Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter in Maputo

Our first Easter in Maputo, Mozambique, (1986) we went with a Mennonite family and an Anglican couple to the park that overlooks the Indian Ocean. We sat out of sight beneath an arbor of vines, reading the Biblical story, singing quietly and praying for each other until the sun rose over the water. By the next year the Mennonite family had left the country, victim of the stress of living with civil war in the poorest country on earth. But a few other English speakers had arrived.

I remember coming to the park in the pre-dawn gray of the morning, pretending with our two little girls that we were the women, arriving early at the tomb to grieve, wary of the soldiers and worried that we might not be able to move the stone and sprinkle the spices we had brought for the body of Jesus. We tried to imagine what it would be like to not yet know that Jesus had conquered death forever.

By 1990, our last year in Mozambique, the community of English-speaking missionaries and aid workers had grown and formed an international church. Although we attended a local Shangan service, the girls went to the English Sunday school, and the church always included us in their monthly potluck meals.

In the spring of 1990 Mozambique was just emerging from Marxist-Leninist rule. Our gathering was still illegal. Pieter Botha, a godly South African pioneer missionary, now in heaven, went to the Ministry of Religious Affairs to ask permission for us to celebrate the resurrection in the park. “Don’t ask,” was the answer. “Better to apologize after if necessary.”

This time there were close to a hundred and fifty people seated on a broad staircase, gazing out to sea. The children performed a drama. We sang and praised God openly for what he did for us in Jesus Christ. As we arrived, a soldier approached from the military base only a few hundred yards to the south.

“What are you doing here?” he asked gruffly.

“Don’t you know?” Pieter Botha replied. “Today is the day the Lord rose from the dead.”

The soldier looked confused. “Oh…. Oh.” And he backed away.

After the service, the church gathered as usual for Easter breakfast at our house. We had the largest yard, much of it paved and shaded by a huge mango tree and an arbor of passion fruit. That year we had a gifted cellist and an accomplished violinist in Maputo. They played all the way through breakfast, reluctant to stop even to eat. I have talked with the cellist recently, and that Easter morning is still one of her most precious memories as it is mine.

Mozambique was the most difficult thing God has ever asked me to do. My novel, The Wooden Ox, had to be written from the point-of-view of a child because my own adult view would have been too depressing. But every year when Easter comes, there is a warm feeling in my heart for the fellowship we knew, for the dependence on God that we clung to in order to survive, for the certainty that we were exactly where God wanted us to be. I don’t know if there will be Christians in that park tomorrow morning to greet the sun with songs of the resurrection. I do know that Christ is risen and that has made all the difference in my life.

Monday, March 17, 2008

In the Backlash of Jokwe

It is a cold, wet, dreary Monday. When our pastor thanked the Lord Sunday evening for filling the reservoirs that are so important in this semi-arid land, I felt convicted. Having just come from months of cold Minnesota winter, I had not been looking at the weather in quite that light.

To be fair, neither have the Mozambicans who lost seven lives and 10,000 homes in Angoche last week and I-don’t-know-how-many more in Inhambane a few days later. Steve was in Beira and saw the storm passing out to sea that night with its huge, dark thunder clouds and magnificent display of lightning. But the coast curves sharply to the west north of Beira, and Jokwe’s hurricane-force winds only splattered the shore.

What we are getting in Johannesburg is the back-lash of that storm. The house where we are staying has huge windows with single pains of glass. Not all of them shut. There is no insulation or central heating, but the leak in the roof was fixed on Friday, and our boxes hold all the extra blankets from our old house in Kempton Park. I should say ‘held,’ for they are now spread over our beds in layers.

But I wake up wondering about my kids in Tembisa. Cold as it is to crawl from my bed, I doubt that they slept as warm and snug as I did. Chances are their houses are at least as drafty as this one. They can’t pay to fix a leaky roof. How many blankets did they have last night?

I can’t solve all their problems. I would burn out quickly if I tried to take the whole load on myself. I go and read, give them a bit of practice, and show a little love. Prayer seems inadequate, but in the end, it is the best I can do—to take the needs of the children of Tembisa to the God of the universe. May he act, and may he show me where he wants me to be his hands and feet.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Little Girls with Books

We are back in South Africa. I am surrounded by little girls holding their books, patiently waiting for their turn to read to me. Most of the boys are with Joel, a short term missionary from Canada awaiting his visa for Zimbabwe. The boys practice soccer moves with Joel, but when they are tired, they too get books and crowd so closely to read that I lose sight of him sitting in the dirt, leaning against the wall of the township church. More children sit on the steps. Each one holds an open book. Most are reading aloud, carefully sounding out each word. English is not their first language. Zulu or Xhosa is. But English will be their key to success in school and the job market.

A boy makes a dismissive gesture at a girl who is reading. He looks over the top of the book, and it is clear that he could read it at twice the speed. The girl stands as high as my shoulder. She’s maybe twelve years old, the age of Jairus’ daughter. Yet she struggles to read a story on an early second grade level.

But she wants to read it. Maybe it is an adult paying attention to her. Maybe it is my exotic white skin. But she is reading.

“She’s doing fine,” I tell the boy and shoe him away. I have to tell the girl some of the words. Prompt her here and there, but she finishes the story and looks at me with pride.

“That’s great,” I say. “We’ll do it again next week.

One of the other girls has chosen a harder book. She points at each word with her finger, but she reads more quickly, with less stumbling. “Ow! Ow!” she cries when the boy in the story is frightened by a spider.

I pat her shoulder. “That’s wonderful,” I say. “You’re reading with expression.” She grins and carries on with the story.

My collection of books is getting dusty, red smudges. Some of the covers are bent in the scramble to see who will read what. I try to watch out for the library books and remind the children that they are borrowed from the library right there in Tembisa. There are two libraries in the township, but both are too far for these children to walk. I hope they will remember and always think of libraries as wonderful places where they can get books.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Desert Medicine


It was the strong voices of the two protagonists that drew me to Judy Alexander’s debute novel, Desert Medicine. Independent-minded Laurel thinks church would be good for the stability of her five-year-old twins while she goes through what she calls “a marriage transition.” Rhoda Garcia, the cancer patient she agrees to visit to take her mind off her troubles, embraces Laurel and her children and tells deeply moving stories of her childhood in the desert. When Rhoda’s own adopted son suggests that the stories are nothing but lies, Laurel takes off in the middle of the night for Calexico, California, a town that has become almost mythical in her eyes as a result of Rhoda’s stories. It is Laurel’s intention to discover the truth. What she learns is not so much the truth about Rhoda as truth about herself.

Although I write for a religious market, I have no patience with mediocrity in the name of a message. Judy Alexander has an amazing way with language. This is not a fast-moving thriller or a tissue-box romance. It is the patient revelation of two vulnerable characters with whom many readers will identify. Alexander breaks out of the mold of Christian fiction with her realistic depiction of modern divorce. She takes on the sticky issue without contriving her story to give us accepted evangelical answers. She doesn’t preach or discuss theology. She does what fiction is supposed to do—tell stories—real stories, authentic stories. Even the pastor of Laurel’s new church has been divorced. (“She found a boyfriend, and I found Jesus,” he says of his separation from his wife after the death of a child.) And we eventually discover that Rhoda’s devoted Tony is not her first husband.

Laurel takes some missteps along the way. Nowhere does she pray “the sinner’s prayer,” but there is a definite shift in her thinking to ask what God wants with her life. Scattered throughout the volume are some of her wonderful photographs of the desert and the real Calexico, California. Alexander includes discussion questions for Book Clubs and even an e-mail address to invite interaction. Desert Medicine is well worth the read and bound to spark lively debate.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I read this book in manuscript form when Kregel Publications asked me to work on it.]
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