Sunday, May 15, 2016

Timothy’s said we should be ready for church at 8.45 am. Several of us are moving around by 6 or 7. The front shower, which the men use, has good water pressure and is cool and refreshing with none of the hot water faucet engaged. We don’t really feel like a hot shower, so we’re happy to save them some money. As I recall from last year, the back shower, which the women are using, is considerably less robust. If they want to use the better one, of course we’ll let them. But they haven’t asked yet. 🙂

We have leftovers for breakfast, the hot cereal and toast from yesterday morning and some rice. The latter is a staple here, as in most of the world, so we’ll pretty much always have some in the fridge to munch on. The group is talkative over breakfast, so they seem to have rested well, even though the ceiling fans in 2 of the rooms weren’t working last night.

Up to the Seidus’ house at 8.45. Since this is a smaller group than I have brought in the past, just 7 of us, we can all fit into the Seidus’ two vehicles, meaning that we won’t need to use either of the buses just for going to church. Since one of the vehicles is air conditioned, that makes the relatively short ride downright comfortable.

We’re working with 2 churches. The Wa Regular Baptist Church was the original church planted by the Baptist Mid-Missions missionaries back in the early 60s. When Timothy returned from BJU Seminary in 2004, he planted Faith Fundamental Baptist Church with their support. Faith is now larger than its mother church, though both are filled with energetic people on Sunday mornings and have a good core of leadership at the deacon level.

In our previous trips in 2013 and 2015 the team has worked exclusively with Timothy at Faith. Over this past year the mother church’s pastor resigned, and they asked Timothy to consider stepping in as pastor. Timothy hasn’t been willing to resign from Faith, so he has been acting as pastor of both congregations, spending 2 Sundays a month at each location and having deacons run the services when he’s not there.

Timothy’s an incredibly hard worker, and because of his personal and academic qualifications, he has a lot to do. Frankly, I think he works too hard, and I did not take the dual pastorate as good news. We’ve already talked about finding somebody to put in at Wa RBC; he has several recent WABC graduates pastoring village churches that are qualified to move up to a larger church. But his judgment is that their youthfulness would be an obstacle to their acceptance, and I trust his judgment much more than my own.

Would you pray that God would provide an under-shepherd for this flock—and that the sheep would know and follow his voice?

Today and next Sunday, Timothy is scheduled to be at Faith, so I’m preaching on my first 2 Sundays at the Wa church. Timothy and Ivy drop us off on their way to Faith—Wa RBC is in town on one of the main roads, and Faith is farther out on the same road—and we walk across the small dirt parking lot toward the Sunday school classes.

They’ve been building a new sanctuary for perhaps 10 years now, but it’s still not ready to occupy, so they’re meeting, for both SS and the worship services, in classrooms next door that they use for a Christian school during the week. One of their men leads us to the English-language class, where our group of 7 expands the group of 3 students already there. (More join us as the class proceeds.) The teacher is very good, animated, with well-prepared notes, asking lots of questions. Some of us have trouble understanding his accent when he speaks fast, but Jojo seems to do the best with comprehension. The lesson is on Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10; we all read parts of the passage in turn and then discuss it. The point, of course, is that the gospel is for all. I realize that I’m sitting in the middle of the proof of that: all of us are Gentiles, whether light brown or dark brown (none of us is really white or black), and all of us represent the “ends of the earth” that the gospel has reached. I’m sure glad Peter had that vision—and understood it.

During the lesson a teen-aged boy walks in with a power cord that has no plug. He calmly walks to the 220V outlet in the center of the front wall, just beneath the chalkboard, thrusts a long screwdriver into the 3rd hole (which “loosens” the other 2 holes to receive the bare wires), works the wires into their respective holes, uses the screwdriver to force them securely in—I’m holding my breath as I write this—and then flips the switch on the outlet plate that activates the current to the outlet. No sparks or smoke, so I guess we’re OK. The power cord snakes out the door and into the next classroom, where the morning service will be; apparently it powers the portable PA system or perhaps the electronic keyboard. During all of this, the teacher never breaks stride, and the Ghanaian students seem to take no notice. This is SOP.

And that’s a cultural element that you see all the time. Stuff doesn’t need to look good cosmetically, or be stable and long lasting; it just needs to work. If a system isn’t working, just patch something together so it does. Code compliance really never comes up. What’s interesting to me is that over the long run this approach doesn’t seem to be any more dangerous than what we do in the West. Less stable, yes; stuff fails all the time, and a group of people will gather around, talking and pointing and running off for this or that, and eventually the system comes up. But hardly anybody ever gets hurt. And we Westerners just stand there watching, shaking our heads.

After the bell signaling the end of the SS hour, our teacher keeps going, which is apparently not unusual. But the church leaders have found a way to encourage compliance; they start up the music next door in the service room, and eventually it gets so loud that he has to wrap it up. We walk out onto the connecting porch, and they point us to a group of seats together toward the front. (As the morning’s preacher, I’m sitting up front, where the platform would be if there were a platform.)

We begin with lively singing, traditional old hymns sung with attention and energy, with some clapping in time to the music. They sing a few songs in Waali too, but they’re all gospel songs from the American tradition translated into Waali. These churches are really more American than African in both style and content; they have embraced Christianity in the cultural style that the missionaries taught them years ago.

When we get to Tanzania, we’ll see something very different; the churches there have been planted much more recently, under a missiological philosophy that calls for much less cultural transfer; the songs will be African in origin, and none of them will be in English. I like for the students to see this contrast. I don’t think either approach is necessarily wrong as such, so long as the former approach doesn’t become blind tradition, sort of a new Cargo Cult. But there is something joyous about seeing Africans, or any culture, worshiping the one true God with all that is good in their own cultural expression.

Yet these churches clearly love their worship and mean it. Old ways are not necessarily bad ones.

John and Lora sing a duet of “The Precious Blood” accompanied by Rachael on the piano. It is very well received. I’ve advised that they not try to do it a capella, because if they do, the church keyboardist will poke around on the instrument until he finds the key and then will begin accompanying them, unrehearsed. And in cases where the song is unfamiliar to him, that can get pretty dicey, if you’ll pardon the expression. So during the introductions I announce that the two will sing and that Rachael will accompany, and everything works splendidly.

Speaking of the introductions, this church does something that I’ve never seen done before. When a visitor stands and introduces himself, they assign a church member to be his “friend” for the morning. The “friend” walks over and shakes the visitor’s hand, and after the services becomes his host until he leaves. What a great idea.

One of the advantages to my preaching in a church we haven’t visited before is that I don’t have to come up with new sermons. 🙂 This morning I preach an old standby, a book sermon on Haggai that is one of my favorites. The congregation is attentive—I don’t see anyone sleeping or looking out the windows at any of the many distractions that are available at any given time. I work a little cultural element into chapter 1, where Haggai urges the people to put God’s work—the building of the Temple, in his case—ahead of their own unnecessary personal matters. I note the early start of rains this year, and the consequence that the crops will start growing earlier than usual, and the temptation to stay home and work the fields on Sunday instead of gathering with fellow believers. I see some nods, so apparently the connection is understandable.

After church most folks stand around and talk, showing no inclination to leave. I suspect that Timothy’s not going to finish on time over at Faith—would you?—and thus we’re going to have to just wait until they can get back to pick us up. I suppose I should have gone longer myself. 🙂

Eventually we see Ivy coming in the gate, and we pile into her vehicle—there’s a third seat in the back that 3 of us can squeeze into, so long as we don’t mind being friends—and drive the few minutes back home. Mary has been cooking for us, and lunch is ready as soon as we arrive.

I’ve asked Mary not to try to give us American food; I think experiencing the local cuisine is a key part of cross-cultural education, and at any rate that’s what she’s most experienced with. So today she’s prepared an African staple, banku—sort of. Banku is the Ghanaian version of the cornmeal mush that’s eaten all over the world; in the American South, they call it grits; in Poland, they call it polenta; in East Africa, they call it ugali. The African version is much thicker than grits, the consistency of putty, which you can pick up and eat with your fingers. Ordinarily banku is fermented, unlike the others; many Westerners would say it tastes spoiled. Mary has given us the unfermented version, I suspect out of sympathy to our Western palates. She serves it with a green sauce that looks a little bit as though the main ingredient is spinach; when John asks her if there’s okra in it, she confirms that. There’s also a piece or two of goat meat in each serving.

Ordinarily you’d make a ball of the banku with your hand, poke a depression in it to make sort of a scoop, and use that to scoop up some of the sauce. But this serving is pretty hot, and we opt to use our spoons instead to avoid burning our hands. We’ll get more authentic in Tanzania. Speaking of hot, she also serves a condiment of hot pepper sauce, which nicely complements the dish in small quantities but is pretty challenging in larger amounts. Jojo likes it best and in fact finishes off the bowl when everybody else has had as much of it as they want.

After lunch most of us go down for the traditional Sunday afternoon nap, but most are also back up in a couple of hours. One of the WABC students, Carlos, who’s from Ethiopia, comes by to see if Jojo wants to play football (that’s soccer to you), and Jojo is out the door in a heartbeat. The girls are in animated conversation around the kitchen table, and I’m in the office working on the blog. Jonathan? You might recall that I said that most of us are back up after a couple of hours.

Supper of rice and a tomato-based beef stew arrives about 6, by which time Jonathan has rejoined the living. Jojo comes in a few minutes later to tell us what he’s been up to. Carlos took him on his motorbike just down the block to a football field, where they joined a bunch of local young men for a game. He says the level of skill wasn’t all that high, so he was able to hold his own. In one instance he faked out an opposing player and put the ball between his legs, which brought a shout of glee from the others and requests for instruction. Instant respect. Building bridges.

The kids are all right.

Timothy’s younger half-brother, John, picks us up for church. John is a graduate of Central Africa Baptist College in Zambia, where I took a team in 2010. He got married while we were here last summer, and now he and his wife, a nurse, have a baby, whom we met on our tour of the compound the other day. The team instantly perks up when I tell them John’s the father of that baby. John is planting a church on the other side of town, in a place called the Water Village. The 2013 team did a day of door-to-door visitation to help get that work started. As we ride to church, John tells me that they’re doing well, growing, and working on acquiring a larger building than the house in which they’ve been meeting. Since they don’t have an evening service, John’s going to stay at Wa RBC with us.

It’s dark when we arrive for the 7 pm service, and only a couple of people are there. Africa time. 🙂 People come trickling in, and before long the room is about half full. We sing several songs from the English hymnbook, and soon it’s time for the sermon. But before I start, I try a little experiment. I note that this morning they sang many songs from their English hymnal (donated by an American church), and several from their Waali hymnal. I also note that all of the songs in the latter are songs I know, having come from America or England and having been translated from English. “Do you have any of your own songs, songs that didn’t come from somewhere else?” “Oh, yes,” they all nod. “Can you sing some for me?” Instantly my interpreter starts into one and everyone joins in, smiling and clapping. Then they sing another one. I don’t recognize either of them from my two previous visits.

The room is filled with undiluted joy. I comment that their own songs are special to them, and that we want to learn them. Peoples, who are creative because they’re in the image of their Creator, create their own cultures, and all of them should be celebrated. It’s a joy to celebrate with these brothers and sisters.

I preach inductively on 1Pt 5.6, telling the stories of Pharaoh (Ex 5), Uzziah (2Chr 26) and Nebuchadnezzar (Dn 4) to illustrate that God brings down the proud, and that we, too, are liable to this sin even though we’re not kings. I hold off on the text until the end, wrapping it up with the principle Peter states there. I have to take a moment to address prosperity theology—there’s a lot of it here, and you’d think that the people would realize that it’s not particularly working for them, but the attraction of greed is seductive. I need to explain that when God “exalts” us, He often does in ways that we’re not thinking of.

Most of the people hang around after the service, and I see the team members scattered around the room, engaging different people in conversation, listening and learning and forming the basis of new relationships. I’ve talked to them about the danger of huddling, forming a little clump off to the side where they feel “safe” with their “own kind.” They’re certainly in no danger of that. Good for them.

On the way home, John asks if we need any groceries. We don’t, but I’ve been thinking of something, and I ask him quietly if there’s a place where we can pick up some Fan Ice. He drops by a little shop, where for 1 cedi each I pick up enough individual servings for us, John and his wife, Timothy and his family, and the college student riding with us. When we get back to the house, I introduce The Kids to a Ghanaian treat.

Fan is a food brand common in Ghana. (They may distribute more broadly than that, but I’ve never been to the surrounding countries so I don’t know.) Fan Ice is ice cream, which comes in several flavors, but vanilla is the noteworthy one. Vanilla? you say. Isn’t vanilla just the No Flavor ice cream? Oh, no, my friend. You’ve been lulled to sleep by American flavor profiles. Fan Ice has, I suppose, 3 to 5 times the intensity of vanilla as the stuff we get at home, and it’s just awesome. One of the crew says it tastes like cake batter; I’d never thought of that, but I think she’s right.

We sit up talking and laughing together until nearly 11, when I decide to have team devotions while I can still see straight. We sing together—we tend to drag, but we’re getting better at that—and I challenge them from 1Cor 12 to be thinking about individual gifting—first, to try new things, to see whether God has in fact gifted them in ways they haven’t discovered yet, and second, to note how the others are gifted and to encourage them in those directions. Eventually, as they’re planning ministry they’ll be able to divvy up the tasks based on who’s best at what. And then, I tell them, they’ll be a team. I love to see that develop throughout these trips.

Just as I’m turning in, around midnight, we have a torrential rain. It’s strangely calming, even in its violence. I fall asleep to it, and the crew turns in a bit later.

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Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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