are insignificant in comparison to that to which they lead.

       In the same way, our life now is so vastly inferior to the life that is to come, that we may rightly say that your mother has entered into the life that God gave her so long ago as a free gift.

      Your mother will forever experience the glories of God’s holiness. She will forever enjoy a banquet of pleasures that God has promised are at his right hand. She looks forward to an eternity of blessed contentment and will spend endless hours of unbroken fellowship with the Savior who loved her so much that he died for her.

      I know _____, that you have this same hope. And while I have no delusions about the reality of grief, God desires that we do not "grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13) Please be assured that I will continue to pray to this end, just as I prayed for you and your mother these past months.

      Mourning and Rejoicing with you,

      Bruce

      Becoming Mature is now a 501(c)(3) non-profit!

      Recently, we received the official letter from the government that declared Becoming Mature a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. This means that, from now on, all domestic donations are tax-deductible. In keeping with our internal policies, a tax receipt will be sent within 2 weeks of receiving your donation. 

      Because You Cared: An Update on Anita & Naomi

      When I took these pictures in August, Anita weighed just 88 pounds. Naomi was desperately underweight. Both Anita and Noami had tuberculosis. That was then.

      As mentioned below, we set up a fund so that Anita and Naomi would be fed regularly: Rice and beans twice a day, every day. It's not much by our standards, but I believe that act of compassion by those who gave literally saved their lives.

      Because some of you gave, Anita now weighs 110 pounds and Naomi is no longer critical. They are recieving treatment for Tuberculosis. That's the good news. The bad is that Anita has been diagnosed with AIDS. There is nothing that can be done about that. 

      Thank you for giving. If you haven't given, the need hasn't gone away. Just click on the "support" menu at the top of the page. Just add a note about Anita and we'll make sure the funds go to Anita & Naomi's support. 

      By the way, the brick wall in the backgound of the bottom picture is the wall of the church in Walungu, which the generous donations to this ministry helped build. Oh, about the smile, or rather the lack of it: it's the really good photographer that can get someone from central Africa to smile for a photo. I don't know why that is, but that's just the way it is. So don't let the expression on her face fool you. She's genuinely grateful. 

       

      Anita & Naomi: A Tale of Heartbreak and Hope

      Anita & Naomi

      Anita & Naomi

      Anita is twenty-two, although she looks and acts much older. Traced across her taught face are lines of care and deprevation. Her little girl, Naomi, is two months old. I wrote about her in an earlier post. When I saw Anita today, she hadn't eaten in the last 24 hours. Naomi was crying for milk, but it became evident that Anita had little to give.   

      Anita is a widow. Her husband was a Congolese soldier and went missing in the fighting around Goma, in the northeast of Congo. After a lengthy investigation, it was confirmed that he was killed in the line of duty. When he fell, she was carrying their second child.

      A widow in a war-torn region, she returned to her parents in the north of Burundi. She is a member and regular attender at Pastor Timothy's church in Rugombo, where we held the conference this year. Her only means of support is the slight widows’ pension she receives from the Congolese Army, although she has rarely actually received any funds.

      In order to collect her pension, she must travel to Congo DR. Unfortunately, the price of travel there and back consumes the entire amount of the pension. In order to try and make things work, she enlisted a "friend" who was to collect the money for her so that she could make the trip once every three months. This still eats up a third of the funds, but it is better than nothing. Not surprisingly, the "friend" proved to be dishonest and absconded with all the cash. (Amy is sitting next to me as I write this. At the last sentence, she shook her head and whispered emphatically, "That is…absolutely…unbelievable." I told her the sad truth is that it is all too believable.) 

      If one would think that Anita’s parents would be there to support her, one would be wrong. Her parents aren't believers. According to Timothy, "They are drunkards." Instead of turning to Christ, they trust the local witchdoctors. What little money Anita can scrape together, they bully out of her for drink. 

      To make matters worse, she has been diagnosed with tuberculosis. We believe little Naomi also has TB as she was born with a cough. Anita is unable to buy food, let alone purchase medical care and prescription drugs. I confess that her bleak future has tugged at my heart all day. I must regularly pause when I speak in order to regain my composure. I keep turning my back on those around me so I can wipe my tears. 

      I learned long ago that a believer shouldn't pray about something about which they are unwilling to be involved. As James teaches,

      Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16 NIV84)

      When I held Naomi in my arms at the baby dedication, I prayed earnestly for her. Can I now say to her mother, "Keep warm and well fed," and do nothing? The answer is obvious. Amy and I each arrived at the same conclusion without speaking to one another. When we shared our thoughts, we were of one mind. If we could help, we would. 

      So Amy began searching the internet (slow work here in Burundi) for treatments for TB. I began investigating how much money would be involved in feeding Anita and her little boy (about two years old I think), who appears to be the only healthy one in the family. Here’s what we discovered.

      The governments of central Africa are united in providing free TB testing and treatment to all people. They recognize that TB spreads so rapidly that they need to be proactive to prevent an epidemic. Amy’s connection at the clinic proved to be invaluable at this point. They knew all about the free clinic. 

      Flory and I made arrangements to have Timothy bring Anita and Naomi to Bujumbura on the bus. They made their way to the clinic where Amy is volunteering and Anita collapsed on a bed. Little Naomi was lying beside her. When Flory and I arrived, I went in to wake her. She was drenched in sweat, and you could tell it took everything she had to struggle to her feet. Timothy helped to steady her as she made her way to the consultation room where Amy and Jackson examined her. 

      While Anita was being examined, I went to the bed where Naomi was lying. She was fidgeting and restless, which I took to be a good sign. At least she wasn’t on death’s door as I feared. No, Noami was merely hungry. I picked her up and held her close. I began singing the only song I know in Swahili. 

      Yesu anapenda watoto. Yesu anapennda watoto. Ni Yesu, Bwana Yesu. Alikufa qua mtu, qua sababu ya zambi. Yesu anapenda watoto.

      (Jesus loves children. Jesus loves children. Jesus is our Lord. He died upon a tree, because of our sins. Jesus loves children)

      This helped a little, but what I really needed was a bottle or a pacifier. I’ve seen neither since I’ve been here in Africa. So I did what I did when my children were infants—I used my little finger as a substitute. She began to suck greedily and stared into my face as I sang. I’m not at all sure she had the ability to focus, but she knew someone, at least, was there. Her momma came back in a little bit and took her to nurse. I don’t think she had much milk, but what she had, she gave.

      Naomi at two months.

      Naomi at two months.

      While Anita was being examined, she stated that she had been ill since February, while she was pregnant. She exhibited all the classic signs of TB: night sweats, swollen glands behind the ears, lack of energy, lack of appetite, (severe) weight loss, cough, fever and pain. Since Naomi was born with a cough, it’s nearly certain that she also has TB. With this diagnosis, Jackson wrote out the necessary referral for the clinic, and we all climbed into the minivan. Flory was driving, and his wife Amina came along for moral support, as she knew Anita. Pastor Timothy was there for the same reason, but also to serve as translator from Swahili to Kirundi. Jackson and Amy were there to answer any of the questions the free clinic might have. Despite a complete lack of useful medical skills, I also rode along simply because I was concerned.

      When we arrived, we were brushed aside, being told that the person we needed to see had already gone home, and we needed to come back on Friday. Call it hubris, call it swagger, call it American arrogance, call it a combination of the three, but this raised the hackles on my neck. I began saying very loudly that we were notcoming back later and that they were going to call in the appropriate people right now! I’m pretty sure I embarrassed Amy, for she began tugging at my arm to draw me away. I was, however, having none of it. I wanted names. I wanted phone numbers. I wanted someone to care, for heaven’s sake. 

      The loud mzungu drew the curious and the concerned to gather in the office. I’m not sure if they were speculating about what kind of trouble I could cause or about of what kind of trouble I was about to become. Fortunately someone appeared and assured us that they were accepting Jackson’s diagnosis. The reason we had to return on Friday is because they only dispense medicine once a week. It just wasn’t feasible to open the bottle for every person who came in, evidently because that would spoil the medicine. I could live with that and turned my attention to the immediate problem of transportation and food.

      I provided for Anita’s transportation to Rugombo. Timothy called the church and instructed them to purchase food and transportation back to Bujumbura on Friday. So much for the short term needs, but clearly more needed to be done.

      After much consultation with Flory and Timothy, we concocted a plan. We all agreed that we couldn’t just give her money for a varitey of reasons, primary among them being her parents would probably either steal it or bully it out of her. So we decided that we would place money on account at a local merchant who was also a member of the church. 

      We also agreed not to provide too much food at once. Not only was there the issue of pests and spoilage, there would also be the temptation for her parents to take some of the food and sell it for drink. In her weakened condition, there would be little she could do to stop them. 

      So we determined that she should walk daily to the nearby shop and draw out that’s day’s supply of beans and rice. The beans are an important source of protein to make milk and boost the immune system. The rice provides the carbohydrates needed for energy and helps make a more complete protein when mixed with the beans. The plan will cost $50 a month and will keep her and her little boy fed and provide milk for Naomi. 

      Amy and I agreed to ensure that she has food for the next year. This should be plenty of time for the medicine to work and for her to regain full health. There is no way we can sleep at night if we sit idly by. We’re hoping that others will be moved by this need and help with her support as well. But if not, we will do it alone. 

      All the while I was around Anita, I never saw her smile save for once. All the while she held the vacant, hopeless stare that hunger and disease inflict. It was only at the end, when we were moving her toward the van to take her to the bus station that she smiled. I spoke to Flory. Flory spoke to Timothy. Timothy spoke to Anita. I told her that we were going to ensure that she and her baby got the medicine they needed. And we were going to ensure that she had enough food for the next year. She didn't seem to comprehend what we were saying, so I told her again.

      "Anita, you're not going to be hungry any more."

      That's when she turned, faced the wall, placed her forehead on rough plaster…and smiled.

      They Took My Temperature and Gave Me a Rooster

      It's Saturday and I’ve slept most of the day. Don’t judge me, you’d be tired too if you had been with me the last two days. My congregation has given a significant sum of money to help build a brick and mortar church in the Walungu area, so Flory and I decided to head out there to have a look at the progress. Along for the ride were three other pastors: Charles, pastor of the REMAC church in Uvira, Congo DR; Timothy, pastor of the REMAC church in Rugombo, Burundi; and Brother Rabbit, pastor of the REMAC church we were going to visit.

      Brother Rabbit?

      There is a story behind the name.  Prior to my second visit to Africa, I had downloaded some Kindle children’s books in Swahili as a language-learning strategy. I mean, after all, they teach children that way, so it might work for me. The first book was of the “run, rabbit, run” variety. It just so happens that rabbit in Swahili is sungura. On that trip I met Pastor Sunga and made a joke about his name. I promptly changed it to rabbit. He’s been known as Rabbit inside REMAC ever since. 

      You might think that a cruel thing to do to a person of dignity (for such is Brother Rabbit), but he brags about the name. He had to look up what a “rabbit” was. The burrowing, gregarious, plant-eating mammal with long ears, long hind legs, and short tail indigenous to North America has no cousin here in Central Africa. In his research, he read of the rabbit’s insatiable appetite for grass. He then decided the name fit him, for he had an insatiable appetite for the Word of God. So whenever I’m around, and he stands to speak, he brags about the name I gave him.  

      Border Crossings

      At any rate, we left from Bujumbura for the trip. This involves leaving Burundi and entering Congo DR, arriving in Uvira and traveling north. Then leaving Congo DR and entering Burundi along the road, then leaving…well, you get the idea. You can see the border crossings on the map to the left. Just remember each crossing entails leaving one country and entering another. In other words, dealing with officials and paper work for the country your leaving and doing it again for the country your entering. Coming back involved a similar process. 

      It was at the Rwanda crossing near Bukavu that I realized how serious the Ebola scare is here in Africa. It was about 20 years ago that the first Ebola case was diagnosed. It was found in Congo DR. Since that time it has moved from country to country, wreaking havoc wherever it appears.

      Even though Liberia is far away (Africa is a big, big place), no one here is taking any chances. At the airport in Addis Ababa, all the shop keepers were wearing latex gloves. When I inquired I was told that people pass through from all over Africa and nobody wanted Ebola.

      You might find this a bit surprising, but I kind of…stand out…as I move through the crowds. I’m guessing my sunburned face brought alarm to the Rwandan border official because he shoved an Ebola form at me. After I filled it out, he took my temperature with a laser heat sensor of some sort. The readout came up yellow with the word Caution! in bold type. I looked concerned, but he just smiled and said I was normal.

      When we got to the church, we were greeted with song. “Karibu” means "welcome" and the chorus was “karibu, karibu, karibu, karibu,” with other words thrown in the verses themselves. The drums were banging out the complicated rhythms that I’ve come to love, and some of the excited women would shout out the high-pitched “lululululu” that is common here (and in the Middle East) as a expression of excitement and joy. The song continued as we made our way down from the street to Brother Rabbit’s house. The congregation followed us inside, and the singing continued. (Note: I intend to post a video of this later on, but the internet connection here in Africa just won’t handle the strain.) I was surprised how many people could fit inside such a small space. When the song of welcome finally subsided, the choir was asked to sing. Just to be clear, the choir of any church is always asked to sing here. Then came the words of welcome from members of the congregation. They were genuinely moved that Pastor Flory (a very important man) and I would make the long trip to visit them. 

      I suppose I should make mention of the road to Walungu. I was genuinely concerned that the road would be terrible and an ordeal for my bad back. That, as it turns out, describes perfectly the road to Kazekazi that we traveled earlier. (That report must wait for another day.) This road was much better. Not good, but definitely better. It was like most dirt roads in America. Note I didn’t say most gravel roads. No, this was nothing but dirt. That means that the hills (a mountain range runs through this part of Congo DR and Rwanda—“the land of a thousand hills.”) were like washboards, and each passing car threw up a shroud of dust. The 80-kilometer trip from Bukavu wasn’t good for my lungs to be sure, but my back held up pretty well.

      At any rate, I was asked to deliver a short message to the church. I spoke to them of the unity of the body of Christ and how when one member hurt, the entire body hurt. That is why, I told them, that our congregation was eager to assist them with their church. Once again the women exclaimed “lululululululu.” I told them how our church was praying for them and asked them to pray for us as well as part of the same body. Then it was time to see the church.

      Walking to the church involved “climbing Mt. Calvary.” Actually it was just a big hill and I did pretty good for a white guy not used to scurrying around the African countryside. The church had the foundation laid and the walls about chest high. I discovered a significant amount of money had to be placed into the foundation. Since the land was on a hill, there was an enormous expense in stones and cement in order to build up the foundation to level. As the pastors toured the construction site, the people continued to sing. When we pastors retired to Brother Rabbit’s house to eat lunch (chicken and some sort of “forest goat” with Foo Foo) the congregation was outside singing. When we spoke of how to move forward with the construction, they continued their songs. In fact, the only time the congregation stopped singing was when we were meeting inside before the tour. For the rest of the visit, they were nearby singing and singing and singing.

      When it came time to leave, the congregation was called back inside. Again, members of the congregation stood up to wish us goodbye. As a final act, they brought out a rooster and a chicken. The rooster was for me and the chicken was for Flory. Fortunately, having raised chickens, I knew how to handle the rooster. Let’s just say my sister Amy would have had a more difficult time. We placed the fowl in the back of the minivan and headed back to sounds of singing. Upon my return, I magnanimously gave my rooster to Flory. It’s just the big-hearted sorta guy that I am. 

      Pastor Rabbit and the Rooster

      Pastor Rabbit and the Rooster

      At the hotel, I spoke with Joel, one of the African managers. He was very impressed that I was given a rooster and noted that it was a great honor. Roosters are only given as a sign of great love and affection. The groom will give the parents of his bride-to-be a rooster when he asks for her hand. Thus, such a gift is not to be taken lightly. 

      For those of you who have never been to such a poverty-stricken country, it's hard to comprehend the joy displayed by these people. (“Funny” and her husband raise their children on less that $200 a month—and they are considered firmly middle class). You have to be here to see the smiles, to hear the songs, to feel the love they have for the body of Christ. No words of mine can do justice to the simple delight these people have in the Lord. As I listened to their songs in Walungu, I thought to myself, “No wonder I love coming back here.”

      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.

      Françiose, aka "Funny"

      Françiose, aka "Funny"

      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! :-)