Wednesday, February 7, 2018

On the Longevity of Bands and Mission Teams

I was listening to a podcast recently where they talked about how rare it is to find bands that are able to stick together for more than a few years.  They noted that music groups that can stay together for 10-15+ years while remaining relevant (the U2’s of the world, for example) are the exception, not the rule.  Most bands have much shorter shelf lives.  Since that amount of time is as long as our mission team has been serving together in Mozambique (!), that got me thinking about potential connections between the longevity of bands and mission teams.

After doing some poking around on the internet, I found that back in 2015 Dave Segal wrote two pieces on bands from Seattle that either stayed together or didn’t.  While unfortunately these articles have some bad language, I did find a few interesting quotes from the pieces that seemed relevant to the lasting power of mission teams as well: 

From “Why Do Bands Break Up? Seven Now-Defunct Seattle Groups Share the Stories of Money, Ego, Bad Luck, and Audience Indifference That Made Them Call It a Day” (click here)
“Bands are fragile, fraught things. They're like families, except even more combustible, because art is involved. So many things can go wrong in a band: Egos can spiral out of control, personalities can clash, drugs and alcohol can be abused, sexual intrigue can ensue, digestion issues can wreak havoc. There could even be skill envy. But sometimes the reason things end is more mundane, if no less emotionally wrenching.”
From “Why Do Bands Stay Together? Seven Veteran Seattle Groups Share the Secrets of Their Longevity.” (click here)
“If you think it's easy to hold a group of unstable egomaniacs together while creating music that everyone in said group can stand playing over and over, well, you've probably never been in a band.”
One of the band members “attributes punk and hardcore's ethos of egalitarianism as another key factor, ‘where everyone has an equal stake in publishing and money.’ Having no leader…, ‘helped keep any weird, out-of-control ego fights at bay.’"
“Dunn and drummer Don McGreevy cite communication and mutual respect as integral, too. Beyond that, Dunn says it's key to understand "‘what each member is good at within the context of the band. Everybody in this band has so many different skills. No one person is being satisfied 100 percent of the time. We try to play to each other's strengths instead of alienating people.’"
Nokes stated, “‘Like any healthy long-term relationship, it's about patience and knowing each other's quirks so you can approach conflict without a meltdown. Being in a band is absolutely insane and ever-changing, so I guess it's about finding comfort in what can be really uncomfortable and/or sharing the best moments of your entire life with people you actually like.’ Further, Nokes states, Tacocat are ‘democratic to a fault... We each excel at our own corners of band biz, but no one really wants to be 'the leader.' We're each 25 percent of this thing, and that is that.’"
“Not all bands can be the Stones or Rush. The center usually cannot hold. Dunn puts band dynamics into perspective: ‘We're all… dysfunctional, semi-nihilistic maniacs just to do this… anyway.’"
There was a lot in those pieces about the longevity of bands that I resonated with (from structure, to leadership, to buy-in, to basic human nature...).  In the context of a mission team, it can be a challenge to have to keep on playing the “same songs” and using the “same instruments” and to feel like you are always “on the road together.” I have heard a number of long term missionaries say that some of the best and hardest parts of mission work came from the context of the team.

I just finished reading Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues.  He talks about how the most important qualities for an ideal team player are that they are hungry, humble and (people) smart.  That is certainly true in the context of a mission team and my hunch is that it is true in the context of a band, as well.  For a good summary of Lencioni’s book click here.

It is good to recognize that some band members may need to express their creativity outside the team’s ministry and do something akin to a “solo album.”  Having an outlet for a different kind of expression can be really, really helpful. 

The basic truth, though, and the reason we’ve been at this so long in Mozambique, is that if a mission team can work effectively, the synergy they create allows them to make beautiful music together – producing something even better than what we could each accomplish alone.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Poverty: Then and Now

How should we think about poverty’s causes and effects?

That question has been an important one for us in our ministry here in Mozambique.  It led me to do research and interviews resulting in a project that examined the “Giant of Absolute Poverty” among the Makua-Metto.  You can read more about that project here.

I’ve been reading through the Edmund Morris’ trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt – it’s terrific! In his second book, Theodore Rex, I stumbled across a quote that succinctly encapsulates a part of the problem of poverty that my article didn’t address, its one I know others have been considering for a while, and I’m becoming convinced that it needs more attention.   In a discussion of both rural and urban poverty during Roosevelt’s time, Morris notes,
“A laborer might trade his hoe for a hammer, for a few extra dollars a week, but the increment was meaningless, given urban costs.” (37)
That sad summation – people who flee poverty in rural areas and can find a job in urban ones often find they don’t gain any economic ground because of increased expenses in the city.  I’ve seen this dynamic played out over and over here in the Montepuez area.  We have a number of friends who have moved from a village setting to leave behind subsistence farming in order to come to a city to make a living.  While they may find employment, the increased costs of an urban area make the improvement minimal at best.  The hidden expenses of “city life” swallow up the extra money that can be made in a town like Montepuez.

This is a reality that we need to consider carefully – it is an old problem, and one that is certainly not going away.  Urbanization affects how we think about poverty and how we should think about ministry.  In his book, Understanding Christian Mission, Sunquist notes, “In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s people lived in urban areas; by 1900 the percentage had grown to 14 percent.  Over the next fifty years the number grew to 30 percent, and today it is over 50 percent. Thus, most of the people who are in need of Christian mission and ministry live in urban areas.” (344)  Urbanization is not inherently bad, instead it can be empowering when we realize that it “creates traction… God is scooping the masses and placing them carefully together, making it easier for the gospel to get to them.” (McManus, An Unstoppable Force, 47).

Our team’s work has focused mostly on unreached or under-reached villages, but it is important to remember that “earliest Christianity was mostly urban” (Sunquist, 355).  The way of Jesus has found a way to thrive in cities since it's beginnings.   

The rural/urban difference offers challenges to the way we think about both poverty and ministry.  I want to keep chewing on these connections and their significance for our work here…

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Chickens vs. Rubies... and the importance of telling One Story

Chickens are a part of everyday life here in northern Mozambique.  Their behavior really is puzzling.  I never fully understood the origins of jokes made at their expense until I began living among them and had to learn to dodge them with our car (“Why did the chicken cross the road?”).  They wander all over the place, pecking here, scratching there, obtaining seemingly insignificant bites to eat as they scramble haphazardly around.  It often seems to me that they must expend more energy rushing around looking for food than they actually consume...

Digging for rubies, on the other hand, is a process that looks very different.  Rubies were discovered not that far from our town and the methods that independent miners use for locating and acquiring them is something that our friends are very familiar with.  It involves picking a spot, digging deep, painstakingly transporting the dirt, and diligently sifting through that dirt to find something of value.

We work with mostly first-generation Christians here in Mozambique and a common trap for preachers is attempting to try to say too much and/or try to use too many biblical texts in one sermon.  I teach the Preaching class at the Theological Institute here in Montepuez.  So, I often reference this comparison between the way chickens eat vs. digging for rubies to encourage the students to pick just ONE BIBLICAL TEXT and ONE IDEA to share with the church.  We talk about the importance of not preaching like a chicken (wandering from biblical text to biblical text, from idea to idea, picking here, pecking there in a futile attempt to feed on God’s word).  Instead we focus on learning how to encourage the church to follow the preacher in, using the right tools, digging deep into God’s Word and finding beautiful, life-changing rubies.      

Another example that illustrates this dynamic well, in my mind, comes from “Phineas and Ferb.” Unfortunately, our Mozambican friends have yet to discover this amazing show(!)… so this example would be lost on them… but I will share it with you.  In the episode, “Norm Unleashed,” our heroes have created nanobots and have used them to do one amazing thing after another. Their sister Candace, who in every episode is doing her best to catch her brothers in the act of inventing or doing something incredible, corners their Mom, attempting to tattle on the boys: 
Candace: MOM! MOM! Phineas and Ferb are making a giant tape dispenser, but it's also a faucet, and a rowboat, a baseball hat, and gingerbread man with a fist for a head, and a pig face -- 
Linda: Stop. Okay, your stories are always full of holes, but it's usually just one story. Here, let me demonstrate. I'll be the "Candace" and you will be the "beautiful mother". (Clears throat)(Imitating Candace) Mom, Phineas and Ferb have brought Genghis Khan back from the past and he's teaching the neighbors to throw hatchets from horseback. (Normal voice) You see? One story. 
Candace: (long pause) They'll probably do that, you know.
One story!  Candace’s Mom gets this right.  This key is telling one story… digging deep into one text.  That is how you share a message that is meaningful and powerful and resonates with hearers.

Instead of teaching and preaching that wanders around like a chicken, powerful preaching looks more like digging for rubies and focuses on One Story, inviting the church along in the discovery process to find life-sustaining treasures.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, January 5, 2018

January Newsletter and an Announcement

Happy New Year from Mozambique!
Many of our friends have moved out to their farms, the rainy season is off to a healthy start, and we are so grateful.  Ripe mangoes are everywhere, mosquito breeding season is in full swing, trees are lush and green, and the roads are full of potholes! With the strong winds and almost daily rain, though, we’ve had some problems with our power lines – I’m writing this newsletter to the rattling and humming of our family’s generator (we are thankful to have a back-up power supply when the electricity goes out so often and so unexpectedly!).

As seems to happen every year, October through December were over-full, and it felt like a sprint for Rachel and I to make it to the holidays.  So many projects and programs are concentrated during the dry season while the roads are still passable and before our Mozambican friends begin tilling, planting, and hoeing in their farms.

In October, I spent a week in Nampula participating in the translation check of the book of Acts in Makua-Metto.  The full translation of the New Testament into Makua-Metto is still incomplete, and our teammate Chad Westerholm works regularly with the translation team.  Spending a week observing and assisting with the consultation was an eye-opening and stretching experience for me; I really enjoyed working with translation team.  To read more of my reflections on this experience check out the blog post "Acts and Allies".

You could say that long term transformation of individuals and communities into new creations really is the ultimate goal (here and everywhere!) – and this makes mentoring leaders so crucial.  A few months ago, one deacon serving in the area of communication and collaboration for his church cluster was removed from that role for stealing church funds for his personal use.  So, on a recent Sunday those five churches from that area worshiped together in Nikanda and chose a new deacon to serve in that role.  We first met Pedro, the man they all agreed on together, years ago when he became a Christian as a teenager; please pray for him and other leaders, that they will not cultivate selfish power but instead to grow into servant leaders.

The sustainable agriculture program has been going well.  After the training seminar in September Jessica Markwood put together a report using the participant data to help us decide what future directions to take; eventually we decided to buy high quality seed for distribution to the different village associations this year – we’re hoping that will not only increase their production but also improve seed quality in their areas.  These associations are spread out over five different districts and are our primary avenue for teaching and encouraging conservation agriculture principles in local farms.  Jessica also has been organizing short videos in Makua-Metto about sustainable farming practices for us to share on SD cards.  The long-term teaching potential of these videos is exciting; having short training videos available for people to watch on their phones and share with their neighbors can help spread the information about increasing crop production to reduce the yearly hunger season and increase the church’s capacity to share.

In December, I was able to reconnect with two young men that we’ve been discipling over the years; they both have had scholarship sponsors to begin university study in nearby cities, so it’s difficult to see them except when they are on school holidays.  It was a blessing to get to work with one of them who took the initiative to put on a youth conference in Montepuez for students on school holidays.  That same week I got to study through Ephesians with the other young man, and also spend time exploring the ways God is working in the Makua-Metto culture.  Helping students to further their education is an important investment for the future of the church in Mozambique.  We still need to find scholarship sponsors for these two young men and another young woman (between $1000 and $2000 for each of them – that amount covers all their school fees and room and board for the year – pretty good deal!).   If you are interested in helping with any of these scholarships, let us know and we can send you more information.   

The bulk of our team’s time and energy these last three months, however, has been invested in the Theology School (“Instituto Teológico de Cabo Delgado” in Portuguese).  Jeremy Smith has been working hard on the construction of a classroom building and cafeteria/kitchen; construction is almost complete and should be ready for inauguration right before classes start in April.  It is amazing and encouraging to look back over the development of this school since its beginning a few years ago when our team recognized that it was time to begin offering more formal training for church leaders.  In year 1 (2016) of the Bible school, we had 51 different students. Including the data from year 2 (2017) our total number of students is 121!  These students come from 8 different church backgrounds, 5 districts from Cabo Delgado as well as students from Nampula and Zambezia Provinces.

Over the past two years our team has taught 22 classes (offering 10 out of the 14 required courses).   I recently taught the New Testament Survey class in September, a class on “Giants: Challenges Facing the Church in Cabo Delgado” in October, and a Preaching class in December, and Rachel taught a week-long, intensive Church History course; she had 15 students and they loved her class.   

Over the past three months Rachel finished up studying through the Sermon on the Mount with women in the Ancuabe district as well as a few other studies in other villages and in town.  She also juggled an online theology class from HST, participating in young women’s initiation ceremonies, teaching some science and some Portuguese in our team school, as well as taking our team kids through a survey of the Old Testament culminating in Advent.

We mentioned difficulties with our team’s residency documents in the last newsletter; thank you for praying about this with us! This issue has been prolonged over more than two years now, and has been further complicated by some religious violence in a city about five hours away, and then additionally delayed by leadership changes at the provincial level.  Please continue to pray with us as we are still working towards the resolution of this issue. 

The big news for our family, though, is that after much prayer and seeking input from American and Mozambican colleagues, we have decided to leave Mozambique in December of 2018 and return to the United States.  It is strange to begin wrapping up this chapter of life for our family – we love our work here, and our girls have grown up knowing Mozambique as home. We’ve begun to experience a swirl of emotions as we try to intentionally plan our final year in Mozambique; hope for the future and also grief in the upcoming goodbyes.  That decision to leave is popping up in more and more conversations with Mozambican church leaders as plans are being made for this year and beyond. 

Please keep this process in your prayers, both our leaving Mozambique and our moving to the States.  We want to “leave well,” not underestimating the impact of stepping away from Mozambique after 15 years.  We also want to move forward in trust; we don’t yet know where we will be going or what we will be doing next, and we are waiting on God.   Thanks so much for supporting us and this ministry!

Please join us in prayer:
  • For healthy farms and healthy people during the rainy season
  • For church growth and maturity
  • For resolution of our document issues
  • For wisdom about wrapping up our work in Mozambique and peace about what God has for our family in the future

Grace and Peace,

Alan and Rachel Howell

Friday, November 17, 2017

Into All the World

The Harding University Alumni Magazine asked a few missionaries serving in different parts of the globe to write a letter to the people they serve.  It was a difficult prompt for Rachel and I (hard to be concise!), but it was a good exercise. You can check out the piece, "Into all the world," here.

Review of Canoeing the Mountains

Check out my Review of Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory in Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Practice 8, no. 2 (Summer-Fall 2017).

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Team Missions as a Collective Game

Game playing has been a part of our mission team’s culture from the beginning.  While we were still living in the USA in 2000-2003 we would meet regularly to do team formation activities, work out details about where and how we would serve in Africa, meet with missions teachers and mentors… and have fun together, too! 

Even now, after being in Mozambique for almost 14 years, game playing is still part of our team culture.  Every Tuesday night we share a meal, worship together, put the kids to bed, and play games.  Each family has their own collection of games and depending on whose house we are at that week, there’s a bunch of different game options that we can bring to the table.  

There are basically two kinds of games.  There are competitive games, where individual players, or a team of players, is trying to beat the other participants (like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan).  In contrast, collective games, on the other hand, are different in that all the players are working together to win as a group (like Pandemic, Forbidden Island or Flashpoint).

While our team enjoys playing both kinds of games, we function best when we remember that what we are doing here in Mozambique is not a competitive game, it is a collective game.  When we get distracted and start thinking or worrying about which one of us is “winning” (who gets the credit for this or that), then we’ve begun playing the wrong kind of game.  If we forget the truth that we all win or lose this thing together… that’s when things start to fall apart.
Often that means that team members end up “taking one for the team” and do things behind the scenes that could often go unnoticed.  So, one of the keys has been remembering to name and celebrate together our collective wins. 
We win or lose this thing together.

In my mind, Romans 12 may be the most underrated… and yet the most important chapter in Paul’s letters for team missions.  It provides a powerful vision of what it means to serve and minister together.

May God help us see clearly that we win or lose this thing together in Jesus’ name.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, October 23, 2017

Story Warren: The Soundtrack of Childhood

Check out a new post I wrote for Story Warren, The Soundtrack of Childhood, for some thoughts on what it means for the Islamic Call to Prayer to be a part of our lives here in Mozambique. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Acts and Allies

Lately, the story of Philip has captured my imagination.  Acts 8 tells the story of his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch.  It is a powerful story of the first convert to Christianity outside of Abraham’s family.  And it is a fun story to teach here in Mozambique.  The area we live in is predominantly Muslim and a critique often leveled by people here against disciples of Jesus is: “Oh, Christianity, that’s a European religion… the true religion of Africa is Islam.”

So, it is inspiring to walk through this text with our Makua-Metto friends and point out that the first non-Jew or non-Samaritan to become a Christian was not American, Portuguese, Korean or Chinese… he was an African.  AND his baptism and subsequent return to Ethiopia happened roughly 600 years before Muhammad was born and about 700 years before Islam eventually made its way to Africa.  So, Christianity existed on this continent for around seven centuries before Islam did.  That fact may not mean much to you, but it does to them.  It has been fun to see how moving it is, both encouraging and empowering, to tell first generation Christians in this area that Christianity is THEIR religion!  An African paved the way for the rest of us Gentile Christians, myself included, and they should be proud of that!  

Another reason why this story has been appealing to me is that I have found myself identifying more with Philip.  Philip is called outside of his normal realm of experience to play a role that he surely didn’t expect (he’s already moved from Jerusalem to Samaria and now this?).  Philip certainly isn’t the hero of this story and it would be difficult to prove that the Ethiopian Eunuch is the main character either.  Instead the real protagonist is the Holy Spirit.  It is God who is primarily at work to save and to bless.

I’m in Nampula this week helping out with the consultation check of the translation of the book of Acts in Makua-Metto.  Now, I’m not a linguist or a translator so it has been a stretching experience – a challenge to know how to help appropriately.  On my first morning working with the translation team, our friend Domingos Aurelio shared a devotional thought from Mark chapter 2, the story of the four friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus.  He talked about how all of them had to work together to carry the person. They even had to break a hole in the roof to lower this man down to the Lord.  In the same way that they had to be careful to match each other’s speed and follow each other’s lead to effectively work together to meet a common objective, we too needed to pay attention to each other and find a way to collaborate to bring this translation work before the Lord and the people of Mozambique.

I recently read Drick Boyd’s book, White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice.  As someone who has struggled to understand my role as an outsider working to be a blessing here to our African friends and neighbors, I have hungered for appropriate models of what it looks like to do that well.  Boyd tells the stories of white Americans who resisted the pull of their own cultures to participate as partners or allies with African-Americans to make a more just system.  It was encouraging and challenging to read about how these men and women allied with neighbors of different backgrounds and skin colors at, sometimes, great personal cost.

This language of “allies” is controversial.  Some find it patronizing while others believe it is appropriate.  I don’t have the answer to that question or know a better label that should be used.  What I do know is that the language of “being allies” has been a helpful way of framing our engagement with the work in Mozambique – both in relation to what God is doing and what Mozambicans are doing themselves.  Philip was an ally to the Ethiopian Eunuch – helping and blessing as he could.  The four friends were allies to the paralytic – doing what it took to bring about his healing through Christ.  

There is a debate in missions about where the vision for ministry or development should come from. Ideally it should come from insiders, correct?  Does it invalidate a vision then if it comes from outsiders?  And what if insiders have yet to recognize the need or don’t have the resources to respond?  And if insiders and outsiders do work together what should partnership look like?  

Those are challenging questions without simple answers.  But, I find it instructive that in the biblical narrative we see the vision for change in a given region coming from both insiders and outsiders.  For example, the prophet Amos was an outsider. He left his home in the southern kingdom of Judah to go to preach a message of repentance to the wealthy in the northern kingdom of Israel.  But, Micah was an insider who preached his message to the people of Judah, his own region.  God can use both insiders and outsiders to cast a vision for what life should look like.

Going through the book of Acts this week, considering Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Tabitha and others, I’m reminded that whether we are insiders or outsiders what matters most is allying ourselves with the mission of God and finding others who are on that path, who are partnering with God as well, listening well and allying ourselves with them, too.  It won’t be easy, like Philip we may end up way outside our comfort zones, but it is there that we will likely see the power of God.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Charcoal and Rejection/Redemption

I remember clearly the day that we learned the word for coal in Portuguese - carvão. Our mission team was in Lisbon to learn to speak the national language of Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony.  It was pretty early in our language study and when we saw “carvão” in class we pictured large train cars full of coal that had been mined underground. “Well, this little word certainly won’t be useful,” we thought. “We should be learning more meaningful, practical words.” Our team joked that this was an insignificant word, unimportant, and not worthy of remembering.  Little did we know that charcoal or carvão would be a common things we encountered in northern Mozambique - it is everywhere in Makua-Metto culture. 

Early in the morning, here in Montepuez, you can hear men walking through town yelling out: “Makhala, Makhala.” They are announcing in the Makua-Metto language that they have charcoal for sale as they carry their big sacks on the back of their bicycles.  It plays an important role in the local economy - Mozambican men go out into the woods and spend days making the charcoal to then sell it to others. 

When we go out to villages for visits or teaching, people often ask us to transport sacks of charcoal for them.  When we do, the fine, black powder of charcoal dust covers the back of our truck and gets on my hands and clothes. 
Charcoal, Carvão, Makhala – whatever you want to call it, it is everywhere! 

In John’s Gospel, the word for “charcoal fires” seems insignificant.  But it plays prominently in the story of Peter – at his betrayal or rejection of Jesus at the house of Caiphas as well as his redemption on the beach having breakfast with the risen Christ.  Eugene Peterson summarizes the story well:
“It was a cold night, and Peter and others were warming themselves at a charcoal fire (anthrakian, 18:18).  Peter was questioned by other spectators in the courtyard that night about whether he knew Jesus.  Peter answered three times with a denial… Now on the Galilee beach, Peter has just eaten a breakfast cooked by Jesus over another charcoal fire (the same word, anthrakian). When the Galilee beach conversation started, Peter couldn’t have known where it was going.  But when Jesus put his question to Peter a third time, Peter’s three denials the week before, while warming himself at a similar charcoal fire as Jesus was on trial before Caiaphas, pulled the memory of that awful night of shame into the present.  So that’s why there are three.  The three Jesus questions on the Galilee beach reverse and redeem Peter’s three denials at the trial the week before in Jerusalem.  The three affirmations of love harness Peter into continuing Jesus’s work – ‘Feed my sheep’ – a change of vocation, no longer a fisherman but a shepherd following in the steps of the great Shepherd of the sheep. It is a remarkable story. Peter… is now forgiven, is restored to continue Jesus’s work. Peter, for as long as he lived, never forgot the link between the night of denials and this morning of grace.”  (Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 355)
The word for charcoal (anthrakian in Greek) could justifiably be perceived as insignificant in the New Testament.  If my counting is correct, it only occurs these two times (Jon 18:18 and 21:9). But my hunch is that this word is anything but insignificant for Peter. His rejection happened in conversation around a charcoal fire at night and his restoration and rehabilitation occurs in conversation around a charcoal fire in the morning.

It makes me wonder if every time Peter smelled a charcoal fire or got charcoal dust on his hands or clothes he remembered those charcoal conversations and how Jesus could even use seemingly insignificant things to help turn rejection into redemption.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, October 2, 2017

Counting and Makua Culture

We speak the Makua-Metto language, but in the province south of us, Nampula, they speak a different dialect known simply as Macua or Makua.  Most of the villages we work in speak Makua-Metto (in the districts of Montepuez, Balama, Namuno, Ancuabe, Pemba) or Makua-Saka (in the district of Chiure). But in the southern part of the Namuno district in the administrative post of Macoka, near the Lurio River, the people there speak the Makua dialect from Nampula.

This Sunday, I traveled down to worship with churches in that area.  Along the way, a few of us talked about something I’ve been curious about for a while – their counting system.

Here’s a video of our friend Aquimo Saibo counting from #1-30. 

Now you might think it is interesting the way Aquimo starts counting with his pinkie finger and then when he gets to ten, he shows that by putting his fists together.  My Mozambican friends often think it is odd if I start counting with my index finger… (for more on culture and body language differences in Moz see my post from a few years back: "What's in a Shrug?")

Anyways, what I think is really interesting is their counting system as a whole.  We’ve wondered if it is should be categorized as a base-five number system.

Here are pages 225 and 226 from Gino Centis’s book Método Macua (2000), along with a few observations for clarification:

Both Makua-Metto and Makua use a noun class system and numbers must correspond to the noun class of what you are counting.  For example, in Nampula Makua, if you were counting people you would say: mmosa, ànli, araru, axexe, athanu.  But if you were counting goats you would say: emosa, pìli, tthàru, xexe, thanu.  Those are examples of two different noun classes and their impact on the counting system.  The four columns that follow on the page are examples of each of the four noun classes.  (Ah, so fun and complicated…)

As you go down the list you can see that literally the way they count is:
a.      One to Ten: 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 5+1; 5+2; 5+3; 5+4; 10
b.      Eleven to Twenty: 10+1; 10+2; 10+3; 10+4; 10+5; 10+5+1; 10+5+2; 10+5+3; 10+5+4; 2 of 10
c.      Twenty-One to Thirty: (2 of 10)+1; (2 of 10)+2; (2 of 10)+3; (2 of 10)+4; (2 of 10)+5; (2 of 10)+5+1; (2 of 10)+5+2; (2 of 10)+5+3; (2 of 10)+5+4; 3 of 10.
d.      Once you get to 100 (on page 226) – it is literally “a group of ten of ten”).

Some more observations:

Interestingly, if you look up the word they use for ten, Muloko, in Dicionario Macua-Português (1990, p. 151), the first meaning that is given is “group, line or list”; then the secondary meaning that is given is “ten or group of ten.”  So, in Nampula Makua, Muloko is “group” or “ten” and Miloko is the plural form which means “groups” or “tens.”  As a side note, that word Muloko is also used among the Lomwe people (a sub-dialect of Makua) as a name for the church.  The churches of Christ among the Lomwe people, for example, often refer to themselves as “Muloko a Kristu,” or “the group of Christ.”

If the Makua Nampula number system seems cumbersome to you, rest assured that Makua people that I’ve talked to also find it difficult.  They say that once you count to 20, 30 or above, Makua people will almost always switch to Portuguese (the national language that is taught in schools).

For the Makua-Metto people in Cabo Delgado, their number system follows a 1-10 system.  Their numbers 1-5 are very similar to Makua from Nampula, but 6-10 are normally borrowed from Swahili (the language spoken in Tanzania just north of us).

I’m not exactly sure, but as far as I understand what the Nampula Makua speakers are using is not truly a base-5 system. Instead it seems like a hybrid system where “two groups of fives” forms a “ten group” that is added to from there.  I would love to hear any thoughts on what this system should be called.

Thanks for indulging my curiosity for a few minutes!  I hope it added up to an interesting blog post on the intersection of counting and culture.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, September 29, 2017

Ty Cobb, the Wrath of God, and the Power of Fake News

Ty Cobb, as baseball fans are aware, is famous for being an amazing player.  He was the first person voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and still holds the record for having the highest lifetime batting average.  He is also certainly one of baseball’s most infamous players - widely known for being an angry, racist, and wrathful individual.

Charles Leerhsen, author of the award-winning book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, in a fascinating speech shows that much of what we think we know about Ty Cobb is… wrong.

Leerhsen tells the story of how in doing basic research by using original sources, he quickly discovered that, while Cobb was not perfect, he was certainly not the rage monster popular opinion has made him out to be.  It turns out that a man named Al Stump, a hack writer, wrote a scandalous piece about Mr. Cobb that was shared over and over by people who were trying to correct its errors but instead ended up perpetuating a lie.

Yes, it seems that Ty Cobb’s legacy was a victim of fake news.

And it seems that popular culture wanted to believe in a caricature (“Cobb was a wrathful person and player”) more than they wanted a complete picture.

But, Ty Cobb is not the only “wrathful” victim of fake news – there is another whose reputation has been misshaped and mishandled.   

Many people have misperceived God as a mad, violent deity.  This is an extremely popular view (remember, the most famous and formative sermon in American history is Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”!).   Many of us have heard and incorporated narratives of God as wrathful and those misconceptions have taken on a life of their own.  That “fake news” has become the story we expected, wanted and embraced.
But if we follow Leerhsen’s example and do a little digging, will the research support that perception?

In the New Testament, the Greek words often translated as anger, rage, indignation or wrath are used both in reference to God and in reference to humans.  I’ve categorized the verses below using the NIV:
1.      Texts that caution humans against being wrathful/angry/indignant:
a.      1 Cor. 13:5 – Love, “does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
b.      Eph. 4:26 - “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,”
c.      Eph. 4:31 – “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger”
d.      Col 3:8 – “rid yourselves of… anger, rage…”
e.      1 Tim 2:8 – “lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”
f.       James 1:19 – “everyone should be… slow to become angry.”
g.      James 1:20 – “because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
2.      Texts that tell humans to hate evil and wrongdoing
a.      Rom 12:9 – “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good”
3.      Texts that refer to a connection between law and wrath:
a.      Romans 4:15 – “because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.”
4.      Texts that refer to Jesus being angry:
a.      Mark 3:5 – Jesus, “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
5.      Texts where God is described as having anger/hate/wrath:
a.      John 3:36 – John the Baptist says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
b.      Rom. 1:18 – “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
c.      Rom 2:5 – “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”
d.      Rom 2:7-8 – “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”
e.      Rom 3:5 – “But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.)”
f.       Rom 9:22 – “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction?”
g.      Rom 12:19 – “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”
h.      Rom. 13:4 – Christians should respect human government because “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
i.       Eph. 5:5-7 – “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.”
j.       Col 3:6 – Paul instructs them to leave behind a list of sins… “Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.”
k.      1 Thess. 2:16 – The people persecuting the Christians “heap up their sins to the limit.  The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”
l.       Heb. 3:11 & 4:3 (citing Psalm 95:11) – Because of Israel’s disobedience and rebellion… “I declared an oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
6.      Texts that refer to the destruction of Jerusalem or a future punitive judgment
a.      Matt 3:7-8 & Luke 3:7 – John the Baptist says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Repent!”
b.      Luke 21:23 – Jesus in talking about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem says: “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.”
c.      Eph. 2:3 – “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
7.      Texts that refer to the way Jesus saves us from wrath or future punitive judgment:
a.      Romans 5:9 – “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
b.      1 Thess. 1:10 – Paul refers to how they’ve stopped worshipping idols and are now following Jesus, “who rescues us from the coming wrath.”
c.      1 Thess. 5:9 – “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
8.      Texts that refer to wrath in the book of Revelation
a.      Rev. 6:16-17 – “They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
b.      Rev. 11:18 – “The nations were angry, and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
c.      Rev. 14:10 - “they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.”
d.      Revelation 14:19 – “The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath.”
e.      Revelation 15:1 – “I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed.
f.       Revelation 15:7 – “Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever.”
g.      Revelation 16:1 – “Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”
h.      Rev. 16:19 – “The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.”
i.       Rev. 19:15 – “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”

While there certainly are a basketful of references to God’s anger/wrath, it would be interesting to follow that up with a study of how many times God described as loving or holy or good.  My guess is that there would be significantly more than references to his wrath…

But, my objective in this post is not to ask you to ignore references to anger/wrath/indignation on God’s part.  Instead, I think the references to wrath of God have been misread and have distorted our image of God.  There are two examples that I’ve found helpful in trying to understand the relationship between anger and the Almighty. 
  • Memory and Children – Let’s imagine a mother who asked her grown daughter to relate how she remembers her childhood.  The daughter responds by saying that her clearest memory is of her mom grabbing her gruffly by the side of a busy road.  The mother’s mouth hangs open in shock as she considers all the eating and playing and enjoying each other’s company that happened over the years. As they discuss the memory, it turns out that what the daughter is recalling is the one time when the mother had to save the daughter by pulling her out of a busy street to protect her from a passing car.  Could it be that the stories of intense emotion, the ones that may stand out the most, may not be the ones that should define our overall experience of God?   If they seem out of character, could there be a good reason for that?
  • Maps and Globes – Taking a 3D object and turning it into a 2D image inevitably distorts it.  Because of this most of the maps in our classrooms and offices are wildly inaccurate.  Greenland looks to be the same size as Africa in those pictures, but the truth is that is laughably incorrect.  Any time we squash something flat to get it to fit on a page, we will alter what it is in reality.  I think that is similar to how we have misinterpreted the wrath of God – by smashing a view of God flat on a page we have distorted God’s important desire for justice as modeled in Scripture and made it into a dominant feature on the theological landscape when in reality – it is just cold, small, (and relevantly minor) Greenland.

For the rest of this post I would like to examine this topic by asking a few questions and sharing some observations.  So here goes…

1.      Does the phrase “wrath of God” mean what we think it means?

One text from the Old Testament that can help us address this issue of God’s wrath is found in Psalm 7:10-16.  That psalm talks about God as a righteous judge who prepares to go against the ungodly **in wrath** but interestingly the examples given in the following verses show that the damage done to the disobedient people is all self-inflicted.  Could we say that God’s wrath is a dish best served cold, or maybe more simply put, God’s wrath is a dish that is… self-served?  When we live contrary to the essence that God has called us to be, we cause trouble for ourselves and initiate our own destruction (we serve the dishes of wrath to ourselves). 

2.      Is “wrath” even really the best word for what God experiences?  

I’m not convinced that “wrath” is the best translation of what God experiences because in modern English it tends to mean uncontrolled anger or rage.  Would it be more accurate to use different terms like God’s “righteous anger” or God’s “deep commitment to justice”? 
In talking about this topic with our Makua friends, they differentiate between three different words: “Urusiya” means to be upset or angry.  “Uviruwa” is a stronger reaction that could be violent (they brought up the examples of the flood in the time of Noah or of Jesus cleansing the temple).  But the word that sounds the most like wrath is one they borrow from Portuguese, “raiva,” which means rabid anger or rage and is interestingly also the word for rabies!  The Makua Christians I’ve talked to say they certainly see how a “just anger” is a good and important part of God’s character but they don’t believe that God has “raiva.”
If wrath is uncontrolled anger or rage, does that seem to fit with the character of God? I don’t think so, especially if that that is the kind of anger that human beings are specifically instructed in Scripture not to have.

Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15; Joel 2:13 all say that God is slow to anger and abounding in love.  The Apostle Paul certainly knew those scriptures and that is why I don’t think he would ever see wrath as a definitive quality of God.  A God that doesn’t get angry at injustice wouldn’t be good, but serving and worshipping a rage monster wouldn’t be good either. What we need here is more than a caricature – we need a complete picture. 

In talking this through with Rachel, she has shared the example of how if one of our daughters gives the stink-eye (an expression of contempt) to her sister, something like anger flashes inside of Rachel, an intense reaction that serves as a catalyst for a stern intervention – necessary to deal with the way they are treating each other.  God gets angry at our sin and injustice because of what it does to us, how it divides us, and how we are enslaved and trapped by it more than his own personal offense at it.  God is more angry at sin and the way it holds us captive to sin, death and Satan because what we do shapes who we are as individuals and how it effects the way we treat each other. 

So, re-framing the wrath of God does not mean perceiving God as a “pushover buddy” who enables your bad behavior. Instead, he is more like the true friend who calls you to live at a higher level – he takes away your keys so you won’t drive drunk, but it you are hell bent on doing things your own way and reject being in relationship with him… things will not go well for you.  So, God’s response to injustice is not generally to “nuke the place,” but may be more like a smart bomb to address the heart of the problem.  It seems to me that what God experiences is less like wrath and more like a “judge’s legitimate emotional reaction to injustice.”

3.      Is Jesus saving us from God’s wrath? 

Certainly not.  God is NOT like a wrathful, abusive parent who is interrupted in his plans to inflict harm on us by our benevolent older brother (Jesus) stepping in to take the beating for us.  The Scriptures affirm that God’s character is revealed fully in Christ (John 14:9).  God and Jesus are not doing some kind of divine good cop/bad cop routine. Jesus is not saving you from God.  God loves you immensely.  Nowhere in the Bible does it explicitly says that God poured out his wrath and punishment on Jesus instead of on us.  God doesn’t kill Jesus.  Instead, incredibly, God deals with our sin by submitting to all the brokenness that we throw at him – through his own death on a cross. God didn’t kill Jesus – we did! (that’s what Peter says in Acts 2:36 – human beings did this!)  But that’s not the end of the Story – Christ triumphs!  We don’t have to live under guilt, shame and fear because Christ has defeated Sin, Death and Satan!  That is really good news!  Instead of being stuck in Darkness – God brings us into his kingdom of light and love and life!


On a recent podcast, I heard Leerhsen describe his surprise at the push-back he has gotten from people who are angry at him for questioning the dominant narrative about Ty Cobb as a wrathful player.  It makes me wonder if whether followers of Jesus who try to counteract fake news about God as a wrathful deity should be prepared for push-back as well…

Thanks for reading… this is certainly still a work in progress.  My hope is that we can keep learning and growing and begin to see a more complete picture of the God revealed in Christ and move past the destructive caricatures of a God full of wrath. 

May we grow in our understanding of both the love and justice of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus!

Grace and Peace,