As I type it’s mid-December and our Christmas card count is currently ten! A small fake tree sits in the corner of our lounge and a few homemade decorations hang on the wall as Ruth attempts to make it feel a bit more festive. However, it’s hard to feel festive when the temperature is 35 degrees, the humidity level is a sweaty 70%, the monkeys are chattering noisily in the tree outside, and the portable fan is whirring away on its top setting! But what is ‘feeling festive’ all about? Surely that depends on which part of the world you come from and your normal experience of how you celebrate Christmas. In the West the traditional festive image seems to be summed up in these words: mince pies and turkeys, Christmas trees and nativity sets, woolly jumpers and crackers, families and presents, and mulled wine being sipped whilst standing around a roaring log fire, having just come in from a carol service at a quaint village church which is covered in snow!
Well, those images and pictures are certainly not present here in Tanzania, which means we get to see Christmas through a very different lens. For the vast majority of people here, there won’t be a Christmas lunch and there won’t be an array of presents sitting under a tree. Forty percent of the population is Muslim, but even for many of the Christians it will simply be a ‘normal’ day with a meal of ugali and beans, and, as a treat, maybe a chicken. There will be numerous church services where the birth of Jesus is celebrated, some of which will be loud and long, but there won’t be many nativity plays (some might utter the word ‘thankfully’!) or carols, and there certainly won’t be mulled wine! There won’t be a Queen’s speech to listen to, although it would seem the new Tanzanian president has already made his Christmas speech by declaring a ban on his government officials sending Christmas cards using public money! Some people have cried ‘bah humbug’ but most Tanzanians have welcomed his cost-cutting measures as he seeks to trim unnecessary government spending.
As I drove back from meetings in Dar es Salaam yesterday I was struck how much easier it is here in Tanzania to imagine what it might have been like on that original Christmas Day. There were shepherds out in the fields (and along the roadside!) cajoling their flocks and herds, leading them to pasture and water. Many of them were Masai men or boys, wearing their traditional garb, seeking to protect their animals from the passing traffic! It was to people such as this that God sent the most incredible angelic choir of all time to announce the birth of a saviour! In the rural areas people were out and about with hoe in hand, planting up their plots with maize and trying to take advantage of the recent rains. Whilst cars and motorbikes are certainly on the increase, many people still walk to their destinations, and in the rural areas, you can still see rickety old carts being pulled by plodding donkeys or oxen, and occasionally, certainly on the outskirts of Morogoro, you’ll even catch a glimpse of a small herd of camels!
And then there are the pictures of poverty that abound here, some of which leap off the pages of scripture. There are the street beggars, the deranged, and the homeless who wait at ‘the city gate’, or outside the mosque or the mini-market! There are the women wrapped up in their colourful kangas and saris. There are those who plod wearily home with a bundle of firewood strapped to their backs so they can prepare their evening meal over an open fire.
There are those who have to draw their water from a well; those who haul their water home in used plastic cooking-oil containers! At one point I saw an elderly lady crouching over a roadside puddle trying to funnel some of the cleaner water into a plastic bottle, presumably for her to drink.
Many of the mud-brick huts that I passed along the way made it easy for me to imagine the squalor of a stable scene; chickens scratching around the doorway and goats milling around outside. Having been here for over two years now there is a tendency for these images to lose their shock value and I need to be reminded that I lead such a privileged life and that life, for many, is so tough.
I imagine that life was somewhat tough for Mary and Joseph too! Sometimes, due to our romanticised and sanitised view of that first Christmas, we often forget the shock-value of what was really happening! Here is a young teenage girl who’s had to try and explain to her parents and her ‘righteous’ fiancé that she is pregnant……… with the Son of God! Where do you start?! Here is a young woman who has accepted the words of a powerful angelic being and whose response has been “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Wow!! Here is a heavily pregnant girl who has had to travel over 60 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, just because the Roman authorities have said they must. Here is a young woman who has had to give birth in a cowshed because there wasn’t any other option, and who then lays her firstborn child in a cattle feeding trough, where just a short time before, the cows have been munching. Let’s be honest, what woman would want such a situation for her first experience of childbirth!? And here’s a young woman who has seen a bunch of excited shepherds (the outcasts of society) crowd into her humble maternity suite just a few hours later, no doubt smelling of their profession, to ‘glorify and praise God’ for the arrival of this swaddled baby. Oh the shock value!
And in all of these incredible scenes, at the centre of all that is happening, lies the Son of God, the firstborn over all creation, the Word becoming flesh, God ‘putting on skin’, the second person of the trinity pitching his tent amongst humanity! Oh the shock value – but oh, how marvellous and humbling and awe-inspiring is this plan of salvation hatched by the Almighty God! Father, as we celebrate the birth of your son the Lord Jesus Christ, as we seek to sift the meaningful from the trite this Christmas time, help us to marvel in reverence at what you have done for us, help us “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” as he stooped to become one of us – in order to save and restore humanity to a right relationship with God. And furthermore, help us “to know this love that surpasses knowledge that we may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.”
I’ll leave you with a quote from the Victorian preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who suggests that the squalid and shocking surroundings of Jesus’ birth were intended to show the humility of Christ and his association in life with the poorest and the lowest in society: “Would it have been fitting that the man who was to die naked on the cross should be robed in purple at his birth? Would it not have been inappropriate that the Redeemer who was to be buried in a borrowed tomb should be born anywhere but in the humblest of sheds? The manger and the cross seem to fit together well, encompassing the whole of his earthly life. He is to wear peasants’ clothing; he is to associate with fishermen; the lowly and the sinners are to be his disciples; the cold mountains are often to be his only bed. Nothing therefore could be more fitting for a man who is laying aside all his glory and taking upon himself the form of a servant that he should be laid in a humble feeding trough.”
The past month – and the next few:
I think the last six weeks can best be summed up with these phrases: management meetings, monetary matters, missionary reviews, translation work and preaching appointments, a bishops’ retreat, a team retreat, a very loud and hot AIC church celebration, a four day holiday on the beach, and even the wielding of a bow-saw as I got to do some tree work at our AIM guesthouse! We’re looking forward to a break over Christmas and then we’ll head into the home straight of our first term here, continuing to finish up our current work as well as making preparations for our home assignment beginning on 8th March. There are obviously a number of churches and AIM prayer groups that we hope to speak at during our six months in UK, but we’ll let you know nearer the time as to where they’ll be happening, on the off-chance you want to come along and listen! Whilst I’m aware you’ve probably got Christmassy matters on your mind, for those who like to plan summer hols well in advance, here’s an option for some of you to consider! God willing I will be leading another Oak Hall trip to Israel in June 2016 and it would be great to have some familiar faces on the trip! If you are interested, please go to www.oakhall.co.uk and click on the “Israel & Palestine” link – and see trip code IS16 for more details.
As we come to the end of the year we want to say again how thankful we are for your support and partnership in the work we’re involved with. To those of you who support us financially and prayerfully, thank you so very much. We’re blessed to be backed-up by folks such as you, and we look forward to being able to say a personal ‘thank you’ to many of you during the middle period of next year! I think our prayer requests for the next few months would be these:
- That we would finish this first term well;
- That we’d prepare as well as we can for home assignment;
- That we’d be able to do well the hand-over process of our various responsibilities to our team members;
- That the church here in Tanzania would become more Christ-centred,
- And that we’d know the love of Christ more and more in our lives.