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.