Charms

In Madagascar, a witch hunt is not a fiction. I do not have in mind taking these people to jail or burning them at the stake, but witches do exist here. In every bush village, in every bustling town, even in other countries there are Malagasy witch-doctors (ombiasa). They are normal-looking people, but their methods are strange. They shake old bones in a cup like Yahtzee and scatter them over the ground. They bind together human hair, mud, scraps of books, and goat poop. They slit the throat of animals and pour their blood out in oblation. They drink until they lose themselves and the spirits begin speaking through them.

Here the situation is very simple: everyone will tell you that the ombiasa gets his or her power from the spirits. Most are more honest and say the power comes from evil spirits. And, as our own folk tales go, there is always a price to pay in a deal with the devil. You can give the ombiasa money, or a goat, or a cow if it’s a big ask, but you are going to give up something. Sometimes it may even be a child. But unlike Johnny and his fiddle, these stories never end up well. The devil always get his due.

Several ombiasa, thanks be to God, are now following Jesus. One of them is in the group of leaders we are training. He recently asked, “So what about in America. Do you all have witch-doctors there?”

It is not the first time I’ve gotten that question. But it always vexes me. On the surface there is nothing similar. Maybe it’s different where you are but I’ve never lived near the local witch. When someone has a problem or gets sick, they do not immediately run to the local ombiasa. Or do they? Surely there must be some cross-over.

Think about it again. Listen to the job description of an ombiasa: They offer healing and power–the chance to be or to have who you want to be or what you want to have. They make charms for sick stomachs. They make charms that make people fall in love with you. They make charms to curse your enemy. They make charms to help you get pregnant. There are even charms to get you that car you want, or more money.

Are we sure we don’t have anyone in America who fits this job description? True, we don’t carry around sacks of hair and goat poop around our necks thinking they’re making us better people. But one look on YouTube or even eavesdropping in a coffee shop will remind you that we do indeed have a professional we go to for power. Oh now, we don’t call it power. But that’s what it is. We want healing, so we take the miracle pill. We want to be our best self, so we listen to our trainer or our therapist. We want be spiritually healed, so we give money to the man on TV.

The reason it always vexes me when they ask about our witch-doctors is that I feel, deep down, like we should be way past witch-doctors. Of course we’re better than that! But I don’t think we are.

The answer is, perhaps, more clear here in Mada. Those who are still hanging on to their charms cannot be baptized. They are hanging on to a way of life that is the end of Satan’s leash. Until they cut that leash and throw themselves into Jesus’ arms we know they are not ready to follow him. That’s not to say they don’t still struggle with health, or money, or their marriage. They simply stopped going to the professional and started going to God for the answers. And they are better for it.

Because the gospel does not ask for payment up front. None of us can afford the cost of true change. The catch is that Jesus paid up front for us. We can boldly approach God, free of cost. But only if we cut the leash and throw ourselves into Jesus. But that’s not just here in Madagascar. What does that look like where you are?

Teams

We’ve been hosting some different volunteer teams throughout April and May. It is always a joy to have people visiting. We are helped by having new eyes on God’s work here and love the camaraderie as well. Short-term teams generally require a lot of energy, but these teams blessed us and our people far beyond any of our efforts hosting. Thankfully, both these teams came ready to learn and ready to serve the people living here, which are two main ingredients for a great time.

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In April, we had Bill and Judy Grimme with us from Graceland Baptist Church. Both Bill and Judy have been here many times before. This time they came to attend the Baptist meeting we wrote about last time. They later shared their testimony as a married couple as a way to facilitate discussion among our churches about the importance of unity in marriage. It was very impactful conference and our pastors especially felt very affirmed and also prodded to strengthen marriages in our area. All along the way, Bill and Judy also assisted us, checking in on us and our own marriages as well as serving as mentors, which they have done throughout the 10 odd years they’ve been connected here.

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Then in May we received Elko Baptist Church, which was led by Nathan’s father, Pastor Tom Baker. We were impressed with how well the team handled their first trip. For the majority of the team, this was their first time out of the country! We were honored by their trust in us and their eagerness to step into the unknown with open hearts and minds. Not only did they help us with various repairs, medical visits and trainings, as well as teaching (whether teaching English or Pastor Tom getting to preach in our church), but their mere presence in a drought-struck field or a ill-stocked clinic meant more than words can say to our Mahafaly family here. They have shown great faithfulness even now, back in the US, continuing the relationships they started here with texts and messages to new friends.

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We also enjoyed having Nathan’s two brothers, Adam and Benjamin, for two weeks after. Having them here was, obviously, a blast! Plus, they got to experience life out in the bush staying out by themselves in Kilimary for a day. They now have some new brothers/uncles out there, definitely the highlight of their trip. We all miss all these people very much–especially Chyella who loved the attention, company, and getting to kiss everyone goodnight.

We now look forward to very soon hosting another couple of teams from our sending church in Raliegh, Southbridge. Summer is always fun as the weather cools down and visitors come. Our spirits are refreshed and we receive these teams as one of God’s many blessings working here in Madagascar and among the Mahafaly.

Together

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Sometimes the smallest moments have huge implications. As we sat in a room of representatives from almost a hundred Malagasy Baptist churches, the Mahafaly ministry changed–and a chapter of the ministry closed, opening a new one.

We sat in the back of that room in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, watching as Kilimary, Besatra, and Andremba (the first three churches planted by Grant and Jodie Waller) were officially entered into the Baptist Association here in Madagascar (FBBM). Tears were shed as, one by one, hands went. Those hands were affirming Grant and Jodie’s work over the nearly 10 years it has taken to get to this moment. But those hands were also taking responsibility. The Baptist association has now officially recognized the Mahafaly churches as part of their family. Four Mahafaly men, some of whom traveled as far as they ever have in their lives, stood before the room and introduced themselves. They were all extremely humbled and grateful for the welcome they received from family they often forgot they had.

So many things happened in those moments that it’s hard to explain. Imagine some Hispanic farmers from California standing before and being accepted into a Baptist church in Nashville. And imagine the Baptists being ready to humble themselves to relate to and learn from those farmers as equals. That is what was happening as we watched: unity of the body of Christ across socioeconomic, linguistic, world-view, cultural, and historical barriers.

In so many ways we see God’s hand guiding everything to this moment and beyond: the Baptist association has planted 80 churches in 200 years; the Mahafaly have planted nearly 200 churches in less than 5. In the context of Madagascar, most Baptist churches are based out of the most prosperous places on the island; the Mahafaly are in the poorest, drought and famine stricken area. The Baptists are more progressive; the Mahafaly are rooted in the past.

The work is far from over. This new relationship will create new possibilities and new problems for both the FBBM and our Mahafaly churches. Our Mahafaly brothers and sisters are now connected to non-Mahafaly in a way they never have been before; the FBBM now has responsibility for fellow believers very different from them yet who in many ways surpass them.

Our joy will be to walk with both these groups, helping them to work together to reshape systems, ways of thinking, minds and, ultimately, to help these groups reach their island with the gospel . . . together.

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Uprooted

IMG_2439Nathan and I both served as journeymen. He lived here in Toliara for two years; I lived in Madagascar for five years–both as singles. I loved my time–I had a long honeymoon phase. Nathan, not so much. He really struggled to adjust and with his purpose. In time, though, he gave himself fully to the work of God here and in his life, and he thrived. But, different as our experiences were, we would both agree: the hardest and worst part was going back home.

Why? What was hard about it?

At least for us, three things were extra hard: pace of life, purpose, and community. The pace of life here in Toliara is different–much slower. We weren’t ready for the extreme busyness of life in the US right now. Also, living here, our entire lives were focused on one purpose: God’s work among our people. When we went back to the US, we were trying to find jobs, praying about marriage, looking at school . . . wandering a little, with no clear direction about what was next. Finally, life here in Toliara drove us into deep community with our team. We needed each other every day. In the US, people don’t live like that. People handle their own stuff–they aren’t in each others’ homes and business as much. We missed that.

The reality is, we weren’t really healthy for at least a year after we got back. During that year, we hurt a lot of people–including each other. These are facts, not excuses.

I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, and I don’t want to make generalizations. For me, though, moving to Madagascar meant giving myself to a new culture, language, and group of people. When you go overseas as a family, you bring the core elements of your identity with you: husband, wife, father, mother. You also bring your most significant relationships. When you go as a single, maybe you have a chance to give yourself more fully–not as a virtue, but more as a necessity. You have no identity, you have no relationships. Leaving creates a huge vacuum, and you’re driven to fill it with language acquisition and cross-cultural and team relationships.

I found this drive to be a blessing–I was deeply transformed by my time in Madagascar. But, then, when it was time to leave, I felt myself uprooted–torn abruptly from relationships I had worked so hard to build.

Please don’t misunderstand–I was so thankful to return to my friends and family in the US. But, when I returned, things were different. People were different. People had changed–me included. I had missed experiences that I could never get back.

I used to think, “No, it’s no real sacrifice to go.” But that simply isn’t true. No, we don’t go overseas on ships in our own coffins, and we yes, we do have much greater access to family and friends at home than any missionary generation before. What we experience pales in comparison to the struggles of those earlier generations. But still, there is a sacrifice. You can’t be in two places at once. You, and your friends and family, change while you’re apart–and you can’t go back.

When you come back, also, you have to find your purpose again. And decision-making is affected too. You’ve spent the last two years teaching yourself to question your assumptions and learn from a new culture–well, that makes you second-guess your own inclinations for a while.

We’ve talked to many others who share these struggles. We’ve felt the deep, loving care of those who stuck with us, even when we were at our worst–thank you. The one thing I can say for sure is that when I was really, really struggling, I knew with all my heart that Christ was calling me to Himself. He was calling me to find my identity in Him, to run to Him with my uprooted heart and confused feelings; He was calling me to cling to Him. And for some time, I refused. It was His fault I was feeling so bad, anyway–I wasn’t going to let Him back in. He called and I resisted, for months. Even years.

So, if you’re the friend or family member of someone who’s served overseas, trust them. Listen to them. Invite them into your home. Love them even while you’re not yet sure who they’ve become.

If you’re the one who’s come back–if you feel God calling you, don’t resist. Run to Him.

 

God Gives the Growth

IMG_2485As some of you know, we had a sick spell back in October. Well, let’s face it, we get sick a lot here. The one in October, though, will stand out in Nathan’s and my memory as our first new-parent-baptism-by-fire-style-baby sickness. Parents, I know y’all have stories. We’re talking throw up in the bed, diarrhea down the legs, every few hours of every day for more than a week–three baths a day–no clothes–you know what I’m talking about. It was not pretty, and it was not fun.

And it was scary! My little baby was sick! Our sweet nurses in South Africa were so patient with me as I daily updated them. They were incredibly supportive and gave great advice. Still, I felt so helpless as, day after day, she woke up still sick.

I prayed, y’all, constantly. I felt so helpless, so guilty, like there must be something I should do. But I knew that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make her better. I had no control over her little body and its responses. I couldn’t will her to heal. I knew this for sure, because if I could have, I WOULD HAVE.

Eventually, praise the Lord, she improved! I was so happy, so thankful, at first.

And then a funny thing happened. I forgot (?) my feelings of total helplessness, and I started thinking that I was doing something right–“Well, I added more protein; I’m sure that has helped,” “It’s a good thing I pushed her to drink that water–that’s helping.” Some of it was almost unconscious, but an overall feeling of self-congratulation–“We’re ok!”

Now, I don’t want to do too much naval-gazing here–of course I should feel relief, thankfulness–but I’m telling you, there was more to it, and it really was pride. When she was struggling, I was helpless and desperate for the Lord. But when she was doing well–i.e., when He was mercifully answering my prayers–I attributed this change to myself and my own efforts. Hmm. How does that make sense?

This realization actually mirrors something I’ve noticed in our ministry here. I have a tendency to do this same thing as we pray for our Mahafaly churches. When the churches are struggling–leaders have marriage problems, believers aren’t sharing the stories, they’re tempted to return to ancestor worship because they’re desperate for rain–I despair and beg God to work. I beg His Spirit to protect them, provide for them, strengthen them.

But then, when God answers these prayers, when churches are growing and people are being transformed, I find myself thinking that it’s because of us. We must be doing something right. We must be using the right tools.

Of course, we want to work hard and work well. We want to use “best practices,” and daily grow in competence in our work here. But the reality is that, just like I can’t make Chyella’s  body respond in health, we can’t make our churches grow strong and healthy. As Paul says, “One plants, another waters, but God gives the growth.” He is the One who changes hearts. He is the One who transforms minds. He is the One who uses us, weak and inadequate as we are. So whether our churches are struggling or they are healthy, may I never imagine that success comes from me. May I desperately seek His help in every moment. God is the One who gives the growth.

We Endure

We’ve been helping facilitate an indigenous church planting training in northern Madagascar this past week. Leaning heavily upon our national Malagasy leaders, we’ve been able to share our experience sharing the gospel, teaching young Christians, and starting churches among the Mahafaly. Tessa and a national partner, Edia (who has worked on crafting Malagasy Bible stories with her for years now), have specifically led sessions on sharing God’s Word through storying in a way that is easy for people to understand.

It has been an extremely encouraging week leading up to Easter in many ways:

  • We’ve met brothers and sisters from many denominations who have been faithfully sharing God’s Word, teaching, and starting churches for years.
  • Others have shared how God has burdened their heart for the lost in their city, province, and even the entire island.
  • Over 100 people received training that we anticipate will facilitate even more excitement and practical next steps for reaching even more people.
  • Prayers have been lifted for numerous leaders, denominations, churches, areas, regions, nations, and God’s work across Madagascar.
  • Our Malagasy brothers and sisters have been and are ready to take the next step in owning the responsibility for reaching their people . . . even across the entire island.

As we went around sharing prayer requests for our different areas of service and churches, two ladies began sharing that they were about to go home. But their home is a very closed Muslim country where there are not many Christians. These ladies had come to Jesus in Madagascar and now were returning home to their Muslim husbands and a very tough situation. They were very realistic about the challenges they would face.

But let me share the Easter sermon one of our sisters preached with her simple, but challenging, testimony. She said, “You know, it is very hard to convince Muslims [to accept Jesus]; even good works the Muslims can duplicate and even do better than us [Christians]. But they cannot endure. We Christians endure. As loving wives and Christians, we can endure. We will outlast their anger and resistance with the love and endurance of Jesus.”

Underneath all of our devotion and super-spiritual trappings, Christians are convincing because our faith is built on the bedrock of unbreakable endurance. We are filled with the indomitable Spirit of the God whose love could not let us go and whose life could not be cut off by death. That is the Easter story. So then we can love so much that it may kill us. We can literally give others everything we’ve got. Because we endure. Because he endured . . . outlasting even death and standing strong and resilient on the other side.

The love he poured out in his sweat and blood now runs through our veins and will punch us through this to the other side of reality, just as he did. I could see it shining through our sisters yesterday. It is yours today if you have given your life to Jesus and are following him. No matter what you are facing or will face because you are doing what Jesus says, you can make it through. You can endure. We will outlast the competition. We endure because of him.

The Bare Minimum

IMG_2477Our training before Madagascar challenged us to share the Gospel as a regular discipline. One teacher talked about how looking for regular opportunities to share the Gospel–with people we work with, or buy vegetables from, or send their kids to the same school as ours–is not something we do as missionaries, but something we do as Christians. We met a church planter in New York who explained that he tries to share the Gospel in the first 30 seconds of any conversation with a stranger.

I found all of this very challenging. I’ve never been what I would call a “bold witness.” Nathan is. He makes a practice of sharing regularly. He isn’t afraid to challenge people, and yet he does it in a winning and respectful way that people respond well to. They seem to feel heard and remain open to talking more. I’ve been trying to learn from his example and share more regularly, even if it’s a short conversation. For me, the hardest part is still starting: turning the conversation from the meat I’m ordering to the Gospel, from telling how old Chyella is to the Gospel.

I have noticed, though, that intentionality helps. At the end of last year, I had been sharing more often, and I found myself looking for opportunities, ready with questions to start the conversation. Through our trip to Spain and back to the US, I got out of the habit of sharing, and I’ve found it hard to start back again. Thinking of a question and engaging the person takes much more effort now than it did before. Noticing this change has been a good reminder–sharing needs to be a discipline, a practice, an exercise. The more I do it, the more natural it becomes.

If you’re like me, even reading this is intimidating, and brings an uncomfortable mixture of guilt and anxiety to your stomach. We’re terrified of being pushy, of offending someone, of seeming like an extremist. Here’s the thing, though. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 9:16 that preaching the Gospel is nothing to boast about–it is the bare minimum–it’s a necessity. What if I lived like that? What if the most important thing on my to-do list each day was to intentionally share the Gospel with those around me: family, old friends, new friends, strangers? Paul talks about another area where we are willing to put forth significant effort: exercise, eating healthy. This example doesn’t really resonate with me, because I hate exercise, but what about areas where I do work hard? What is it for you? School? Your career? Creative pursuits? But, Paul reminds us, these efforts are “perishable”–they won’t last. The effort we pour into others’ souls is eternal!

I want to give two ideas that have helped me, by way of practical advice to grow in this area. First, it’s helped me to have a question to ask–a simple, unoffending question. Maybe, “Do you go to church anywhere?” works in your context. Maybe something like, “What are your thoughts on religion?” Maybe both of these sound awful to you–think of one you’re comfortable with. Practice using this question to open conversations.

A great question that I’ve never had anyone object to is, “How can I be praying for you?” We learned a fun idea from a colleague in West Africa. Think about 3-5 ways this question will likely be answered–decisions, family, sickness, money, etc. Then, find a simple Bible story or reference that applies to each of these responses, and be ready to briefly share it as someone asks for prayer. And be sure to pray for them!

I’d love to hear your ideas and stories, too. Know that even here as a missionary, this is still something I’m growing in. Praying for all of us to be bold and winsome in sharing the hope we have!

Changing Culture, Changing Hearts

At the most recent meeting we also had in attendance a priest . . . or at least he should have been a priest. Here the priesthood is a family business, passing from generation to generation. But this would-be priest would be offering sacrifices that he knows Jesus completed with his blood. So when the old priest died suddenly, he had a choice: reject his family, his role in society and leave his village bereft of thousands of years of tradition, or reject Jesus as the one who made the final sacrifice.

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The last time Grant talked with this guy, he was praying through this, obviously, life-changing decision. We hadn’t seen him until he showed up at this meeting. He is not a village priest now; he is the leader of a church. The priesthood is dead in Kilimary. Jesus changed his heart, and through this one man a village and whole culture is changing forever.

(Side Note: This man’s knee was so swollen after their 12 hour walk that he could barely get around the next day. We tried to figure out a way to get him back in the truck, but when that wasn’t possible we gathered around him, laid hands on him, and prayed for God to heal his leg for the journey home. He woke up that night with no swelling and was walking around like nothing had ever been wrong when we saw him back home later.)

This is not the first time this has happened. Last May we heard that one of our church leaders, who had been a part of the priesthood, had defected from the sacrifices along with all his sons. The whole priesthood was effectively wiped out in a day as he and his future replacements put their faith his Jesus. While the village still sacrifices, they know when the current priests die their legacy will not continue. Again, their culture is changing.

However, here’s the rub: that leader is now no longer a leader. Due to taking a new wife (while still married), this figure of a changing culture now signifies every person’s struggle. Jesus changes culture because he changes hearts. To the the extent that our own hearts change, our culture can change. Why should we expect others to change when we ourselves do not? We are all responsible to fight for the change in our own hearts, before trying to change our culture. Our culture will change, if Jesus has anything to say about it. And yet, Jesus starts with the individual heart.

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Jesus is changing thousands of years of tradition and culture to set people free. But that will only happen we all give our hearts over every day to be changed, infused, and regenerated. We all need culture change. But culture change succeeds or fails one heart at a time. And it starts with our own hearts.

The glory of God in man

Human beings are amazing and, as God’s image here on earth, not only bear a resemblance to the divine but, in some very imperfect way, show who he is and what he is like. We marvel in particular at the feats our Mahafaly friends are able to accomplish as we see God’s strength wrought in them.

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The Mahafaly met recently for their bi-monthly leadership pow-wow. This meeting was in the furthest out village and was the first time all leaders attended without us driving them. By the time we drove up (I and a national pastor), two men had arrived after setting out on foot at midnight 60K away and arriving in time for lunch 12 hours later. That night, more leaders (with youth group in-tow) arrived, walking from 4 hours away. The next group got there that morning after biking 4 hours. More and more came in with over a hundred people meeting for 2 days–all walking or biking themselves to get there.

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This meeting was 90% Mahafaly. We were there for support and as an encouraging presence. But we sat and watched as the Mahafaly led the reception of guests, led the discussions, led the teaching, and then led the decision making for the next meeting. The combination of their effort to make it to the meeting and their desire to take responsibility for the meeting is to their glory. I told them this is a weighty thing for them, an important event that shows God’s glory in their lives.

All the while, this meeting is being held in the village of Andremba, so far off the beaten path that they had to labor meticulously to remove rocks and create a road for the oxcarts and cars. Let me rephrase that, the Christian women labored to create a road out of the rocks. Andremba’s church has three older, respected men, several young men, and the rest are women. It was these women who’s strength built a road out of the rocks.

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Behold, the glory of God in man. These people give their all to meet together and learn about their God. They serve him not just with their praise but with poured out sweat and physical labor. It is really glorious to see what God is capable of and, in turn, what people are capable of when divinely inspired. We see his strength in their strength, his glory in their steps toward independence.

Three AMAZING Recipes that have Rocked my Madagascar Kitchen

So, I’m not a great cook. Actually, when I arrived in Madagascar as a single, I knew how to cook “pasta-roni” and scrambled eggs, and that was about it. I thought in order to separate an egg white from a yolk, surely the easiest way was to hard boil it?

But cooking is REALLY important to our life here in Madagascar. Cooking is from scratch, by necessity, and we end up making and using lots of substitutes. So, needless to say, while I lived here as a single, I learned a few things.

Now I’m back as a wife and a mom, and Nathan won’t let me get away with oatmeal for dinner. We’ve also discovered that while I’m thrilled to eat the same five recipes over and over, week after week, Nathan likes a little variety. So I’ve been on a sort of ongoing quest for new and improved recipes to add to my cookbook. (Speaking of that, I would LOVE your recipe ideas and suggestions–please list them in the comments and I’ll give them a try!)

Since we’ve been back, I’ve found three recipes that have been an amazing addition to our monthly meal plan, which I want to share!

First, chicken noodle soup. This is one of those family staples–you need a good chicken noodle soup recipe as a go-to when you’re sick. I really wanted this to be a crock pot recipe, and tried several, but eventually found this one. It’s not for the crock pot, but it is easy, and I’m committed:

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/26460/quick-and-easy-chicken-noodle-soup/

Next, lemon rice. We’ve started making naan with mediterranean chicken, with a nice, cool cucumber salad and yogurt. This rice is a light, fluffy, delicious addition to this meal, and stretches the meal too!

http://www.geniuskitchen.com/recipe/lemon-rice-165211

And finally, my favorite: cinnamon rolls. These are a Christmas tradition for us, but I’ve been intimidated by recipes with yeast, and disappointed by those without. This recipe convinced me to give it a try this past Christmas, and it won us over immediately. These were truly the softest, most delicious cinnamon rolls I’ve ever tasted. Try them! You’ll love them!

https://cafedelites.com/quick-soft-cinnamon-rolls/

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