Monday, February 23, 2009

Shall We Dance?

Jerry often jokes with our Zambian friends that he’s not as talented at dancing as they are. However, twice recently I have witnessed his unprecedented and inspired . . . choreography. The first incident occurred when, upon awakening, our eyes focused immediately on a large, fat lizard clinging precariously to the inside of our mosquito net, mere inches over our heads. We were up in a flash. And in the process of capturing that creature, Jerry made some most amusing noises and moves – the best entertainment I’d had for some time. The second incident took place in church last week. Wondering if the Spirit was descending on my husband in a previously unexperienced manner, I observed with interest as his body made strange contortions and an odd look came upon his face, as he sat beside me on the front row. Only after church did I learn the real source of his inspiration: a cockroach inside his suit jacket!

The truth is, we’re both longing to dance again. To lay down the weight of sorrow that clings so tenaciously, and sometimes seems just too much to bear. The other day we went for a walk in the sunshine, only to find ourselves caught in a rain that came up in an instant and left us soaked. So too our hearts can go from hope to despair, from peace to pain, with no warning at all.

We find ourselves daily engaging the Enemy in ways we have never before experienced. The issue? Trusting in the goodness and Sovereignty of God, trusting His love for us, submitting ourselves to His work of grace in our lives. So easy to say, so easy to preach about . . . so hard to own, in the midst of a storm.

Though we teach classes here, we’re actually quite engaged in learning ourselves. About praising Almighty God in brokenness. About listening intently for His voice. About being authentic before God, and also, with people.

Today as I sat in a classroom of Zambian pastors and leaders, I thought, “how amazing of God, to allow us to be under the care and tutelage of such gracious people in a time like this.” People who have suffered deeply, whose faith sustains them, and who amaze us with their capacity for joy. After class I sat and chatted with a friend, Pastor Beatrice. This humble lady is a church-planter, director of a Bible School, widow, mother, grandmother, and woman of grace. Though her own children are grown, she still cares for several orphaned children in her home, on a meager ministry income. She shared some of her story with me – losing several children, and then unexpectedly losing her husband. In a land where there is very little employment opportunity, let alone “Social Security,” widows struggle greatly to survive. Her words of encouragement were simple and gentle. “ You just have to trust God. There is a reason for everything He allows. Just thank Him, and praise Him, in everything.”

There was not an ounce of triteness in her words. With a glow on her face, and nothing but love in her eyes, she exalted the Lord as she spoke of His sustaining power and faithfulness to her. I sat there and drank in the humble joy, the precious peace, and love that flowed out of her “like rivers of living water.” It occurred to me that perhaps never before had I seen the fruit of the Spirit so beautifully on display, as I did in that moment. It was almost like having a conversation with Jesus. The sparkle in her eyes rekindled something inside of me, and I felt my heart saying, “Yes! Yes to what you say, yes to who you are, yes to Christ in you!”

Ah, the tenderness, the strength, the God-confidence of those who have suffered – and overcome. People like Beatrice. People like . . . Jesus. Jesus, who suffered for us, that He might turn our mourning into dancing.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dust

The other day I had to take my wife’s laptop to the repair shop because, as a wise friend once said, “In Africa, we have dust.”

Dust here is not just that sort of greyish film that settles as an unsightly coating on your old books and new exercise equipment. Here dust is second only to the British in its propensity to settle where its not wanted.

At any rate, Paula’s laptop fan had become caked in dust to the point that the “housing” melted (“housing” being a technical term for a little three bedroom ranch where the fan goes after it gets off work) because the fan was not able to spin at its normal capacity. The repair guy fixed the fan within a few hours (much to my amazement and skepticism). When I returned to pick it up, I turned the computer on to make sure everything was working properly. Immediately I noticed that those four little lights on the front of her Dell that tell you if 1) the power is on, 2) if the Wi-Fi is on, 3) if the power supply is plugged in, and 4) if the processor is running, were not lighting at all.

When I complained about this I was given an innocent shrug that seemed to say, “Listen pal, you should be happy that it even turns on.” Which of course I was, and considered leaving and just dropping the little blue light issue altogether. But just then a lady emerged from the back who seemed to be in charge (because for one, she had enormous shoulder pads in her blouse, and two, because she looked quite unhappy, as though nothing would make her happier than to fire someone right then). I stopped her and asked her what they proposed to do about the fact that my wife’s laptop was in no better (and in some ways worse) shape than it was when I brought it in.

She looked at the computer and looked at me, and said (and I’m not kidding), “I have a laptop too. Those lights aren’t supposed to come on.”

It took every bit of kindness I could conjure to keep from saying, “Oh, my yes. You are so right. These are the non–functioning, purposeless lights that Dell installed right on the front of their laptops to alert the user to ABSOLUTELY NOTHING except that they could have placed SOMETHING QUITE USEFUL there had they wanted to.”

But perhaps she saw the sarcasm trying to escape because as soon as she said it she made a bee-line for the office and immediately summoned the clerk to join her.

Later, through the kindness of the repairman whom the store did eventually send to my house to fix the issue, I learned that the woman had informed the clerk that I was a “difficult customer.” Which is true, if by difficult she meant “wanting something for his money.”

The thing is, I was having a really good day that day, which I don’t always have in Africa. Sometimes Africa gets the better of you and by noon you’re ready pack everything up and move to Tulsa and open a bagel shop. But that day I was doing well, and was managing my frustrations fairly easily (or so I thought). But when I learned that the manager had labeled me a “difficult customer” I was quite upset, because I AM NOT difficult and it really drives me insane to be accused of things that I’m not! Even though a bit of reflection reminds me that not than long ago I blogged about a similar incident in a Staples store.

This week in the class I’ll be teaching on the Gospel of John, we will be studying Jesus’ trial before Annas, Caiphas and finally before Pilate. And today as I was reading those passages, it struck me what restraint Jesus embodied in the face of such arrogance, audacity and abuse. And what’s more, is that at every point Jesus’ concern seems to never have been for his own justification, or to be proven right, but instead to provide an opportunity for those who would destroy him to believe in Him and come into the Light.

And I can’t help but wonder if we as Christians don’t sometimes spend far too much time trying to “be right,” and prove the superiority of our position, and far too little time trying to “be light” that might lead someone out of their darkness and into the embrace of Christ.

As I think about this last week of class and the students I have the privilege to teach, I wonder if Africa will get it right. I wonder if the Church in Africa will be the one that finally, after 2000 years of (at times) sordid history, presents to the world a Christ that is forever reaching out to those that are hurting, disenfranchised and yes, even predisposed toward unbelief.

Or, will they, like we so often have, get caught in endless debates and defenses about, quite honestly, rather meaningless little blue lights.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Modern Inconveniences

Love can be terribly inconvenient.

Of course, I don’t mean those kinds of love that we all are so fond of, like the love between a husband and a wife, a child and his dog, or a man and anything requiring internal combustion. No, those types of love come quite naturally.

But there is another type of love however that requires some real effort, some intentionality, sort of like that which you would need in order to actually eat Spam, or read a Danielle Steele novel (both of which, by the way, are nearly equal in nutritional value and I am certain one would benefit far more by eating the Danielle Steele novel and reading the Spam).

This week was my first week of teaching the Gospel of John, which many scholars believe to have been written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” which is not a matter of the writer bragging about being Jesus’ favorite, but rather a humble way of the disciple John saying, “me,” since in the first century the concept of American Idol (and its attenuating notion that the winner becomes the center of the universe) were only beginning to take shape due to the fact that Paula Abdul was still undergoing Botox treatment. Had American Idol fully evolved by that time, the writer would have identified himself, of course, by wearing a bikini.

The class has been a wonderful experience. And by that, I mean that I made it to class on time every day and hardly anyone fell asleep during the entire four hour session, which I attribute, primarily to the fact that the Bible is endlessly fascinating and relevant, and secondarily, to my wearing a bikini.

Plus, I discovered that when you’re the teacher and you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say, “Well class, we have a lot to cover today, so let’s keep moving.” And everyone will just think you’re a neurotic workaholic. Which is much better than being thought a normal human being.

On Wednesday though, (on a far more serious and somber note) one of the students in class reported that a lady in her church had died after giving birth. She was “an older” lady, which by Zambian standards might mean 40. Paula graciously offered that after class we would take her to the funeral house (which would be the home of the lady who had died and where all the family, friends and relatives are gathered).

I have to admit, I wasn’t immediately thrilled by the idea, knowing that we could be there a long time. In Zambia, when you go the funeral house, you traditionally go and just sit with those that are grieving. You don’t talk much but just sit and be there. And I knew that in going we would cross from our reality into another, a reality characterized not by modern conveniences, but by the ancient inconveniences of poverty and despair.

In Zambia, we who have the comfort of good health care and nice homes live in sort of a constant awareness that the “other Zambia” is not so far away and will one day soon, often when we least expect it, intrude upon our lives and give us a healthy dose of a reality very different from the one in which we normally move.

I suppose my unstated personal philosophy has been to not go looking for this intrusion of the other reality, but to just know that eventually it will find me, upset me, and, of course, inconvenience me.

And I suppose a little inconvenience is a healthy thing. I mean, if we lived our lives entirely according to what was expedient, then we would have the depth of a turnip and former senators would get appointed to cabinet posts without having had to pay their taxes (as qualified as he may or may not have been, said Jerry in his most apolitical voice, ironically aware that I am using this story because of its convenience).

But if Jesus had only ever done that which was convenient (as I am sometimes inclined to do), He would have never entered human history and “pitched his tent among us,” (John 1:14). And one is left to wonder if convenience has any place in love at all. I mean, is it not the nature of love to sacrifice, to endure, to give?

So, while yes, love can at times be terribly inconvenient, it can also be uniquely, and wonderfully transformational and our job then is not to weigh the cost of love (as I seem so innately inclined to do), but to simply live it out.

And in doing that we enter, in a remarkable way, into the most universal and rarest of languages, a language in which Jesus spoke with perfect clarity in dying on the cross (John 3:16). And surely, there was nothing convenient about that.

It is that message more than any other that is capable of transforming the broken lives of this world.

And, more importantly, its a message that can be proclaimed without anyone ever having to don a bikini.