Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What can a reformed pirate can teach us about suffering?

"Near the beginning of A. S. Peterson's fictional novel, The Fiddler's Gun, a reformed pirate and two young orphans have an interesting discussion about pain and suffering. They open up a wooden case revealing three objects: a fiddle, a bow and a pistol. After examining each of the elegantly crafted items, the former pirate tells them,

'"Now, see here, you got to put that hurt someplace, and this is where old Bartimaeus learned to put his." He lifted the fiddle out of the case and caressed it. 

"It's beautiful," whispered Fin. 

"Aye," he said and crooked it into his neck. He drew the bow across the strings and the instrument moaned a forlorn note. "Beautiful, that's what you've got to do with that hurtin', you got to turn it beautiful." (p. 33)

... '"What's the gun for?" asked Peter.

Bartimaeus' face darkened. "That's where all that hurtful stuff ends up if you don't get rid of it. Got to get rid of it. You don't and it might just get rid of you, see here? I keeps it there to remind me. I put it down the day I got this fiddle. Swore I would never take it up again. Done too much hurtin', got to turn that hurt to beautiful, see? Otherwise the hurt turns hateful and the ole hand-cannon there like to wake up and do terrible things...terrible things." (p. 34)

This fictional conversation illustrates well the stakes involved in possessing an effective response to pain and suffering. We all end up doing something with our pain.  If we cannot frame suffering in an instructive or constructive way, it will become destructive - harming those around us as well as ourselves.

For close to ten years in northern Mozambique I’ve witnessed the effects of mis-appropriated pain: family members become isolated, people live in fear, neighbors are cursed, and there is no rest. Years ago, as we first began to learn the language and culture of the Makua-Metto people, there was one word that I was surprised to hear over and over again in conversation: 'uhuva'. It’s their word for suffering, and our friends talk about it  all the time.

The problem is that their folk religion does not give them tools to deal with suffering constructively. The majority of the Makua-Metto people would consider themselves Muslims, but at the core they are shaped by an animistic worldview. This folk religion binds them and their pain to a witchcraft system crammed full of curses, counter curses, spirit possession and divination. To borrow language from the fictional conversation above, they lack the ability to take their suffering and "turn it beautiful."

Coming from my American cultural framework, I slowly came to the realization that their primary question is not "why" this suffering happens. Instead, they consistently personalize the evil they experience. They want to know "who" did this to them. Their quest to determine the identity of the culprit leads them into divination, which, when indicating a human target, encourages them to reach for that "ole hand-cannon" - directing all that pain and anger at another. Human beings must do something with their suffering. If they are unable to do something constructive, or interpret their suffering in a way that is instructive, then they ultimately will do something destructive.

As an American I could see that there are different ways to pick up the “gun”. Generally those in my home culture tend to turn this destruction inwardly. We self-medicate with drugs, escape into television/film, experience depression or practice self-mutilation. This contrasts with my experience with Africans, who when unable to do something good with their suffering, generally tend to turn the 'gun' on each other. It seems that this orientation affects the way both cultures approach scripture as well. The American Christian will focus on texts about personal sin and forgiveness (internal), whereas the Africans I know are more likely to concentrate on texts about suffering, deliverance, and protection (external)."


The above quote is an excerpt - if you are interested in reading more about responding to suffering - and specifically how that plays out here in the context of northern Mozambique, please check out my recent article, "Turning it Beautiful: Divination, Discernment and a Theology of Suffering" in the International Journal of Frontier Missions here.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Made for Possession

Two weeks ago, I drove up to the village of Chipembe to meet with the leaders from three churches in that area.  After greeting everyone upon my arrival one of the men, João, pulled me aside and said that there was a woman who wanted to be baptized before our study that day.  "Elena has a problem, though. She is possessed by an evil spirit."  João said.  "But I told her that if she decided to follow Jesus, the church would have to go with her to her house.  The church will help her tear down the spirit house and everything associated with that evil spirit."

A little while later, standing beside the river, Caunia and I talked about the significance of baptism.  We talked about Romans 8 and the way that followers of Christ are promised that the Holy Spirit will dwell within them. While many people are filled with destructive, deceptive, and defective spirits, we shared the joy of the promise that God's Spirit - the spirit of life whose power raised Jesus from the dead - lives in Jesus' disciples.    

After the baptism, our group moved to Elena's house where João, Caunia, Ignacio led the exorcism.  We prayed and sang for a few minutes and then church members grabbed large rocks and a hoe and broke up the clay pots associated with spirit worship.  They burned an amulet.  Then one of the men asked Elena if there was anything else - any other item that needed to be destroyed - she showed them where to dig, and we dug up a bottle with magical medicine inside.  The church members crushed and burned all the items associated with spirit worship and covered them with dirt.  They encouraged Elena to leave that evil spirit completely behind and devote her life to Jesus.  Many of her neighbors and family members stood at the edges of our circle watching to see what would happen.  And as we left their house, Elena's husband, who is not a Christian, made a point to thank each of us.

During our meeting afterwards, we talked about ways to encourage Elena in her new life with Christ.  We looked at Jesus' story of a man freed from an evil spirit who neglected to fill his house up with a good spirit (Matthew 12).  In that example, the expulsed evil spirit finds seven of its 'bigger and badder' friends and returns to find the 'house' swept clean.  Since no one is occupying it, those evil spirits move right in.  Jesus' warning was that if a person doesn't fill themselves with the Spirit of God, then their final condition would end up being worse than when they started.  The church committed to visiting and encouraging Elena to fill her 'house' with the Holy Spirit.

In our part of Mozambique, spirit possession is everywhere.  The demonic touches all areas of life.  People spend what little money they have on divination, magical amulets, and sacrifices to the spirits.  Many people build little houses in their yards to honor the evil spirits.  Spirit possession often starts as a response to illness, and there are serious costs to keeping the spirits placated (both financial and relational).  And while some people claim benefits from being possessed by a spirit, most live in fear and frustration.

Since the spirit realm is full of secrecy for the Makua-Metto people, I try to speak openly about this topic in order to shed some light on this dark and mysterious part of life.

I often share this conviction: human beings are made for possession. 

Now that idea, that we were 'made for possession', may be a little shocking.  It's an phrase that I'm borrowing from a fellow kingdom worker here in Mozambique named Phil Henderson.  Phil lives in another part of Mozambique, but has visited our team a few times.  During one of those visits, he talked about this idea of being 'made for possession' and that concept has been extremely helpful in engaging this topic in instructive and constructive ways here in Cabo Delgado. 

We were made for possession.

There is a drastic difference, though, between being possessed by God's Holy Spirit and being possessed by a lesser spirit. 

We humans are like cups.  We were made to have our souls filled by something - and we will be filled by something.  If nature abhors a vacuum, then it is even more true in the spiritual realm.  And whatever we are filled with can't remain hidden for long.

Imagine a busy street with pedestrians walking this way and that - everyone carrying a cup filled to the brim.  When people are bumped or jostled, the cup will overflow, spilling to reveal the nature of its contents.  Every one of us is possessed by a spirit. Many are filled by aspirations of fame or fortune, or by desires to look strong, sexy or smart. But whether we are filled by something corrosive like anger or something nourishing like peace, the contents of our cup (the spirit that possesses each of us) will find its way to spillover into our lives.

Before moving to Africa, I knew that this issue of spirit possession was something I needed to prepare for.  In many ways, the Greco-Roman worldview around the time of the New Testament was closer to a typical African worldview than that of the Western perspective today.  At that time, spiritual realm was seen as ever-present and effecting human lives - “‘spirits’ or however they may be termed, could be found everywhere.” (Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire, 82)

While it is always dangerous to make broad generalizations, it seems safe to assume that "the Greco-Roman world was very conscious of demons.” (Everett Ferguson, Demonology of the Early Christian World, 59). Even though it was common to believe that demons existed, the Greco-Roman world did not have a unified understanding of their nature and function.  In my research, reading through ancient sources from around the time of Jesus, I realized that explanations of spirit possession normally fell into one of three categories.  Some people believed that those who claimed to be possessed by evil spirits were faking it - trying to get attention.  Others believed in a more natural or physical explanation and said that possession boiled down to something like mental illness or epilepsy.  And a third group believed that spirits really did possess human beings.  It surprised me to realize that those same three categories summarize the way people understand the demonic even today.  While the percentages of the population that would fall into each category would likely differ - our explanations for manifestations of the demonic have not actually changed that much in two thousand years.

It seems clear that as Christianity came onto the world’s religious scene, it used the thought forms and cosmology of the day.  Disciples of Jesus did not ignore the problem of the demonic, but instead they showed how these mysterious spiritual entities were subject to the authority of Christ.  The early church continued this tradition of freeing those possessed from their spiritual bondage.  It is important to recognize, though, that while exorcisms brought a strong reaction out of crowds, “the art itself had no great fame or audience.” (MacMullen, 50). The early church certainly did not perceive its central mission as going into the world to cast out demons.  That was, as it should have been, only part of their holistic approach to evangelism.  It was clear from my research that the church today could learn a lot from how the early church lived out their faith.  Personally, as I hoped to help the church engage the world today, I wanted to aide them in understanding their culture and encourage them to appropriately address the needs of the world around them.

That was is easier said than done.

Living in Mozambique, I felt like my brain was divided in half on this issue.  I had my American/Western perspective that was skeptical of the spiritual realm and looked for naturalistic interpretations.  But, the beliefs of my African friends and my experiences here didn't fit in those categories.

Walter Wink's books about the 'Powers' helped me bridge the gap.  Wink’s descriptions of the powers and the demonic challenged me to think about the universe using these biblical categories of spirits and possession in helpful and alternate ways.  Wink regards the demonic “as the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life” (Engaging the Powers, 9).  Even though, Wink demythologizes the powers, he at least recognizes that they are both real and potent.  His work has been helpful to me in taking a different path for understanding the demonic in the world.  While I do not follow all of his twists and turns, it has given me some more wiggle room to interpret the world around us in Mozambique in a way that holds onto the biblical texts and the best parts of my Western perspective and African experience.

Back in 2004, our team was asked by the government to leave Montepuez.  We were forced to spend over a year in another part of Mozambique waiting for an open door to return.  That time of 'exile' in Nampula was an extremely challenging time for all of us, and Wink’s books helped me to understand it as the result of bumping up against the spiritual forces and powers that dominate the hearts and minds of many in the region.  Since returning to Montepuez in 2005, his books have given me a framework for understanding ministry in this context.

Wink's books helped me to see how possession occurs on levels both personal and communal.  Wink led me to recognize how possession happens to individuals - like the story of Elena and her spirit possession.  And he revealed the function of evil spirits in groups as well - like the reasons behind our 'exile' in Nampula.  In the US, this language of communal possession, where humans submit their wills to the spirit of a group, still lingers with us.  We comment on the importance of 'team spirit', or lament the destructive tendencies of a 'mob mentality'.  We reference communities that seem possessed by a 'spirit of gossip' or corporations that are 'possessed by greed'.  Language of communal possession is all around us.

So, humans were made for possession in both individual and communal spheres.

Our response is to dedicate ourselves to the important task of filling our cups with something life giving and worthwhile.  We will be possessed by something.   Our communities will be possessed by something.  The question is: what will be the substance of that possession?  Will it be God's Holy Spirit - a life-giving spirit that moves us to serve the interests of the Kingdom of God?  Or will it be a demonic spirit - one that enslaves us to destructive patterns that damage us and those around us?

On Saturday afternoon, twelve members of the church in Chipembe walked for over two hours to the village of Ncororo to spend the night on the ground in order to worship with their brothers in Christ the next morning.  A new follower of Jesus, Elena, was with them.  From where I was seated on the floor during the worship service this Sunday, I peeked often over at her, watching her attempting to sing along and listening intently to the message.  When it came time for prayer for the sick in the community, she came forward along with others asking for God's spirit to bless and heal her.  Elena wants to be filled with a healing and life giving spirit.

May God fill Elena (and the rest of us!) with his Holy Spirit and empower us to live well.  And may he fill his churches with a Spirit of Peace!

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

May 2013 Howell News

Hello from northern Mozambique!

It's hard to believe that it is May already; the past couple months have flown by quickly for us, and the next few months feel like they're rushing at us pretty quickly too, so we are buckling our seat belts and holding on to our hats.  

The rainy, hot season is over, and we're into the beginning of our cool, dry time, which is nice.  Several mornings a week we find ourselves digging through drawers to find our seldom-worn long sleeve shirts because of the cool temperatures!  Two weeks ago our town/district had a visit from Mozambique's President Armando Guebuza to celebrate the opening of a new clinic in the rural post north of town (the area where Alan and I spend most of our time).  We didn't see the president himself, but we saw his entourage, but the great side benefit for us personally was that road crews worked to widen and smooth the dirt road going north before his visit, so now our drive north is much less painful!  

We love sharing with you what God is doing in this corner of the world, and we are happy to get to participate (most of the time!).  It would be so great if you could come visit and see for yourself and meet the friends here who are learning to follow God and live out life in his Kingdom in their different villages and neighborhoods.  You'd be able to see how they live - the challenges and the joys - and meet their children and see their farms and worship with the church.  But we know not everyone can come, so we want to paint the picture for you:  the good, the bad, the joys, the sorrows.  It is not all good news, but neither is it all bad news.  Churches here have problems like churches in your neighborhood,  but God is working here just like God is working in your neighborhood.

During January, February, and March the women's studies I usually participate in were suspended for the farming season, though each week I visited different women here in town.  But by the end of March and beginning of April all of the studies have started up again, which is so fun.  I alternate between four women's studies in a two-week cycle:  one study in town, one study in the Chipembe-Omeringue-Nkunama church cluster, one study in Nkororo, and one in Newara. 

All the groups are so very different; I wish you could come visit and know them all with their varying maturity levels and group personalities and learning styles.   This year I am regularly going out together to the village studies with women from the town churches (before it was more occasional); two or three different women from town each time I go out to a village study.  The brand-new women's group in Nkororo is starting the Sermon on the Mount booklet that the other groups have already studied; the other groups are going through different booklets that have selected stories, miracles, and teachings of Jesus translated into Makua-Metto (we still don't have the whole Bible in this language!)

I have two friends named Juliana from two different villages north of town that I have been studying with the past year and a half, and at the beginning of the rainy season both Julianas moved into town.  Juliana from the church in Chipembe moved to town with her husband and children because of her health (she had polio as a teenager and continues to have occasional problems from that) and to be near her mother.  She and her husband (who in the past has struggled with drunkenness) have alternated worshipping at the two different Churches of Christ in town when they're healthy enough to go, and they're currently in a really long stretch of good marital health.  She still goes with me every other week to the Friday women's study in Chipembe, and she also goes with me on alternate weeks to the new Thursday study in Nkororo.

Juliana from the church in Newara moved to town, also stating vague health reasons that I never fully understood, but it came out much later that she was also running from some family conflict back in the village.  She is single and very energetic and social, but when she moved to town she rarely worshipped with any churches and only showed up to ask for money, and we've had several conversations about participation and faithfulness.  Our first Friday starting up the women's study again in Newara she caught a ride with me but then skipped the whole scripture study to go to the field to gather food.  When she did show up right at the end of the discussion time, in the course of conversation I suggested that if she wanted to come up and get food from the family farm (and get a free ride for her sacks of corn and large bundles of firewood back into town), would she mind coming up the day before to gather up all the harvested crops and firewood bundles so she could also join the study?  She got a little defensive (but not nasty), and a passionate, whole group discussion followed that lasted nearly an hour but ended well with Juliana claiming to hear what the group was saying to her and promising to participate faithfully.  Group discussions here take me to my language limit - usually there are three or four people talking fast all at the same time, which means I get lost sometimes.  But it was beautiful to see the wisdom and kindness come out of the other women talking with Juliana, and I pray she chooses faithfulness.

Over the past few months our team spent a lot of time (especially Jeremy Smith!) finishing off a census of the Churches of Christ in Cabo Delgado.  We hosted a meeting of forty influential church leaders to present the data.  It was a really good experience to see these men wrestle with both the good and the bad that has been happening over the last few years in their churches.  At that meeting and in many other settings, Alan taught about the five giants that oppress the Makua-Metto people: drunkeness, witchcraft, unfaithfulness, ungodly leadership, and poverty. He worked to mobilize churches all over Cabo Delgado to fast and pray for a two week period asking God to defeat these giants, and we were encouraged to see so many people working together against the common Enemy.  Alan has been blogging more about his ministry experiences, so if you get a chance, poke around our blog and read some more about life, ministry and the giants.

A little over a week ago we sent off the Smiths to their furlough in the States to visit sending churches and family there (we miss them already!), but we also have only a couple weeks before six missions interns from Harding University arrive to live and work with us for six weeks.  For family news, Abby and Ellie love school and their teachers Miss Kara and Miss Bekah, and they have a couple weeks of school left before their break.  Katie loves being three and is already shaping up to be our little family comedian.

Our teacher teammates Kara and Bekah have both done a GREAT job teaching our kids and weathering the highs and lows of their first year in Mozambique - it is not easy at all, and it requires patience and perseverance through the hard parts of living here.  They will both be visiting family and friends in the States during the "summer," and coming back to us for another year of teaching.  Their job here teaching missionary kids is unique but vital to our team, adding many more man-hours (or woman-hours, really) to our team's time spent teaching, mentoring, and encouraging.  One teacher currently lacks the final $5,000 to complete her funding for living expenses here; please contact us if you can help with this need.

Kara and Bekah have committed to two school years of teaching; this will take them through May 2014.  We are already praying for God to provide two more teachers for the following year: August 2014-May 2015, but it would be great to find teachers for another two-year stretch through May 2016.  In addition to the very important role this fills on our team, it is also a great intermediate step for anyone who feels a desire to live and work in Africa but is still looking for a team or a location.  Please share this information with anyone you know who might be interested!

As we close, we ask that you join us in prayer for:

  •   God's Kingdom to come here among the Makua-Metto
  •   Health and safety with lots of travel going on 
  •    Teacher fundraising
  •   For God to provide 2014-15 and 2015-16 teachers
  •   For God to provide for our transportation: either truck repairs or new trucks

With love and peace,

Rachel and Alan Howell