Tuesday, February 21, 2017

“Surprises are everywhere in life. And they usually come from misjudging people for being less than they appear, not seeing them as God sees them.” ― Brownell Landrum

           It was 1984, and I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, to work a half-day high-school career event on a Sunday afternoon, recruiting for the College of Engineering at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.   I had only recently begun going back to church to please my wife.  It was early Sunday morning, and I was driving around to find the high school having never been there before.  I was hours early and noticed a Methodist Church that was just about to start services.  I thought, “This’ll make my wife proud of me,” so I turned in the parking lot and slipped in the back just as things were starting.”  It was okay until the old pastor climbed up into the pulpit.  As soon as he started, I knew it was going to be bad.
          The old minister began his sermon with a faltering voice in a deep Southern accent and proceeded to tell an obscure story that made no sense to me at all. I was quickly lost and bored.  I wanted to be engaged and enlightened, but I knew right away that this sermon was going to be one of the worst ever. The man seemed unprepared, vague, and detached.  In addition, his grammar was horrible.  I couldn’t believe this man had been ordained.  So, I tuned him out, and started fuming inside my head. Slowly I became more and more angry.  "Why didn't he prepare better?" I thought, “If Christianity is weak, it's because the sermons are so bad!"  There I sat, stunned, practically grinding my teeth with every grammar mistake. If I had been sitting any closer to the back, I would have snuck out.  After what seemed an eternity, the old minister ended his thirty-minute plus sermon. I was really upset and that’s all I remember.  I remember nothing of what he said; he was that boring and that bad.  For the rest of the service, my mind wandered elsewhere, counting the lights and the windows.  After the service, people tried to greet me, but I would have none of it.  I shook no one’s hand, and I walked past the old pastor without shaking his hand either.  I walked to my car in the parking lot.  As I walked, I complained out loud to a man walking beside me, "What did you think of that sermon?"  The man walked in silence beside me, lost in thought. Then he gave a gentle reply, "That was the most beautiful sermon I ever heard."  I was stunned, and looked up at him, expecting to see him grinning sarcastically.  To my astonishment, I saw that he was weeping. His face was tear-stained, and his eyes glistened in the noon-day sun.  Suddenly embarrassed, I asked what he meant.  He thought for a moment, then responded with a smile, "I've spent most of my life estranged from God, going my own way, and doing my own thing. Last year I found Him, or rather He found me, and now I find Him speaking to me in the most wonderful ways. Like that sermon we just heard. It was all about waking up, and listening, and hearing God in new ways. That describes my life, and the love I have found."
             In the face of this man’s words (I would later call it a “testimony”), I was speechless. I shook his hand sheepishly and thanked him. "He may not speak to me, but he speaks to thee," I thought.  As I drove to the high school trying to get my thoughts back on recruiting for the College of Engineering, I marveled at how God could use such an old, dull, and ordinary minister to speak in such an extraordinary way to one of His beloved.  What had been meaningless for me to hear, and a cross for me to bear, were the words of life to someone else.
           Now, after decades in the ministry and twelve years as a missionary, having preached more sermons than I can remember,  I am a more humble and appreciative listener to other’s sermons. Ever since that experience decades ago, I cannot hear a boring sermon without imagining that someone, somewhere out there in the congregation may be wiping a tear from his or her eye and smiling.  They may be hearing the voice of God speaking directly into their heart, with healing words raining down on them like a spring shower on a dry and parched land.  I remember now the times I thought I had preached a really bad sermon, one for which I had not really prepared, and yet found someone afterwards moved to tears by it.  The words are never the preacher’s but always God’s and always meant for someone who is ready to hear.  Same way with these blogs, I just never know to whom God is using me to speak.  Guess, I’ll just keep writing, remembering that man moved to tears by the worst sermon I ever heard—guess I just wasn’t really listening.

Monday, February 20, 2017

“To feel the pure joy of life, donate yourself for the betterment of others.” ― Debasish Mridha

               Biggest news is that a few days ago I was complaining about the heat, the drought, the lack of rain, and the noise from the church crusades which surrounded us.  Well, one by one, the other crusades ran out of steam, leaving only the Seventh Day Adventists (the closest church) going strong.  We couldn’t help but hear that they were also praying (loudly) for rain—and it rained.  The skies have been cloudy every day (unlike the skies in “Home On The Range”) keeping the heat down to highs around 80F (26 C) and lows at night around 70F (21C).  It has rained every evening for a couple of hours for three days now.  The crusade has been buoyed by this response to their prayers, and we heard them say they will keep on past the eight days they’ve already been worshipping.  If they’re the ones bringing the rain, then we may go join them, and we certainly have stopped complaining about the noise.  Rain means so much more than just relief from the heat.  It means animals will stop dying and some crops may still have a chance.  More rain is forecast for today, so prayers have been answered.  Bwana Asifiwe!  Praise the Lord!  (sometimes my autocorrect will write “Bwana Asinine” instead)
                Bishop Monto came by yesterday with all his stamps and official seals so we could complete the paperwork required for Karen’s Labor Permit.  The new president has decreed that all missionaries must also have a Labor Permit ($500 American each) in order to get a residence permit ($250 American).  John and I have ours as our residence permits expired last summer, but it took seven months to get everything done.  Karen’s permit doesn’t expire until next July, but we have to get a jump on things because of all the delays.  Shaban will be traveling to Dar Es Salaam on Wednesday for about five days because Labor Permits must be done there and in person.  We have an attorney there who will give Shaban the papers saying he represents us, so we don’t each have to go personally.  We’ve been told we will only have to pay once for the Labor Permit but will have to renew it every two years just like the residence permits.  We’ll see.  So far, the government never seems to miss an opportunity to get more money from us, but if that’s the price of admission—we will gladly pay it.  Shaban’s well at his house also ran dry, so I gave him $100 which will allow him to have the guys take it down another three meters (10 feet) which should do the job, especially if this rain keeps up.  It seems that money has become something I only hold until others need it.  I have stopped calling it “pesa” (Swahili for money) and started calling it “kipepeo” which is Swahili for “butterfly” as it only lands on my hand for a few seconds before it is gone again.
                 Bishop Monto will be traveling back to Mwanza as our case before the High Court of Tanzania was continued once more to March 2nd.  The attorney needed another $200 for court costs and the travel and accommodations for Bishop Monto costs another $125—it’s always something, Kipepeo reigns.  While there is little question that we will prevail, the case has been continued four times now, and I rather suspect another is in the offing.  In addition, the church at Murambo has built themselves a building and bought the tin sheets for the roof but needed money to pay for the wooden roof joists and trusses.  It was just $150, but I have been spending so much for medical expenses, I just didn’t have the money for them until now.  Happily, I was able to give Bishop Monto the money, and he will take it to them next Sunday and preach for them.  Another pastor in Musoma and a good friend and member here in Bunda have both had to have prostate surgery, and we were able to assist them with their medical costs.  Here, they won’t let you leave the hospital till you’ve paid, and since they don’t provide food, that can be a problem.  Happily, they are both home and waiting to remove stitches.  It is rare for a Tanzanian man to live long enough to develop prostate problems, but it does happen.  The rate of prostate problems for caucasian men over 65 is 85%, but for African and African/American men, the rate is 95%.  Since the average life span here is late forties for most men, the vast majority never experience these problems, but if you live long enough you most surely will.  I can personally attest that these are not minor issues, but I’ve survived and so have my two friends here.
           On a side note, we have found a store in Musoma that stocks frozen chickens (grown here) that are fat and tasty unlike the free-rage birds available here in Bunda.  We bought two and wish we had bought twenty.  We’re going to see if we can arrange a deal with friends with a freezer so we can always have some on hand.  This may not seem like much to you KFC and Tyson surrounded folks, but to us, after twelve years of scrawny, tough chicken—this is like manna from heaven.  That’s all the news from Lake Victoria (no Woebegone here).  Ya’ll have a great day and give thanks to God, often.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

“Everything in Scripture is either preparation for the Gospel, presentation of the Gospel, or participation in the Gospel.” ― Dave Harvey

          First, a little history.  About 500 years before Christ came, the ruler of Babylon invaded Judah (southern half of Israel) and destroyed the Temple and took about half of the population into slavery.  He only took the good ones, the merchants, the teachers, the craftsman, the educated, the wealthy, the young, the strong, and anyone that might be an asset to the Babylonians.  He did not take the old, the infirm, the mentally defective, the prostitutes, or the needy.  These got left behind.  A few generations passed and those left behind who were almost all from the same tribe, built themselves a new temple but not in Jerusalem.  Instead, they built it on Mount Gerzim inside of Samaria.  You get it, the ones left behind who took over all the nice homes and possessions of those carted off—were Samaritans who made things worse by rejecting Jerusalem as the site of the temple.  When huge numbers of Jews were allowed to return about sixty years later, things didn’t go well.  The Samaritans were from the wrong side of the tracks, were the uneducated and criminals, were from the wrong tribe, and worst of all had committed heresy by building a new temple not in Jerusalem.  From then on, they became the most hated people by the Jews who would not even speak to them.  Now to travel from Judea to Galilee, the shortest routes were through Samaria, but if Jews went that way, they spoke to no one and never spent the night or ate with those people.  I think you’re beginning to get the picture and understand why Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of a parable.  Even more impressive to me is the story (not parable) of Jesus stopping at a well in Samaria in the middle of the day to get water (Gospel of John, Fourth Chapter).  I hope you know this story: a woman of low repute was at the well.  We know she was of low repute because she was not with the other women who got water in the early morning or late evening but had to get her water in the heat of the day when no other women were around.  We also know because Jesus told her she was living with a man who was not her husband.  When the other disciples found Jesus talking to this woman (he told her about the “living water”—Maisha Na Naji in Swahili), they were shocked and ashamed.  Of course, Jesus rebuked them (you really need to read this story if you haven’t) and even worse for them, decided to stay a day or two in Samaria.  The “AHA!” point of this story is that this woman who was the lowest among the low in Samaria told others about Jesus, and, based on her words alone, they believed in Him.  Then they came to see Jesus for themselves.  This is the shocker—the first real evangelist for Christ was a Samaritan woman of loose morals.  This was the first time recorded in the Bible that others believed in Jesus without having seen Him for themselves.  Samaritans did come and were converted and went back and converted others.  The first Christian missionaries, if you will, were the accursed Samaritans.  Why did the Gospel of John think this story was important enough to record and to place it so early in the gospel?  Because it was true and revolutionary and a lesson to us all that no one is so sinful, so rotten of character that she or he cannot be a both a disciple and a missionary for Jesus Christ.  When I was studying for the ministry, I once told my ministry mentor, the pastor of Sequoyah United Methodist Church that I didn’t think I was a good enough man to be a minister of God.  The Rev. Mike Mattox just laughed and said, “Charles, if God could get enough “good” people, He wouldn’t need you.”   So, here I am, the modern-day equivalent of the “woman at the well” serving God as a missionary in Tanzania for the last twelve years and beyond , not because I met Christ personally but learned of Him through others (like Mike Mattox) who were not saints—but who knew Jesus and lived with Him in their hearts.  If you know Jesus Christ, shouldn’t you be telling others?  Shouldn’t you be expanding His kingdom because of how He has touched you?  I’m pretty sure you know these are rhetorical questions, right?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

“Doing the right thing isn't always easy - in fact, sometimes it's really hard - but just remember that doing the right thing is always right.” — David Cottrell

            I couldn’t believe this news story when I saw it which was right after I had written yesterday’s blog about a Ferrari and a brick.  I knew when I wrote that story that the man involved was a rich Wall Street banker.  I don’t know anything about the man in this news story, Manfred Kick, other than what I read in several news articles, but the main story is a powerful one.
            On Wednesday of this week, 15 February 2017, a very special event occurred.  Manfred Kick (age 41) was driving down the Autobahn in his new Tesla Model S, just outside of Munich, Germany, when he saw a Volkswagen Passat swerving dangerously across the road. Herr Kick said, “I saw a car driving slowly in the left lane without using an emergency blinker…The driver had tipped forward and hung motionless in the belt. The head and hands hung limply down. I had to stop his car somehow, otherwise it would have continued indefinitely. And it was clear that the driver needed urgent help.”  Even though a Tesla Model S costs over $75,000, Herr Kick didn’t hesitate to sacrifice it in order to do the right thing and save the man’s life.  Kick called the police to report the incident, but he knew he didn’t have much time — so he took a big risk: he pulled his Model S directly in front of the Passat, hoping to bring the other car to a halt.  Manfred pulled his Tesla in front of the Volkswagen and slowed until they bumped hard and then braked until both of the cars came to a halt, hearing the damage to both cars as it happened.  But he wasn’t through helping.  He then went into the Volkswagen and performed first aid on the unconscious driver while passersby called emergency services.  When emergency medical technicians arrived, they took the unconscious driver to a hospital in Munich.  Officials said that though the man had reportedly suffered a stroke of some kind, he is currently in stable condition.  Manfred was then stuck with over $10,000 in repair costs, but said, “I do not know if the insurance pays.  The most important thing is that the man is all right again.”  When Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla learned of this, he Tweeted,  “Congrats to the Tesla owner who sacrificed damage to his own car to bring a car with an unconscious driver safely to a stop!” Musk wrote on Twitter. “In appreciation, Tesla is providing all repair costs free of charge and expedited.”  (The Tesla is the car in the forefront of the picture at the right with the Volkswagen right behind it.)
               The most important sentence in this whole story is not what billionaire Musk tweeted (he’s not the hero of the story, after all he is a billionaire), no, it is what the man who risked his life and damaged his car in process had to say after it was all over.  He was not concerned about the risk to his life or the cost of the repairs.  Instead what Herr Kick said was that “The most important thing is that the man is all right again.”  Life is not about the cost of your possessions or the inconvenience that your good acts might cause, it is about doing the right thing when the right thing is obvious.  God bless you, Manfred Kick.  You make us all proud.

Friday, February 17, 2017

“By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

           A whole lot of judgin’ be goin’ on these days.  Maybe we need to step back a bit and remember what Jesus had to say about it.  Maybe I can help a bit with the following story.  It’s a true story from the 1930’s, and it’s been written and rewritten thousands of time, so I felt fine about rewriting it myself to bring it up to date.  The basic elements of the story are all true.
          Quite a few years ago, a hedge fund manager who had profited greatly from the financial collapse of so many others took delivery of a brand new, red, V-12 Ferrari.  He finally felt that he had arrived and could feel the jealous looks of others as he wheeled his very expensive sports car around New York City.  Faithfully following the voice of his satellite navigation unit, he was directed through a seedier part of New York than he usually frequented.  Still, seeing the poverty around him, he felt only pride as he steered his beautiful new car around the potholes.  He was on his way to the turn that would take him back to his protected neck of the woods when he heard a loud “thunk” and felt something hit the side of his car.  He screeched to a stop, jumped out and saw that the side of his new Ferrari now had a big dent in its side, scratches in the expensive paint, and he saw a broken brick laying on the street under his car.  He furiously ran to the sidewalk searching for the miscreant, fully intending on beating him badly.  What he found was a seven-year-old boy with tears flowing from his eyes.  “I did it,” the boy confessed.  The Wall Street whiz grabbed the little boy and shoved him up against a wall.  “Why did you do it?” The man’s chest was heaving with anger at the little boy.  The boy struggled to get his breath and said, “I’m sorry, but no one else would stop.  My brother has fallen out of his wheelchair, and I can’t get him back up.”  To his credit, the angry man deflated just a little.  “Where is this brother of yours?” the man said, not sure whether to believe him or not.  “There,” the boy pointed, and there on the ground scratched and bleeding lay his brother and the overturned wheelchair.  The man put the boy down and picked up the brother, cleaned off his cuts and scratches with his Armani handkerchief and helped push the boy two blocks back to their home where the mother rushed out and took over, thanking the man profusely.  The man slowly walked back to his still damaged car, thinking all the way.  The next day, the man quit his job, moved to a rural area in upstate New York and built a center for children with disabilities with the money he had saved for a new home in the Hamptons.  It has been several years now, and he still has his Ferrari and it still has the dent in its side.  He still drives it proudly but not to show how much better he is than those around him.  These days, he drives it to always remind him that it took a brick in the hand of a small boy to teach him the true value of riches.  He says he is happier now than he has ever been and all those who know him agree.  He has changed the lives of many, many children and given their parents hope—all because of a little boy and a brick that left a now rusty dent in the passenger door of a once very expensive car.  Ask the man now, and he will tell you that the brick was worth much more than the car and that he is sorry it took something as extreme as that to open his eyes to the real world around him.  
        Saul had to be knocked to the ground on the way to Damascus to finally experience Christ.  I am sad to say it took a figurative slap to my head with a two-by-four to get my attention and to focus my eyes on Christ.  I pray that you will lift your eyes and see what Christ is offering you.  You are not defined by what you were in the past, but in Christ, you are completely new and without dents.  I pray that it will not take a brick hitting your car to get your attention.  AMEN.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

“Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one's thoughts.” ― Elisabeth Elliot

              As Gilda Radner said, “It’s always something.”  No sooner have I gotten one medical situation under control when malaria attacks me yet again.   This time I recognized it in its very early stages yesterday and Dr. Chris rushed over with a new medication adjusted for my weight, so this is the lightest case I have had in the last year or so.  Had malaria four times in 2016 and the last time was six months ago, so it’s not too bad.  In the last nine years, Karen hasn’t had a single bout, and John, who has been here ten years, has never had malaria.  Seems I’m the only one those female mosquitos really love—and who can blame them.   At least I can get a blog out. 
              Along with our drought has come a heat wave.  For the last twelve years, it has never gotten much above 85 degrees (29 C) or ever gotten much below 68 degrees (20 C), but for the last few days we have been having temperatures reaching 110 (43 C) and 95 (35 C) in the shade of our verandah.  At night, it only cools off to 80 degrees (26 C) which is not cool.  Remember, we have no air conditioning and only fans to help inside the house.  We have had all our windows open and even a couple of outside doors (the steel security doors were locked) to help get some breeze through the house.  This is affecting everybody.  Just because the Tanzanians have been living here for hundreds of years that doesn’t mean that they are not affected by the heat.  It’s hot for everybody.  When we lived in Boston, we didn’t have air conditioning because you only really needed it for about two weeks in August, and we spent most of those two weeks in air-conditioned malls and movie theaters.  Well, there aren’t any air-conditioned malls or movie theaters here.  Somehow, it’s a little easier to take knowing that everybody is in the same boat.  It’s not like we have the only non-air conditioned house in the neighborhood, and we are the only ones suffering while all our neighbors are living in comfort.  When the condition is universal, you don’t feel as much like a victim, especially when you know others are not only hot but hungry as well.
               However, all our open windows and doors have had a very negative effect on us since last Saturday.  Not only is Valentine’s Day a big thing here, this year it is also National AIDS Day, and most of the churches are putting on big crusades to turn people away from carnal sin.  We are surrounded by churches here with four in a three-block radius, and three of those are having multiple-day crusades.  For some reason, churches here believe that the only effective preaching and services come with amps and sound systems cranked up to rock concert levels.  The Baptist Church is pouring forth shouting and yelling (shouting and yelling are very popular styles of preaching here) and attempting to drown out the Seventh Day Adventists who are shouting and yelling (electrically amplified) just as loud from the other side of us.  For us, with all our open windows, this means that it is hard to even speak to each other inside the house.  Happily, the crusades don’t start till four in the afternoon and end about eight at night, so it’s not an all-day, all-night thing (there have been some).  These started last Saturday and were still going strong yesterday, so we don’t know when they will end.  Some of our workers said that these churches must think that God lives far away and couldn’t hear them if they didn’t shout and yell with amplifiers.  They think the shouters are a little crazy.  Out of politeness, we couldn’t agree with them openly, but there may be a little truth there.  Our Muslim friends don’t understand, either.  They have a very loud call to prayer, so everyone will know it’s time, but then they go inside and are very quiet in their praying and preaching.  Well, as my grandmother, Mama Roebuck, used to say, “No storm lasts forever,” so this will end before long.  In the meantime, we do a lot of gesturing and shoulder shrugging.  We also hope that there are those who are reached by the evangelism and are genuinely turned to Christ during these crusades.
                  Another bright spot is that a package arrived yesterday with stuff for each of the three of us, and there is another package being mailed next Saturday.  We have a package coming from Boston and another has been mailed from South Carolina, so we have a lot to anticipate.  I can remember as a boy ordering things from the Sears, Roebuck catalog and waiting excitedly for the treasures to arrive.  Somehow, the instant gratification from same-day or next-day delivery has killed the excitement and anticipation of waiting for good stuff you know is coming.  I’m here to tell you that almost every good thing in life is something for which you have to wait and anticipate, like weddings, births, graduations, and visits from far-flung family members.  We are all awaiting the Second Coming, and it is not coming by FedEx or an Amazon.com drone delivery.  Learning to wait with patience and anticipation is a good thing.  And you can take that to the bank.