23 July 2013

on story

Have you ever dove head first into something you’d never done before, having absolutely no idea if it was going to work...if you were going to be any good at it...if people were going to “get it”?  We do just that for a living here at World Harvest Mission South Sudan.  We learn new languages in new ways, we have conversations with new people in said new languages, we get new ideas from said conversations and try new things in our ministry fields, we approach new partners to find new people to work alongside as we try said new things, we get more new ideas from said new partners and mesh their ideas with ours...there are seasons in which everyday feels like an experiment.   I’m in one of those seasons now...you leave the house and have no idea what is going to happen, whether what you set out to do will be what you actually do, whether what you actually do will be of any help to anyone or instead a complete disaster...

I feel like we’re still in our toddler years as a team - well, I guess I should speak for myself, after a year and a half here in Mundri, I feel very much a toddler - 
“how far I can walk while holding onto this table? do I need both hands on the table? do I need any hands on the table? whoah, no hands, okay, this is cool, but wait, what do I do now?  you seem to be saying take a step...but clearly you must have missed the fact that I have no hands on the table, so steps are out of the question....whoah?!?!? boom.  bottom’s down.  Bummer.  Literally.  Should have tried taking that step.  Ah well, next time.”

Africans love a good story...they love telling them, hearing them, passing them along...evidenced most often by the effectiveness of the “bush net.”  Who needs the internet when you’ve got the bush net.  When you tell your neighbor, while out in the cool of the morning brushing your teeth with a stick that yesterday you stuck in the thatch of your roof to save for brushing again on a rainy day, that you heard that the gun shots last night were from a drunk soldier who got in a fight with his wife because she didn’t cook meat for dinner, by the time you get to your garden, your garden neighbor will say to you, “hey, did you hear that those shots last night were from a drunk soldier in a fight with his wife because she didn’t cook meat?”  Word gets around.  fast.  Usually the first several minutes of an encounter or greeting with someone will involve telling each other stories or “news” the other may not have heard since you last saw each other...

Even their speech patterns are in story form...it’s beautiful.  I love it.

I love stories too.  Always have, always will.  I used to ask my parents to tell my favorites from their childhoods to me at bedtime...mom’s about ice skating in the winter, and dad’s about setting his bed on fire...those were my favorites.  They would tell them the same every time, and if any detail differed from what I remembered from the last time, of course I asked for clarification... “but last time you said...” - have to get the details right :)

When you ask about rainbows here, yes, the rainbows that we put on stickers and nursery walls and sunday school materials, the rainbows that small children doodle at knee high arts and crafts tables all over the United States, well, here you will get looks of terror and stories about snakes and dust blowing and people turning colors and pregnant women running for cover inside the nearest tukul...everyone I’ve asked tells the same story...it’s part of their cultural heritage...local lore, told around fires at night while the family lies on mats too hot to go inside until the last possible moment...

What if the creation story was told around these fires...what if the wonder of David in the Lion’s Den or Esther and the King were requested by children because of their amazement and intrigue.  What if the women and children who don’t get to go to school, who never learn to read, who cannot open their Bible to meet God in His words on the pages, could know the stories anyways and pass them down from generation to generation?  What if stories they’ve heard read painfully slowly in church by people who struggle to read in their own language and read in a fairly monotonous voice while trying to focus on every word, could be told and heard and remembered in a way that was new and exciting and actually sounded like a story, a story that actually happened once upon a time many years ago in a place not so much unlike their own...

This is Melissa and I’s hope and prayer...we long for these women and children here, who are our friends, to know these stories, to be able to fall back on them as truth when they wonder what really is true, to be able to marvel at what God has done in years past and what He is able to do today. So, with the ability to lean on the work of our WHM colleague George Mixon and his years of experience doing just this with several tribes and people groups in Kenya, Melissa and I decided to start telling the story of the Bible in a chronological way, story by story, week by week, with women at Melissa’s church.  It’s not a new idea...it’s a method called Chronological Bible Storying and has been used with aural cultures all over the world. 

But this isn’t just anywhere, this is rural South Sudan.  We aren’t trained CBS story tellers, we’re just Heidi and Melissa.  Would anyone come? Would people be able to engage in the story even if it’s broken up by translation? Would people be able to hear the stories afresh or would they just roll their eyes and yawn at a story they’ve heard read over and over in church like we so often do?  Would they understand the questions we asked to engage them in learning about the story? Would they be able to hear it well enough to tell it back to us (since the point is for them to be able to go home able to tell the story)?  We had no idea.  But we wanted to give it a whirl.  And so we did.  We memorized the story (Creation, from Genesis 1), scheduled a day, made an announcement in church, and showed up when we said we would...everything else was a shot in the dark.

By all measures the world uses, it was an epic fail.  Our first scheduled day, we ended up going to “coming out” prayers for a new baby who was born near the church, so we didn’t even end up doing the story.  Fail? Nope. We had a blast with a group of our friends and women from church, celebrating the new life God had brought safely into the world and blessing this new life.  And her name?  Melissa.

Next attempt the following week.  How many people came? A grand total of 2.  Fail? Nope.  It was one of our best friends and a lay leader in the church who is an active leader in the Mother’s Union (women’s group).  It turns out it was great to be able to try it out in a small group on our first attempt, and it created a great opportunity for them to feel comfortable asking questions and laughing at ourselves as we stumbled over the use of 3 languages between the 4 of us.

Did we tell it “right?” Nope.  You’re supposed to memorize the story and tell it in the audience’s heart language yourself - we told it in english with spotty translation by our friend and hoping they understood enough. Fail? Nope, it put us on learners’ level with them, not the high and mighty teacher who knows everything.  Laughing our way through explaining things in Moru and Arabic as we went along, we were all equals.

Did they “get it”?  Nope.  They kept interrupting the story and asking when people were going to be created, and also wanting to follow along in their Moru Bibles they had brought.  Fail? Nope.  At least their questions and interruptions meant they were listening, and were they illiterate like the method is established for? Nope, not these 2, but do they have much connection between a real live story and the book they carry in their UNICEF plastic bags for protection to church every week?  No, and this was a great opportunity to refer them to the story in their own bibles when they did have questions and wanted to be able to talk to family members about the story...connecting the story they could now tell, and the words on the page that they can read.

Could they retell the story back to us after we went through the whole things twice?  Nope, not even day 1 of creation.  Fail? Nope, we got to go through it all several more times with them as we prompted and helped them memorize the story too, in a way that seemed manageable and applicable to them, and encourage them along the way.  So, by the time they got it down, they were super excited and proud of themselves.

Did we have a super deep discussion about grace and how God’s gift of it to us is evidenced in this story, like the method stipulates?  Nope.  Did we even talk about grace? Nope.  Still too abstract for these folks I think.   Maybe down the line a bit.  Fail? Nope.  Did they have a question of their own that really brought home the main point in the whole story?  You betcha.  The mother’s union leader asked “Since woman was made from man’s rib and therefore she’s less strong and less educated and not as important, why is that?”  Whoah.  Right on, sister.  We got to talk with them earnestly about how that couldn’t be further from the truth, that in fact “both male and female” were made in His image and were both given rule and authority over the earth they were given dominion over, and showed them the words in their own bibles...in fact, before they left, the same woman said, “now we have discussed and learned new things and we can go home and tell this to our families.”  

Fail?  No way.  

Melissa and I marveled at God’s hand in the whole thing all the way home on our bikes...amazed that despite all apparent “failures” He still managed to work through us...broken method, broken people.  So thankful.

God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good.

on longing

This longing, this ache, is a work of redemption - it’s what this fallen life is supposed to feel like...this longing is it what I was made for.

The longing - the desire for “unity, communion" - reflects the image of my God - He longs for the same.  The ache - the physical bodily struggle with the incompleteness of that desire, is appropriate and faithful and good but NOT what I was made for...not what we were made for.  We were not made for incomplete desires, for lacking wholeness - but that is where we are, broken and aching to be complete...fixed...whole.

In being single, and living this crazy missionary life, there is, in me, a longing for partnership in sharing it with another person.  Another person who is in it for the long haul with you, where you go they go, where you stay they stay.  We have this to an extent with teammates, they know how crazy the life is, and why I even call it “crazy.”  They know the paradoxes of joy and frustration.  They know the things about culture that are hard to explain in words.  They learn to know you, they learn to know what ticks you off, they learn what you’re sensitive about, they learn what kinds of movies and music you gravitate towards.  But there is a place in which this knowing ends; in which coming and going and change happens - when we least expect it and could never have predicted it; in which there is a lack of shared experience of situations/circumstances on both sides of the proverbial pond; and its in these places where loneliness puts its feet up and makes itself at home.  Its inevitable, it’s part of the “crazy” of this life.  It’s not an organizational failing, it’s not a lack of foresight, it’s not anyone’s fault, it just is.

The thing is, this longing...this desire for unity and communion exists in every stage and phase of life.  It’s not a thing that people without spouses have cornered the market on.  Having a spouse means longing for knowing and being known more deeply; having children means longing for them to know and be known, love and be loved, rejoice and know contentment and health and “success” (whatever that looks like for them); not being able to have children means longing to have them and the ability to be fruitful in the ways that God created our bodies to be able to do so; not having a spouse and not longing for one means longing for communion and unity in the community around us, and with God and many other things as well. We were made for longing.  Lisa Graham McKinn says it well, 
“In our fundamental longing for unity, communion, and consummation, we simultaneously reflect imago Dei and, whether or not we know it, we are yearning ultimately for the One who can satisfy our deepest longing to be known and loved.”

Somehow this is comforting.  It’s comforting to know it’s a “supposed to be there” experience, not a “you’ve got something majorly wrong with you” experience, it is a “positive” experience, not a “negative” experience. It’s comforting to know a camaraderie across the details of such an experience.  It has given me a new found sense of unity with my friends and family whose lives are so very different from mine.

I think this is one of those things that I’ve possibly been hearing my whole life, but it’s been just now that I’ve really *heard* it, that my heart has really engaged with it.  There has been freedom in the hearing.  Freedom to long without being so angsty about it all, freedom to talk about it because it’s something everyone can relate to in one way or another.

Not that I have it all figure out, or anything, don’t get me wrong.  McKinn also says the following:

“Living in grace bridges the chasm between our longings and our inability to satisfy those longings.  We have a yearning that ultimately only God can satisfy, yet God extended grace to humanity by creating us with a desire for relationship that extends to others.”

Okay great, key phrase seems to be “living in grace”...what the heck does that mean?  Or better yet, look like?

Something she says later on makes me wonder if this is a *part* of the answer:

“Henri Nouwen speaks of compassion as being able to sit with those who suffer.  We do not much care to sit with suffering but would rather escape it, using Advil to escape physical pain and TV, movies, daydreams, shopping, and a variety of addictions to escape emotional pain.  To extend grace is to be willing to sit with brokenness rather than escape or fix it - to look at and own our failure.  God redeems and restores that which is broken and calls us to be hands and feet of mercy, easing the suffering of others.  We learn something of our human condition and our need for God when we sit with our suffering and with those who suffer.”

Hm.  I think she’s onto something there...not yet sure of what exactly, but it’s rattling around in my head and heart and it seems to ring true based on my experience of sitting with those who are suffering and in my own...

That suffering’s not going anywhere really, it just looks different for everyone and different in different stages in life.  McKinn again, 

“...the woman whose hemorrhaging Jesus healed had spent twelve years seeking help.  Part of her journey wards healing was to crawl toward Jesus in the midst of a throng of people where she hoped to touch the hem of his robe.  Some of us will be crawling still until we reach heaven, where all symphonies are completed, all wounds are healed, all tears dried.  Sometimes we need to receive a grace that allows us to endure and embrace suffering from which we may never be healed in ways we hope...when we accept suffering and embrace our incompleteness, we experience more fully the grace of a God who invites us, woos us, lures us into communion with God and others.”

Crawling until heaven? whoah.  maybe.  hm.  whoah.  But symphonies completed, wounds healed, tears dried?  Sign me up.