Tuesday, April 26, 2011

do different worldviews make a difference?

The contrast between the observance of the Easter season in Zambia and at home in America reflects a deep cultural difference in worldview. I have been thinking about what we can learn from each other.

The first thing I noticed here was the absence of any special observance of Lent. In many mainstream Protestant and all Catholic churches in America, there are Ash Wednesday services to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. This is the time when we remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and preparing for his ministry. Many church members use Lent as a time for study and reflection in preparation for Easter. The custom of fasting has diminished in importance, but some people give up a food or a habit or an activity as a symbol of self-sacrifice. The church may be decorated differently and the hymns change to reflect the more somber mood of the season. In Zambia, I noticed no difference at church worship or activities. [However, I recalled that every couple of months, there are all-night prayer and fasting services at our church on weekends, and this is a popular occurrence in all churches.]

Here, the Easter observance begins the full week before Easter Sunday. Well-attended services took place each day. To my amazement, these Holy Week services were full of joyful music and praise. Even more than usual! When the beat of the song was strong and fast, older women would at first stand up in the pews and move to the beat, then come forward and dance traditional dances, accompanied by ululations. A few younger men and women would join them, but the spirit clearly was especially present among women of a grandmotherly age. They radiated spiritual energy, bordering on ecstasy. Even the Good Friday service was upbeat. One day during the week, we actually sang "Joy to the World", in Bemba, and no one but the Muzungus thought it odd to be singing a Christmas carol in April.

The tempo and exuberance of the services seemed to increase as the week progressed. Although I was feeling under the weather and did not attend Holy Thursday services, I could hear the singing and dancing all the way to my house, a fair distance from the church. (Turns out they take the service outdoors with candles on Thursday, and sound travels far on this campus.) I did attend Good Friday, and again it was joyful. The emphasis was not on the suffering of Jesus, but on the gift of forgiveness and redemption he represented by his sacrifice.

I was discussing this with Ryan, a young minister from the USA who is working here. He and Molly, his minister spouse, were giving their training in another location during Holy Week, and they reported the same kind of services there. His idea, with which I agree, is that in America, we have mostly given up the concept of sin. I thought about the public figures who have apologized for their misdeeds by saying "mistakes were made" or, a littler more honestly, confessed "I made a mistake." I don't think that calling the offense a mistake is quite the same as facing up to the reality that I did something reprehensible that hurt other people and I am sorry for it (not just sorry for being caught.) I've seen occasional statements of repentance, but mostly our culture isn't very preoccupied with acknowledging our personal or corporate sins.

Anyway, Ryan said that in America we need to be reminded of sin and its cost, and for Christians that happens on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Here in Zambia, personal sin is a culturally accepted concept, mentioned often and emphasized in prayers and in those old-fashioned hymns we sing. In fact, daily life is often seen as consumed by struggles with the devil and temptation. Most of the messages in chapel are about personal morality. So much attention is focused on trying to avoid sin that people give much less emphasis to the potential for good that is within, and the importance of cultivating their strengths and gifts. And this preoccupation with personal sin means there less focus on the need to listen for God's promptings in leading one into new challenges, new ways to work to carry the messages of love and redemption into the world.

So my thought is that we could each learn something from the other about life and how to work with the human condition--imperfect, struggling, looking for the best way to live meaningfully. We in America could stand a little more serious thought about sin and about the effects of our behavior on others. In Zambia they could benefit from less moralistic judgment of self and others, and more focus on co-creating the world of peace, love, and forgiveness modeled by Jesus.

Monday, April 18, 2011

an easter surprise

Sometimes in Zambia people make amazing things happen on very short notice.

When I left for my trip to Arizona at the end of March, my Community-Based Intervention Strategies class was continuing their work on four projects to improve the social life on campus. They had reinstituted movie/game nights every Saturday evening and were helping prepare refreshments each week. Sports practice and competitions were underway, including scheduled games with teams from nearby institutions. A debate was set to take place during my absence. The topic was whether traditional African gender roles were detrimental to women. (The side arguing for the proposition won.) The final project, a campus-wide talent show, was still under discussion, to take place in early May.

Upon my return, the talent show had been transformed into an Easter concert, and it would be happening the following Friday! The chaplain had organized a worship planning committee to guide his work. When they met the first of April, they decided that MEF should celebrate Easter in some way before the students returned home for the Easter week break April 16-25. Several students from my community class were on this committee. When an Easter concert was mentioned, they recognized that this could include song, dance, poetry, drama--everything intended for the talent show except the eating contest. The students knew that many singing groups were already practicing for Easter, including our own Echoes of Joy. They also knew that MEF could probably only provide financial support for one event of this kind during the semester. To avoid competition, they collaborated on the new idea.

The concert took place at Charles Fisher Hall and included choral offerings, a re-enactment of the Last Supper, interpretive dance and traditional dance, a poem, and even a clown-like character interpreting gospel music. The Director and several staff came as well as students and people from our sister institutions on campus (the YWCA, the Anglican seminary, Theological Education by Extension Zambia, and the theology college.) Some of the choirs were from these other institutions as well as neighboring schools. It went on from 5-9 pm, and everyone considered it a great success.

Easter is an important festival time here. Yesterday was Palm Sunday. There was a huge gathering in Kitwe of many of the area churches of all denominations for an early morning procession, everyone carrying palm branches and singing. Participants marched for awhile, then stopped for a message or an anthem by one of the choirs, then processed again. That took place from 7 am to 10 am. Then each congregation went to its own church to have a worship service, mostly lasting until noon or 1 pm. The rest of the week there will be daily services, becoming more somber as the week progresses through Good Friday, then joyful again on Easter Sunday. I have not encountered any of our traditions of the Easter bunny or colored eggs or baskets of candy, but most families will share a festive meal.

I wish all of you a blessed Easter, however you observe the holiday.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Overwhelming, Wonderful, and Troubling

The 2-week gap in my blogging came about because of my absence from Zambia. Going back to the USA for a brief visit was all of the following: overwhelming, wonderful, and troubling.

The overwhelming part was the faster pace, the multitude of products for sale, the garbage-free streets, all the contrasts with Zambia. I could turn on my computer and the Internet would be there--no waiting, no need to use a mobile Internet device. The roads were smooth. Stores were huge and full of stuff. I kept getting lost in Target as I hunted for items from my list of things to take back to Zambia: wind-up flashlights, good pens, basketballs, and more. Shopping for computers for MEF was a dizzying experience in Best Buy. The technician would explain various features and the distinctions between this laptop and the next one. Even with price range and most important characteristics specified (as cheap as possible while assuring durability and reliability for general word and data processing purposes), there were still many choices and decisions to make. I kept noticing that everyone was wearing shoes all the time, and few people walked anywhere in Tucson.

The wonderful part was being with my children and grandchildren and seeing friends. We had a delightful event for the Andy Nichols Fund, held jointly with the Dr. Augusto Ortiz Fund, to celebrate the continuing work on rural health, border health, mobile health outreach, and advocacy for health care for all. One of the students who received a Nichols Fund scholarship told about her project just over the border in Mexico. She is working with a group of people with disabilities. They have designed a durable custom-fit wheelchair which is stable when used on rough and rocky roads. They now manufacture these chairs for others as well as for their own use.

In addition to this event, we held a brief commemorative service and placed Andy's ashes in the columbarium at First Christian Church while I was home in Tucson. The columbarium was Andy's dream. The garden area is a peaceful place to visit, and it felt good to remember him there. It seems hardly possible that it has been ten years since his death...

The troubling part of the visit was encountering the regressive policies and practices that dominate the political scene in Arizona. So many of the decisions and actions at the state and national level are eroding the foundation of our society. Where is our sense of community? Why is there so much greed and fear? How is it that we are not outraged by the dwindling middle class and the growing gap between the super-rich and all the rest of us? We are starving the universities and transferring much of the cost of higher education onto the student. How will they manage that debt? America is becoming less a land of opportunity and more a place of struggle to provide for basic survival necessities. Should there be so much need for food stamps and community food banks in a country of such abundance?

Here in Zambia, life is also a struggle, and many people do not have even the most basic needs met on a daily basis. But life seems fairer somehow without the huge discrepancies in salaries and lifestyles. And here we sing and dance a lot. America somehow felt a lot grimmer.

I have decided to stay in Zambia until December 2011. There is meaningful work for me here. It is a time of learning, reflection, study, and service. I believe that I am meant to be here for this time. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers.