The high point of my African experience was the people. I saw wild baboons on a hillside, vervet monkeys on roofs, and hyenas up close and personal, but they did not lift my soul as did the people. I ate goat meat, seasoned raw beef (didn’t know beforehand), and some of the best sambusa and fuul anywhere, but that didn’t rekindle hope like the people did. They blessed me. And not accidentally or casually, but intentionally and deliberately. This post is coming slowly because I keep pausing due to being overwhelmed on this point.
I traveled to Africa to bless them. But when I arrived, my friends stopped what they were doing and welcomed me. They guided me around and introduced me to their friends. And those friends welcomed me again. Loved me, as though we had known one another for years. In one of our meetings, I prayed for them – one by one, individually, because that’s why I traveled there, but in the next meeting they turned it on me. I’ve said in these virtual pages before that I deal with Tourette’s like symptoms; they prayed for this, and my wife and family, in addition to my career and goals, while the symptoms were manifesting in front of them. Two of the new friends – an Ethiopian and a Ugandan – served me tea and escorted me around, answering questions and showing me their world. They didn’t have to take that time. But there’s more.
One particular family stands out because they are barely eking by. When I showed up there to encourage them, I think I got the better end of the transaction, however unintentionally. They live in a concrete block shelter, with all 4 members of the family sleeping on one mattress on a concrete slab. But they set up a table and chairs and served hot coffee, sweet bread and fruit for the guests. As I and two other men sat at the table and talked, the wife sat on a lower stool waiting to serve us. I try hard to respect the customs and traditions of other cultures, but sometimes I feel compelled to take a risk and go against the grain. This was one of those occasions, and I did. I stood up and insisted, with her husband translating into Amharic for me, that she take my chair at the table while I pulled her stool up to the table for myself. She was reluctant. Her husband was reluctant. My friend was wary. I was resolute. At first she was embarrassed, for which I sympathized, as I had been embarrassed when all my friends insisted on praying for me, but then as I (through translation) explained that I understood the African custom but my custom was to treat women as equals and worthy of honor, she beamed. And so did her husband! We three men took the next several minutes to let her know how valuable she was, to her family, to her church, and to the Body of Christ. Not because it was politically correct – there was no politics there – because it was true. And then the pastor prayed for me and my family, career and the class I lead at church. My cup ran over. I gave from so much and He gave from so little. But this is when it dawned on me that I was misunderstanding a key truth.
Let’s return to the prayer service with friends where they prayed for me. By the end of that, I was a mess. I was twitching and convulsing so badly that I couldn’t speak well. I don’t like people to see me in that condition, and one of the friends recognized this and escorted me on a walk around the block to decompress. As we were walking through the rocky, dusty, trash littered streets of Ethiopia, my twitches began to wane and I saw a woman sitting on the side of the street. She was dressed in dirty clothes but covered such that we could tell she was a modest muslim woman. The wrinkles of her face and hands betrayed the frailty of her old age. The cloudiness of one of her eyes betrayed her blindness. The other eye seemed to look further than I was capable of seeing with both of mine. Again, I broke custom and sat on the curb close beside her. I used a translator to gain permission to hold her hand and pray for her. She said yes and before I could start, she began praying. My friend told me she was thanking Allah for me and asking Allah to bless me. My eyes welled up. My spirit soared. My twitches stopped. I swear we were praying to the same God. This honestly hurt my “Christian” brain. After several minutes of her sincere blessings for me, I was even more moved than I was initially, and so I knelt in front of her, where she could maybe see where I was, held both of her hands and prayed for her. I felt her love, and I believe she felt my love, as one human for another, from opposite walks of life, opposite skin tones, warring religions, and distant countries, but breathing the same air. This was the high point of my journey. She objected to my taking a picture, and looking back, I think that’s for the best, as this is a better spiritual memory than physical.
The friends in Africa were not blessing me ex nihilo (out of nothing), as my materialist mind suggested, they were blessing me ex infinitas (out of infinity). Not from what they had, but from who they were. From the infinite love within them. This is how God blesses. Not from what He has, or because of what we don’t have, but from who He IS. That’s the best kind of blessing.