I’ve been in a lot of uncomfortable situations. Without going into too many details, I’ve done public speaking, which I’m told most people fear more than death. I’ve eaten some very sketchy meals and stayed in even sketchier places. I’ve traveled on some very dangerous roads. So in my own mind at least, it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable. Or so I thought.
My last trip to Ethiopia was supposed to be a documentation trip. My function, at least in my own head, was to take photos and videos. It’s what I do for a living and it’s what I’m comfortable with. Furthermore, when I’m taking pictures, there is a bit of a disconnect that happens by looking through that electronic device between myself and the subject, rendering the uncomfortable and the difficult just a little bit more palatable. Sunday that was taken away from me. One of the things on my shot list was to go to a particular local church of about 700 and take pictures of the service. A vehicle and a translator was procured. The plan was to show up, get some pictures, and get back out again. After all, I had to get back to finish work on the Tesfa Center, which was opening that afternoon, and there was still a lot to do.That plan went right out the window.
What happens when you are the only representative from an organization that shows up to a church that said organization has been supporting? Guess what? You’re preaching today.
I had about 40 minutes notice. There were no excuses, nor was I going to make any. Didn’t they know I’m just the photographer? Apparently not. We entered the church, and as tradition dictates, guests sit up on the stage with the pastor and the elders. You would think I wouldn’t have a hard time thinking of what to say. After all, I have 150 or so blog posts to draw from. But for some reason, none of that seemed to fit in a church I’ve never been to, in a language I don’t speak. I’ve preached before in Africa, but I knew a long time before that it was coming and spent quite a bit of time preparing. It’s not one of my highest skills.
My time came and I got up and spoke. To say the least, my sermon was short, maybe five minutes. I talked about the long legacy of following Christ in Ethiopia, all the way back to Peter speaking to the Ethiopian eunuch in the first century. I spoke about how it was possible that a missionary from Ethiopia may have been responsible some time in the past for the salvation that my family was blessed to have. I talked about how we follow Christ not because we have to, but because we have gratitude to our Father, who even while we were enemies of God, sent his son Jesus to sacrifice for us. I can only hope that I made some kind of coherent sense. One of the verses I said was translated wrong (the wrong verse was translated.) I can only hope this was divinely inspired. After all, if Balaam’s donkey could speak by the Spirit of God, there’s hope for me as well.
I finished, and the translator was quite surprised that I was done already. (That’s what you get when you ask the photographer to preach.) But it wasn’t over yet. I asked the translator if it would be rude to leave early, because I really did have a tremendous amount of work to finish. The answer of course was yes. Not only that, but I would be going to the pastor’s house with all the elders and deacons for a meal afterward.
The thing about missions is that there is a plan you start out with, and usually there’s an entirely different series of events that happens that looks nothing like that plan. Missions is not for the inflexible, and there’s a time to just give in and go with what happens. This was one of those times.
I sat down to the meal with some very gracious hosts who put an extravagant meal together by Ethiopian standards. There were two kinds of meat in a place where meat is not usually served at all. There was a spicy bean stew, and even bottles of soda. All of that was fantastic…….except for the injira bread, and that was where my second event taking me out of my comfort zone happened.
Injira is an acquired taste. It’s a spongy bread made out of a grain called teff. Injira, when fresh, isn’t bad. It’s used in place of silverware. You rip a piece of it off, and scoop up whatever is on the plate. It comes before the rest of the meal, and you unroll it and put your other food on top of it. This is all fine.
The problem is the Ethiopian taste for fermented injira. Lots of Ethiopians consider the flavor better after it’s had a few days to ferment, and fermented injira bread gets VERY, VERY, did I say VERY sour. If my Ethiopian friends are reading this, I’m sure you are laughing at me right now, but the injira I ate was so sour, I thought the meat with it had gone bad. Nevertheless I knew it wasn’t going to kill me, and I put on the best face I could as I choked it down and tried not to insult my very gracious hosts.
So where does this bring us? As with all things in missions, there are the plans we walk in with, and there are the plans that God has. Frankly, I was wrong to pigeon hole what I thought God’s plans were to simply taking pictures. He wanted me to preach that day, and not take pictures. He wanted me to engage in community and not work on the Tesfa Center. John 3:8 says “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
When I made that decision to follow Christ, I gave up the right to tell him what I will and will not do. The events of that day were a good reminder of that, and will allow me to be more prepared next time, perhaps at a time and place where the stakes are higher.