Salt and Simple Things

IMG_2192My sister gave me some wise advice just before we left for Tanzania. It was to make sure that when we came back from our time away that we would have with us some simple things to remember what we had seen. It is so easy to forget what had once appeared so brightly in the mind on first appearance. The small things, the simple things are what our days are made up here. This past Saturday, for instance, I celebrated my 41st birthday. In keeping in with what is now a disturbing (for me at least) family tradition, Monica conspired to celebrate me at a local meat market (my 40th birthday had been celebrated at a grocery store cafe in BainbIMG_2163ridge Island, outside Seattle). Thankfully I made it out alive and our kids got to celebrate their Dad among goats and cows and a few thousand other people finding us just a little odd. The feature of a birthday at the Msalato meat market is that you get to eat the meat you see walking around earlier in the day. They then grill it and bring it to your table along with roasted bananas and soft drinks in slender glass bottles. Here’s to my 42nd birthday. Perhaps by then I will have become a vegetarian.

Simple things punctuate our dIMG_2085aily life here: mosquito nets, bucket baths, playing with stones and red earth, fending off ant attacks at the back door, eating the seemingly endless variety of dishes that contain pumpkins, emptying out our formidable array of water containers into water jugs that won’t sprain your wrist when you try to lift them, shopping for spices and vegetables at the local market and as Monica demonstrates in the picture above, doing the limbo at a friend’s kid’s birthday party. Every so often, the water runs dry or large insects join my evening read on the verandah, or it takes two hours to print out a sermon, and we can find ourselves wishing that the simple things were a little more complex in their capacity to meet our needs. Yet as the news reaches us from across the world of tragically strident murders in a Charleston church and the preacher-in-chief’s subsequent eloquent vision for a better America, we are reminded as was our President, that the amazing thing about grace is that it is discovered amidst the everyday wonders of life together, and that we take that life and each other for granted at our peril.

IMG_2237My oldest and I had the opportunity yesterday to explore how the simplest of things for us at home in California – salt – is the root of both survival and a deep anxiety for the future for villagers a couple of hours from where we are staying in Dodoma. The people there scrape salt deposits from the surface of the earth and filter a muddy solution that they then boil to leave behind purified salt. We went to the village with World Vision, the NGO that has been helping the villagers organize their industry. The process they currently use is causing significant damage to the local woodlands, and they know that as wood is getting harder and harder to find, the legacy they are leaving their children is tenuous. Beyond this concern, they are locked into an arrangement with middle men, who buy the salt from them and go on to sell it at ten times the price at the local markets, thus trapping them in poverty. It is the sort of economic exploitation seen across Africa. Tanzania is rich in natural resources. Incredibly so. Yet it is bound by patterns of economic transaction that hold it back from fulfilling its vast potential. Who knew that salt was such a complex web of givers and takers? Simple things made hard.

IMG_2137When Jesus reminds his followers that they are to be salt of the earth, in a way he asks them to recall that they too are part of creation. To spend these weeks in a country where my own people are part of the history of colonialism, it is sobering to bring to mind again how easily we deceive ourselves into believing that what is just is coterminous with what we think is right. It was such a deception that caused Dylann Roof to kill nine people in cold blood having listened to their study of the scriptures for an hour, and it is such a deception that brings us up short every time we forget that we are all salt of the earth in the end, and the simple truth that you and I belong to one another.

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Entertaining Angels

 ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’

Hebrews 13:2

photo 3It’s just before 9am here on the campus of St. John’s University of Tanzania, our home for our time here. I am sitting in the shade of a tree in our front yard. In the distance I can hear roosters, traffic going back and forth on the ring road surrounding the campus, and people walking up and down the dusty path that leads into the heart of the campus. Further in the distance is a hill with about a dozen cell pone towers on its top, offering a reminder to me of the wider world beyond and my own place within it in San Diego. Yet, for these ten weeks of sabbatical those towers and the working life they point to remain far away and we are gifted the time and space simply to be here, to learn and to grow.

photo 1Such time and space has helped me to become more aware of the hospitality of God that is so abundantly present around us – a divine generosity that is everywhere, at all time and in all places. This morning I encountered that generosity in the chapel service here at the university. Ordinarily, the service is in Swahili yet whenever the chaplain notices that I am there, he adds English phrases and scriptures in an attempt to include me. It’s a small kindness but in that simple act of translation, a stranger is welcomed. Yesterday, at the English service at Dodoma’s Anglican cathedral, another act of inclusion occurred as a man who had no legs dragged himself down the aisle to the front of the church during the sermon. As he got to the front pew, another Tanzanian saw him, warmly welcomed him with a smile, and lifted him into the pew next to him. ‘Ubuntu’, is the African concept that perhaps speaks to this ease of inclusion that just seem obvious and natural to the common life people share here. It means, ‘I am because we are’, or put another way, ‘a person is a person through other persons’. It expresses a collective identity, a communal sense of belonging and being that lends encounters with others a generosity of spirit and a freedom to allow the other to enter in as they are. In the villages, as Monica experienced this past Saturday, it also means that to be received by one is to be received by all, as she was welcomed by dance and song and hot cups of chai.

photo 2For our part, we have tried to reciprocate this spirit of welcome by offering to others our company and attentiveness in conversation. We had also made sure before we left to come with some small gifts from California, including footballs (soccer balls) with ‘U.S.A.’ emblazoned across their fronts to gift to the children of the villages we visit. You can see in the picture here one of them being duly inspected by a couple of village men. I think it passed the test and perhaps we are too – at least we think we are as people are inviting us back into their homes again and again. Yet the truth is that hospitality is a gift that does not call for reciprocation. It is, as God’s love, gratuitous. Indeed, true hospitality can only be given freely and without the expectation of a return and as such it is freed from the anxiety that can so often hang over our social interactions that asks if we are likeable or interesting enough to be interacted with again.

photo 4It seems to me that the Church can also suffer from such an anxiety, wearily fretting over whether the newcomer will ‘like church’ enough to come back a second time. The irony is of course that the reality to which such a person is being invited to enter into is at its heart free from all anxiety, for the presence of the divine that the Church gathers to worship is one that has no need to be liked, no need of any sort of all. When faith communities can make a deeper living connection to that well-spring then the worries about its place in society and in people’s priorities have the space to dissipate and people are freed to recognize holiness in the simplicity of its presence. Children, it seems, enter into such anxiety-free and mutual hospitality with ease. Around the dinner table one night recently, we asked our own children what they were enjoying about being here in Africa. One of them said that he liked it that we could make ‘fast friends’. His parents have liked that too. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of being received.

Getting to Know One Another

imageOn our second day here in Dodoma, in the back yard of one of the missionary families who have so warmly welcomed us into this community, one of the moms asked me what sort of sabbatical this would be for me with our three kids in tow. ‘Perhaps less sabbath and more a change of scenary’, was more or less my answer. Having time together as a family was actually one of my hopes for these two and half months. Hope for it or not, it is what Monica and I got! And there have been some trying times for us as parents as our kids have negotiated all of the newness that has been thrust upon them: new food, a new living space, new insects, new language, and customs and a life that is lived largely without the comforts of home. People have been very generous in sharing toys and books and most of all their time with us. The kids have become fast friends with several of the children here. Sweaty football (soccer) games, rope swings, ant hill explorations with sticks, even a zip-line in one back yard have all made the transition to African time and place easier. Besides the odd cut knee and a few moments of meltdown on all sides of the parental-child equation, we have managed well and for the next two weeks we have all three kids enrolled in a local diocesan school (Canon Andrea Mwaka School: http://www.cams.ac.tz) where they can play with western kids and Tanzanians, which is a great opportunity.

IMG_2060For Monica and I, that same opportunity to come alongside those around us has been harder with Tanzanians than it has been with the missionary community. Part of it is just the sheer challenge of the language barrier. With those who speak English, which includes the theology faculty, the Vice Chancellor of the University (who is pictured here looking very dapper as we celebrated his birthday in our place this week) and some other faculty members, we have been able to develop a friendship. And with our students, who are the Tanzanians with whom we get to spend the most sustained time, we are able to learn more about how they see the world and their faith within it, which is a real gift. Yet for the majority of students and staff, our inabilty to speak nothing more than a few words in Kiswahili, the language of the people here in Tanzania, has limited our interactions significantly.

Tree at center of St. JohnsOn a regular basis, the closest I get to coming alongside the student body at large is my daily pilgrimage to ‘the tree’, pictured here. It has the marvelous distinction of being the best place on campus to pick up the wi-fi and so doubles as a study center and a prime location for socializing. My personal social breakthrough at the tree came this morning as I tried and failed to access the wi-fi connection – which makes a U.S. dial-up connection look lightening fast – and three of my students called out to me, ‘Hey Pastor Simon’. I had arrived, at last, as a true tree dweller, a man among men. I have called you by name…and all that.

IMG_2055The other person that I have been trying to get to know some more these first couple of weeks of leisurely stretches of African time, is myself. In honesty, much that I am coming to see is painful to look at, like the selfie you never thought that you would take. There is nothing like time and a completely different place to be to begin to see the cracks in the veneer of the person I had supposed that I was. Yet there is also the great gift of memory and for me conversation and time with Monica to help recall the longings and values of the past that now have a sharper focus. I doubt that I will be renouncing my holy orders any time soon, or taking a year off work to ‘find myself’, but I do hope that this can be a time for an authentic re-discovery and renewal. As they say here in greeting one another, ‘karibu’ which means, ‘you are welcome’. It is the gift of now: welcome to be as I am, as we are, living into the promise that he makes all things new.

Dancing out of Egypt

IMG_2029Every teacher knows that the best learning comes from their students. Take these two parabolic cautionary tales that were shared with me by one of my students this week…

Every pastor and priest in Tanzania practices their ministry in the shadow of the country’s colonial past. The Christianity that was brought to this part of the world was very much part of what Yoder calls the ‘Constantinian shift’, the embrace of the Way of Jesus Christ by the imperial power of Rome that saw faith and empire thereafter mutually reinforcing meta-narratives. When the colonists shared that faith with the peoples of Tanzania as it today is known, there was a widespread conviction that they were liberating the indigenous population from traditional African understandings of the world that held back those peoples’ hopes for betterment and progress. The white man’s burden was to carry out their ‘civilizing mission’ to make Christian the peoples of even the ‘darkest’ reaches of Africa. The African’s burden was to accept such ‘enlightenment’ as the rescue that it was purported to be.

The first parabolic tale is of a Tanzanian priest whose parish was in a village area of the country and who lived very much still within that colonial paradigm, equating the Church with power over the people in his cure. Sunday by Sunday, this priest had become increasingly frustrated that attendance in his church was shrinking. It seemed to him that the respect that was due him by virtue of his office in the Church was not being recognized by the local population. One Sunday, when the attendance was particularly low, his frustration turned to anger and he took a cane that he had in his house and went out to the village. He had heard that in years gone by one of his white predecessors had the practice of beating villagers who did not come to church so as to dissuade them of the demon of sloth that had taken hold of them. Our Tanzanian friend felt that it was time to restore the clergy to their proper place of prestige in the community and so took up the colonist’s cane to make the case for him. At first, people were surprised, then shocked, and then outraged, eventually seizing his cane and turning it on the hapless pastor. ‘That time is over’, one of the villagers was heard to have said, and in that moment, the village made a second shift away from Constantine’s Christianity and its colonial mindset, to a postcolonial space that the Church would now have to navigate its life of ministry within.

IMG_2024It is a shame that our first man of the cloth had not been given the opportunity to learn from the second. This priest also faced the situation of a much-emptied church on a Sunday morning. Being a man of more gentle persuasion, his first inclination was not to the cane but to conversation. He began to move about the church building, asking people if they knew where everyone else was. At first, people were unsure what to tell the priest, perhaps out of respect for his sensitivities, until at last one of them shared that there was an important dance taking place in one of the villages which was part of the indigenous traditional African religious practice of the local area. Following a few moments of careful consideration, and who knows, the odd prayer or two, he announced to the congregation who had gathered that there would be no service in the church that day but that people would be welcome to join him at the village for the dance. With that, he left, and on arriving at the village he joined the dancing with vigor. Finally, when the dance was over and all of the rites had finished, he announced loudly that he was glad to have been able to join the people in their celebration and that he would now be holding a service under a nearby tree for all those who would like to join him. Needless to say, the service was crowded.

When my students and I reflected on these two tales of the Tanzanian church, we wondered out loud what it meant to dance that day. We explored how whilst the second priest’s joining of the villagers festival looked like the postcolonial Church in action, it can also be the case that the people of the Church can hanker for the golden days of the Church gone by, both fearful of the impact of indigenous religious practices on the integrity of the Christian faith and nostalgic for the more elevated place their clergy once enjoyed in society. It is easy with western eyes to dismiss the hesitance of local people to embrace the new postcolonial paradigm as a failure to take the Tanzanian church were it rightly belongs, yet if people from the west examine their own lives they will notice that we share with our Tanzanian brothers and sisters a propensity unwittingly to return ourselves to ‘Egypt’.

When the freed Hebrew slaves made their sojourn through the desert, it was not long before they complained to Moses about the conditions they found themselves in, which proved to be only a short jump of reasoning to the outlandish statement that it would have been better for them to be back in their slavery in Egypt. Who longs to return to that which has chained them? The answer to that is of course, all of us. As Paul laments, I do that very thing which my heart longs not to do. How many alcoholics, how many people who have chronic problems with self-deceit or avarice find themselves returned to the very spot they had sworn never to go back to? How many ardent dieters will spend a month losing ten pounds only to blow it all on one chocolate cake splurge? Egypt is always behind us, and there is a strange comfort in those chains, a familiarity of burden that somehow feels that it could be an improvement on the arduous task of battling that which has bound us fast to sin, as Wesley’s hymn puts it.

IMG_2026At the end of our first week here in Dodoma we are beginning to recognize that each day carries its own lesson and each encounter its own opportunity for me to see my own Egypts. Yet these lessons are not learned alone, for in the slowed tempo of Africa there is the time and space to be able to catch a glimpse of that dancing Savior whose steps are always with us on the way out of Egypt, each time we find ourselves there. It is perhaps what sabbaticals are for – to learn how to dance.

Ready, Set, Go

imageI used to love lists when I was a kid. I am not sure why. I like their order. I also like to put chairs into straight lines and a lack of symmetry in our living room can keep me up at night. As far as pathologies go, it’s pretty harmless. So, when it came to planning what we might bring to Tanzania on our wild family adventure out in east Africa, not only did I make one list, I made several. My wife is also a list-maker, but of another variety. Whereas I prefer to type them, making sure that the list designed to organize us is organized itself, Monica prefers to write on a torn half piece of scratch paper in several directions at once with handwriting whose scale would make an atomic physicist squint.

Somehow we made our lists work and began this week a two and a half month sabbatical summer. Bags packed/stuffed and one of two 11-hour plane rides later, we landed in a country that I suspect also has a soft spot for keeping things organized: Switzerland. If Zürich airport is anything to go by then the country must be a delight. It has escalators that only move when you step on them, a lounge just for families with young kids where we enjoyed a game of table footballimage (that’s soccer to you folks stateside), and every flight is on time because in Switzerland being late is illegal. That last bit may not be entirely true but it is fair to say that the Swiss are people who like order. A list maker’s dream you might say.

The first port of call in Tanzania following another 11-hour flight is here in Dar es Salaam, which can be translated as the ‘abode of peace’. It is a very different ‘peace’ to the green rolling meadows surrounding Zürich airport. Stop signs, for instance, (much as in our own Pacific Beach back at home) are entirely optional. In fact, it is better to assume that nobody is ever going to stop or see you when you are crossing the road as we discovered on our exploration of the city today. The condition of the roads is fairly good although the sidewalks are a little more prone to uncovered manholes, deep trenches between them and the road, and the tendency to attract rubble in small and large quantities.

However, I would not say that my impression is of disrepair and chaos. The hotel where I am writing this right now has kept us cool (winter here is hot and humid) and well-fed. The power has not failed us, either via the grid or via the hotel’s generator. People are friendly but not overbearing. Things – much like in Switzerland – work. It is just that they take longer at working here, much like the five of us who after three straight days of traveliimageng and 11 time zones later are taking longer to work, more or less functioning as human beings but at a painfully slow pace.

All of this, is of course, very biblical. Order and chaos. They are the pivot points of the first creation story in Genesis. The Babylonian creation myth that is the derivative of the Genesis story portrays the capacity to defeat chaos as the hallmark of a divine being, in this case of Marduk in his victory over Tiamat. The deep was a potent enemy of humankind in antiquity, and so it is not surprising that early theological examinations of the establishment of order in creation saw it necessary for the power of God to have dominion over it. But what about us?

Part of my own motivation for taking this sabbatical summer in east Africa is to let go of the controls a little bit and allow the slow birth of God’s ordering of my own chaos find a deeper home in me. It is easy, I find, to mistake our failed attempts to make order in the world for what is authentically creative. For the truth about us is that we are beings in need of ordering by the one who ordered us in the first place. We cannot sustain ourselves, no matter how many proverbial lists we write. Timagehe divine love offers itself to us beyond our ordering, enabling us to live amongst the chaos of life in this world and recalling for us – as this beautiful art work did that we saw today at the National Museum of Tanzania – that we have belonged to another from the very primeval beginning. Here’s to a summer of remembering that!