Tuesday, March 29, 2016

An Easter to Remember

This was an unusual Easter Day. I went to our community sunrise service on Sunday morning as usual, but the events of the last hymn gave depth to the day. We were singing “Low in the Grave he Lay”, when I noticed activity in the pew across the aisle, about three people away from me. Some people were trying to rouse a man who had remained seated as we all stood to sing. As we reached the second verse, “Death cannot keep his prey …”, they laid him on the pew and one of them began CPR. I learned later that she was someone we know from supper club at our church, who works as an emergency nurse. Most people could not see what was happening, and we finished the hymn well: “He arose! Christ arose!” But it looked to me as though the man across the aisle had just died with those words in his ears.

As we left, ambulance personnel began to provide care for him. I learned later that he did revive, after a probable heart attack. He is an elderly man (perhaps in his mid-80s), with a history of heart trouble, but the experience gave depth and added meaning to the words we sang. As I walked home I remembered that it was 25 years ago on Easter Sunday that Dad Heise died. Mother woke Lois and me up at about 4:30 with Uncle Jesse on the phone. We spent the day (which we had planned to spend with my parents before driving back to Kentucky) driving to Ohio, and then the family time and funeral. Easter is a special amazing time of the year, in which the old words ring out full of meaning and hope and joy, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Gift of Indirection (White Zimbabwean, Part 3)

In recent blogs I told the story of becoming Khulu (Uncle) for a young man meeting his prospective parents-in-law in a Zimbabwean family now living in Manitoba.  I told also of the way that Lois became the Aunt who performed a similar task for another family, in which a Zimbabwean got engaged to a Manitoba Mennonite young man.

Here I reflect on the experiences a bit, along the lines of treating our experiences as participant-observation in Zimbabwean culture. So, some lessons learned:
1. Knowing about something is not the same as doing it. The only way to really learn something is to do it. Africans in Zimbabwe and elsewhere have known this all along. David Maranz (in African Friends and Money Matters) observes that Africans give information when it is needed, not as an abstract piece of information separate from real life. Canadians (and Americans) sometimes treat knowledge as something detached from life. I think Zimbabweans get this one right.

2. Canadians (and Americans) value direct speech. “Look at me when you talk to me.” “Tell me what you want. Don’t beat about the bush.” Africans are often less direct, not stating what they are saying directly, but hinting at it; not looking up at the other person as if challenging them, but down or sideways out of respect for the other’s authority.

There are strengths to both systems of communication. One strength of indirection is to force both parties to pay attention to the clues that go with the conversation. Another strength is that the intermediaries in the conversation—such as those who carried the question from the young couple to the parents, and then carried the answer back—are also witnesses to the conversation. As our friends told us, if this couple has trouble later, these witnesses are there to help. This is a real strength.

Another strength indirection is to defuse the stress of confrontation. David Augsburger (Culture and Conflict Mediation) has written well about the value of a mediator to relieve excessive stress. Zimbabweans also know about this benefit.

3. The willingness to submit to cultural values counts for more than knowing how to do everything just right. In the case where I acted as the Khulu (or Uncle), the young man’s willingness to sit quietly while someone else pleaded his case spoke loudly to the family. They saw that he was willing to do what is right as much by his silence as by anything else.

I’m sure that there are many more lessons I could state, but that’s enough for now. The ceremony of indirection is a gift my Zimbabwean friends have given me. Not one I would have expected, and not one I’m sure I know how to use, but a gift of great value.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Finding God in History

Palm Sunday. The day we remember what we call “the triumphal entry”. We have enjoyed the parade of children this morning, and we sing and rejoice, joining in the ancient triumph of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. “Ride on, King Jesus! No one can hinder thee!” Palm Sunday begins what we call “Holy Week”, which culminates in Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. This is the centre of the church’s year, when we remember and re-enter the mystery of God’s work in God’s Son to redeem the world and reconcile the world to himself.

The Passage
This year we read the account from Mark 11. I will describe the passage briefly and then expand on one basic point that impressed me as I read the story again this year. In the first verses we find Jesus and his disciples at Bethany (and Bethphage). Bethany is a little less than two miles east of Jerusalem, and Jesus stayed there quite regularly with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He sent two of the disciples on ahead of the rest to find a donkey, which Jesus told them they would use for his entry into Jerusalem.

The disciples found the donkey and brought it back, and they all went into Jerusalem together, with Jesus riding on the back of the donkey. Soon a crowd had gathered around Jesus. I am guessing that they recognized Jesus as a teacher and miracle-worker, and put his actions and words together with the action of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back.

Why a donkey? What did the people see? They would have remembered the words of Zechariah 9:9 and 10: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Perhaps they would have also thought of the prophecy contained in Jacob-Israel’s blessings for his sons in Genesis 49: 9 and 10, which serve as deeper background to Zechariah.

Zechariah’s prophecy is a Messianic passage, and the people could hear the promise of the restoration of God’s reign in full. They may have thought that Jesus was a country prophet, come to fulfill a vow at the Passover Feast and remind people of the Messiah (so argues William Lane in his commentary on Mark). In any case they joined in the fun, although they did not grasp the depth of what God was doing in front of them.

The use of a donkey indicates that God has won the victory, and that God’s Messiah now comes in peace—not on a warhorse, but on a humble donkey. So the people cheer for God’s victory and for a future of peace and prosperity. Then the passage ends with a strange sort of anticlimax: “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” Mark is the only one who records this interlude, as the big parade turns into a small sightseeing excursion.

There are at least two reasons for this anticlimax. The first is that it happened. When Jesus and the disciples had completed the entry, they took the donkey back to its owner and spent the night in Bethany. Mark probably collected much of his account from Peter, who told the story many times within the early church community. Mark also was probably there, and remembers what happened. After looking around for a bit, everyone went back to Bethany for the night.

The second reason is the one I want to focus on for the rest of our time. Throughout his account of “the Gospel of Jesus Christ”, Mark emphasises the way that Jesus moved from climax of healing or exorcism to anticlimax of “Don’t tell anyone”. Here again Jesus steps back before he moves to the climax of his whole ministry. Quietly now!

The Power of Smallness
This quietness leads me to look again at the triumphal entry. Imagine with me that one of the people watching this is a reporter for The Jerusalem Times. This reporter is normally assigned to cover events in the capital of the Empire, in Rome itself. Just a week before he came home for the Feast of the Passover he covered a real Triumph. Here is a description of a Roman Triumph, from Wikipedia:
On the day of his triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel and the all-purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga …, regalia that identified him as near-divine or near-kingly. He rode in a four-horse chariot through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession with his army, captives and the spoils of his war. … [Over time] increasing competition among the military-political adventurers … ensured that triumphs became more frequent, drawn out and extravagant, prolonged in some cases by several days of public games and entertainments.

Now he watches this Palestinian peasant riding on a donkey into Jerusalem. He can’t help thinking to himself that people would not cheer so loudly if they could have seen what he has seen in Rome. The donkey, on the other hand is a strange and humble animal—not nearly so proud as a war horse. Yet the donkey carried the King of Kings into Jerusalem. G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem called “The Donkey”:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood,
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

This idea (of finding God’s power in small things) is a repeated note in the Bible. It is the way that God works. As the Lord said to Samuel: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) We look at power and prestige and think that these God at work. But God is at work where God chooses to work. Listen to the way that Paul says it in 1 Corinthians 1:22-29:
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

God is at work in history, but not where we often look. God is at work in in the small places of our world, in your life and in my life, among and in ordinary people, to bring the Reign of God into the whole world. God uses you and me, just as God used the donkey and the crowds and the children, to make our world right.

Some Examples
Allow me to illustrate with some examples I have learned about in the past two weeks. A week and a half ago I had lunch with a man we’ll call John. He and his wife worked in Pakistan for many years with a Baptist Mission. Now they are based in Winnipeg, working with indigenous churches in Pakistan and Nepal. They travel back to Pakistan periodically and to Nepal more frequently.

John told me about a group of Christians he works with in Pakistan. They come from a Pakistani Hindu background. As John told me, the Hindu minority in Pakistan is small, about 1% of the population of the country, and they are at the bottom of the social pile—practically speaking most of them are slaves. Over a period of time a small group of Christians grew up in this Hindu minority, about 35 house churches by the time he left the country two years ago. This year he went back to Pakistan and provided some Bible training for their leadership. He found that they had grown from 35 to 100 house churches.

Now this is not the kind of movement that people look at and say, “Wow! Two million new believers!” Rather it means perhaps a thousand new followers of Jesus from the Hindu minority of Pakistan.  This is not the sort of thing that will make the international news, nor will many people be impressed by it; but this is God at work in our history. This is God at work in the small ordinary places of our world.

Sometimes these small things result in events that do get reported in the news. You may recall an event several months ago in Kenya. Last December a militant Somali group named Al Shabab stopped a bus travelling in northern Kenya near the Somali border. They started to separate the Muslims from the Christians in order to execute the Christians, when the Muslim passengers took action. One man, named Salah Ferah, stood up and told them that they were all brothers and would not separate. The Muslim women on the bus started to give their hijabs to the Christian women so that the armed men could not tell them apart. The gunmen shot Salah and two other men and then they fled. Salah later died of his wounds. This is a wonderful story of Muslims and Christians pursuing peace together in the midst of conflict. There is more to the story than I will tell here, but you can sense the echoes of God entering Jerusalem on a donkey’s back, bringing peace to the world.

God is at work in our world in ways that you would never guess. If you are focussing on the big events in the news, you could be like that reporter in Jerusalem who thought the important Triumph was in Rome, and missed the entry of God’s own self into human history.

A teacher at Providence was telling me about a student in her class—we’ll call him Sam. When you watch Sam, you notice his awkwardness and loudness, but his teacher told me he is really a good person. I was walking to the Student Centre this past week and passed Sam. He greeted me awkwardly as we passed each other and I saw two things: I saw the socially awkward young man, and I saw goodness shining in him. I said that to his teacher, and she told me of a conversation Sam once had. A fellow worker at his job was talking about the hardships he has experienced, which made it hard for him to believe in God. Sam has had a harder life than most, greater than the person talking to him could know, but he responded simply that God loves him and he loves God. His friend was silent for a bit, and then he said, “I’ll have to think about that.” In that conversation you can see, if you are looking for it, God at work in history. There was a little triumphal entry, with voices calling, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

This is the beginning of Holy Week. We remember this great climax of Jesus’ life and ministry, as he dies on the cross for you and for me. Often we think that we are not important enough to join in the parade, but that’s just the point. Jesus wants to enter your life and my life in triumph.

It doesn’t matter if you’re young. As Randy reminded us last Sunday, God wants young people to do his work in the church and in the world. We need you. God needs you! It doesn’t matter if you’re middle-aged. You may be focussed on career as you enter the time you can become a real success. But real success is found in following Christ, in allowing Jesus to enter your life in triumph. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting older. I’m reading a lot about the beginning of Brethren in Christ Missions. The first missionary group went from North America to Zimbabwe in 1898—one young woman in her early 20s (Adda Engle), one almost middle-aged woman in her mid 30s (Frances Davidson), and one older couple of 60 years old (Jesse and Elizabeth Engle). God used all four of them. Adda eventually married another of the early missionaries, who died in the 1920s following an attack by a lion. Frances worked there until she was in her 60s, when she returned to the States. Jesse died after only two years, and Elizabeth returned to the States. Each one of them was part of God’s work beginning the BIC Church in Zimbabwe.

The only thing that matters is that Jesus wants to enter into every one of us and work in our world through us—old or young, married or single, parent or child, blue collar or white collar, awkward or graceful or anything else. We find God in history when we find God in each other. I pray that you are part of his triumphal entry into our lives this morning.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
20 March 2016
Palm Sunday: Mark 11:1-11

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Being a White Zimbabwean 2

As the last story told, Lois and I had the privilege of becoming part of a Zimbabwean family living here in Manitoba, helping with the process of bringing together the Moyo and Penner families (names changed). More recently I became part of another Zimbabwean family.

It was Saturday morning when the call came: friends of ours, a Zimbabwean couple named John and Mary (again, no real names used). John asked me for a favour. Their daughter, living in another province wanted to bring her boyfriend (also a Zimbabwean) home. But there was a complication—under the circumstances he should not just arrive at the house and ask to marry her. That might work for Canada, but not for Zimbabwe. The favour then was this: Would I go to the airport with his daughter (we’ll use the name Noma again—it’s a good Zimbabwean name) to pick up the boyfriend (we’ll call him Musa, another good Zimbabwean name) and bring him to meet Noma’s parents. John told me, “Noma will explain to you what you need to do.” I agreed, and entered on a valuable experience.

On the way in we engaged in small talk. Then we picked up Musa and started driving back. At first we talked generally, getting to know each other, but soon we got down to business. I was to act as Musa’s friend who would open the way for the young man to meet his girlfriend’s parents. Noma herself would disappear as soon as we arrived at the house (and disappear she did!). We would go in and greet those assembled, and then sit down on the floor. I would make a payment to open the conversation, and then a statement saying why we were there, and then a further payment for bringing the daughter home in such a way. (Musa brought the money that we used. The amount he brought is irrelevant and not mentioned here.)

That is more or less what happened. We knocked at the door and were admitted. John was sitting in the living room with some neighbour friends he had asked to come and serve as witnesses. Mary was working in the kitchen preparing supper. We greeted all the people assembled, then Musa and I sat on the floor in front of John.

I handed John the first payment to open the conversation, and he called Mary from the kitchen to stop her work and join us in the living room. Everyone gathered (except Noma, who had disappeared into her room), and I proceeded. I said something like this, based on our conversation in the car, “I am bringing you this young man. His name is Musa from [name of town]. He is coming to acknowledge his responsibility for your daughter and to apologize for bringing her to you in this way. You do not need to go looking for her, because he has brought her here.” Then I placed a further payment in a bowl that John had set on the table.

John is a friendly person who is normally a delight to be with, but that evening he was the father whose daughter had been brought home expecting a child. His face was stern—I think. My eyes were downcast as I did my best to ignore my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Look at me when you talk to me!” He counted the money slowly and carefully, an amount that had been worked out between the parties before the actual event. Then he handed it to his wife and asked a further question.

“Does he have anything else to say?” I remember my lines: “He says they would like to return in two a half months to talk more with you.” John made sure of the date, since, as he explained, they had to gather the family together for that meeting. Musa confirmed to me that the date was firm, and I repeated that to John.

Another question remained. “What is his clan?” Fortunately I had asked that question on the way from the airport. “Ncube”, I said. John looked grave. “We are also Ncube.” Is he Ncube from Murewa or from Kameni or from somewhere else?” (I may not have the clan names right, but that is what I remember.) I decided I thought he was from Murewa. John was pleased, “We are from Kameni, so that is all right.”

Then he was his cheerful self again. The young people were sent to the basement to enjoy each other’s company, and the neighbours joined us in another wonderful meal. I can tell you that Zimbabwean cooking is excellent!

So now I have been the friend who goes between to begin a relationship leading to marriage. A privilege beyond asking. As we were getting ready to leave, Musa came over and thanked me and then asked if I would be one of his party for the next round of negotiations referred to above (he would like me to come back in two and half months). Those of his family in Canada will come, but the extended family is in Zimbabwe. So I may learn something more about setting the dowry.

You can read about many things in books, but you learn more when people are gracious and include you in their lives. So thanks to our Zimbabwean friends who have included us in their lives. Lois and I say (in Shona and Ndebele), “Tinotenda. Siyabonga kakhulu.”

Friday, March 11, 2016

Being a White Zimbabwean 1

Over the past couple of years Lois and I have experienced the joy of our connections to Zimbabwe in ways that we never experienced. Here are two stories, with names changed since they are other people’s stories too. The first story is in this blog, and the second follows.

A couple of years ago we were approached by a friend (let’s call her Nomathemba), the daughter of a Zimbabwean couple (we’ll call them Simba and Dorcas—not their real names) who live here in Manitoba. She wanted to get engaged to her Mennonite boyfriend (think the usual names here, like Penner, Plett, Giesbrecht, and so on, and you’ll have the idea). They wanted to honour her culture as a Zimbabwean in the process, so they came over for supper and we had a talk about what to do.

Noma’s extended family is back in Zimbabwe, so they asked Lois if she would be Simba’s sister, and if Lois and I would approach her parents to introduce her boyfriend and ask if they may become engaged. We agreed, and then we found that means we had to bless their desire to marry first, so plied friend Penner (not his real name either) with questions about his background and their relationship. We were happy to give them our blessing.

So we called Simba and asked if we could come over for supper and bring the young couple with us. (I’m not used to inviting myself for a meal, but it worked well.) A few nights later we sat in Simba and Dorcas’ living room, talking with them and the young couple, who had shown up earlier than they were supposed to. Penner just wasn’t used to waiting until told he could come in now! A delightful meal followed. (I should invite myself over more often!)

Then the moment came. Penner and Noma asked us if we could ask their parents if they could get married. Everyone in the room could hear the question. So we called Noma’s young brother, Simbarashe over, and asked him to ask his parents if his sister and Penner could get married. He crossed the two yards between us and them and asked them the question they had now heard twice already. Simba and Dorcas huddled together speaking in Shona, then told young Simbarashe the answer, which the couple could hear plainly. He stepped back to us and gave us the answer, which all again could hear. Finally we turned to Penner and Noma and gave them the good news that her parents had agreed.

After the drama was over, and we had all played our parts, Simba and Dorcas started reminiscing about the process when they had first gone to her family. We found out how much dowry (1) he had paid for her, and ways in which they had negotiated behind the scenes before anything was done in public. We learned also that usually there would have been all the members of the family present, and the question would have gone from youngest to oldest through a chain of all the father’s brothers. Then Simba added, “All of these people are witnesses of the commitment the couple has made. If they have trouble later, these are the people they turn to for help.” I was impressed with the sense that marriage is a real exercise in community.

Simba also told us that the first thing he did when he learned of their interest was check ancestry.com to make sure that the Penners and the Moyos are not related. We laughed—Russian Mennonites and the Shona people of Zimbabwe come from two different worlds, but behind the laughter lies the awareness that the totem, the clan is important. If one marries inside the clan, there are further steps one must take to make everything right.

So we are White Americans, who have become White Canadians, and now thanks to our Zimbabwean friends we are also White Zimbabweans. Tatenda, Shamwari Simba.

(1) Dowry or Lobola (Ndebele) or Roora (Shona). Not a part of our Canadian customs, but very much part of Zimbabwe.