Mahafaly Bible Stories: Passover

It’s me, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.

Passover

Now then, when Moses and Aaron had told the story of the Prince of Creation’s message to the tribe of Abraham there, they went also to the king there, that is the King of Egypt, you know, to tell the story of the Prince’s message.

So they, what they do at this point is the Prince had them bring many signs to do before this king. And even though they told the story the Prince of Creation’s message to the king, even though, there before the king, they did all those signs the Prince had them bring, the king resisted them and did not send the descendants of Abraham there to that other land.

So then at that point, the Prince spoke to Moses and Aaron, and says, “There this one sign I’m going to do, and that’s what’s going to get you out of this land here. So, tell those in the tribe of Abraham: All of you, get a male sheep, fat, one year old, and nothing wrong with it . . . every family, every house. And on the day that I come, you will kill this sheep. And his blood you will drip on the sides and over the top of your doorways. And then it’s meat, don’t eat raw but roasted. And you all eat it quickly; you’ll be going.

When I come in the night, that house with blood I’ll pass over, but those with no blood I will, instead, kill . . . the firstborn male animal and the firstborn male human. This is also a rite for you every year, every year: you will get a sheep, kill it, eat it together, have a party, and remember how I bought you back when you were slaves here in this land of Egypt.”

And so, you see, when this message was done concerning all these things, Moses and Aaron retold the story of the message to the tribe of Abraham there. And they did everything in keeping with what they had just retold to them.

So then, on the day of the Prince’s coming, when Prince of Creation came . . . at night, he passed over those houses with blood, but those with no blood he, instead, killed. At once, all the firstborn animals were dead in that land, and the firstborn human, up unto the firstborn of the king.

At that point, the king got summoned Moses and Aaron, saying, “Right now, right now, you all take the tribe of Abraham and get out of my land.”

Moses and Aaron took the tribe of Abraham there, immediately, left the land, and they were gone. And as they left, they were afraid. They had seen the enormous sign done by Prince of Creation to buy them back from slavery in the land of Egypt, so that they were able to travel to the land given by the Prince to Abraham. And they thanked the Prince, and they worshipped the Prince of Creation.

That is story I am telling you.

Better gods

I did it again. It’s a new village, no one knows me; I let my local, dark-skinned, Malagasy teammates get out of the car before me . . . and it still takes me less than a minute to draw a crowd of about 50 of my new best friends. Only I find out as I approach the crowd and an older man starts yelling at me that we are not best friends. We’re not even on the level of Facebook friends.

I didn’t catch the first part of what he was saying. But as I walked up, I began to hear him. “Bonjour vazaha! Bonjour! What took you so long? Don’t you care about us? We all know you’re the only one who can save us. After all, you vazaha rule this world. You’re God’s righthand man.”

To which I responded, “Uh . . . how’s that, sir?”

From where we were standing it’s a bit of a surreal scene. We’re in an open field that sits higher up, so you can see a long way off, all the way to the waiting ocean, probably about 20k away. And as far as you can see, where there should be fields full of corn, cassava, and lentils . . . there is nothing. Absolutely nothing except sand and red, dead, land. The only living plants hanging on are the sparse trees and the cactus, and even they are beginning to wilt. It’s been over two years since even one drop of rain has fallen in these areas. Its a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Yet, from where we are standing, we can also see maybe around a thousand people milling around for market day. But what are they doing at market when there are no crops? In this growing desert, people have two options for survival: they are eating the fruit of the cactus they can find or family members making money in other towns are sending them money to buy imported products at market like rice and drinks. And so, as people slowly starve, scraping by on what is left and the cash their family can pull together, local sellers of imported goods and foreign companies make a little extra cash. Win, win.

Before and after comparison of cassava fields

But back to the old man. “You know, we pray to God,” he tells me. “But we know that you vazaha are his favorite children. And look! We pray for deliverance from this drought and famine and what happens? You visit us and bring us food!” As he says this he motions to the tracks of the dozens of white Land Cruisers and Hilux, just like the one I drove into town, delivering USAid-funded food to the surrounding villages. He’s not wrong. From his perspective, they prayed and people that look like me sent food.

“But, O princely one . . .” I say, which is how they refer to respected older men here, (I tried to see if Tessa would call me that but it hasn’t stuck yet) “It’s true that I am a vazaha and that my country has sent food to you. But we are both humans made to be God’s representatives. We are from the same ancestor . . . Adam.”

Let me pause and explain: vazaha is the word or title referring to foreigners, usually of European descent and usually those with light skin. That’s even easier to recognize because while there are local people of Arabic or Indo-Pakestani origin, they are not called vazaha. And, spoiler alert, being vazaha is one of the hardest parts of cross-cultural communication for anyone who is one here in Madagascar.

The old man wasn’t having it. “God did not make us the same. We have a saying here: vazaha Njanahary hita maso (foreigners are gods the eye can see). You are white and we are black. You are clean and we are dirty. He has blessed you with possessions and power. So we say we pray to God, but we pray to you vazaha. Because you are seated at the right-hand of God. So have mercy on us vazaha.”

I’m a missionary. I went on to share with the old man how there actually is a Man seated at the right-hand of God. He’s not white, but He is a foreigner, named Jesus, and He is God’s only perfect human representative. I told him, if there is anything different between us, it is that me, and the dark-skinned, Malagasy brothers with me, are covered in the blood of that Man, Jesus. His is the king of the world, and we serve him.

But I was haunted by his words as we got back into the Hilux and drove away. Not because I have never heard anything like that working here before. Oh no, much the contrary . . .

  • Vazaha are more powerful than Malagasy, immune to magic and Malagasy rules of society.
  • Vazaha are angels from heaven, which is why they’re so white.
  • Vazaha eat children. If a child does something bad they will be taken by a vazaha.
  • Vazaha do not have blood.
  • The Malagasy parable that says, “Biby ty vazaha” (vazaha are more creature than they are human).

These are just a few of the things I have heard said about me in particular, much less other vazaha. What exactly it means to be vazaha from a Malagasy perspective could fill up books. But recently, a profound irony dawned on me: during this time of COVID crisis and now, driving through the middle of drought-riddled fields, everyone was coming to me, and other vazaha, for help, not because I know the King of Creation, but because they do look at me as a kind of god.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what my pastors and seminary professors had in mind when they sent us here.

Can you believe it? I’m a missionary! My job is literally to help people turn away from false gods and lead them toward the God of gods and King of kings. . . Jesus. And here I was, inadvertently helping feed a mixed-up system of idol worship. Because, here in one of the world’s poorest countries exploited by world powers, I have so much influence, so much authority, so much power comparatively, that I’m viewed as a demi-god. And let me tell you–as someone who knows myself pretty well–that scares the stuffing out of me. Because while I do try, I often do not resemble the GodMan, Jesus. Often I do behave more like a white, capricious god from a land of abundance. Sometimes I do act as if I’m the one who’s supposed to save people here from all the troubles they bring to me. Sometimes I do act as if I’m the only one who knows Jesus here.

Lord have mercy.

When we pulled into the circle of huts, there was another white truck already there. A local agency was handing out food. The strange things was, as soon as we got there the NGO workers quickly wrapped things up and took off. We found out later that they are selling the aide in every village, so that the NGO workers are making a little extra off of every family they give to. These people who already have nothing are even exploited through food relief. It was only because a white American showed up that the food was suddenly given out with no further extortion. The workers were afraid that a USAid employee had actually shown up in that God-forsaken place to observe the distribution. Thankfully, they don’t know had badly they’re underestimating an American’s need for things like A/C!

We found our way to the small, wood hut where our friend was waiting. One of my long time friends, Manoely, is from this town, and had spent the last few days on his own out here delivering a little bit of food and sharing God’s good news in, as he put it, “afo be faharoe” (the second hell). I can tell he’s more emaciated than when we left him. Still, his smile and infectious laugh light up the little hut as he tells us what happening and connects with his sister who is hosting us.

I should have known it was coming. I’ve been here long enough to know better. As our team of four sits and chats with Manoely, his sister enters the hut with two sodas. “We don’t have much. But here’s a little something to quench your thirst. We would gladly give you some cold water, but all the well-water here has gone salty.”

Manuely elbows me, “She was going to give you some beer! That’s what the other pastors ask for here.” We all laugh.

This is Malagasy custom. Guests are always treated with the highest honor. But as we ask, we discover they bought the sodas at market for about a week’s wages. We debated giving the drinks back to them, but Manoely informed us that to do so would shame his sister. So we drank our very expensive soda. And while we did, large bowels of rice and bowls of quickly-cooked sheep meat were placed before us. The food that had just been given by God’s righthand representatives to their starving, third-world subjects had quickly been converted into an offering.

And so I sat there; my white, very human, very privileged self; eating relief rice and drinking soda bought with hard-earned money, preparing to get in my truck and quickly leave this village in the red, dead dust as I relax in the A/C. As I sat there, watching an emaciated, Malagasy brother and sister serve us their only sustenance as they laughed and leaned into one another, I just couldn’t help from thinking, “So who are the better gods, really? Which of us is really representing God?”

Manoely

Mahafaly Bible Stories: Moses

Hello, it’s me again, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.

This story is called, The Calling of Moses . . .

The Calling of Moses

It came true what the Prince of Creation had said to Abraham: those from Abraham’s heart, his tribe, settled and grew. But, these from the tribe of Abraham, at that point, did not stay in the land given to Abraham by the Prince. Instead, the settled in a land inhabited by other people. And they suffered in that land, enslaved and suffering badly. Just then, the Prince of Creation made a plan to take them from there, leave that place, and finally go home to the land given to Abraham. So he chose someone, one person, to lead them there. Moses is the name of this person.

So there was Moses. Then one day, Moses went to shepherd out there. So there he was out there, shepherding. And when he was out there, he saw a bush in flames! But the bush did not make any ashes, it did not turn to ash at all! So befuddled by all this was Moses, he went and visited this bush.

A voice, then, spoke from out of that fire there, “Mosesy! Mosesy! Slip out of your cow-hides there. This is holy ground.”

Moses took off his cow-hide sandals. Moses got closer to the plant. Again, there was a voice, “Mosesy! You’re going to be sent by me. You will go to the land of Egypt where the lineage of Abraham is suffering. They are ensalved by that land. And you will lead them to get them out of there, to not be there anyone. And you will lead them to the land I gave to their ancestor . . . that’s Abraham.

“Aha,” said Moses. “Look, I, even though you’re sending me to go there, those people don’t miss the sound of my voice. They won’t take me seriously, but this is what they’ll say, “Hey! What God and from where said all this to this guy? I’m a person who doesn’t know how to talk. So you just pick another person.”

“Aha,” said this voice. “You look, I am the Prince of Creation who is said to have always been from ages past. That’s me. I am the Prince of your ancestors. Abraham’s God. Isaac’s God. And if you speak this, my name, to them they will be afraid and they will believe what you say. All this that you’ve said, like, ‘I don’t know how to talk.’ Look, I made the mouth. And I will put want I want to say in that mouth of yours, and the same thing will be done to the mouth of your brother, Aaron. You two guys are gonna go over there. “You all,” said the Prince, “I will be send with three signs.”

So then, after all that, Moses left and met with his brother, Aaron, took him with him and the two guys went there. And when they arrived there in that town, they gathered the tribe of Abraham there. They told them the story of what God had said, how he would get them out of that land, and go to the land the Prince had given to Abraham. And, they also did there, those three signs. After that, the tribe of Abraham was good and scared and they believed the Prince and trusted Moses.

Then, the tribe of Abraham was happy and thanked the Prince and they were saying, “Would you look at that! God sees our suffering and he’s gonna get us out of this suffering to the land there that he gave our ancestor Abraham.

And that is the story taken from the holy writings, and it’s all true.

Theology Tuesdays: Democracy in the Bible

Tomorrow the United States inaugurates a new president.

If you’re anything like me, this last election cycle has brought out a lot of questions. I’d love to hear yours. Here are some of mine:

  • What is a Christian’s role as a citizen of a country?
  • What does the Bible say about abortion?
  • What does the Bible say about refugees?
  • What does the Bible say about the poor?
  • What does the Bible say about how a government should be run?
  • Is there anything inherently Biblical about representative, democratic government?
  • What is the role of my vote versus my responsibility to serve my community . . . and what is my community?
  • Does the Bible actually say anything about voting in a democracy?
  • And, finally, what in the world is going on? 😩

Maybe some of you share some of these questions. Actually, we’d like to try to address some of these over the next few months, as we’re trying to find answers ourselves. But today, I’d like to hone in on this one:

Does the Bible actually say anything about voting in a democracy?

I’m still a little baffled by the examples I hear from some comparing our current president to a biblical king used by God. In 2016, it was Nebuchadnezzar. Recently, I heard comparisons to Cyrus or even King David. Notwithstanding that only one of those kings was actually the from the same country as the people of God, and not enslaving them, my question, again, since I heard this line of reasoning is, “What does the Bible actually say about voting in a democracy?”

Our government is by representation, which means we don’t have kings who inherit power, or are appointed by God as David was, and so far we don’t have political leaders from another nation and culture who conquer our nation, deport us, and enslave us, as in Nebuchadnezzar.

So does the Bible actually say anything about representative democracies? Certainly there are verses we could appeal to about how Christians should act. But what about an example of voting in the Bible? The following story is actually something I was looking at and wrote up in 2016. At risk of adding fuel to the fire of the political ire at the time, I never did anything with it. Same song, second verse, this past year. But now that the votes are cast, and especially after what the last few weeks have held, I’d like to share it.

The story is, of course, a Bible story. Here in Madagascar, we turn to Bible stories to try and understand what’s going on. This particular story is from the book of Judges (chapter 9), and in my 2016 search it was the closest thing to voting in a representative democracy I could find in the Bible.

God’s people electing their own king in 1 Samuel chapters 8 – 10 might be another example but even then God selects Saul and puts him forward for the people’s approval. Abimelech seems to be the best example of something close to democratic election.

The Story

Abimelech was from a privileged family. His name means “my father is a king,” because his father, Gideon, had led Israel and been treated like a king. But Abimelech was the forgotten illegitimate child. Until, one day, at a time in which Israel is being led by a multitude of privileged aristocrats, Abimelech campaigns to lead them. His strategy was careful, his message simple: (1) Better for one to lead than many—a strong leader can cut through the bureaucracy and get things done. (2) Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Abimelech uses his influence to persuade the citizens that he is “one of them” in order to get their vote.

But the citizens are going through a rough time politically, so they listen to the outsider. He convinces them he’s a better option than their current government because he is really one of them. So they give him religious blood money (taken from the temple), he quickly gathers other evil-minded people around him, and promptly goes and kills off all their leaders, 70 of his half-brothers. What a leader. 

But one of the brothers escapes from the slaughter and decries this new leader’s actions. This guy tells a parable that reveals that while their government had problems, the citizens knew Abimelech was a bad choice. Strikingly, this guy prophesies that the citizens have elected a worthless man who treats the lives of others as worthless—and they will be held responsible for their choice.

For a while it looks like the prophet’s wrong. Things go for fine for three years. But then God brings justice. The citizens decide they actually don’t like their leader now that he’s leading. So they try to get him out of office. That goes poorly. Abimelech starts a war, razes a city, and burns the citizens inside the temple. Like I said, fun guy. Then, while trying to do that same thing to another city, Abimelech is maimed by a woman with a millstone. So God brings justice on Abimelech for his destruction and justice on the citizens for electing him. As Bible scholar, Daniel Block, sums up, God gives the people the leader they deserve, and Abimelech what he deserves (Block, 335).

There is so much in this story, but I just have three questions as we read this story: 

  • What do we learn about people? 
  • What do we learn about God? 
  • What do we learn about voting?

What do we learn about people?

People are blinded and corrupted by what they want.

Now there is obvious unrest in the community. How do we know? The parable describes leaders who act too good to help. The citizens are also willing to get rid of their leadership by paying off their illegitimate, distant relative—which is still pretty shameful in today’s majority cultures. It means these people really wanted something to change in their leadership—enough that they were apparently completely blind to what Abimelech really was.

In part this is because the citizens treat the lives of others as worthless. People who do not respect all life often usher in death. They pay a shekel apiece for the lives of the 70 brothers at a time when you had to pay 50 shekels to buy someone’s life back out of slavery or poverty (The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 258).

And with the measure they use it is measured to them (Matt 7:2). Those who do not respect life (unborn, weak, strong, the dying, black, Muslim, etc.) create a culture of death. These citizens mistook hubris, a lack of respect for life, and an insatiable lust for power as the ability to get things done.

What do we learn about God?

God is unfortunately absent in this story—not because he’s not there but because the people don’t care about him. Still, justice is meted out. 

God lets his people face the consequences of their decision. What can we say? the people want what they want. So God let’s them have it. And chaos ensues. God basically lets Israel destroy herself (Block, 309).

God always wins; His kingdom always standsIn different ways, both Abimelech and the citizens were only using each other to get their hands on power. Abimelech wanted to be the ruler and the people wanted a new form of government. Both completely ignored the fact that God rules over all, and it cost them their lives. “In the end Abimelech’s egomaniacal ambition must yield to the kingship of God” (Block, 334).

What do we learn about voting?

God respects the votes of citizens, but allows voters and elected officials alike to reap what they sow. 

The Hebrew wording draws out the idea that the people of the town are leaders able to make decisions for the community. Or, as the NIV translates it, they are “citizens.” These citizens have the right and power to elect a leader (king) for themselves (Block, 313-14).

What we see is that in a setup where people are electing a leader to make decisions for them, those people are held responsible for their vote, especially for the brutality they invoke. In the context of this story, we might say they are held even more responsible when they know they are choosing to be led by a ruthless man.  

Again, these citizens make a bad choice to solve their political situation. The parable shows that for sure there were already problems with Israel’s government leaders. It’s not like those before didn’t have their own issues. But it shows God outright rejects Abimelech’s style of leadership (Block, 321).

Regardless of how bad the government is, these citizens do not take their grievances to God. Instead, they elect a ruthless man who is contributing nothing to society or God’s kingdom . . . but he does think a lot of himself (Block, 318).

Old Testament scholar Daniel Block (from whom I have pulled from throughout) has this priceless quote:

“ . . . persons of honor engaged in constructive activity have no time for political agendas. They are too caught up in serving humanity, and so the rule often falls to the despicable elements of society. Third, rulers have a tendency to desire power for the worst reasons—their own narcissistic self-interest. In order to gain power they are often forced to offer promises they cannot fulfill. Fourth, in the words of a modern sage, people tend to get the leaders they deserve. Jotham’s fable is not only a polemic against a certain kind of kingship; it is actually directed primarily at those who are foolish enough to anoint a worthless man to be their king.”

Daniel Block, Judges-Ruth (NAC; Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1999), 321.

Foolish votes in a democracy have consequences. We should vote in the fear of God, who rules his kingdom with perfect justice and watches over the lives of all. We will be held responsible for who we choose to represent us.

This past week at the Capitol shows very clearly the kind of president we voted for (and when I say we I mean an overwhelming majority of evangelicals) and the kind of violence and shame he has ushered in . . . thanks in large part to evangelicals. We must take responsibility for that. That does not stop with our vote.

Our form of government is built on the principle that the voter is in charge. As Christians, it is our right and responsibility, no matter who we voted for, to use our voices, time, and resources in the fear of God, for the sake of all life, and putting others before ourselves. The issues facing our nation are complex, and aren’t solved with just our votes. We must intentionally invest ourselves in the issues we voted on, learning from both sides–that’s what it means to be in a democracy. We have to sow better things or risk our choices crashing down on our own heads.

Mahafaly Bible Stories: Birth

Hello, it’s me again, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.

The story is called, Birth!

Birth

It came true! God’s promise to send the long-awaited One. He sent the Savior here to earth. This is how he came . . .

There was a young lady, Maria, who was a virgin. A young guy, Joseph, had already asked her parents to be her husband. But then, Maria got pregnant. She was pregnant because of God’s Spirit in her, even though she and Joseph had not yet been together. Joseph was lost. Now, he was a wise and upstanding guy. He didn’t want to shame Maria in front of everyone, but to separate from her quietly. 

So, he made up his mind on this. But then, one of God’s messengers appeared to him. It said, “Joseph, descendant of King David, do not be scared to take Maria into your house to be your wife. Though she is pregnant, the child in her is from God’s Spirit. In some time, she will give birth to a son. His name is Jesus. This is the Savior of all humans, who will make clean by blood the curse of all humans on the earth.”

Suddenly, the messenger left. With that, Joseph woke up and set about doing what the messenger had commanded: he brought Maria into his house and married her. And yet, they did not share the same sheet as those who are married, even though they were husband and wife—not until Maria gave birth. 

After a few months, they went to a town far away, Bethlehem. Maria gave birth to a son while out there in Bethlehem. After eight days, they gave this child the name, Jesus, as the messenger had said.

Now the story is getting good. A few weeks after that, they also went up to Jerusalem. There in Jerusalem was where there was the Great House of God, a place to sacrifice to him for people to make clean their curse by blood. But also, there in Jerusalem, was a particular elder, and old, old man, expecting the coming of the Savior upon the earth. When Maria and Joseph came to the Great House of God there, the old man came and took Jesus in his arms. And this is what this elder said, “I see the Savior God has sent. This is him.”

Joseph and Maria were surprised by the old man’s words about Jesus. Later, the elder blessed him. This is what he said to bless him, “This child has been chosen. There will be many who fall and do not follow him. But many also will rise, who follow him.”

Then, when the words of the elder were finished, they all left. Joseph and Maria went home, returning again to their town far away. This child grew up, got bigger, and became wise and only God’s goodness was with him.

And that is the story taken from the holy writings. 

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.

Mahafaly Bible Stories: Abraham and Isaac

My name is Traveller. I’m going to tell you a story. And the story I’m going to tell you is called Abraham’s Sacrifice, and it’s taken from the Holy Writings . . .

Abraham Sacrifices Isaac

It came true! What the Prince of Creation had spoken when he promised Abraham came true! Even though Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was old they had a son. His name was Isaac. There and with that, the Prince of Creation touched Abraham’s thoughts. The Prince said to Abraham, “Abraham! Take your son, of which you have not two and not three, and worship me. Go on, and I’ll show you the land and the mountain.”

“Ok,” said Abraham. So Abraham woke up the next morning and took his son, Isaac. He also took with them two younger boys. And they left.

So they went, and went. After three days, Abraham saw the mountain. And, you know, he thought, “That’s the mountain the Prince of Creation was talking about.” He said to the two young boys with them, “You boys stay here. We’re going, me and the child, on top of that mountain over there.”

“Ok,” said the one.

So they left, climbing and going up the mountain. When they had gone a little ways, Isaac said, “Um . . . Baba . . . Where’s the sheep we’re going to worship with? Only the knife, the wood, and the fire are here.”

“Uh-huh,” responded Abraham, “The Prince of Creation will see the sheep we’ll worship him with.”

So they went, and they climbed higher. And they arrived at the top of the mountain there. When they arrived there on top of the mountain, they constructed the place, the place they would make the sacrifice. After everything was done to do the sacrifice, the father seized his son and was about to slit his throat. Just when he was about to slit his throat, the Prince of Creation’s messenger spoke, “Abraham! Don’t kill the child. God sees that you believe and trust in his voice.”

Abraham turned with that, hearing a male sheep stuck in a small, thorny tree. And Abraham saw it. He untied Isaac and grabbed the sheep, placed him on top of that wood they had brought, slit its throat and worshipped The Prince of Creation.

And when all that was finished, the name that was given to that place was, “The Price of Creation will see.”

Afterward, the messenger spoke again, saying, “Abraham! The Prince of Creation has said to you, ‘He will make many, many, like the stars or the sand of the seashore, your offspring. The Prince will bless you, and you will be protected by the Prince.”

Then, with that, they went and got off the mountain, Abraham and Isaac. They met up with those two boys they had left below there. So they went back home together and arrived back in their village.

And that’s the story taken from the Holy Writings, the sacrifice Abraham made.

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.

Things to Ponder: Chyella’s Concept of “English”

Our daughter Chyella is four. She is a huge talker. She goes to French preschool—or at least she did, before COVID-19. She also talks with Malagasy people as we visit them and go to church with them. She knows words in French and in Malagasy, and likes to practice. She has a category for the French language, and one for the Malagasy language. One day, we started talking about English. She learned a new word, and asked if it was a French word. No, I told her, it was just an English word that was new to her. She gave me a very puzzled look. 

C: Mommy, what’s English?

Me: You know, English. The language we speak here at home. What we speak all the time.

C: (still super puzzled) You mean French? 

Me: No—you practice French at school, and Malagasy at church. But English is most of what you know, everything we’re saying right now.

She shook her head. We repeated this conversation in some form or another for at least a week. She never got it. I’m not an early childhood development expert (if you are, please chime in! :), but I think I can imagine why she struggled with this concept. English is equivalent to just talking for her. It was a “does a fish know it’s wet?” moment for me. For Chyella, English is not a language to be learned or studied or practiced (as she does with French and Malagasy, because her exposure is more limited). It’s just talking. Removing herself from her daily speech to examine it is nearly impossible. 

I believe this same struggle is true for many of us who are white when we think about race in the United States. We’ve never examined our experience, stepped back from it and considered the role our race plays in it, because to us, our experience is the “American experience.” Race has nothing to do with it. We don’t even realize uniquely white elements of our experience. We don’t understand African-American struggles, but the depth and breadth of what we may be missing never occurs to us. We don’t often step back from our own and other Americans’ experience because we expect it to be our own. 

With the murders that have taken place in recent weeks and months—at least, those that have come to the attention of the news—and the protests that have followed, I have found myself in the midst of a powerful lesson. I’m humbled to admit that I haven’t learned this lesson before now, that I’m new to this conversation on racial injustice. When the protests and rioting started, I felt the impulse to reach out to African-American friends, to check on them and ask how they were doing. And then I realized—again, with shame—I hardly know any African Americans. Suddenly I realized—I don’t know anything about African Americans. How could I possibly, when I know so few?

Nathan and I are missionaries in Madagascar. We have the privilege of working among people who are culturally different than we are, and having many deep relationships with Malagasy people. We have worked for years on language learning and cultural observation. We have learned to enter every conversation with open ears and open minds, assuming throughout that we’re missing something, determined to reserve judgment and keep learning. That doesn’t mean we do this perfectly, but we have seen that regular and prolonged exposure to another culture has given us an incredible gift—we now know just how wrong it is possible for us to be. 

When we first came to Madagascar, we were enamored with the differences—it’s called the honeymoon phase on the culture shock continuums. Then, we developed some real relationships and found ourselves reveling in the similarities . . . this culture wasn’t so different after all! Humans are the same, the world over! Then, as time went on and language and culture comprehension grew, a deeper reality set in. We are different . . . very different in many ways. This is not a statement of value—different isn’t bad. But it is real. There are significant differences between American culture and Malagasy culture. If we ignore those, we will not be good missionaries. We will not share our message or our lives in ways that are meaningful here. We will miss huge swaths of what is happening around us. And the more we learn, the more we discover is missing or inadequate in our earlier understandings. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

This experience has changed the way we view life. We now have a growing instinct to listen first, learn first, expect to be wrong, expect to adapt. We are eternally grateful for the development of this learning muscle in our hearts and minds.  

And yet, here I am, failing to practice this discipline in my home culture. I’ve discovered a huge gap in my experience, a whole group of people I’ve lived alongside, yet ignored. And yet I’ve drawn conclusions, as if I could know. 

I’m determined to change this, to listen and learn intentionally to African American voices, to minority voices, especially those who are brothers and sisters in Christ. Even in beginning to listen, I’ve heard stories of suffering I can’t imagine—would not have thought possible. Romans 12:15 calls me to “weep with those who weep” . . . and yet I have brothers and sisters weeping and I’ve been oblivious to their needs. To friends of color who are reading this, I know you don’t need me . . . but I will be doing my best to learn to listen. To those of you who are white reading this, will you join me in learning? 

Mahafaly Bible Stories: Abraham

Hello, it’s me, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.

First, madam and sirs, let me tell you that after the curse came in, Adam and Eve, well their relationship with God was severed. But God, you see, he still wanted the relationship with humanity. Yeah, so Adam and Eve sprouted and their tribes began to settle. Then, after this, you see, God chose one person to be in relationship with so that he could have humanity worship him again. The name of this person was Abraham. The story I’m about to tell you is about this guy, Abraham. 

“So,” says God, “Abraham, leave your lands, leave the lands of your father, your ancestral lands. You go and travel to a land I will give you. You will be blessed by me. Your offshoots will be made so many by me. Your fame will be made my me to be heard from the ground to the sky. Also rooted in you will be all the people on this earth that I go on to bless. 

Abraham says “Ok,” and he takes his wife and everything else he’s in charge of, his shepherds and all of his belongings. Abraham was seventy-five years old at this time.

So that was that. He left. Now let’s keep the story moving . . .

They made it to that land there. They explored all over that land. Then, once finished going all around the land, Abraham set up camp.

“So,” says God, “This right here is the land I’m gonna give to your offshoots.”

And with that, you see, Abraham thanked God.

So there Abraham was for a long while. But let’s keep the story moving . . .

“So,” says God, “Abraham! I’m gonna bless you. Don’t be scared. There still a lot of other big things I’m gonna give you.”

“Huh,” says Abraham, “And what exactly will I do with these good and great things you will give to me, me not even having any offspring? Are all these workers here going to inherit everything?”

“Oh no, says God, “You will beget a son who will be your heir. Those workers of yours won’t be your heirs. You go on outside.” Abraham went outside. “Now you look up above you and watch.” So, Abraham looked above him and watched. “Just like these myriad stars above you, I’ll make your offshoots many.”

Abraham trusted this pronouncement. And God also saw that Abraham trusted his pronouncement. And there was relationship between God and Abraham.