Reflections of My Time in TZ…

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How does one begin talking about not just an “experience” or a “mission” but my very life for the past year in another congregation? another culture? another country?

I guess I could start with last January and do a day-by-day synopsis about my time in Tanzania but blogs aren’t meant to be novels…

So what better than a top ten list! Without further adieu:

10. Living without! A/C…Car…Fridge…

I thought I’d start off with a surprise. For those of you that know me, I’m a pro-hot weather so I wasn’t too bummed to enter a warm climate without air conditioning or even a fan. But add on to that the commonly overlooked luxury of a refrigerator and car and you’ve got a changed lifestyle. It is simply amazing what you can get used to when you go without. Other than monsoon rainy days, I enjoyed walking everywhere when I was going to school, church, the pastor’s house or town.

The public bus situation (called daladalas) allowed me to share my life with those living around me and in many ways provided me opportunities to be welcomed into their society. The other plus to this new lifestyle was the low-cost living. Can you imagine spending only $13 dollars for over 8 months of electricity?!? That’s what you get when you don’t have a refrigerator and A/C “running!” After a year in Morogoro, I can safely say that I have some warm memories to keep with me forever. (I know….I know… I’ll try not to get too hot-headed with my corny puns…)

9. Fellowship from a Little Bit of Everywhere!

Another highlight of my time in TZ would be the great fellowship I experienced in a variety of places. Of course the regular support from Pastor Umba and his family was well appreciated. I’ll never forget our birthday celebration dances, our nightly Scripture and Song time and especially working with Nathan to get his story-writing career off to a great start. I was also privileged to encounter various other missionaries in Morogoro and occasionally spend time with them throughout the year. From Ultimate Frisbee matches to game nights to wonderful assortments of home-cooked meals, their encouragement provided me with reminders of God’s larger story and my part in that story. Scripture tells us of the importance of the church and community and one lesson that reaffirmed my faith while in Tanzania was that a church isn’t a place with 4 walls and a steeple but truly where people gather together in the name of the Lord.

8. Volleyball, Football and Ultimate Frisbee!

Everywhere I go, sports always draw me in. I’ve been to a professional match in Brazil, a Cross-Country World Championship in Kenya and watched a World Cup match on a TV in a hotel with a wedding party in Israel but nothing compares to actually playing the game. I knew with certainty that I be getting involved with sports during my service. I still remember my first soccer (aka “football” to the rest of the world) game with a large mud section in the middle. I finished the game with 2 major accomplishments: 1) I scored a goal! and 2) I didn’t fall on my face in the mud! Later I joined in with a local university in playing more structured football games for several weeks which included a run, an hour-long game and some free weights afterward. It was great 4 weeks of playing until… the school changed their mind and decided that I can’t be on the school grounds without being a student. Then I had a dry spell before coming across some other missionaries and discovering, above all odds, that they play ultimate frisbee occasionally on Saturdays! What an unexpected surprise!!! Of course, my first game with them was in a massive rainstorm as well but oh so much fun. Then as time passed I was welcomed by a close missionary friend to visit and play volleyball with some local Tanzanians in town. After some time, I was playing there regularly which provided another fascinating environment to practice my Swahili and hang out with Tanzanians close to my age. It kept me active and involved and allowed me to experience another aspect of Morogoro’s culture and made my year in Tanzania incredible.

7. Work! Work! Work!

When I wasn’t walking around or playing sports, I was spending my days at Wesley Primary School serving a variety of roles. I arrived in Morogoro last January with very little details as to what I would be doing and those uncertainties certainly changed quickly. Over the year, my responsibilities covered teaching 5th grade English, Technology and Geography subjects as well as 6th grade English and Technology subjects. For a brief time, I was also the 3rd grade English teacher. I was also nominated to be the Head Class Teacher for 5th grade responsible for collecting grade reports, dealing with class discipline and communicating with parents over repetitive issues with students in the classrooms. And several months into my service, the school decided to offer after-school tutoring for 4th-6th graders in the core subjects of English, Math, Science and that class’ weakest subject. So my hands were full to say the least and I finished a number of red pens working with the students at Wesley. It’s a good thing I LOVE being around children and encouraging them in their studies. I’ve never met a group of children that enthusiastic about learning or showed so much composure and good behavior in the classroom. I even bought the 5th and 6th grade classes a dictionary to appease their thirst for new vocabulary and they were SO excited for this GIFT. I mean, seriously, which of you would call a dictionary a “gift?” Well, they did and they asked for it each and every morning to use between classes or whenever the teacher stepped out of the classroom. All of the students I encountered across the country of Tanzania see education as a “gift” and not a “right” and the difference is awe-inspiring. That made teaching much easier and encouraging and I believe my students of Tanzania could teach “a thing or two” to our students here. Now I say all this acknowledging that not every day was a basket of roses but, overall, working with children makes it all worth it.

6. Oh so fresh fruit!

Bananas, pineapple, oranges, watermelons, grapes, mangoes, papayas, apples, tangerines, lemons, limes, jackfruit, plums and more!

The beautiful thing about the warm climate in Tanzania was access to fruit at really good prices basically year-round! I must have eaten a couple bananas each day with the occasional pineapple to celebrate a long work week. I even made fresh-squeezed orange juice one week that was absolutely delicious! Also, I used the market to practice my Swahili skills and, during my long beard phase, was affectionately referred to as “Yesu Kristo” or Jesus Christ in and around the market. It always made me chuckle to overhear people asking a friend, “Has Jesus returned?” or “Did  you see Jesus haggle over those bananas?” The fresh fruit I indulged in over 2011 in Morogoro definitely made my time a whole lot sweeter there.

5. National Parks!

Of course, I had to get in the great outdoors while across the pond and made my way into several parks including: Mikumi, Udzungwa, Lake Manyara, Tarangire and Kilimanjaro. Several of these involved being in vehicles on trails to encounter wildlife (they don’t recommend walking near the lions for some odd reason…) while Udzungwa and Kilimanjaro were hiking parks (although I sadly did not have the opportunity to climb to the top of Kili…) It was incredible and surreal to see the animals moving about in their natural environment. I also particularly enjoyed seeing the different types of habitats across the country. The other benefit to visiting these national parks was that it allowed me to see most of Tanzania’s major cities as well. Mountains, lakes, waterfalls, rivers, savanna, semi-arid desert, tropical rain forest and the Indian ocean… I explored to the max and made the most of my time in this beautiful country. And even though the Uluguru Mountains are not a national park, I made several excursions up this lovely range nestled next to Morogoro. I always feel at peace when immersed in nature and these Tanzanian treks made for some good ole times in the great outdoors.

4. Daily faithful living!

From the time the sun rises to well after the sun faded away, I encountered men and women and children of such great faith. Faith wasn’t just a Sunday special or a public scene but a real, day-to-day relationship with God through Jesus Christ and it permeated through every bit of their life. One pastor, Rob Bell, once said that they don’t use the word “spiritual” in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day because life itself was spiritual in every thing so there was no need to distinguish the parts of our lives that were and were not spiritual. The same goes for our Methodist congregation in Morogoro. Living in the house next to the church there was always someone inside singing, praying or just spending time with God. Saturdays were the church’s weekly day of prayer which encouraged members to spend some time in there worshiping God. I remember passing a local store (called a “duka”) and the owner was passing the time between customers by reading the Bible. Their daily decisions derived from their faith and they loved talking about God to others. I may have shared this story with some of you but most of the time when you call someone they answer the phone with “Bwana asifiwe!” which means Praise the Lord! They actually live out their faith and I know that my own faith has grown from living in community with them for a year. Bwana asifiwe!

3. Swahili: People and Culture!

In addition to learning more about faith, I also spent a lot of time learning the Swahili language which is spoken through most of East Africa. And because their culture is so interconnected, learning the language means learning their culture, learning their way of life! From studies in a book and mini-lessons from teachers in between classes, I ventured into the market for more hands-on practice and eventually worked to understand the 3-hour church services done completely in Swahili. It was freeing to travel across the country and enter any city and shock thousands of people as we conversed in one of their native languages. I felt more accepted and trusted since I took the time to get invested in their culture and, I’m not going to lie, it felt pretty cool speaking Swahili! By the end of the year I had preached 7 sermons in Swahili and taught a ‘History of Methodism’ course for local pastors and a basic English concepts for community members, both in Swahili. Now I’ll be honest, my Swahili was far from perfect but they could understand me and I could understand them so it sufficed! The greatest part of learning Swahili was the access it allowed me to engage in relationships with the children, the congregation and everyone I met across the country. Ninapenda kusema Kiswahili sana! (I love to speak Swahili a lot!)

2. THE CHILDREN!

Nothing brings me more joy than spending time with God’s children. Whether it’s through ultimate frisbee, reading, sharing stories or just being goofy my interactions with children provide some of the greatest insights into life and faith that I’ve experienced. I enjoyed my times playing soccer, netball or ultimate frisbee with them during or after school. Nathan, the pastor’s son, and I exchanged stories late at night and even practiced music on a semi-operational keyboard. I’m not much of a morning person but getting to the school and seeing the students’ eyes light up when it was time to learn could bring a smile to any face. I won’t forget teaching worship songs, awesome games like “Simon says” or being the student myself as they helped me with my Swahili. Wherever I am in the world, whatever I’m doing… I know I’ll be serving the generations of our  future.  And now, without a doubt, one of the greatest highlights of living in Morogoro and some of my most wonderful memories come from my moments with Nathan and the others in Class 6, with Hidaya and those in Class 5 with their incredible attention span (even amid my rambling!) and the random sayings from the 5-year old twins in the church.

1. God Encounters!

And the main reason for going to Tanzania was seeking the source of direction and meaning for my life, God. And I returned from Tanzania with a number of God encounters. I know I’ve been called to seek and serve God which isn’t specific to any geography or profession. Many feel that “serving” God means working for a church as a pastor but I felt God’s presence just as well in the school in Tanzania as my previous church experiences. For me, I clearly see God’s patience, peace, joy and compassion in children all around me and that’s just another reason why I love being around children. Madam Mung’ong’o, one of our school teachers, loved sharing Scriptures and words of wisdom with me each morning at school. She passed on to me Swahili proverbs like “Pole pole ndiye mwendo” which means “Slow is indeed the speed.” Another Swahili proverb was “Haraka haraka haina baraka” which means “Hurry, hurry has no blessing.” She turned 70 this past year and from her past 40+ years of teaching children, I gleaned a wealth of knowledge from her about working with kids and living a faith-filled life… a life filled with God encounters. From my conversations with Pastor Umba, praising and worshiping God in the church, enjoying fellowship with fellow missionaries and living each day much closer to the earth and closer with my community, I began to notice God more and more and my life is better because of it.

As I look back on Tanzania, the short days and the long days, I can’t help but smile at the ways God was at work in me and many others. These are my reflections, my memories, my life. It all happened in the blink of an eye but my experiences have changed me forever and I will not forget the faithful people of Morogoro, Tanzania.

Mwisho.

(The End.)

Manna and Mercy: God’s Game Plan…

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I just finished an incredible book that’s quite out of the ordinary.
It’s called Manna  and Mercy by Daniel Erlander.

In a nutshell, this book briefly describes the major events of the Bible and their correlation with God’s desire to “mend the universe” by establishing a lasting relationship with us and all creation. I know it looks like a children’s book but it fits the style of writing completely. Basically, this story comes down to 2 things: Manna and Mercy… (aka Righteousness and Compassion!)

Manna or Righteousness also refers to justice with the understanding that justice doesn’t necessarily mean “criminals get punished!” but that equality is reached and there is ENOUGH for everyone. The writer gets this from the Old Testament story (Exodus 16:1-36) where God’s people were roaming the desert starved and beginning to doubt that God actually cared for them. God provided them with manna each day to sustain them and show his care for their well-being. But there was fine print involved… they were to collect only what they needed for that day. Nothing more! Some learned the hard way and awoke to rotten food that reeked! This book shows that the “manna mentality” isn’t just about food but life in general. What we have isn’t ours but gifts from God and gifts are meant to be shared/given–not hoarded/hidden. That’s true justice: where we recognize God’s gifts and blessings and strive for all to have enough.

Mercy and Compassion are also important in that we must care for all those around us including the most vulnerable (widows, orphans and those in need). This book emphasizes that we are serving God appropriately when we show compassion to all our neighbors (and yes that means our enemies, those that annoy us and especially those that hurt us)… Mercy also means a deep concern and tender openness towards the excluded within our society. THIS is a gift that ANYone can offer others!!!

But Daniel warns us about living a life focused on just one or the other. Here’s what he had to say about that:

“Yahweh understood that righteousness without mercy leads to grumpy legalism. On the other hand, mercy without righteousness leads to wishy-washy sentimentalism.”

This balance is important to keep as we seek to honestly and regularly serve God. We don’t need to spout out rules at people to show them God’s love. Nor do we need to tell them that all they need is to walk hand-in-hand with God as we continue to live our own lives and all will be well. We must show love with wisdom, compassion with understanding so together we will grow in acknowledging how much God loves us and what that mean for our lives once we begin that relationship with God. Similar to relationships, ones that are swamped with do’s and don’ts or smothered with shallow talk and actions are not able to endure or have much meaning. Hence the title “Manna and Mercy”… our (yes all of us) calling to work together to provide enough food AND compassion for everyone in this world.

This leads me into another interesting re-definition I stumbled across… Salvation!

“Salvation is abundant life in a renewed Israel where forgiveness and mercy abound and where manna [food] is released and shared. How far this is from the popular definition of the word–accepting Jesus so your soul will go to heaven when you die.”

Yes, salvation is accepting Jesus and living a renewed life with God but how selfish of us to think that our salvation is solely to get US into heaven. To me, salvation is the establishment of that personal relationship with God that affects our lives so much that we want to exude God’s attributes of forgiveness, love, mercy, service to all those around us. When we enter the presence of God in heaven, AWESOME! but for now…there’s work to do! If our life is truly transformed with the unconditional love of God, how can we just sit back and let injustice flourish?  I like the term “abundant life” because when I think of abundance I think of over-flowing… (my cup runneth over…sound familiar? Thanks King James!) God’s abundant love fills us and flows into the lives of others. Then, people are revived in both body and spirit and can truly taste and see that the Lord is good.

Another term this story takes time to reflect upon is the Hebrew word, “Shalom!”

“Shalom, translated ‘peace’ in the NRSV, is God’s gift of wholeness-in-community, a social reality where all have enough, forgiveness abounds, and all live in harmony. Note how shalom means much more than normal definitions of ‘peace’– the absence of war or inner tranquility.”

I know some of you are thinking this is a fairly “hippy”-sounding answer but I particularly enjoyed the depth taken from the word. That, in community, we find true peace when justice (all have enough), forgiveness (mercy and compassion are offered to all) and unification are gathered together. In fact, he defines a faithful community as the intersection of righteousness, compassion and worship (single-hearted devotion to Yahweh, the righteous and compassionate God).

The first several of chapters in the book focus on the exodus out of Egypt as the “primal story” of the Old Testament. It’s the defining moment for the Israelites for being portrayed as God’s people and it’s our first historical context of God reaching out to humanity in justice and mercy.

The book continues onward to focus on the “primal story” of the New Testament… any guesses? Yep! The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because without that, where would we be today as Christians? Again, this shows God’s relentless pursuit offering us undeserving grace and compassion.

For more about this unique book, you’ll have to take a look yourself!

Consider these concepts though… righteousness… mercy… salvation… peace… are these evident in your life?
Do these definition provided differ from your own? How so?

All in all, this book was a much-needed reminder to give the credit to God (aka stop patting my own back) and truly seek to live a life filled (in fact, overflowing!) with:

Righteousness and Compassion    …aka…    Manna and Mercy!