Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jesus' World is Harder Than I Thought

Many times I try to write about our experiences here and how it should or at least could inform our Christian experience in the US. I guess because that is the situation I am in, a Christian from the USA that lives in Tanzania. However this past Sunday I was made evidently aware of the difficulty for Tanzanians of experiencing some of Jesus’ message that North Americans seem to take for granted and I really want to talk about the experience of a Christian in Tanzania.

Since we now work in seven different churches we sometimes mash up seasonal messages and services in order to give as much exposure as possible to the rich liturgical tradition of the Church. This resulted in us doing a foot washing service on Palm Sunday. Which in fact worked really well since I focused on the upside down route that Jesus’ triumphant procession took on Palm Sunday which worked easily into the master becoming the servant message that is seen in the tradition of foot washing that Jesus started at the Passover Meal. 

However, as I was preaching about the idea that Jesus was a different kind of king, as I tried to convey in as relevant as possible terms what it would look like today for us to copy his example of washing the feet of his students I saw confusion and discomfort cross the faces of many in the service. I guess I should not have been surprised, yet I still was. 

You see, one of the examples that I used is the hand washing that commonly takes place before meals here in Tanzania. This works as an example because social order also determines who washes whose hands. The lowest on the pecking order washes everyone elses hands starting with the most senior and working their way down. I am serious. I have seen arguments (playful arguments to be clear) started over whose hands should be washed first. “Who is the oldest?” is the most common question, but other factors, often unspoken also often enter in. Questions of wealth, education, position, race, and of course gender can also play a silent role in the decision making process. I say “of course” gender because unfortunately no matter what the age, wealth, education, or position women always go last. That is assuming that they are even eating with the men in the first place. 

Part of the reason that discomfort may have been present is that there is a strong and I think valuable tradition of paying respect to age in Tanzania. Right alongside that is the hospitality offered to visitors (all visitors, even women, are given the first chance to wash their hands before even the most senior member of the host family). It is just that wrapped up in some of these very good traditions are some more discriminating practices. 

It is not the first time that I have found parts of the Biblical message to be more uncomfortable here than in the US, though the reverse could also be said. What I saw plainly written on their faces though had to be the same challenge experienced by rulers of Jesus’ day. He was not just advocating for random acts of kindness when he gave us the mandate to serve others whether higher on the food chain than ourselves or lower. He was challenging many years of tradition that helped hold in place the order of society. The tradition that let everyone know where their place was and how they were supposed to interact with each other, that is what was at stake and that is what has made even modern day Tanzanians uncomfortable because they have a similar system for holding their social order together. 

I am not sure if continuing Jesus’ tradition started during the original Holy Week did any good. I am not sure if any one walked away with any change of opinion other than that the missionary may be crazy. However, I am sure that I have a better understanding of the enormity of Jesus’ message, the radical call he really was giving us, the almost ensured shunning that was and is experienced by people who truly follow Christ’s message in a culture that has its own alternative traditions. This is what I am sure of. As well as the love and understanding needed on all sides as we continue to try and establish Biblical churches in the midst of a sometimes ununderstanding culture.

The extreme uncomfortableness expressed is also why we are trying to get the Emmanuel Center for Women and Children started. More coming about this great ministry next week. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Translation and Incarnation

So here we are at the Maryknoll language school in Musoma. It is one of two language schools that the Maryknolls, the first mission order to come out of the Catholic Church in the US, have established. The other one is in South America. This is our last week of language school. We have been here five weeks now learning about verbs, prepositions, conditional sentences, and vocabulary galore. It must have been somewhat of a success since Liz is speaking more Swahili much more comfortably and I am working on translating worship service liturgy without too many problems.
Having already been in Tanzania for three years several people have asked us why we are spending time in language school especially since we already speak more fluent Swahili than any of the people we are in school with and since I have already spent five weeks at this same language school in 2011. The answer is really best understood by these two quotes from Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture by Lamin Sanneh. 

                “Incarnation is translation. When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into              humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language.”              

The idea that incarnation is translation is the ultimate recognition of God’s love for us. That we did not have to look through the obscurations of oracles, prophecies that no one can understand, or layers of man-made rituals in order to find the spirit and essence of our God. He brought himself down to earth as one of us in order that we may see clearly, understand clearly the divine message, and discern correctly divine action in our midst. In this way God made his own statement of the importance of receiving His actions and His message in a way we can understand, a messy, temptation filled translation of the divine into the human. So if God thought that translation was a necessary step in His self-revelation to mankind what should we as missionaries focus on?

“Mission as translation is something very different. It makes the recipient culture the true and final locus of the proclamation.”

This is a powerful idea for those of us that carry God’s message (though not God himself) into the world and into different cultures. If God brought himself down to earth in order that we may better understand as a human culture than we can do no less than bring ourselves to where others are in order to pass on this amazing message of a loving God. When we do this we must focus on what is most critical, which is not our own knowledge or specialty, but the loved culture into which we are stepping. We must come with love and humility and translate the message as best we understand it into a different place and culture. This includes by necessity a better understanding of the language and what it is really communicating. A great example is the way that Swahili speakers say that they have missed you. There is not really a word in the Swahili language, or at least it is not commonly used, for I have missed you. However, people readily say that you have “been lost” (Umepoteza) if they have not seen you in a few days. This indicates the power of relationships in this culture and the regularity with which people expect to see their friends, neighbors, and family that live around them. Upon reflection it shows a weakness of our language, and sometimes our culture, to use a weak word like “to miss” in order to show a lack of relationship with someone that should be close to you. This type of language understanding allows us to see and step into the communication of what is most important in the culture in which we live. This understanding allows us to better communicate the incarnate love of Christ for all of humanity.

This understanding also allows the incarnation to be not only explained in another culture, but also left in another culture. Once the translation is done the hardest step often takes place which is releasing the faith of our God completely from our hands and into the hands of others, not faithful just in their own righteousness, but with the same faith in God which Jesus had in leaving his disciples. The faith was not that God was just with him as the Son of Man, but that God would also, through His Spirit be with this new and infant church. We have to trust that God is not a God of the established church, but a God of all people and will equally bless any people that receive Him with a needed portion of His Holy Spirit.

 Mungu Akubarikiwe!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Mwanza First United Methodist Church

I don’t think you have been officially introduced. Let me welcome you to Mwanza First United Methodist Church. I made my second visit to this church last week. The first visit was the beginning of February when we started with the church leaders and a total of 12 people committed to getting a church started in Mwanza the second largest city in Tanzania. Many of them have come from Kigoma and moved to Mwanza to try and find a better life for their families. They are committed to moving forward both in their personal lives and in growing the church. Since that first visit in February some amazing things have already happened. 

Church leadership
I found out during this second visit that the church has already doubled in size and we haven’t even put a building up yet, they are still worshiping in the living room of the lay leader. We are now over 30 people showing up on a Sunday which gets more than a little cramped.
This is the front of the building we meet in.

The women’s group has been on the move with visiting women in the community and continuing with their sewing project. They embroider material commonly used to cover tables, couches, even TVs and then use the money in their women’s ministry.
Women's group and one of their creations

Three of the youth in the church who are in secondary school themselves have taken on the job of tutoring preschool students after school and have around 30-40 children show up every day, both from within the church and from the community.

The men’s group is growing strong which is encouraging to see since so many of our churches here have a great presence of women, but almost no men. They have already added five men to their ranks several of whom have already become very active in the church.

It was a really good few days of ministry, teaching, and sharing together. I am excited about what the future holds for this church and other churches that will come about in Mwanza.

Now that you have been formally introduced feel free to come and visit any time.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is Heaven on Earth Culturally Appropriate?

As missionaries a large part of our training and ongoing conversation deals with whether or not we are being culturally appropriate. Sometimes this is an easy question, like when we get ready to go to a church service. In this culture there is a certain dress that is expected, especially for women. We can flout that required style, but then we lose our right to be heard (not our right to speak, but to be heard).

There are other times when being culturally appropriate is more difficult, like when you are invited to eat after church service, but you have a schedule to keep. This has been a difficult one these last few weeks since we have are in language school. We have to drive an hour and a half every Sunday night and be on time for dinner at language school, this is made more difficult since managing to leave church “on time” in a culture that centers around visiting and relationships is hard, if not impossible. Especially without being rude.

There are other times in which I am not sure that being culturally appropriate should overcome what we are here to do which is bear witness to the Kingdom of God coming to rest, more and more present on earth every day. There are times in which bearing witness to God’s Kingdom is not culturally appropriate…so what do we do?

I encountered one of those times this past Sunday. I preached on 1 John 4:19-21. It says, basically that God loves us so therefore we should love Him. It also says that to love Him who is unseen we must first show love to those around us that we can see. It is a good word from God! Kinda makes you want to say, “Word!” as if we were still in the 90s. Or was that 80s? It was said that the Good News of the Bible is not that we get to go to heaven, but that heaven is coming down to earth. However, for heaven to really show up on earth we have to learn how to love each other. So far so good right? Then the bomb dropped, I challenged everyone to find one way this week to show love to their family and to their neighbors. Still okay…until I suggested that for men to show love to their wives they should wash the dishes, or do the laundry, or take care of the kids for a day. You could have heard a pin drop, right before they all laughed out loud. 

This was not a seditious message, but in all seriousness I probably just brought a little bit of the kingdom down to earth at the cost of my right to be heard. I crossed a big cultural line in order to try and show the kind of love that I feel like has continually gotten Christians in trouble over the years. Not the loving your wife part, but being willing to “lower” yourself in the eyes of your community in order to show love to someone else. Que footwashing Bible passage.

Somewhere in the world there is someone who can tell me if this was a good missionary move. They can weigh the pay off and tell me if I really picked the right time to throw my weight into a cultural battle that is currently taking place in Tanzania between the old customs and the new global world. For me though, there is never a time to pick the cultural over the gospel. Liz wears dresses to church because the respect she would lose outweighs the message she would be able to send of being a strong, independent women (especially since independence is not a Biblical message). However, I can’t help but push for women’s rights as being a kingdom value since the Bible says men are to love their wives as Christ loves the church, and I don’t think a free gift of grace equals slavery for the church as some people want to argue for women based on that same Bible passage.

I am sure some people are cheering on this message, but let me also ask you in closing. Are you willing to defy your culture in order to help others accept God’s Kingdom? Are you willing to give up your cultural values in order to take on the values of God’s kingdom? What are some kingdom of God values that your culture would find inappropriate?