Sunday, January 09, 2011

Christmas Eve

I often wondered what it would have been like for Mary and Joseph on the eve of Christ’s birth. As the story usually goes, a kind and compassionate innkeeper offered the tired couple space in the stable. I have often wondered if the innkeeper was actually kind or compassionate. Wouldn’t it be more likely that Joseph had to push and shove to advocate for a room in the midst of many others who were looking for a space? Would it also be more likely that the innkeeper did not really care when he offered the stable, but he figured if anyone was crazy enough to stay there he could make an extra buck? After all, most innkeepers were probably keen to take advantage of the Roman census to make an extra buck? Isn’t that more like the world we live in? Bethlehem, most likely did not have the capacity to host a Roman census of which was forced upon her. Maybe it is my experience in Mozambique that in a culture similar to that of which Judea would have been in the time of Jesus, this is the more likely scenario. But what I have also learned is that in a rough place with rough and calloused people, even a reluctant offer is a sign of compassion when compared with nothing at all.

It was not our choice to be traveling from Maputo to Johannesburg on Christmas Eve. We, like the Jews, were subject to the authorities and had to submit our foreign documents and request a declaration letter to leave Mozambique while our documents were in process. This of course, took several days and in order to make the MCC Christmas celebration on the 25th we needed to travel. As we entered the upper hills of the escarpment east of Johannesburg the car overheated. Fearing the worst we pulled over and the engine promptly stopped. After some time a kind young man stopped by in his pickup truck and in a heavy Afrikaans accent asked us if we needed help. We figured we needed a pull and he left to get his father and a rope to pull us to a neighboring place where another young man with his friends opened up a guestroom in their house for us to stay the night. We had not eaten and before they went out to celebrate Christmas Eve they asked us if we had eaten. They opened there fridge up and started giving us burgers, soda and other food. I found myself in the position so often of a poor family who had nothing to eat and was relying on the generosity of someone else. I was somewhat ashamed and thanked them over and over, even bowing a little not knowing what to do with myself. It was quite an awkward position.

After we had everything unloaded I was talking with the young man with regards to the next day and whether there was a mechanic in town and when our MCC colleagues would come to fetch us. He looked uncomfortable so I asked him if there was a problem.

‘Just don’t take my stuff,’ he replied uncomfortably.

Wow, my mouth about dropped open but thought, ‘Of course, he does not know me from Adam.’ South Africa has had a tumultuous history, distrust and theft and violent crime is more common than in North America of course he would be distrustful. I assured him it would no longer happen and thanked him once again for his generosity.

Of course all this was fairly disconcerting and I began to worry about all the details of the next days and weeks. How to fix the car? What to do when my parents visit if we do not have a car? The Christmas Eve we were missing with the MCC family?

I returned once more to the car to make sure it was locked. It was parked under a tree and as I turned around from locking the door I saw in the green of the grass just beyond the shadow of the tree, three sheep, five ducks and a couple of chickens all looking at me in a semi-circle. The almost full moon shown down through the tree branches like the star of Bethlehem and the sheep and ducks glowed in the moonlight. It was as if the manger was right in front of me in the shelter of the tree and we all were in the presence of the Lord. It was as if God was saying, “Peace be to you, a child has been born!”

Though I do not claim that we are similar to Mary and Joseph but I felt like we could somehow understand God’s care and there was something altogether holy about that night that I will never forget. I went back to our room so graciously given us, forgot about the details that had earlier occupied my mind and embraced my lovely daughter and her mother.
Christmas Greetings

Dear friends and family,
Once again we are returning to the Christmas season to reflect on the birth of our Lord and Savior in a manger. I was reflecting on this and the night that Jesus was born. If Jesus were born in Mozambique it would be on a hot and starry night. He would be born outside, because that is where the animals live. He would be accompanied by the ever present mosquitoes, blare of a radio and the low of the cattle and goats in the distance as they come in from the pasture. The uncles, the aunts, the cousins and neighbors in the village would come to visit. The boys coming in from herding the cattle would be the shepherds and the elders from a far off village the wise men.

This is world’s apart from the snow, reflecting the moon and stars, the three wise men, lights and Christmas trees in there regalia, the stable, the inn, the ice cycles on the eves. But is it not the same baby that was born long ago, the baby promised in Isaiah, the man who would transform the world. Is it not the Messiah who came for that African widow, the Brazilian musician and the American sons and daughters? Is it not the boy who grew up and walked along the beaches and called the disciples his friends? Is it not the same man who said, ‘Father, forgive them’ as he died on a tree?

Our family finds ourselves once again in the heat. Mozambican Christmas is more about parties than it is about the sacred. Though the sacred is there and the churches celebrate, it is different than what we are used to and many times lonely. But that aside, we still remember that boy. And though our Christmas’s are different and we are far away, we remember you as well. We miss you and love you dearly.

We are doing well. It has been a year of changes and ups and downs as you all know. We moved from Chimoio, our friendships which we had developed and moved to Maputo. We struggled with the decision because we had grown to love the beautiful countryside but in the end we felt it was up to God’s will and we believe he chose. We had asked God to help us decide. We prayed. We moved.

Maputo has been good but an adjustment. It is fast paced, city life again. We are older and it is not as easy with a small child. Friendships have taken time but we are developing them. The work is not in the beautiful countryside, but it is fulfilling and we are building relationships for the first time with the people we work with. This is satisfying. We have had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and see some of the beautiful countryside. We have made some friendships with families with children for Nadia’s sake. And Nadia has grown so much. She is turning into a beautiful girl, inside and out.

Nadia’s personality is really beginning to show through. She is very determined and loves to be the center of attention. She laughs and smiles a lot and likes to make faces. Apparently she likes Katie better than us at this point because she does not put her to bed, bathe her or change her diaper. She loves to give kisses and hugs and dance, though her dance looks more like an Irish jig than a dance at this point. She loves to go outside and is a bundle of energy, shouting ‘go’ and taking of at a run when she can. And when she needs to do something she doesn’t want to do, wow, look out, what strength and determination.

We look forward to what the next year will hold for us. Going to the beach for Christmas at Xai-Xai, the visit of my parents Don and Shirley in January, the expansion of our work, the opportunity to get to know better friends, worshiping with various fellow believers, a new nephew/niece, growing as an MCC team and watching Nadia learn and grow as we become a family.

And as we look forward to this year we also look pray fully to the future and when it we will see you again. We thank you dearly for your love and prayers and wish we could give back even a fraction of the love and support that you have given us these last few years. We know it has not always been easy but neither was it easy for the family who had the boy in the stable.

Deep love and Christmas Blessings!

Joél, Jenny and Nadia
A tribute to those we have known

Death is no stranger to Mozambique and though I have never seen anyone die in person I have known many who have passed away. Death has a way of waking one’s soul. It reminds one of the mortals that we are and as the bible says the fleetingness of our lives. Not that our lives are not important but that our character and the way we live is important. Let me tell you of a few we have known who have passed away in our time, some of which I have no names for in which to give them honor.

- Manuel Taimo’s daughter – I had barely begun my friendship with Manuel when he came to my door, a poor farmer with a deathly sick daughter at home. He asked me to carry her in the MCC truck to the hospital, his last hope. I carried her to the hospital and attended her funeral the next day. What the disease was is anyone’s guess. This is often the way it is.

- Joaquim, Mennonite Pastor – I was called to visit this pastor when he was sick, for us to pray. A week later another pastor showed up at my door and asked us to carry him in the MCC truck to the hospital. I drove 30 km on rough roads, got stuck on the way. It took several hours and many men to slowly push our car through the mud too solid ground. We eventually brought him to the hospital. He asked for me to be with him. I said I could not and his wife should be there by his side. The hospital only permits one person. Did I make the right choice? Only God knows. I was afraid. He died that night.

- Isabel – We visited this lady from time to time in her mud hut. She was a small frame of a women but very pleasant. She suffered from Tuberculosis. We spent many Sunday afternoons praying for her. Finally one day the pastor asked me to carry her with our car to her mother’s house in the country. I knew in my heart that this would be her final days. She passed away.

- Nameless persons from the bus accident of 2007 – One night as Jenny and I watched a movie, our friends called us. There was a horrible bus accident. We rescued our friends from the rubble. At least 15 people died.

- Padre Isaias, Anglican Priest – MCCers for many years have worked closely with Padre Isaias. I traveled with him, ate with him, celebrated weddings with him and spoke with him about agriculture and sand dams. He cared for his communities and wanted them to see God. He died in front of his congregation conducting Easter mass.

- Fernando, Mason for Sand Dams – Died along with many others in the village of Tchinda. Victim of a cholera outbreak.

- Lina, daughter of our friend- We had just moved to Maputo and befriended a single lady from Singapore with an only daughter. Lina was her mother’s world and the girl passed away suddenly one evening without prior warning, probably a victim of meningitis. Her grief was so much that her mother has disappeared from our life despite our attempts to console, listen and reach out to her.

There is more but these are the closer ones. If I look back on this list I realize why in the past years I have felt old, sometimes lifeless and depressed. I live, yet they do not, and I live thinking about it. Many were younger than I. Many had a lot of potential. Many could be helped if they had been born in my shoes. What if I would have carried others to the hospital? What if I had prayed enough? What if I had shown more care? What if I had not been afraid? Would it have made a difference?

I realized that the thought of heaven became much more real. I took comfort that this is not the end and that many will be there. I stopped going to funerals because it became too much. I didn’t have the energy or emotion to do so. I stopped feeling because it seemed every few days or weeks another person died and it became impossible to feel, hard to care. How could I say I am sorry several times a week and put feeling into it when all I could think was, ‘Another one dies’, shrug and go on with the day wishing I could feel deeper. Maybe this is what the Mozambican feels.

Meanwhile I have news from home that two people my parent’s age have passed away, people I knew well, victims of cancer, lives stopped short. I am too far away to provide any support or care for the families.

This all started because I got an e-mail message that Paulo Martinez passed away. He was an IVEPer and my former conversation partner in Beira. He was young, probably 25. We spent hours together over soda and donuts. We visited his church, his youth group. He was bright, happy, and thoughtful and was the one person that I felt I actually could connect to whenever I saw him. He was a student hoping to teach others English. In our country it could have been prevented. Why him?