Sidewalk radio

When we worked in Abidjan in the early 1980s, we encountered a local expression “Radio Treicheville”. Treichville is a populous, working class neighborhood in Abidjan. Radio Treichville referred to the local rumor mill. When asked where a piece of information came from, the answer would often be “Radio Treshville”. The local equivalent of “I heard it on the grapevine.” Today, there is an actual Radio Treshville.

Then when we worked in the Congo, the expression changed to “Reed Radio”, after the reeds lining the Congo River in Kinshasa that constantly russled in the wind. It was also known as Sidewalk Radio and was such a potent force that the country’s strongman president Mobutu Sesse Seko had to pay attention to it while he was in power. The term was even picked up and used by a British historian.

I have seen rumors almost destroy programs to translate the Bible, or ruin the reputation of a perfectly good translation. With social media and the internet, sidewalk radio has more ways of spreading.

The grapevine, the rumor mill, radio Treichville, reed radio, sidewalk radio, bush telegraph, the word on the street, a little birdie told me, buzz; whatever words we use, it is part of life. No wonder the Bible says so much about it.

Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy; do you really want junk like that in your belly? – Proverbs 18:8

Like candy, it’s tempting and tastes sweet at first, but it ultimately fails to nourish. In the middle of this pandemic, Christians must beware of the sweet tasting tidbits coming from sidewalk radio.

Baby dedication

Working in Abidjan in 2016

Back in June 2016 when we were living in Abidjan, there was a baby dedication at the church we were attending. The pastor announced the husband’s name and he came forward quickly followed by his wife and a nanny (or perhaps friend) with the baby. Without being called, a group of family members and friends also came to the front. There were about 20. They had dressed to the nines for the occasion. Some of the women had dresses made out of the same cloth. The mother was all decked out in a stunning African dress, large jewelry and a decoration in her hair (not really a hat, but something small). Her hair was all done up. It was obvious that this was a big event for the couple and for the whole family. Some had traveled to be at the dedication. The baby had been born on March 12, so it was three months old.

Abidjan

The pastor announced the name of the child and everyone applauded loudly and for quite a while. There were also cries of joy. Evidently, this was when the name of the baby was first announced.

Many West African cultures have formal events / ceremonies where new babies are presented to the family and community. In Ghana they are called “outdoorings” because the mother and baby stay inside without visitors until the outdooring. So it’s the first time the baby is brought outdoors where everyone lives. (In traditional society people don’t live in their houses, but rather outside.) So going outdoors is to become part of the community.

The baby dedication had many of the same elements as a traditional outdooring – a family event attracting family members from afar, a community event involving the families’ neighbors, announcing the name of the baby, a celebration worthy of dressing up, etc. My guess is that no one sat down and thought about how to incorporate elements of an outdooring into baby dedications. Instead, it just happened. I probably witnessed the result of spontaneous contextualization.

Contextualization gets a bad rap and sometimes it deserves it. But often it involves adapting outward forms into Christian practice without changing or undermining Christian belief. Sometimes it even helps. The fact that many family members come to baby dedications, probably makes them a good opportunity to share the gospel, for example.

Things that didn’t happen

The news is about things that happen. Steven Pinker points out that we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” So things that did not happen usually go unreported, unless you are Jesse Smollet.

Disasters avoided are also not news unless it’s a close call. I read an article by a guy who worked in the the Bush White House on the president’s pandemic preparedness plan and it’s implementation. The president was gung-ho. At the time, this guy thought it was useless, unimportant work. He slogged through it. The effort hardly made the news, until recently, of course. If things that didn’t happen aren’t news, preparations for them are something even less. The Jesse Smollet exception to this rule is nuclear war. I grew up with preparations for nuclear war always in the news. We were big on preparing for that.

Can we make outbreaks of new deseases the kind of motivating threat that nuclear is, or at least was? SARS wasn’t enough, nor was MERS, although those were enough for places like Taiwan and South Korea. We can’t expect our politicians to put big efforts into things nobody cares about, that the news media passes over for any other story, and rightly so because we wouldn’t read it. Expecting politicians to put effort into something that has no hope of making the news or capturing voter interest; good luck with that.

The partisan blame game has predictably started. I would have preferred that we start with voter and news media repentence for deeming pandemic preparations unworthy of the news.

Life is fragile

In 2016, I took a short assignment in Cote d’Ivoire. Because Dayle had to stay in the US I was alone for several weeks before she joined me. The time difference meant that I would get up in the morning and look at the videos of my grandchildren that had arrived during the night. Then I would go to work.

So it was that one morning after enjoying my grandchildren’s antics, I went to my office and opened an email from one of our national translators. It informed me that he had lost one of his grandchildren after a short but severe illness. My buoyant mood was shattered.

Unfortunately, I have experienced this far too often. Endemic tropical diseases and weak healthcare systems leave children (and adults but especially children) at risk. The translator in question had chosen to live in a rural area because that is where the translation is happening. He is an educated man and many Africans with his level of education would not live in remote rural areas precisely because they lack good services such as health care.

Taking the Bible everywhere has risks. Are the risks too high? Let me answer the question this way. This man was living with exactly the same risks as the people he was serving. They live with those same dangers day after day, year in and year out. For many bibleless peoples, life where they live is fragile and they regularly experience that in very painful ways. The only way to be certain to avoid their risks is to cease to minister to them.

Church service in rural Ghana

Contingencies

Way back in early 2009, we were working in the Congo along with other Wycliffe colleagues. A civil war was ending which had caused all missionaries to flee. We were slowly trickling back into the country. In order to move back safely, we needed to develop a contingency plan. Contingency planning is a well-defined process for identifying and ranking the dangers in a specific environment, finding ways to mitigate them and then making plans for each important danger in case it happens.

Contingency planning participants

We decided to do the planning together with the staff of a Christian University, all Congolese. That worked out well because they foresaw things we didn’t. The first part of exercise involved making a list of disruptive events that might happen. We were all together in a room and each person was calling out disruptive events as they thought of them. One of the Congolese offered “a riot by the police or military”. It stopped me in my tracks. One of my Wycliffe colleagues questioned the item. All of the Congolese firmly defended it being on the list. So on the list it went.

Once we had listed all the disruptive events, we proceeded to estimate the likelihood that each would occur at least once in the coming five years. The Congolese all agreed that there was a 100 percent chance that the police or military would riot in the coming five years. It was less than two years afterwards that there was a riot by the military in the very town where we held the planning.

Working with Congolese clued us in to an event we would not have anticipated. I thought of this recently when I saw a newspaper article about police and military fighting each other in the streets of Haiti. Living in a country where the forces of order are governed by law is actually not that common in this world. Seeing the police or military riot was so far from my experience that I would have missed it completely were it not for the Congolese helping us with contingency planning.

My Ezekiel life

Early on in Oregon’s stay home order, I felt an urge to read Ezekiel. I think i was attracted to the outlandish vision of wheels in wheels in the first two chapters. But I found the subsequent chapters fascinating too.

First, there was this verse I didnt remember from chapter 3:

Then the Spirit came into me and set me on my feet. He spoke to me and said, “Go to your house and shut yourself in.

So, I’m not the first healthy person God has shut in.

Then, we sat down to a lunch of sandwiches made from bread made according to a recipe God gave Ezekiel:

“Now go and get some wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and emmer wheat, and mix them together in a storage jar. Use them to make bread. – Ezekiel 4:9

Then I was browsing through southern gospel music and Dry Bones by the Cathedrals began to play.

So I read the vision of the dry bones again (Chapter 37:1-14).

That dramatic vision is about a situation that is without life but which is then infused with life and giving rise to an army. Raising a recently deceased body to life is a miracle. How much more bringing back to life piles of scattered, disconnected, sun-baked bones?! Just getting the skeletons straight would take a forensic anthropologist. Maybe that pretty lady from Bones.

I’m still pondering what the Lord might be telling me through his weird prophet Ezekiel. Could I be in Ezekiel just for the weirdness? Is God saying that sometimes things are weird and he’s in that too? Or maybe even that He’s the author of some of it?

The plague

Have you ever wondered what happened to the plague? I don’t mean plague in the generic sense of an epidemic or pandemic. I mean, of course, the black death also called the bubonic plague. This is the desease that, after ravaging other continents, arrived by ship in Europe in 1347 and proceeded to killed one third of the population of Europe over the next five years, then periodically crop up in certain towns for another 300 years.

Northern Congo

When I worked in northeastern Congo, I learned that the World Health Organization registers about 2,000 cases of the plague worldwide every year, of which half occur in northeastern Congo. So I worked in plague alley, so to speak. Was I brave or foolhardy to work there? Hardly. The risk was very low. Our contingency plan said that there was a 100% risk of an outbreak of the plague and a zero percent chance it would affect us.

Why? Because the plague is treatable with any of a variety of inexpensive and widely available antibiotics. Virtually the only people at risk are those who contract it but do not seek treatment until the desease is advanced. Those who do seek timely treatment suffer no long term effects and return to health quickly. So we could walk plague alley with little concern.

There are still several regions where rodents carry the plague and sometimes pass it to humans. That includes most of the Western United States. If that’s where you live, and you’re just now learning that it’s a place where the plague is endemic, be assured, your fear of the plague should be the same as before. Rank it with polio.

The desease that struck fear in the hearts of all Europe now gets little attention except to make funny scenes in Monty Python movies. The thing that was furiously fought with the best methods known at the time, is now easily defeated with a simple treatment. Insignificance; that’s what happened to the plague.

Cubes

My sisters refrigerator makes ice. Two kinds of ice, no less. The display panel offers cubed or crushed. I chose cubed. This is what I got. I don’t know if this three-dimensional shape has a name, but if it does, it’s not a cube. Yet this is an ice cube. And I was not at all surprised, disappointed or indignate when I selected “cubed” and got this. I didn’t feel mislead or duped. I’m perfectly happy with my ice cubes that aren’t cubes at all. The ice cube trays (There’s that word again!) of my youth produced ice in the shape of cubes, roughly speaking. I suppose that’s how chunks of ice made for human use came to be called cubes.

How did it happen that we are happy to call something a cube that’s not at all a cube? Well, “ice cube” ceased to be a combination of two words each with its own meaning and instead developed one meaning. We still write it like two words, and we can take it apart into two words, but the two words together have one meaning. We recognize ice cubes that are not even remotely shaped like cubes proving that “cube” has lost its independent meaning when found in the combination “ice cube”. There are lots of such cases, like “the White House”. It’s still white, but it’s quite unlike most houses.

The correctness of considering ice cube as one word is shown by the fact that in other languages it is one word. In German it’s a compound word (like icecube), but in French it is one word (glaçon) that is not composed of two parts. Glaçon is derived from the word for ice but it has nothing to do with cubes.

When translating or interpreting the Bible, we can’t pull phrases like “ice cube” apart to determine their meaning. In fact, we should be a bit sceptical when preachers make a big deal of subjecting words and phrases to great scutiny especially when the result is a novel interpretation. God spoke to us in ordinary language which is subject to ordinary understanding. So don’t think you need deep scrutiny of words to understand. Or you might be like someone convinced by fancy reasoning that my sister’s refrigerator doesn’t make ice cubes. Or that a quarantine is not a real quarantine unless it last 40 days.

Humans and coronavirus

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:27-28

These verses have great relevance to the coronavirus pandemic. God told us “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.” Theologians call this the Creation Mandate or the Cultural Mandate. God, of course, has the right to run everything. But he has conferred on us the right and authority to be fruitful and govern the earth.

Some have understood those words as commands. They are more like blessings. The confusion comes because we use the grammatical form of a command, such as “Get the silverware”, in blessings such as “Get well soon”. No mafia type comes to a sick person, points a gun at them, and says “Get well soon or else!”.

In fact, we should think of these words as a mandate, which is a combination of a blessing and a granting of authority. When we elect a public official, we give that person a mandate. By virtue of being chosen by the people they have the authority of the people to carry out the specific responsibilities of the position to which they were elected. That’s their mandate. God has given all of us a mandate regarding creation. It comes with a piece of his authority to enable us to carry it out.

Older translations have “replenish the earth, and subdue it”. We actually have a mandate from God to subdue the coronavirus. This is not a magical mandate, but one that requires hard work, ingenuity and sometimes suffering. The coronavirus is a manifestation of Paul’s observation that:

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. – Romans 8:20-21

The virus is bad (a curse) but it is also an opportunity for “eager hope”. That hope is most certainly for the new heavens and new earth with no bad viruses. But it is more than that. It is also an eager anticipation of effective treatment and a vaccine on this earth.

The verses also say that we are made in God’s image. God creates. Because we are made in his image, we also create albeit on a lesser scale. We create our children, for example. But the mandate to be fruitful applies to more than children. We are to create good for our families and communities, wealth to share with others and to not be more of a burden to others than is good, and so on. Some of us are scientists who create new knowledge. One piece of new knowledge would be how to make a safe vaccine for the coronavirus.

Because of our creativity and our mandate, the coronavirus doesn’t stand a chance against humanity. God has given us the tools to knock it way down and perhaps even eliminate it. No previous plague has been addressed so quickly or effectively. Many are in some kind of isolation, but because of technology we still talk to each other and even see each other. Furthermore, the technology allows researchers across the world to collaborate better and faster. Our God-given creativity and mandate have shown up big time.

Of course, the virus will cause a lot of pain before that happens so we also need to deploy the compassion God gives us. Instead, some will go around proclaiming loudly that this is God’s judgment. Helping others and praying for medical professionals and researchers would probably be a better use of much of their time. Such people have their secular equivalents who think that humanity is the source of the planet’s problems. They will say that the coronavirus is nature striking back against our evil exploitation of it. They will talk of saving the planet, not humans. I just saw the following in a religious publication.

We have abused Mother Earth. The locust invasion in Kenya was a warning smoke that something was wrong.

There are scientific and historic answers to such claims, but there is also a case to be made against them based on the creative nature and mandate God gave us.

There’s reason to be concerned about our neighbors and ourselves. But let’s not wrap up our minds in a doomsday scenario that will make it even harder for us to help others. Let’s announce good news to those trapped in such scenarios.