Job in folklore and in our own time

We were able to get out to the churches in the South (some of our so-called “bush churches”). Thankfully, we have some good, godly leaders who, even though like everyone else have been slowed down by COVID-19, continued to care for their communities.

Meeting can be very hard for these leaders who are separated by a day’s walk in a place where almost everyone has to walk. So we kept picking up folks in our truck and carried them to the final village. They killed a goat for us and cooked us some of their meager rations of rice. These people will literally starve themselves before being inhospitable. Then we met. And we met. We met well into the night and then the morning. Then we got up early the next morning and continued meeting. We talked about good things and bad things, encouraged one another and grieved together. But everyone was so happy to see each other!

That next morning, as we all sat wrapped in blankets in that sparse, concrete schoolhouse, we presented the story of Job. We brought a recording we had just completed the day before, where a team of Malagasy created a radio drama of the story of Job. The leaders sat in rapt attention and then, when the story was done, we began asking questions and drawing out what everyone had understood and learned from Job.

Those men and women sat there, after they had told us how hard things had been and how hungry they were, and vowed to be like Job and never turn their backs on God. Satan would not get the best of them, no matter how hard he tried!

One leader, Emanda, who serves in a local government capacity and serves as the statesman and wise elder of the group, said it reminded him of a Malagasy folk story, a story I now share with you . . .

In the kingdom before there were two great friends. These guys were inseparable. It didn't matter what they were doing or where they were going; they were always together. They had been friends since anyone could remember and nothing could drive them apart.

But one day, a troublemaker came to the king of that land. The king was watching these two guys walking down the road together, laughing and enjoying one another's company. "Do you see those two?" the king asked. "There's no one else like those friends. Nothing could ever break their bond!" But the troublemaker overheard the king. "What's that, O King?"

The king again point out at the two friends. "Nothing could ever drive those two apart, they're inseparable!"

"I can do it," said the troublemaker. "I can drive a wedge between them."

"You're lying!" cried the king. "And even if you could if would take so long it wouldn't even be worth it."

"Oh no, O king," said the troublemaker, "I'll be quick. I'll have them hating each other even for this day is dark."

So as the king and others watched, the troublemaker set out ahead of the two friends. As they passed him on the road, talking and carrying on with each other, the troublemaker flagged the one down. "Hey," he said waving. "I need to talk to you for a minute. It's important."

So the one friend broke off from the other and came to the side of the road where troublemaker stood. "What's up?" Troublemaker didn't say anything, he just looked at him for a minute. "Make it quick, man," said the friend, "I've gotta get back to my friend."

Then Troublemaker pulled him in and began whispering to him, making sounds with his mouth that never formed into words.

The friend pulled back in horror. "What in the world? What are you trying to say, man?!"

Troublemaker pulled him in again and whispered still, still moving his lips but not saying any distinct words. The friend was angry. "Listen, I'm not sure what you're trying to do but you're not saying anything! I'm going back to my friend." And he left, racing to catch back up with his friend further ahead.

"What was that all about?" asked the other friend once they were walking together again. "Oh nothing. I can't even tell you anything he was saying!" His friend stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. "You can't tell me he didn't tell you anything. I saw him pull you in and whisper to you. Now, please, tell me what he said."

"He didn't say anything!" exclaimed the one.

"You're planning to kill me aren't you? You're going to kill me and take my stuff!"

And the two friends argued and went their separate way to their own houses, each now the others' enemy. And Troublemaker laughed as he watched, having separated the best of friends without ever having said one word.

The whole point of Job is that Job refuses to jump to rash conclusions while still grappling with what he has seen and what has happened to him. Job struggles mightily not to read into what’s happening to him and instead just take his complaints directly to his friend, God. In the Malagasy story, it would be as if Job stands their quarreling with his friend without storming off.

I couldn’t help but ponder our sound and fury right now during this season. It’s not that I think there’s nothing behind all the accusations we’re hurling and the existential panic we feel. But as Job and folklore remind us in our time, we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes. But trust is key, and we need to spend more time building trust than tearing down one another.

Things to Ponder: Hope

We recently did a food distribution here in our town through three of our local churches. In filling out our evaluation form afterward, the final question was something to the effect of: What other measurable spiritual benefits came from this project?  Nathan filled out most of the form, and I came behind him to fill in a few additional details. I was struck by his answer to this question. He wrote one word: hope.

This year has done a number on our hope. I think if you looked the whole world over, you would be hard-pressed to find one community not touched by COVID-19 . . . by sickness, death, loneliness, job loss, uncertainty, fear, upheaval, grief, anxiety. Where do we find hope in a time like this?

I’ve witnessed hope in the faithful lives of Malagasy believers. I want to share that hope with you. From 2017-2019, we worked through a series of stories from church history that emphasized different doctrines with the Mahafaly leaders. We started with the first church in Acts and followed along with stories up through today.

One week we were concerned as we prepared, because our topic was God’s sovereignty and suffering. From our own cultural perspective, we expected this topic to be tough. We wrestle with how a good, powerful God can allow suffering. We’re always asking, “Why?” In fact, we struggle with that question often personally here. We see significant suffering around us every day. Why? Why is life so hard here? Why is our life so much easier? How can I fix this suffering around me—make it stop! 

But when we taught through this lesson, the Mahafaly leaders didn’t bat an eye. The principle is basically that a loving God calls His people to suffer in a fallen world. When I’m confronted with this reality, I buck against it, either from one side or the other. Maybe God isn’t really loving. Or maybe He can’t really control my circumstances. Or there will be some “silver lining”—visible very soon, I’m sure—something that shows me WHY!!!

But our people here just aren’t asking those questions. They are following Christ faithfully. And they are suffering deeply. And these two things simply aren’t incongruent for them. One doesn’t threaten the other. I don’t have either the theoretical or the experiential framework for that, yet I see it over and over in the convicting testimonies of the believers here. 

I’m beginning to hear this conviction too from the testimonies of people of color in the United States. I have always assumed that our propensity to insulate ourselves from suffering is an “American” problem. But I am realizing that I can only speak as a white, American evangelical. I’m learning that right alongside the America I’ve experienced are communities of believers of color worshipping God through deep suffering on a daily basis. 

Please understand. I’m not denying that everyone in the world suffers—it’s a part of being human. Please, don’t hear me diminishing your personal experience of suffering. I know many of you reading this have experienced suffering unlike anything I’ve never known, and my heart aches for you. But God has been bringing specific stories of suffering and faith—from people of color in the United States—before Nathan and me over and over the last few months. I confess I was unaware of so, so much of what these brothers and sisters are facing. I’m committed to continue listening and learning, and to try, as much as I can, to weep with those who weep, whether here in Madagascar or there in the United States.

One of our local pastors here shared with us about the challenges they had faced as a family during the “confinement,” as it’s called here—the time when people were supposed to stay at home, churches were restricted from meeting, and travel was extremely limited due to COVID. He admitted that yes, things had been very hard. Then he continued, “But sometimes you forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”  

“Sometimes we forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”

Pastor Manentesoa

How have the challenges of this year helped us realize our true need for God? Every day? That’s the gift of suffering.

This year has been tough. I know it’s been hard on us. I know many of you have faced significant struggles. If you find your hope flagging, please take courage from communities practiced in suffering. Some of the circumstances we find ourselves in now, we probably never thought we would face. But even if . . . 

You’ve lost someone, there is hope.

You don’t feel confident in the future, there is hope.

You’re worried about you or someone you love getting sick, there is hope.

You’re separated from an elderly person you love, there is hope.

You don’t see anything getting better with the coming election, there is hope.

You’ve lost your job, there is hope.

You feel threatened, there is hope.

Because, as Ekemini Uwan says, 

“Hope is not an abstract concept. Hope is a person.”[1]

Ekemini Uwan, Truth’s Table Podcast

[1] “Truth’s Table Classroom: Why We Can’t Wait : Eschatology and BLM,” Truth’s Table podcast, 4 July 2020, recording from lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, 2014.

Sacrifice

Our friend Manoely called us one morning last month with some news. Our church has several outreach groups around our city (called “cell groups”). Twins had been born to a family in one of these cell groups. This was good news, but sadly, their mother died during the birth. This time of COVID-19 has been very hard on many in our city. This family knew they could not care for two newborns without help. They took them to a local Catholic center that receives orphaned children. However, the center couldn’t help them—they have already devoted all their space and resources to caring for COVID-19 patients. Bravely, the family took on the daunting task of caring for the children. We were in the middle of a food distribution at that time, and so our church decided to include this family in the distribution and send their portion ahead in order to help them as they began caring for the babies, as well as burying their daughter. The father, mother, and younger sister of the twins’ mother are the ones caring for them.

Praise the Lord, this family are already believers, and have been for some time. The twins’ grandfather, in fact, is a hazomanga. This means that he is the one in his family who has inherited the role of go-between for the living and their ancestors. His position in the family is to take the family’s needs—rain, harvest, healing, marriages, pregnancies—to the ancestors to seek help. But, this man is a Christian. For a long time now, he has not performed his role. Instead, he leads his family in worshipping the One True God through Jesus Christ as go-between, or Mediator (1 Tim 2:5). He no longer performs sacrifices of sheep, cows, and goats to the ancestors.

Rather, this grandfather, his wife, and his young daughter are making incredible daily sacrifices of themselves to care for these precious children. Please pray for them! Pray for the health of these two sweet babies—Lucius and Lucia—and for them to grow. Pray for comfort for this family as they’ve lost their daughter. Pray that they would get the daily rest and food they need. Pray for the perseverance of their faith, that they may continue to trust in Christ for provision and not in their ancestors. Pray for wisdom for Manoely, us, and our church as we continue to help them. 

But You Yourself have seen trouble and grief,

observing it in order to take the matter into Your hands.

The helpless entrusts himself to You;

You are a helper of the fatherless.

Psalm 10:14

Faithful Friends: Oliva and Narindra

We’d like to introduce you to another couple we love and work with here in Madagascar. Oliva and Narindra are long-time friends of the Waller family, who lived and worked here for twelve years. Oliva and Narindra met in here Toliara and married. They felt God’s call to serve as missionaries to places in Madagascar where they saw a need for Gospel ministry. They spent time serving in Ambatondrazaka and at the Timote Mahatsara Mission Center, both in the eastern part of the island. 

Oliva and Narindra have three children: Raitra (9), Idealy (7), and Mahatsara (4).

In 2018, Oliva and Narindra and their family came to Toliara for a month to help our team with a marriage focus. We loved getting to know them better during this time! They led workshops and Bible studies for youth and adults, and helped us host a marriage retreat for our Mahafaly leaders. Oliva and Narindra have a passion for church planting and counseling—seeing God’s Word spread to those who haven’t yet heard and seeing His Word sink deep into the lives of all for transformation.

Oliva has just finished his seminary training at the Malagasy Baptist seminary. Now, Oliva and Narindra are preparing to return to Ambatondrazaka in the eastern part of the island–north of the capital–to work among the Sihanaka people. They long to come alongside the churches there to help facilitate church planting and Gospel ministry.

Pray for Oliva and Narindra and their family. Praise God that, though their family was ill with Covid, they are healthy now. Praise God that their belongings have arrived safely in Ambatondrazaka. Pray for the challenges of moving in the midst of Covid-19. Pray for prayer and financial partners for them as they transition to full-time ministry in the Sihanaka area. Pray for God’s timing. Pray for the health of their marriage and for their children. Please download and check out the pdf below which tells Oliva’s and Narindra’s story!

A Sunday with the Church

Sitting with everyone there in that small hut I felt like I got a glimpse of the “real” Church. Throughout the history of the Church, people have always tried to narrow the thing down to its essence. What makes a church a church? Is it the bread and wine? Is it the Bible? I’m no closer than anyone else to figuring it out. But as I sat with a man who had just walked away from a dark life of what we would call witchcraft, I marveled at the simplicity and power of God’s people.

Michel, the man on the left in the picture above, is known here as a tromba, a medium for spirits. He’s been in contact with one of our local pastors before. They grew up together and Michel has watched as God’s Spirit has slowly changed his friend. See, Michel is no stranger to spirits changing people. After his father died when he was a child, he also came down with a bad fever. Then the spirits came. He would wake up far from people in the sand near the sea. But the water made no noise and it wasn’t wet. His feet left no tracks in the sand. Then the spirits appeared before him in kinds of forms. His sister, in the middle of the above picture, testified that during these spells he would get extremely cold. Only when they warmed him with fire would the spirits leave, even after they tried to drive the spirits away with a Bible.

As he got older, the spirits would summon him at different times. They would guide people with different illnesses to him. As soon as they told him what was wrong, the spirits would possess him and lead him to different plants which he was able to combine into healing potions and solutions. You might think that’s wonderful these spirits were so helpful. But the tromba is tormented by the spirits. Often they are possessed by different spirits, one after another. There is no time to earn money for their own family or even feed themselves. When the spirits come, they need to satiate themselves first. Often they need blood, and a lot of it. The tromba, possessed by the spirits, will drink bowl-fulls of fresh, animal blood. Sometimes it’s booze the spirits desires as the mediums will drink themselves within inches of their life.

Michel wanted out. But how in the world could he escape this fate? How are you supposed to get out from under the thumb of these oppressive spirits?

Recently, Michel ran into his old friend again, a fisherman who pastors of one of our local churches. He saw how his friend’s life has slowly improved under the influence of Jesus and those following him. Also at that time, this pastor was helping us to lead a feeding project in his community. Michel watched as the church fed the local community, regardless of whether they were Christians or not, even giving away their own portions to those in need. His own family was fed. And Michel saw a way out.

As the church, we all sat in Michel’s hut and listened to this story as he told us how he met Jesus through them. I say, “the church.” There was the local pastor and his mentor, Edia, a man who has helped us craft multiple Bible stories here (you might know him as “The Traveller” from the Bible stories we’re posting here). There were also handful of young guys and girls, along with about six women and our Grandma Melina.

As we huddled together in the dim hut, I couldn’t help but marvel how we all worked together to follow Jesus. Edia led us in prayer and opened our visit by reminding us God loves everyone, even those who deal in darkness. His love is for all people, even when his wrath is against the evil forces of this world. I then told the story we call here the “Two Fences”–a big summary of the whole story of Scripture that our friends here have crafted. It puts special emphasis on the role of evil spirits against God and all humanity, who specifically usurped us humans as the God-appointed rulers of earth. The human kings and queens were enslaved as evil reigned as king. But then Jesus came . . . a man who steps on the scene as the GodMan: not less than God, but more than your average guy, the King of heaven and earth. And he fills those who follow him as king with his own sovereign Spirit to become kings and queens again.

For someone like Michel, that is the only way out. Only by trusting in the King of the Cosmos who can fill him with the indomitable Spirit, can Michel break with his abusive spiritual masters. Only with the backing of a spiritual family who will take care of him and his family can he finally tell them, “NO.”

We then all turned to Grandma Melina. No one knows how old Melina is; not even Melina knows! Years ago, she began to work with Tessa crafting Bible stories. Growing up in a poor, patriarchal society, Melina never learned to read or write. Every time she speaks she apologizes for the way she talks. She speaks in the pure and riveting Tandroy dialect, which is looked down upon by some here. But Melina knows God and his Word. We all sat in rapt attention as she began.

She explained she knew nothing but prayer. We had to talk to our Father. And like a mother teaching her children, she spoke to God. It was not formality but familiarity that we heard. She then began to tell the story of David appointed by God as king of God’s people. It sounded as if she was talking about something that had happened the day before. It was so clear and real. Then she finished by pronouncing, sake-like, “Today, God has made you, Michel, king, just as he did with David. He has not looked at your appearance but at your heart. You are king of your family and of this community, and it is your responsibility to take care of them and tell them about Jesus.”

And as we sat and listened to Melina, I looked around at all of us, different ages, different cultures, different pasts, looking to our illiterate matriarch as she spoke God’s Word over us. Here was the church. Indeed, the Church, like David, is not judged by God by outward signs and marks but by the heart. We are a family, each with our different parts to play, riffing off of one another as we remind ourselves of our heritage, how we all trace back to the man called Jesus. We are all kings and queens, filled with the Spirit of the King of Kings, no matter if we can read, no matter our personal history, no matter what gender, color, or creed.

Faithful Friends: Pastor Antonny and Sandy

Once a month we’d like to introduce you to one of our friends here in Madagascar. This month we’d like you to meet Pastor Antonny and his wife Sandy.

In 2013, Antonny and Sandy moved here to Toliara to answer God’s call to pastor one of the local Baptist churches here. Since then, they have faithfully served the church and the community. They’ve worked to learn the local dialect here in Toliara, as their original language is the “Official Malagasy” of the capital region. They have also shared regularly in our ministry to the Mahafaly area. During the two years we spent teaching church history stories and doctrine to the Mahafaly leaders, Pastor Antonny regularly prepared lessons and taught the curriculum. He and another pastor traveled to visit and teach the Mahafaly while we weren’t in the country. He and Sandy also taught and shared their testimonies during the marriage focus we did in 2018.

Pastor Antonny and Sandy also teach and lead weekly at their church, guiding the believers there in faithfulness to God’s word and service to their community. Sandy is discipling the teachers in the children’s ministry. They also have a ministry to the Masikoro people north of Toliara.

When we started putting the dialect Bible stories on the radio, Pastor Antonny and Sandy suggested that we put a phone number at the end of the broadcast for people to call if they had questions—and offered for this to be their phone numbers! Since then, upwards of 15 different people have called or texted with thoughts and questions about the stories. Many have requested visits and discipleship. Pastor Antonny has been following up on each one, as COVID restrictions allow. We praise God for this precious couple who are partners with us in God’s work here in the Toliara region!

Please pray for Pastor Antonny and Sandy and their daughter Chantal as they continue to serve God here in Toliara. Please pray specifically that those who hear the stories would put their faith in Jesus. Pray also for Pastor Antonny’s and Sandy’s interactions with those who call them after hearing the radio stories, that the people wouldn’t be surprised or confused that they aren’t from the south. Pray for mutual understanding. Pray for more believers to join in the follow up. Pray for God’s care and blessing over Pastor Antonny and Sandy and their family. 

Manuely

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been meeting with a couple young guys here in Toliara. We’re studying through the book of James as well as planning how to help the community in this crisis. I wanted to give them a chance to encourage you as well with what we’re learning. Here’s Manuely . . .

Transcript: Good morning, everyone! We thank God for this wonderful day he has given us, so that I can share with you what I have learned from God’s Word. I have been studying with Nathan Baker. Thanks to Nathan Baker for teaching me in English. If it wasn’t for God’s Spirit using Nathan, I wouldn’t be speaking English. I hope that you can understand me now.

The one thing I want to share with you today is about temptation. You know that we have a problem around the word because of this COVID-19, right? But that doesn’t mean we should stop preaching the gospel. Instead, we should communicate with our family and take advantage of this time to share God’s Word. Especially, we have a lot of churches not open because of this virus. Worshippers of God are discouraged, because you do not understand what has happened. People are asking, “Is this from God, or from evil?” But if you worship God, don’t be afraid.

James says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil. And he himself does not tempt anyone.” What does that mean? That means, He is not testing you. Instead, he gives you a choice, to trust him or to blame him. But you should know, like James says, the good things you have are from God. Even if you blame him, he is good and he does not change.

For proof of that, you can read 1 Corinthians 10:13. It says, “No temptation has seized you except that which is common to man. God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can do. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way so that you can stand up under it.”

So for us, we should have courage and remember, God has given us a way out in Jesus. And even in COVID-19, we can stand strong in him. I guess, that’s all today. Thank you for listening and watching me. God bless you wherever you go and whatever you do. Bye!