Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Rainy Season

Its the rainy season in southern Africa, which is not, as you might expect the time when it rains, but when the ozone over this part of the world (in total disregard for Al Gore), goes on vacation to Canada.

As a result it becomes so hot that no one stops at traffic signals for fear that their tires will melt to the road (at least, I’m supposing that’s why they don’t stop).

Anyway, the rain is supposed to start any day now and in fact it should have started weeks ago but like most things in Africa its terribly late. The ground should be saturated by now and the dirt roads turned to mud, but instead its mostly just dust and heat and the occasional shower thrown in for good measure.

But the storms are approaching and we hear them every now and then rumbling like a good case of indigestion.

Sometimes though a storm sneaks up on you and before you realize it you’re caught in the middle of it.

When we came out of church on Sunday a strong wind was kicking up, bending tree branches and blowing debris everywhere. The sky was turning black and so we hurried to the car and it started to rain hard just as we climbed in.

We started making our way across town, dodging branches that were being blown into the road and people scampering for shelter, and I wondered, maybe this is the way it is with evil and suffering.

Perhaps sometimes, we just get caught in the storm.

One of the great mysteries of faith in an all powerful God is the honest but potentially toxic question: why? God why didn’t you intervene? God why didn’t you stop this? God why didn’t you answer that prayer? God why did you let this happen to those people?

And the truth is, I really don’t know and I’m not sure anyone does. Why does God intervene on some occasions and not others? Again, clueless. But I know this. I know that in our storms over the last few years (and we’ve had a few), the storms have been distinctly violent and distinctly not God. What I mean by that is that when I stared those storms in the face, when I trembled in the midst of them, I sensed not the wrath of an angry God but rather the fury of a menacing darkness. Each of them bore not the essence of a Savior who died for me, but rather the impending weight of something determined to destroy me.

I guess what I’m saying is that there is a temptation to want to look at the storm as though it emanated from God, as though it somehow flowed from His Being as all things must. But I don’t buy that. I think some things, like evil and suffering flow not from above, but from within, that they flow from the inevitable consequences of billions of people living in rebellion against God and the way He ordered His universe.

Evil and suffering are not the work of God as though He fashioned them out of leftover articles found in His attic; but rather they are more likely the aftereffect of things we have done (or not done). Evil and pain have emerged not from the process of creation, but from the overflow of destruction. Remember, in the Gospels, it wasn’t Jesus that created the storm; rather, He was the one who calmed it, who spoke to it and brought it into submission. And I wonder really if God is not patiently, lovingly, holding back the torrent of affliction that ought to otherwise be surging around us in far greater measure than we know.

And so the real mystery becomes not why we suffer so much, but rather why we suffer so little.

As I write this, a slow steady rain has settled over the part of town we’re in, the kind that you hope for on a Saturday morning, that brings in a cool breeze and the scent of freshly fallen rain.

Not all rain comes in storms. Sometimes it comes softly and lingers a while and then wanders off during the night leaving you to wake to a world rejuvenated. And many times even after a violent storm there comes sort of a resurrection of things as once dry fields become muddy cradles of life both for the seeds buried beneath the surface and for the hope that has lingered just above it.

And Africa has reminded me that all storms eventually pass.

And that Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” (John 14:27).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Preaching has its own set of challenges in Africa. And it isn’t really a language issue. Though there is a bit of a barrier there. Here, the real challenge when preaching is primarily glandular. As in mammary.

You see, in Africa breast feeding is a very normal and natural thing (as compared to the US, where its very normal and natural so long as its done behind closed doors). Well, it can be a bit distracting when you’re coming to point number three of a sermon on Jesus casting the demons out of a guy, and you’re gearing up for the big close on what it means to be set free, and all of the sudden you notice a liberation of a different sort happening all across the congregation.

In Bible college they always told us to make good eye contact when preaching. And, well, that was what I was attempting to do on Sunday. As I was scanning the audience I turned just in time to catch a rather large mother removing what appeared to be a near life size model of the Hindenburg from beneath her shirt and begin feeding her baby with it.

And in an effort to stay focused, I began singing to myself, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face…”

I was sure I was going to say something really dumb, (like, “and the disciples got into the breast...BOAT, BOAT, they GOT INTO THE BOAT and headed across the sea of Galillee”) or worse, that I would look again and get consumed in a ball of fire right there in church.

Apparently though, things were just getting started. As I was attempted to finish my message, more of these uhm... biological lactose distribution devices were unveiled and I wished that in Bible college my preaching instructor had included a section on where to look when you can’t look at your congregation.

You know, the ubiquitous “Preaching Effective Sermons to Naked People” lecture.

I mean, how could he have left that out?

Sometimes in Africa I feel so far outside the cultural norm, that I wonder if I will ever really be “in the know” here. More often than not I feel like a perpetual kindergartner who gets sent back to preschool to relearn patti–cakes and how to share my toys. It seems like every time I think I’m starting to figure things out, something happens and I realize that I’m as clueless about life here as I am about life on Mars.

But I suppose that’s the essence of cross–cultural ministry, of any ministry for that matter. We don’t really have much to give until we’ve begun to give up our selves. Somehow, from that position of emptiness we find our greatest resource. Out of the hollows of our weakness and desperation we are perhaps as close to Christ as we ever get. Because its there that we find Christ in us. Jesus never seems quite so near to us as when our own resources have run dry.

In fact, Christ set the standard on this one: “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men,” (Phil. 2:6–7).

And this is something I think Zambians could teach all of us.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Gold medals

I was feeling pretty self–congratulatory the other day for having made the 10 hour drive from Zambia to Malawi without any help (though it was offered) from my driving companions. After all, such a thing surely ranks slightly lower on the sacrificial scale than 30 day fasts and slightly higher than sitting through a Sandra Bullock movie (any Sandra Bullock movie).

I suppose it goes back to that whole traffic frustration thing and its resultant feelings of unworthiness. I think we Christians like to feel holy (aren’t we suppose to?). And when we don’t we sometimes go to great lengths to try and create it, as though holiness were as easily conjured as a batch of Rice Krispie treats. When the stains of human nature appear for all to see, we tend to try and blot them out with our best efforts of self-sacrifice. In light of our faults we declare, “Yes, I know that thing I did over there was terrible. But forget about that. That was yesterday. Instead, look at this! LOOK AT THIS AMAZINGLY SACRIFICIAL THING I JUST DID!

And so, I had been walking around for a few days with that 10 hour drive dangling from around my neck as though it were Michael Phelps 8 gold medals, trying to work it into as many conversations as I could.

Good Morning, Jerry. How are you?

I’m good...still recovering from THAT 10 HOUR DRIVE which I drove all by myself as a sacrificial act in humble service to my fellow man. Other than that, I’m doing O.K.

But then today over lunch I was given a healthy dose of reality. A friend conveyed a story to me that was told by one of the pastors traveling with us, a Zambian named Pastor Zulu, who started a church among lepers.

Yes, lepers. Which I’m pretty sure pegs out the sacrificial scale.

Apparently after our trip, he conveyed a story to a friend about Paula. When we had stopped to make the border crossing from Zambia to Malawi, we all piled into the tiny station to show our passports and sign our name in the log book – an exercise that mostly proves that we are willing to stand in line. Which is really all that is required of anyone in Africa.

Anyway, Pastor Zulu had said to my friend, “That Paula! She never fails to show me the character of Christ.”

He went on to recount how at the border crossing when he needed a pen and turned to ask for one, he noticed Paula was behind him. She had silently let the rest of us (gold medals and all), beat a path to the log book as quickly as we could. She waited and let everyone else go, and then took her turn.

I suppose a guy who plants a church in a leper colony, knows a genuine act of humility when he sees it. And in Paula waiting to be last, he saw just that. And the simplicity of it is dumbfounding.

Anytime service becomes about us, it ceases to be service and becomes merely impotent maneuvering. It is rarely the grandiose schemes that we conjure that speak the divine language of humility. Rather, it’s the little things. Humility is best heard, not from the mountain tops of life, but from the cracks and crevices of our daily routine. That is where an injection of sacrifice and service finds its voice because that is the place we least expect it.

In our daily routine, we expect others to try and best us, to jump in line ahead of us, to take the last cookie and then give us that helpless, “sorry...should have been here earlier!” look that in turn causes us to think things for which we could be imprisoned in most states.

Jesus said, “And whoever wants to be first, must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44-45).

But its not always easy. Being a servant does not come naturally for me. I don’t want to get in the back of the line. I want to be first. I want recognition not obscurity. I want to be on the podium with my national anthem playing in the background and some famous athlete of yesteryear handing me flowers and putting a medal the size of clock around my neck (not that I’m so fond of flowers and medals, per se – but you get my drift).

But that’s not how it works with God. Servanthood is never the product of impulse. It doesn’t come by way of calculation or scheming but it flows from who we are. A servant doesn’t decide to put others first. For a servant, others are first.

And Pastor Zulu was right.

That Paula. She never fails to show me the character of Christ.