Tuesday, November 19, 2013

to build a bridge

I parked the truck under a tall tree and the three of us walked down to the river.  As we neared the edge of the water, we paused as two men pushed a motorcycle across a temporary ‘bridge’ made of branches and logs.  The bridge made from a fallen tree that I’ve used to cross the river in the past had been washed away, so this was the only way to get to the other side.  Amissi, Selso and I greeted the men and then crossed over ourselves.

It’s nearing the end of the dry season, so while the log bridge we used works fine for now, in just a few weeks it will be gone.  The Montepuez River will soon be filled by runoff from northern Mozambique’s seasonal rains; so while these days the river doesn’t seem very imposing, once the rains begin it will become a dangerous, rushing monster.

Amissi (a church leader that lives here in the city), Selso (a young man that Amissi is discipling) and I talked as we walked the dirt path from the river to the village of Ncomekah.  We greeted the men, women and children who passed us on their way to cross the river themselves.  After walking for about half an hour, we arrived at Rajabu’s house. 

Rajabu is a man who my teammate Jeremy Smith has been discipling for the past few years.  He and his wife recently moved to the village of Ncomekah to be near Rajabu’s mother-in-law.  Rajabu and his wife want to start a church in that village.  We sat around after worship eating mangoes and Amissi made plans to come by bicycle and visit them again in a few weeks.  Rajabu was excited to have some promised help in beginning that church.  But he noted that while those plans will work fine for the month of December, by January or February the river will be impassable.

Rajabu accompanied us on our walk back to the truck and as we walked along I thought about the meetings that have taken place over the past few months about the lack of a bridge over the Montepuez River.  I thought back to our first meeting with the community leaders back in June – I was sitting under a thatch roof with Armindo Eusebio (a young man I am discipling) and Will Zweig (a Peace Corps worker teaching Science at the local High School).  The bridge was Will’s idea.  He had approached me a few weeks earlier, asking about places in our district that most needed a pedestrian bridge.  So, there we were sitting on bamboo chairs listening to a group of men from the villages of Bandar, Cambir and Ncomekah.  These villages would benefit the most directly from a bridge and one by one they stood up and told tales of family members being killed or maimed by crocodiles, friends who drowned trying to swim across the rushing waters, and others who lost food or their own bicycles to the river.  As I translated the stories from their Makua-Metto into English, Will’s eyes widened.   
This was the place to build a bridge.    

The Montepuez district is in the middle of the poorest Province (Cabo Delgado) in what the United Nations Development Program considers to be the third poorest country in the world.  And Mozambique’s lack of infrastructure is most costly to subsistence farmers who live in outlying villages.  During the rainy season, these villagers have only three options: risk crossing the river by swimming, pay nearly half a day’s wage to have themselves and their goods paddled across on unstable canoes, or travel miles and miles out of their way to reach the nearest bridge.

At that meeting with the village leaders back in June, we discussed the possibility of a safer, cheaper and faster option for the people: building a 35 meter-long pedestrian footbridge outside of the village of Bandar.  I’ve been glad to play a small part in assisting the US Peace Corps in partnering with the Prometto Association, the Montepuez District government, Bridges to Prosperity and a Bridge Commission made up of leaders from these three villages to build a bridge that would directly benefit at least 10,000 Mozambicans.  The estimated budget for the construction of the bridge is $20,000 and there is a 40% financial commitment that has already been promised.  So, what we need now is the remaining 60% (about $12,000) in order to completely fund the project.
We are in the process of writing grants and making this need known to people who may be interested in contributing to this project.  If you are interested in making a donation, send me a message through our team website here and I will give you more details about how to help.

Please keep this project in your prayers – it will be an amazing blessing to our friends here in Montepuez!

Grace and Peace,

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mangoes and the nature of God

One of the best parts about living in our part of Africa is this: MANGOES.

All the fresh mangoes you can eat! 

Growing up in the United States, for me, mangoes were these exotic, luxury fruits that sat on special display in the local grocery store.  They were expensive - having journeyed a great distance to make it from the field to our produce section.

For Westerners, mangoes are special treats.

For our Mozambican friends, though, oftentimes mangoes are the only thing standing between them and severe hunger.  I know that may sound dramatic, but mangoes serve as a ‘stop gap,’ helping people make it to next year’s harvest.  So, while a stomach full of mangoes is not the most nutritious thing in the world, it does provide enough energy to keep going. 

For the past few weeks, the temperature has been steadily climbing and the mango tree in our backyard has sent larger and larger cascades of fruit crashing down on our tin roof.  Each afternoon, friends drop by asking if they can collect mangoes from our yard.  Most people here in Cabo Delgado have spent the last few weeks working in their farms and getting the soil ready for planting.  The harvest won’t begin coming in until a few months from now.  Everyone around here knows that we’ve officially entered the time of hunger. 

Aaron Roland, a former colleague of ours here in Montepuez, used to talk about how God’s character is evident in the mango tree.  He would say that God knows that November and December are tough months and has provided an abundance of food freely available to help get everyone through it.   

 Our God is like a mango tree in the way that he is generously providing for his children in their needs at their hardest times.   

Earlier this week, I was with a group of church leaders who posed this question:  “Is God a man or a woman?”

I responded by saying that sometimes in scripture God is portrayed using masculine metaphors and sometimes feminine metaphors.  God, for example, is called our Father (Matthew 6:9); our King (Psalm 47:7); and pictured as a shepherd who looks for his lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).  But on the other hand the Bible has beautiful feminine imagery portraying God as a mother who can’t forget the children she nursed (Isaiah 49:14-15); a woman in childbirth (Isaiah 42:14); a midwife (Psalm 71:6); a hen sheltering her baby chicks (Psalm 91:4); a mother eagle protecting her offspring (Deut. 32:11); a female bear protecting her cubs (Hosea 13:8); a woman working leaven into the dough (Luke 13:18-21); and a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).

So, the Bible is rich with masculine and feminine imagery for God.  But, it's important to remember that God is way beyond what we can imagine. 

God has no gender – God is God.

I then took a deep breath and gave them this example.

My daughters probably couldn’t give an abstract description of who I am.  It would be impossible for them to give one that is complete.  They see me leave the house before they go to school in the morning and then welcome me back home in the afternoon from spending time in a village.  They see me teaching and preaching in languages that they don’t understand.  They know that Rachel and I had a life before they came into existence, though it is hard for them to imagine (actually, it’s hard for me to imagine as well!)

But if you asked them to describe who I am in relation to them… well, that’s a different story.  Katie would have no trouble rattling off a list of books that she likes me to read to her before bedtime.  She would talk about how I pick her up when she’s scared of the dog and there’s a good chance she’ll mention me making her favorite pancakes for breakfast last week.

When the Israelites described God they didn’t use abstract words like omnipotent and omnipresent or impassable.  Instead, they told the stories of the way God worked with them in history.  They told of how God was the One who called and cared for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  They testified to the way I-AM-WHO-I-AM dramatically rescued them from bondage in Egypt. Then in the New Testament, Paul refers to God by way of his powerful action in sending the Son - "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 15:6).

There is no way that we humans can understand the nature of God.  God is far beyond our understanding (we haven't even touched on the idea of the trinity!).  The only thing we can do is to describe the way that God has related to us.  That’s why the Bible is such a gift.  We get these beautiful and painful tales of a great God who goes to great lengths to save us. 

One of my favorite Biblical scholars, Ben Witherington, says this:

“In the New Testament, there are only three nouns used of God.  God is love.  God is life.  And God is light… the three ‘L’s.  Everything else is an adjective.  God is righteous (adjective).  God is holy (adjective).  God is sovereign (adjective)… I mean, we could keep going down that road.   But it’s got to be significant that when we are talking about God and using another noun… it’s love, life and light.”

The Bible uses a variety of titles and metaphors to describe God.  But, until the Lord is fully revealed to us, we humans will continue to fail to wrap our minds around the nature of God.  In the midst of our failings, though, those times that we come the closest to understanding our Creator are when we name the ways that God has been active in our world, loving us so fully and bringing us great and sustaining gifts such as life, light… and mangoes!  

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What's in a shrug?

There is a memory from my mission internship in Togo way back in 2001 that has stuck with me.  It had been raining and we stopped to visit with people in a small village.  I can clearly picture Frank Bunner squating down, talking to an old West African woman and her family.  What stood out to me that day, though, was the way that his posture mimicked the people around him.  It hit me that Frank’s mission team had not only learned French and EvĂ© in order to communicate the gospel but that they were also using a different body language to connect as well. 

That snapshot of Frank crouching has stayed with me and served as a reminder that ministering cross-culturally necessitates learning languages both spoken and unspoken.

The Makua-Metto people have some interesting behavioral habits.  They'll raise their eyebrows or raise their chin in order to answer ‘yes’.  They will take in a short breath in order to encourage the other person to keep speaking.  And they will softly clap their hands to show respect.  But the part of their body language that was the most confusing for me to understand was...

the shrug. 

At the beginning of learning the Makua-Metto language, we practiced short simple conversations with many, many people.  I remember often asking: “How many children do you have?”  Every once in a while, though, a woman would respond by shrugging her shoulders.  Now, from my American body language, shrugging one’s shoulders like that means: “I don’t know.”  Confused, I thought to myself, “How could she not know how many children she has?”  Later, though, we learned that shrugging one’s shoulders in this culture is the way to say “No.”  She was telling me that she didn’t have any children.

Body language is one of the hardest things to put into practice.  I can raise my eyebrows to answer yes.  I take a short breath to encourage a friend to keep speaking.  I’ll clap my hands softly to communicate respect.  But, I still don’t shrug my shoulders to say “no” – it doesn’t feel natural, even now.

But, Rachel and I have noticed something different in our children.  Sometimes our three year-old Katie will shrug to say “no” and other times she’ll shrug to say “I don’t know.”

Most days our girls spend the afternoon playing with the Mozambican kids who live nearby.  It's been fun to see what words they pick up or ask us about.  Even though her Makua-Metto is very, very limited, it seems that Katie has picked up some of the body language.  Or... at the very least she has become a bilingual shrugger!

Grace and Peace,