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! :-)

 

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.*

Back to Africa (Aug 18-29, 2013)

Officially the war is over…officially. The Second Congo War began in July 1998 or just a little more than a year after the First Congo War ended…officially. The Second Congo War (also known as the Great War of Africa or the African World War) ended in either 2002, 2003, or 2005 depending on who you read. The confusion stems from the number of countries and armed factions involved in the fighting. When the war ended depends on how many of those nations and armed groups withdraw from the fighting. Is the war over if half the groups stop or do all have to stop before the war is over?

Whether the war is "official" or not, armed groups still fight for power in Congo, particularly along the border of Rwanda. The short film below was shot in 2012. You can decide for yourself if the war ever ended.

What is not in dispute is the devastation the war has caused. It's difficult to count the number who have died, since bullets and rockets aren't the only things that kill. It is estimated that in 2004, approximately 1,000 people a day died from easily preventable cases of malnutrition and disease in The Democratic Republic of Congo (or Congo DR, which is different than the Republic of Congo). While they weren't killed in the fighting, it was the war that killed them just the same. And even though it's not official, the war continues to this day.

What's this got to do with me?

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 

 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.  1Cor. 12:12–22 NIV 84

When we see the villagers running for cover and hear of the horrors of the refuge camps (officially known as  IDCs — Internally Displaced Camps), it's easy to forget that some of these are our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Pastor Floribert Kazingufu

Pastor Floribert Kazingufu

When the war broke out (I'm speaking of the First Congo War), the majority of western missionaries fled. Those that didn't, lasted until the outbreak of the Second Congo War. Unfortunately, without the support of western missionaries, the beleaguered pastors had no help in ministering to their flocks. Almost none of the national pastors in either Congo DR or Burundi have had any formal training whatsoever. The missionaries were no longer available to help them understand the fundamental truths of God's Word. That assumes, of course, that they have Bibles, which many of them don't. Of those that do, many can't read them because they can't afford the glasses that older men require. 

So the church in the Congo basin was basically left to fend for themselves.

I became involved when my friend, Floribert Kazingufu, told me about how many Health/Wealth preachers were coming to Africa from North America. He said, "We know they are not telling us the truth, but we don't know what the truth is. You must come and tell us what to believe and we will believe it." How could I say no?

So for the last five years or so I've traveled to Bujumbura, Burundi to meet with Flory, and I've taught the pastors basic bible doctrine.  He organized a group of churches so that they could strengthen each other. The "Network of Missionary Churches in Christ" (REMAC—it's a French thing) have received a doctrinal statement in Swahili and I have been teaching it to the pastors, section by section. 

In Africa when someone hears something new that is wonderful and marvelous, they laugh. They aren't laughing because they find something funny. They laugh with joy. I've found this is a common (and welcome) response to my teaching. What people in the States take for granted is often new and exiciting for them. 

The local congregation building a church

The local congregation building a church

On of the biggest hindrances to REMAC is their rented church buildings. They have thatched roofs and mud floors. The Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches point to these crude buildings and insist this is a sign that REMAC is a cult. "If they were a real church, they'd have their own land and a proper building…like us!"

Setting the corner with care.

Setting the corner with care.

What Can You Do?

First and foremost, we covet you prayers. We desire that you pray for our safety, since the situation into which we go is tenuous to say the least. We desire that the pastors receive the training with open hearts and pure hands. We ask that you pray that in all things, God's will receive the glory.

Second, for a gift of $3000 (US dollars), the local congregations of REMAC can purchase land and build a building that won't hinder the spread of the gospel. The total cost is more like $3500, but Flory and I felt it was better if the local church put up some of the money. Think about it: what does $500 look like to someone earning $600 per year. Five hundred dollars to a Burundian looks like $36,000 to an American. Let's just say it's a huge investment on their part. Likewise, the church members will be doing most of the work themselves. This gets the local congregation involved and helps strengthen the church.

Still a long way to go! Won't you help in this work?

Still a long way to go! Won't you help in this work?

This year my daugher Elizabeth is going with me. This will be her second trip. Her main purpose is to document the ministry of REMAC so that we may tell their story more effectively. The cost of travel for both of us is about $3500.00 …each.

The truth is we cannot do this without God helping us with the finances. I say God helping us because I am trusting he will provide for this work whether or not each individual who reads this contributes (via the PayPal link below) or not. But I so want as many as possible to receive the blessing that comes with participating in God's work. I want you to generate thanksgiving to God as other parts of the body give thanks for you! As Paul says, 

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Cor 9:12–15

The Royal Drummers of Burundi

Here are the first of several videos I hope to make available of the world famous Royal Drummers of Burundi practicing in Bujumbura. As you might expect, this video in no way does them justice. When they play you can feel the percussion against your chest. There simply is no way to describe it.

This was my fourth trip too Burundi. Everytime I've come, I've asked to see these talented performers. It's never worked out until this year. Martin (pictured right) seemed to know immediately why this year we were able to see them when we hadn't been able to before.

He leaned in close, poked me in the arm and grinned, "You got to see them this year because your brought a brother along!" Then he laughed. Martin has one of those bosterous, outragious, infectious, over-powering laughs that makes everyone's head turn his direction. Of course, his laugh makes everyone else laugh, including me. 

In response, I told Martin that if I wanted to get anything done in central Africa, then I'd have to bring him along every year. I think he's considering it!

North to Bubanza

Yesterday was our last official day of ministry here in Central Africa. We traveled north from Bujumbura to a medium sized town called Bubanza.

As you can see from the map on the left (click the map for a larger view), we were headed along one of the major roads of Burundi. What this means is that the road was paved. What this doesn't mean is that the road was any good. Oh certainly, as we traveled further and further north towards Rwanda, the road got much better. By the time we reached Bubanza, the road was so good it would rival the best roads in the US. But most of the way north, the road was beyond bad—it was terrible. 

There were huge potholes that spaned nearly the entire width of the road. Traffic would have to slow to a crawl to cross them. This meant that the ride was a continuing oscillation between spreading up as fast as you could go and then slamming on the breaks to avoid wreaking your car on the potholes. 

Joseph taking time to breath

Joseph taking time to breath

Of course, if the pothole didn't span the entire road, then the driver would weave back and forth across the road, missing as many as he could. This often meant leaving the road all together and driving for a bit on the shoulder. Unfortunately, the weaving, the bouncing, and the jerking forward and backward as you either sped up or slowed down, was too much for poor Joseph. Just as the road began to get slightly better, we had to pull off to the side to allow him to.....er........breath a little bit.

Fortunately, he held down his.........um.......he began to breathe easier, and we were able to continue after about 15 minutes. Martin and I definitely felt sorry for him, but we didn't let him know that. The wise-cracks were flying pretty thick, which caused Joseph to smile for a couple of seconds between that "I don't feel so well" look returned. 

When we finally reached Bubanza, we found it to be a medium sized town for Burundi. Remembering it's Burundi we're talking about, that doesn't mean all that much, but still, it's bigger than a village. The nicer buildings were all along the main road. By "nicer" I mean made out of regular bricks, not the mud bricks that are the mainstay of most architecture in this part of the world. We made our way past those buildings to a rutted dirt path and got as close to the church as possible. Then we walked.

Bubanza Church

Bubanza Church

Bubanza Church

Bubanza Church

It wasn't a far walk, but as Joseph put it, we picked up a posse pretty quick. The dirty ragged children followed us to the church, staring at us as if we were side-show attractions. And to them at least, I guess we were. My guess is they don't see many mzungu in Bubanza.

 

The church itself was made of sticks resembling bamboo, had a thatched roof and a mud floor. While the congregation didn't seem to mind the rude dwelling, the lack of obvious prosperity is a detriment to the church. It seems some of the other churches in the area (mostly Pentecostal and Roman Catholic) have spread around the accusation that this church must be a cult or it would have a better building. No, it doesn't make any sense, but that doesn't change the facts.

Church Convention at Fizi

Church Convention at Fizi

When I spoke at the general convention in Fizi, I spoke from Luke 7:11-17. In recounting the story of the Widow of Nain, i emphasized how Jesus' compassion was kindled when he saw her. He didn't see the crowd, he saw her. I mentioned how Jesus is the same "yesterday and today and forever." This was a message of comfort for those in Congo. As the region once again is on the brink of all out war, many in the congregation—particularly those from Bukavu, have an uncertain furture ahead of them. They needed to hear that Christ viewed their sorrow with compassion.

Teaching the pastor's from REMAC is always an extremely rewarding experience. They are obviously hungry to learn the Word and ask a plethora of questions about real-world ministry.

Preaching to their congregations, on the other hand, I've always found difficult. They sing and dance (boy oh boy, do they dance: see 2 Sam 6:14), and when they're done, I preach. Often they seem so worn out that they don't have the ability to listen. But when I told this story, the majority of the congregation seemed to respond.

Among the crowd was the pastor of the church in Babanza. He specifically asked me to preach the same sermon to his church, since few from his church were at Fizi. So I did as he asked. Interestingly, Martin commented that I preached the sermon differently in Bubanza than I did in Fizi. I didn't purposely do anything different, but Martin commented that the Holy Spirit took control so that they heard exactly what they needed to hear. I pray he is correct. 

This much I do know: they were moved by the story of Jesus' compassion. When it came time for the service to end, no one seemed to want to leave. One would break out into a song and the drums would start and the people would sing. Then they would be dismissed again, and another would start to sing. I can't say this never happens in North American churches, but I can say I've never witnessed it.

Tomorrow we fly home. The trip will be long as we are far, far away. And while Martin and I are eager to return to our families, we are experiencing a certain sadness about leaving these people that we have come to love. Joseph isn't eager to leave at all. He openly wishes he could stay longer. I don't know how to explain it. I love the people back home: my family, my church, my friends. But I love these people as well. Leaving tomorrow will be tough.

Thank you for praying for us. Your prayers have done more than you can possibly imagine. I know that sounds like preacher talk, but it isn't. What we have experienced is a genuine movement of God among these people. God has been gracious enough to allow us to participate. You prayers have allowed you to participate as well.

Once Upon a Time in Congo

Congolese flags fly at the border

Congolese flags fly at the border

Saturday Martin, Joseph and I crossed the border into Congo DR. There was no difficulty getting through immigration control although the apparent attitude of the officials at the border did make us a little tense. We kept our voices lowered (even Martin, at least for the most part), and quietly waited while our papers were carefully examined by the Burundi agent. Then we walked across a short bridge to the Congolese side, where an equally somber clerk completed the requisite paperwork.

We thought we were done at that point, but we drove only about 1/4 of a mile when we had to stop again for customs. Martin was concerned that he had left money in his suitcase, and started to get out of the car. I informed him in calm tones that he would only raise suspicion if he got out to get his luggage and that he should get back in the car, which he did. The official walked around the car—slowly, deliberately—and then let us go. If he had decided to open our luggage we would have been there for a while.

Through it all, God was merciful to us. We had no troubles, sailed through the border crossing (comparatively speaking) and were on our way to Uviria

The view of Uvira across Lake Tanganyika from our hotel (Villa Illac)

The view of Uvira across Lake Tanganyika from our hotel (Villa Illac)

Our hotel is nicer than the one we stayed at in Bujumbura. The Villa Iliac is nestled right against the shore of Lake Tanganyika. This gives us a beautiful view, but also brings plenty of mosquitoes. It's a good thing the beds are equipped with large mosquito nets. The staff tucks the nets under the mattresses every day so you only have to let loose enough to crawl in. Even so, when it's really quite, you can still hear the thirsty critters buzzing around.

Yesterday was our only day to attend the REMAC conference for this year. The teaching of the pastor's always precedes the actual conference for the churches. There were five or six choirs there, each taking the opportunity to sing. I'm hoping to put together a montage of the singing a little later. If you haven't heard the Congolese sing, you're in for a treat.

Generator used to power the sound system

At least I love to hear them sing when there is no electricity. Then all you hear are the complicated rhythms of the drums (there are always drums), and the uniquely beautiful harmony of their voices. 

But when the generator is running, the sound system comes on. I have yet to visit a third-world country where someone knows how to make a amplification system sound good. The speakers are over-driven. There is the ubiquitous ground hum. The crackling of the mics was occasionally relieved by the constantly disconnecting signal. Mercifully, for most of the choirs, they didn't use the sound system.

I confess I understand their need for a sound system at this convention. Martin and Joseph both calculated that there were around 400 people there. It's hard to project your voice to that many people without help. It can be done, but the people must be quiet. But with children alway running around, there was always some background noise. 

The pictures above portray what an emotional time was had by all of us at one time or another.

One of the choirs sang a song to welcome us to Fizi. As they sang, two young members of the choir, I'd say between 8 and 12 years old, started working their way over to us. I should explain that every time a choir sings, they dance. Unlike we mzungu, they can't sing standing still.  

At any rate, they begin to dance over to us. We rise as they stand in front of us and slowly dance their way to their knees. Then, with heads down, the lifted to little potted plants. The plants were artificial and obviously homemade from materials at hand. Still, we found them precious. 

When I received my plant, I bent down and kissed the young girl on the forehead. When Martin received his, he did the same. Joseph got left out because they only had two gifts. I don't think he minded however, since he seems to prefer the background.

It was a special moment. Martin, overcome with emotion, buried his head on my shoulder and sobbed. The choir kept singing and we just stood there for a moment and hugged. Then we sat down and the service continued. No one really knows what it's like to visit these special brothers and sisters until they have done so. If you don't believe me, ask Martin. He'll tell you.

When the singing was completed, I stood to preach. It's always tough to preach after the singing and dancing because the people, quite frankly, are worn out. But I think I had good attention to my sermon. Even though most of us in fundamental churches in the US know of Christ's coming for his Church, I'm pretty sure that isn't common knowledge here. 

So I spoke from 1 Thess 4:13-18. I told them that even though they lived in uncertain times—the fighting in and around Goma hasn't traveled south, but it could—we had an enduring hope. Perhaps today, I told them, Christ would return. The lights in their faces as I spoke of the resurrection of the dead and the translation of our bodies was unmistakable. 

Tomorrow we will be working with the church in Uvira doing evangelism of some sort. I never know what the plans are completely, so we just go with the flow. But this much I do know: Perhaps today Christ will return. Just as it is a hope of the Congolese, it is a hope for us as well.

The lights are beginning to fllicker. That usually means the electricity wil be going out soon. Must dash this off. Please continue to pray for us.

It's called "FUD"

As you might expect, things here in Africa don't usually go as expected. This year is no different. Originally, we had intended to do all our teaching in Fizi, Congo DR. With the situation the way it is, we decided to move the teaching to the church in Bujumbura, where I've taught before. At the end of this post, I've included a video I made last year showing the compound. Nothing much has changed, so it's still up to date.

The teaching has gone exceptionally well. Here's Martin's assessment of how things have been going:

The teaching has been clear and concise based upon the positive and curious questions of the Pastors that are present. The faces of the Pastors indicate a true desire to learn and Professor Baker has provided this climate with his knowledge and enthusiasm.

 It's certainly true that the Pastor's are deeply invested in the teaching. They listen intently, take copious notes, ask insightful questions, and marvel at doctrines and ideas they've never been taught before. Just as a good cook likes to feed a hungry crowd, so it energizes me to teach such passionate students. 

This year we have been reviewing the doctrine of Salvation. We haven't shrunk from the more difficult issues either. As Luther once commented, "if God revealed it, he must want us to know it." So we've delved into the tension between election and free will. We discussed how works so often wiggles its way into the gospel message. But the most exciting time was when I explained Justification. 

I used Martin, Joseph, and Flory to help me act out what happens in Justification. Martin was the sinner standing before God (me). Flory played the part of Christ. Joseph was the devil (primarily because I haven't completely forgiven him for sleeping so well on the plane). Joseph accused Martin of being a sinner, and deserving death. I commented that his accusation was completely true. Then Flory stepped forward and stated how he had died for Martin and paid for his sins. When I brought down the gavel and declared Martin "Righteous" the pastor's started yelling and applauding and cheering. It was incredible and a sight I will never forget.

One of the challenges of teaching this year is the noise from next door. It seems a metal fabrication shop is right next door and the sound of the grinder is often difficult to shout over. But there are sweeter sounds as well. 

On both days so far, after the lunch was served, the young women who assisted with the serving would retire to a little adobe hut next to the church and start to sing. They would worship for over an hour. Sometimes the singing was boisterous with dancing and drums, sometimes quite and reverent, but always heart-felt.

During a teaching break, I sneaked in and captured the following video. About half way through you can see that I was finally noticed, but they didn't seem to care. 

When you experience the church here—a church in danger, a church under persecution, but a joyful church nevertheless—it's hard to fall victim to FUD.

No, it's not a food. FUD is an acronym that stands for "Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt." It was originally coined in the computer hardware industry as they spread false or misleading information about their competitors. Since that time it's more broadly used as an appeal to fear. While the term may be relatively new, the tactic is anything but. If you were to lay out the appeal to fear as an logical argument, it would look like this:

Either P or Q is true

Q is frightening

Therefore, P is true.

Usually the argument is based upon false information. The fear is generated to move people to your position, regardless of whether there is anything to fear or not. But what about where there really is something to fear?

Here is a recent news story from the BBC:

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has expressed alarm as rebel forces advance towards the country's main eastern city of Goma. Witnesses told the BBC that rebels of the M23 group were 40km (25 miles) from the city, near the Rwandan border. They said rebels appeared to be taking towns and villages with ease, with government troops usually melting away.

The Congolese government and the UN say Rwanda is backing the rebels, a claim Rwanda denies. DR Congo has accused its neighbour of wanting to keep it unstable so it can exploit its rich mineral wealth. The Congolese government has called on the international community to condemn Rwanda.

On Sunday, rebels were reported to have seized the strategic town of Rutshuru, 70km north of Goma. A senior official at a national conservation park speaking on Monday just 40km north of Goma, told the BBC that "the rebels are very much in control of this area".

When it comes to Congo DR, at least right now, there is something to be concerned about. 

The original plan had been to teach completely in Fizi. It's about 160 miles south of Goma. Tomorrow we will receive a report concerning the conditions there. We don't believe the problems in Goma have drifted this far south (yet). But we want to make sure before we cross the border. I assure you we are taking every precaution with regard to our safety.

That being said, when one believes in the sovereignty of God—I mean when one really believes it—the dangers of this world lose some of their ability to inspire FUD. God's arm isn't shortened, his strength has not diminished, he never slumbers nor sleeps.

What Nebuchadnezzar learned about our God remains true:

All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”  Dan 4:35 (NIV)

Therefore we plan to be careful……very careful……but we refuse to be timid. The Congolese church lives there all the time, trusting God for their protection. Is it really so much for us to minister to them for a few days?

Please pray for us concerning out decision. I'll let you know how things turn out.