Road Trip Diaries: Tete, May 4-9

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The city of Tete, located on the historic Zambezi River

Monday, May 4

A full day today. Sat in on a meeting of the Nyungwe Bible translation team, made up of three local pastors working together with Swedish Wycliffe missionary Mikael. They are an impressive group – fun guys who seem to work well together. In talking with Mikael and Pastor Semo, the team leader, we learned a little bit more about the translation process. Sometimes the biggest challenges aren’t what you would think. One of the biggest hurdles the team has had to overcome is the difficulty of distributing translated Scripture portions. There are about 20,000 Nyungwe copies of the gospel of Matthew sitting in a closet in Nampula right now – hundreds of kilometers away from the Nyungwe language area. Shipping costs into Tete are prohibitive, and since the trip takes full two days, there are very few missionaries who make that trek and could rent trunk space. Even once the booklets make it, the job is not done. The people who need them the most live outside the city, scattered about in small, often hard-to-get-to villages. In the city, where the team has a greater network, pastors tend to be non-Nyungwe speakers, using either Portuguese or another regional language called Chewa.

Spent part of the afternoon in town, getting to know the city. Experienced one of those “we live in Africa” moments that you feel you just have to share with someone. We walked into a local coffee shop, and I wanted to buy two small notebooks for about 30 cents. Since I wasn’t carrying any small change, the store worker went outside to try to find the change from a friend at the store next door (a common practice here, since change often seems hard to come by). Meanwhile, we waited inside. It was a small, cramped space, yet I counted five young men who either ran the place or were friends of the guys who did. The one behind the counter, who seemed to be in charge, shouted over my head at his buddy near the window: “Get that big [computer] printer down from the top shelf.”

“That big printer” was wedged snugly between four smaller printers in a corner on the top shelf, which must have been upwards of eight feet high. To get up there, the friend had to climb up onto the lower shelves, which appeared to be rather weakly supported by a few removable braces, all the while supporting a good portion of his weight on one or both of two big expensive copy machines that sat along the other wall. I laughed to myself, though nervous that he could come crashing down at any moment – with all the printers – on top of the copier. What was I afraid of? He managed to come back down unscathed, printer in hand. The other guy never did find me change but told me to take the notebooks anyway.

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Elizabeth is a natural with kids of any language!

Mikael’s wife Jeni drove us up a scenic local mountain in the afternoon on the way to pick up her kids from school. She is piloting a project for an organization called Little Zebra, which aims to publish and distribute books in the mother tongue. She keeps a supply of books handy in her glove compartment, and whenever asked for money she gives out books instead. Driving back down the mountain, she pulled over to talk with a group of kids on their way home from school. As if on cue, Elizabeth also rolled down her window and began pointing at pictures of local animals and sounding out the Nyungwe word for the kids. It seemed so natural for her to be doing this, that for a minute I forgot that she just arrived in Africa and doesn’t even speak Nyungwe! You could see the smiles starting to form on the kids’ faces as they saw their own language written, likely for the very first time. Whether we end up in Tete or elsewhere working with a different language, we would love to be able to do this sort of literacy promotion on the side.

Tuesday, May 5

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The director poses in front of the brand new provincial library

Visited the provincial library with Jeni. As she met with the director to plan reading events for kids, I made a friend with one of the librarians, a young man who seemed proud to show me that his country has accomplished authors. In the afternoon, we watched the sunset on the Zambezi River over tea with a missionary couple from South Africa. I made a brief conversation with their Nyungwe-speaking house helper named Christmas. When I mentioned we had copies of the book of Matthew in his language, he asked if he could have one, then seemed very excited once the Bible was in his hands.

Wednesday, May 6

Walked all over town on a “scavenger hunt” to get to know the city of Tete. Confidence is key to getting along in Africa (and most places, I suppose). People enjoy conversation and human interaction, but they notice if you look uncomfortable and will often adjust their response accordingly. Yesterday we acted like we didn’t know what was going on – walking up very tentatively to store counters, feeling insecure about how badly we stood out. Today, we practiced being assertive. What that meant was walking right up to whoever looked like they were in charge, and asking my question – no matter how dumb it may have sounded. One of the things Jeni had jotted on our to-do list was to check the price of “contraplacada fina.” I didn’t know what that was, but it kind of sounded like a special cut of meat. So at the supermarket, I found the guy at the meat counter and asked for contraplacada fina. He looked a bit confused, yet matter-of-factly told me to follow him as he exited the store. Thinking we were only going next door, I didn’t bother telling Elizabeth, who was thoroughly engrossed in the toothpaste aisle at the time. We walked. And walked. My new friend – his name was “Risk” – scooted quickly, and I struggled to keep up. We turned the corner and traversed two full city blocks, finally crossing the street and entering a construction supplies store. Never would have guessed that I was actually asking about a type of signboard.

After that, we got locked in the park. We had been tired from walking all over town in the late morning sun, so we found a little park by the bridge and had a seat on a bench. A few schoolkids were also hanging out there when we went in. Next thing we knew, the chain link gate was closed and padlocked behind us. And the city park worker kept on moseying about, watering the plants, as if nothing had changed. She unlocked the gate for us when it was time to go. Must be something they do over the lunch hour, was all we could figure.

Thursday, May 7

Sat in again on the Nyungwe translation team in action. Got a little bored by the end of it. Maybe because most of the discussion was in Nyungwe and I wasn’t really sure what details they were discussing. As they discussed whether the translation of 2 Corinthians would be understood by Nyungwe people, it occurred to me that I don’t really understand 2 Corinthians either. Imagine trying to translate a complicated letter of Paul for a culture without study Bibles, commentaries, or YouTube preachers. Paul’s writing style is complex, and his message rooted in particular historical circumstances – more so for this letter than for others. No, 2 Corinthians definitely isn’t where I’d start if I was going to translate the Bible. Still, you can’t avoid it because it’s in there, and in between Paul’s talk of commending himself and boasting foolishly and proving his superiority to the super-apostles, there are gems about walking by faith and reconciliation and new creation. Quite an interesting book, actually. I think I’ll study it again.

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This baobab tree is a landmark along one of the major city roads

Friday, May 8

I bought a shirt by accident at the market today. The guy was selling polos, and since I didn’t bring a large wardrobe with me to Africa, I was eyeing the designs to see if there were any I might like. I asked the price just out of curiosity. My first mistake was not walking away just then but instead continuing to show interest. The vendor noticed this and insisted that I pick a shirt and try it on. There is a reason I try to avoid store workers when I go shopping back home. They are far readier to help me than I am to decide what I want help with. Next thing I knew, I was being asked to make an offer. What he actually said was, “How much do you have to spend?” I hemmed and hawed but eventually answered the question. Truth is, I really didn’t want to buy the shirt even at the price I stated. He tried to up my “offer,” but I said no, not today, and turned to walk away. Next thing I knew, he was putting the shirt in a bag. “For 500 meticais?” I asked (the price I had offered). He nodded. We had made a deal.

Turns out I must have what it takes to be a good bargain shopper: indecision. As I stand there and think and make excuses, I’m not trying to drive the price down; I’m really just trying to make up my mind whether I want the product or not. The longer I stand motionless, the further the price drops. The rub is that it’s not very polite to barter with a vendor and then walk away. At a certain point, your interest signals that you want what he’s selling, and if he’s willing to cut a reasonable deal then the onus is on you to accept it. Maybe one day I’ll be relaxed enough to enjoy interacting with market vendors. Until then, I’d better practice saying no and make lists of what I want before leaving home.

Saturday, May 9

Had an amazing opportunity to visit a Scripture “community testing” session. This one deserves a post all to itself so we can include more pictures.

Hitchhiking in Mozambique

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Our route to Tete, courtesy of Bing Maps

Elizabeth and I just got back from a trip to Tete City in the western part of the “fork” in the north of Mozambique. This was part of our orientation here, as well as a chance to explore a place where we could settle to begin linguistics work in the local Nyungwe language.

The route was a bit circuitous, and much farther than it looks. From A to D is nearly 1,000 miles. We split the trip up into 3 days, though only two of those were for travel. Thursday we spent picnicking and bushwhacking at a sort of Holy Grail for missionaries – OK, well actually an overgrown and mostly forgotten-about site on the Zambezi River where the great English missionary/explorer David Livingstone buried his wife Mary Moffat after her sudden bout with malaria. We braved the hippos and snakes in search of her grave.

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Found it!

But it was Friday that brought the most adventure. As our colleagues John and Sue were taking their Land Rover to South Africa for repairs, they decided to drop us off at point C on the map, a small town called Inchope. They were to keep going south; meanwhile, we would catch a bus up to Tete.

Being as it is on the only major road from the port city of Beira to the booming mine town of Tete, Inchope gets a lot of truck traffic. A little less traffic, we found out, from buses. Oh sure, there are buses that go by. But by the time we arrived at the crossroads at 9:30 am (we had to drive 4 hours to get there), nothing. So our options were: 1) Keep standing out on that road as the sun gets higher, waiting in vain for a passenger bus to pass by. 2) Take a chapa (like a big van used for public transportation) to the nearest city half an hour away and spend the night with a pastor friend of John’s. 3) Hitch a ride with a truck driver or whoever happens to be going to Tete.

Since we really wanted to get to Tete that night, and since John didn’t want his friend to know he had passed so close without stopping in for a visit himself, we chose – naturally – option 3. We bought two generous helpings of roasted cashews from a street vendor (not really for the cashews but to compensate him for negotiating with the driver for us), and on we climbed.

The truck driver was friendly, in his 30s, a native speaker of Nyungwe. We made small talk for a while and then made ourselves comfortable on the cushion in the back of the cab. A car going direct to Tete would be in by suppertime, but he with his semi and 30 tons of load was aiming for 9 pm. And that was a hopeful estimate.

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A typical roadside landscape in north-central Mozambique

In between bumps and jerks, we dozed off for a few minutes. We were awakened suddenly by a warning bell coming from the instrument panel. Looking over the driver’s shoulder, I could see the words “high coolant temperature” written in big digital letters. He pulled over in a lightly populated stretch of road. An overgrown village, it was, with a few small shops and villagers sitting outside swapping stories over beer and swooning to African music blaring on someone’s radio. We chose to stay in the truck. We watched as the driver, with the help of a couple local teenage boys, tried several times adding water to the coolant and restarting the car. Same problem. After 45 futile minutes, he came back in to tell us that the truck’s water pump was broken and we weren’t going anywhere. “What now?” I asked. He would call in for another truck to pick him up until he could get his repaired. Meanwhile, we were to stand by the road and try to wave down any cars going that same direction.

I could have counted on one hand – maybe two – the number of northbound cars that had passed during the time we were stopped. But after not 5 minutes standing out there like fools, a shiny new maroon Chevrolet came barreling down the road in our direction. Seeing us, he slowed to a stop and rolled down his window. He was riding alone, a well-dressed Mozambican man in sunglasses. Nervously choking over my unrehearsed Portuguese script, I asked him if he was going to Tete, and if we could hitch a ride. He asked me in English: “Who are you?” “Where are you coming from?” (It didn’t help that in my panic I forgot where we had started out and hesitated.) “What are you doing in Mozambique?” “What is that?” (pointing to the bulge created by the passport holder under my shirt) “Have you had any trouble with the police?” We had to call our truck driver friend to explain to the man that we were harmless fools and that our story was true.

“OK, I guess I’ll trust you,” the man finally said, motioning for us to get in his car. Foolishly, I had referred to our organization’s name but avoided mentioning our Christian affiliation, just in case this guy didn’t see eye to eye. Once inside, however, I decided it was better to use the “M” word. That turned out to be just the key we needed. “Oh, so you’re missionaries…what church are you from?” I told him we were Baptists (I usually describe our home churches that way even though you won’t find that word in the names), and he said he was too. I breathed a sigh of relief. The ice was beginning to thaw, and we had an air-conditioned express ride to Tete.

We started making connections, eventually figuring out that this man, Miguel, knew the very missionary family we were going to visit! This was as exciting as our adventure to Tete was going to get, but still God had been looking out for us all along. We enjoyed a calm ride after that, and our new friend dropped us off at our destination just in time for supper. And we slept well that night.

Church, Africa Style

Driving up the rocky, dusty, partially-eroded tire trail outside of town, we know we are in for a unique experience. The little church sits at the top of a quiet hill, and we may have missed it if it weren’t for the concrete foundation that sets it apart from the other mud-and-bamboo, thatched-roof houses around. Most of the churchgoers live in these houses – each with its own small machamba to feed the family and perhaps bring in a few extra meticais at market. We have driven, it seems, right into the middle of these neighbors’ world – giggly children breaking from their play to watch the odd-looking strangers pass by, some carrying infant siblings in their three-year-old arms; mothers with sleepy babies tied to their backs, busily pulling weeds from among the corn stalks in their machambas; youths passing by intermittently on their way to or from market. Like its own little village out here, way on the outskirts of Nampula, past the reach of city water systems but, as of recently, within range of a single thin, precariously low electric line. Think “Africa,” and pictures like this one come to mind.

It is not quite nine in the morning, yet the sun is already beating down hard on this hilltop community. Come afternoon, everyone will be seeking shade under the front eaves of their huts, or under one of the few trees tall enough to provide cover. Many are already doing so. But the folks we’ve come to visit are seeking rest under a different kind of shade: the life-preserving shelter of the Word of God. I count three small Sunday School classes, and ours meets on the dirt-floor porch of the house next door. We arrive after class has already started: God’s quorum of two or three gathered in Jesus’ name, poring over their Bibles on old creaky wood chairs. They stand up to offer us their seats as they step inside to fetch more. We listen to the teacher – a well-dressed young man with his Almeida Bible (the Portuguese equivalent of the King James) – make logical deductions from the opening chapters of Genesis that we, in our Western mindset, had never thought of before.

Shortly, class ends, and we wander over toward the sanctuary, where the Swedish missionary couple who brought us introduces us to Pastor Alberto. All smiles, he shakes my hand and asks first if I speak Portuguese, next if I’d like to preach. Though I’m not totally unprepared for this, I politely ask if we can save that “for the next time” and am relieved to hear that the answer is yes. I had been warned that this could happen, but still am thrown on my heels by the shock of the request. The next time that I preach will be my first. But maybe I have to experience the emotion of being put on the spot before scraping up the motivation to spend Saturday afternoon preparing a sermon outline “just in case.”

The four of us are ushered inside to the front-row bench – a place of honor, we surmise, probably reserved for missionaries or other guests. Pastor Alberto, an ostentatiously pleasant man, stands up to remind his flock to rejoice because Jesus is coming back. There are those, he says, who think we’re crazy for believing in Jesus, but one day they’ll see. The church prays together – everyone in unison, each praying his own thoughts to God. It is beautiful, and yet I find it distracting to my soul, accustomed as it is to Western-style quietness and contemplation.

Then Pastor Alberto announces our presence and the whole church stands and says in unison: “We greet you, our brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus. Be welcomed here.” After which, he invites us forward with our other missionary friends to share a brief testimonial. I shouldn’t be surprised, since the same thing had happened last week at a different church. But still, I stumble over my words as I try to explain who we are and why we have come here.

They say that the first cardinal rule of public speaking is knowing your audience, and I’m finding out just to what extent I don’t. The way I process my Christian experience is so different from how people do that here, what can I even share that will make sense? So I spit out a few disjointed thoughts about how I grew up in a Christian home and came here because I had heard there were people who still don’t have the Bible translated in their language, and I wanted to help with that. Bible translation, I wonder…is that even a concept to most folks here? Thanks to some courageous Catholic fathers, the Bible has a 34-year history in the local Makua language. Still, most people aren’t aware that there’s a mission headquarters just down the dusty main road dedicated to the translation of Scripture in the other línguas maternas. At least I know I am communicating something when I hear the pastor’s reinforcing “amens” behind my back and when I manage a few modest chuckles with a joke about our Brazilian accents.

We sit back down, and the singing begins. One song with everyone together. Then, one by one, just about every conceivable demographic segment dances up to the front to share a special number or three. The children. The youth. The women. Three sisters (plus some friends). Several other combinations of people where the unifying factor isn’t quite clear to me. The music is beautiful. Rhythmic, harmonious, acapella. Accompanied only by a bongo drum. Mostly in Makua, with a few Portuguese hymns mixed in. We don’t know what they are saying, but it is obvious that besides praising our Lord, everyone is just having fun. I imagine how up on this hill, away from schedules and smartphones and social media, worship must become a sort of recreational activity. People look forward to Sunday morning because the singing and dancing give them something to enjoy together. And enjoy it they do, making joyful noises to the Lord with little thought for the hour. I suppose even the non-believing neighbors must look forward to this event.

The time comes to collect the offering, and I reach preparedly for the coins in my pocket. Generosity is one of the highest values in Africa and tithes an important part of the worship here, so we decided our first week in this country that we would always try to bring something to give. Even if it’s just a token amount. Once everything is collected – an amount that couldn’t have exceeded a few dollars – Pastor Alberto looks at me and asks if I will pray to bless the offering. This too is not standard practice in my culture, but since I saw it done every Sunday last year in Brazil, I have at least some idea of what to say.

Maybe it was good that I didn’t preach today, because standing in my place is a gray-bearded visitor who has been sitting quietly next to the pastor combing his well-worn Almeida Bible. He is a simple man, and missing half his teeth, but his dignified appearance alone spells wisdom. Hearing him preach is something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. He is 95 years old, and the fact itself is proof why you should follow Jesus, he says. Even a much more conservative estimate would have him a survivor of Portuguese colonial rule, the Marxist revolution, and the Mozambican civil war. A walking history book – if only I had the chance to sit down with him over tea.

“Faith has no color,” the old man announces in a weathered, raspy voice, as he points to the missionary foursome and reminds all that, black or white, American or African, we are united by our belief in Jesus the Son of God. The elder’s words – all of them – are translated into Makua, an auditory reminder that there are more dividing walls in this room than meet the eye. He goes on to urge the church from Matthew 10:41 to receive us white folks as fellow believers in Christ. From there, we travel all over the New Testament, making several stops along the way but finally coming to rest on the theme of Jesus as the Son of God. “Other leaders — all they know how to do is kill,” he tells us. “Only Jesus raises the dead. Hallelujah!”

“Amen!” we respond, and back comes Pastor Alberto to conclude the service with an altar call. Three girls come forward to pray with the evangelist – a young, energetic man with a large gap in his front teeth. It is all in Makua, but the content is something like the “sinner’s prayer” we grew up with. Next, the pastor invites anyone to come forward for prayer for healing or general life needs. At his request, we each lay hands on and pray for one of the dozen or so parishioners who have come forward, while he and the deacons take the rest. The service is now over. In no time, we shake hands with everybody on our way out of the building.

On the bumpy drive home, I ponder that church is not something I can or ever should think of as a passive experience. Gone are the days when I can show up and simply consume. Maybe that’s not the point anyway. Because like it or not, here in an African church, everyone participates – from the pastor to the nervous green missionary to the two-year-old girl in her Sunday best imitating the singers as they dance down the aisle. It is exhilarating and nerve-racking and delightful. It enlarges your heart, and it keeps you on your toes.

Next week we’ll be visiting a different Mozambican church, in a different region of the country. But I plan to go prepared with a sermon outline. Just in case.

The Sender

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I’ve heard it never gets easier. We wave a goodbye that will last for years, and I wonder about you. You’ve assured us of your prayers and this call of God. You’ve given us a wealth, and we leave full of your kindness. You were a crowd behind us as we took that commissioned vow stretching open, praying hands to strengthen our spines.

Some people call it an adventure, others call it a sacrifice. Our life in Mozambique will be all that and more. No doubt about it, you’ll pray and give and encourage even more than you’ve promised. And I know this deep, and I want you to know it, too: we cannot do it without you. I’m cradling your face in two hands and saying it straight: you have given us courage. It will be our faces on the church wall and our skin on the stage in a few years. And we’ll all know that it was you and our great Father who stand behind and hold it all together.

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But while we step into the adventure that is the blank, you are heading back to an emptiness. A vacant basement bedroom. One less sister and brother to crowd your house at Christmas. Two fewer places to set for Thanksgiving this year. One less hug on a hard day. One less friend to marvel at the beauty of the bride you’ll be on your wedding day. A missing aunt and uncle to cheer on your first steps. We’ll miss your first words, your first soccer goal, your first job, your first boyfriend, your graduation, your hard decision, your doctoral recital, and your stories of the way it used to be. We’ll be absent the week you get the flu and need some soup and a fresh flower or the time you take up a new job and load the moving truck early on a Saturday.

Do you know that we will miss sharing life—all big and normal—with you? I ache to share your load, but life is an irony and I’ve laid that load on you. Our leaving leaves you with a heaviness, and I am overcome because not enough of something can be altogether too much.

How much easier it would be for all of us if Sam and I would just stay home. It makes me tremble to know that our leaving costs you. What courage you have to let us go. What strength you have to send—to propel—us forward when you would rather us stay. _DSC0256

Hear me when I say it: God’s work in you is wonderful and I know that full well. I can see you leaning into the Spirit and doing something you never would have chosen. And I’m so proud of you for being humble enough to follow Him when it’s hard.

In that moment before Sam and I have started the engine or boarded the plan, I’ve wanted to leave nothing unsaid. And my words have fled, and I have stood awkward. How could I sum up my heart for you in seconds? That last hug can’t express the gift that you are to me. And the last words won’t say how much I will miss you. It all feels awkward and not the way to end.

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It hit me a week ago watching you turn and head for home after a day or two of sweet moments together: good goodbyes are said long before the last farewell. We’ve done it, friend. Our bond is a treasure that needs no convincing because we have been living it in the everyday moments. I’m freed from the need to say it all because it’s all already been said.

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If Jesus has said anything clearly in these leaving days, it’s that He holds these things. These little losses that we carry, quietly, matter deeply to Him. You and I, we matter to the Living God. Our God is full of compassion. He knows how we are formed; he knows we are dust. He is close to the brokenhearted, and in Him, all things hold together.* In Him, we are held together. He is with me, and He is with you, and in Him, we are held together. In leaving, I leave you to Him, the best Shepherd.  There’s none better. And, dear sender, I leave you with the ancient blessing.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.**

*Ps. 116:5, Ps. 103:14, Ps. 34:18, Col. 1:17

**Num. 6:25

A Looking Back

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The rain, it’s coming down finally. Hard and heavy and just what we need. Our grandfather of a doorman, an old Brazilian man with slave roots and good stories, looked to the sky and said satisfied, “See, an answer to prayer!”

It should be normal this time of year, heaping clouds and afternoon rain bearing down on our skyline. But the sky is mostly dry these days, and the ground gets harder, and the water reserves for this city of a million dip low. Too low. And I’ve worried more about having enough water to do the laundry than about having a sunny day to hang it out.

So in our piece of the southern hemisphere, we don’t complain much when the skies do open. Tonight, we’re breathing a sigh of relief for the shower. Dry, hard ground finally softened.

We are not forgotten.

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It’s beginning to be the end of things here. A change of seasons, you might say. It’s the longest we’ve lived anywhere together yet, this eleventh story apartment with a tiled veranda and a bad couch. Eight whole months of this view, and we’ll leave it on Saturday for good.

Our stuff—and our hearts—are scattered as we pack up a life here. It’s a week of last things. At times, I’ve just felt heavy from the weight of an emptying.

But in being emptied of more people and places I’ve come to love, there’s the chance to live full of the present goodness of God. Leaving usually makes me look back long at the season passing. And this time, God’s hand is large in my looking.

The park a block up. Mango ice cream. Family and friends we miss. A home with a view of the sky. Dozens of hugs every day. Sufficient provision. Lunch with friends downtown. That doorman who is always giving God thanks and makes us glad to be home.

A missionary family whose kids call us Uncle Sam and Auntie Seesabeth and who buy us mango ice cream to celebrate small things.

A church family who spoke truth to us and taught us to know God better and told us they wished we would stay.

Friends, like Wellington and Souza and Dirlei and Ebenezer and Cristina and Rafael and and Beatriz and Thamires and Flavia and Brunno and Lais and Jonatas, who were really just our friends. Not just nice or good church people but friends who like and love you as you are.

Two people that are more one now than when we arrived. There’s been long conversations after dinner and stilted ones sitting on that bad couch at the end of a bad day. There’s been every Friday night together as each other’s only best friend. There’s been these months as foreign ones with moments that make us laugh or cringe or hold hands a little more tightly. This kind of bond doesn’t come easy or fast, and it’s God’s gift to us.

Goodbyes given with blessings—that God would go before you, that He would go behind you, that He would be a Rock underneath your feet, that His Name would be known and praised in your going. Must have been dozens of them on Sunday, and I left knowing I had been in the presence of God among His people.

And just today, words from a friend back home who said it’s okay to feel all the feelings, it’s okay that it’s hard to leave. Be gentle with yourself, she said.

The naming of God’s hand here brings water for the thirsty ones like me. The shadow of God’s hand is big and black and bearing down with all the weight and wonder of His goodness. It’s like the lifting of a drought. I breathe deep; I am not forgotten.

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Campinas, Brazil

We’ve loved living in Campinas these last eight months.  Here’s a look at some of the people and places we treasure.

Thanks in All Things Small

I came home with a harvest and twenty-five dollars fewer the morning I went to the market with a friend. And I spilled it all, green and red and the tropics, on my one kitchen counter and grinned at Sam. And it was five minutes of telling him about all the nothing—fruit vendors, a cobblestone street, sample pieces of pineapple, buying more oranges than I’d planned, and I want to go back next week.

I had gone out on my one morning at home, purchased produce in Portuguese, and liked it. It’s no lie that he said he was tickled. Because sometimes buying two mangos almost ripe is the biggest accomplishment in a day and worth celebrating. It’s small, but it’s good.

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I’ve lived over six months a child in this place, and there are things I do now successfully in my world here. Not fluent or genius or even more than a ten year old, but I can ask for tomatoes and get them. I can greet a stranger and make small talk. Or, as happened last week, I can get stuck in an elevator and call for help. It’s a relief to do simple life tasks without the need of a two-hour nap.

But even so, I can look at a day, and it was only a class and homework and a meal and one conversation at small group—and it feels small. Too small for small talk. My task is to learn a language, and language is learned one word at a time, and some words are very, very small. And with all the talk of thanksgiving that comes this time of year, I look around at my small, very ordinary day and wonder. What’s big enough here to say thanks for? Where is God in all this everyday? Inevitably, I thank God for all that I gave thanks for yesterday: the same piece of sky, the same sun, the same Sam who loves me real. Then I’m stuck because my life, it’s little sometimes, and God must be too big for my smallness.

It’s happened that as my world gets bigger, God gets bigger too. Or maybe my eyes that see Him just open a little wider. My mind frays to think of Him creating this world I see only in slivers. I know more of His creativity in creatures, fruits, flowers, and people than I ever have, and they are only a fraction of His masterpiece. It’s so much more abundant and stunning and hard than I ever imagined, and it’s just the beginning. And He’s vast and transcendent as I think of His love for the million in my city who live different from me. But as I see the world large, I feel small. What if I’m just lost in the crowd of this great, big, beautiful world? Does the Almighty see me in my corner of Earth in my piece of history? Can God be small too?

Sometimes this is my doubt, that God is big enough to be small. That He is great enough to live here in my little life.

But it’s also happened that I’ve leaned in and asked God to help me go out and buy tomatoes. I’ve asked Him to give me courage to walk out the door and greet my new friends. I’ve asked Him to be with me as I walk in a shop and ask for coriander. And He has, and that’s worth celebrating. He is worth celebrating because he has entered into my smallness—which is smaller than it’s been in awhile—and walked with me here.

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I grew up with parents who celebrated. It was usually ice cream or pizza after report cards, bike rides without training wheels, band concerts, Christmas vacation, job interviews, and last days of school. It didn’t take much for them to stop and rejoice over an accomplishment. And somehow, since leaving their nest, I forgot that celebrating is this continuous thing that draws you right up into the goodness of God. Life is lived right here in the small, and I miss much when I wait to rejoice only in the noteworthy. Celebration breaks the routine and my hard heart and speaks God here. Paul says to give thanks in all things—without measuring the size. Maybe celebrating small is also my thank offering that shows me the salvation of God? (Ps. 50:23)

Hagar and David and Bethlehem, they all say, “Yes, God can be small, too.” Hagar names Him the God who sees because he noticed her, the servant woman thirsty and abandoned in the wasteland. David praises the One enthroned in glory who stoops low to look on the heavens and the earth (Ps. 113:6). And Bethlehem is the smallest of all the tribes of one small nation chosen to welcome the baby Savior of a whole world.

So tonight, Sam and I sit on the couch and eat baked oatmeal with peaches and remember that one time we went to Maine, fresh in the glow of our covenant. We’re together on a Sunday evening at home, and that matters. And I’m giving thanks on the inside for gifts like these that speak God’s goodness in my story. Like my market morning, it’s hardly worth writing home about, but both these moments, they are worth seeing God in and giving thanks for. Because thanks for the small or the big is, in the end, all praise for this God who is as small as He is big.

 

Linking up with Velvet Ashes because there are weeks when God speaks the same word again and again, and I’ve thinking on this for days.