My Easter Ham

When I was growing up in the American midwest, the main dish on Easter Sunday was a pretty well-established tradition: ham. Everyone gathered to celebrate with a smorgasbord of dishes and desserts, and the hefty piece of pig flesh took the central place. Spoonfuls of potatoes, bread, vegetables and other sides fell into orbit on each plate around the pinkish oval of sliced ham.

As a young adult, I dug deeper into study of my Christian faith, and came to the inevitable recognition that Jesus, during his life on earth, lived as a Jew in the land of Israel, and would have eaten according to Old Testament dietary laws. When he celebrated the passover with his disciples, he would have eaten from the passover lamb. There would not have been ham on the table, since it would have been in stark violation of Old Testament Law. More than once, I have either lampooned or laughed at the irony that most years of my life I have eaten ham on Resurrection Sunday to celebrate the greatest moment in the life of the greatest Jew that ever lived!

Two years ago, I found myself celebrating the same holiday in a setting where roasting a ham would have been unthinkable. Our Sunday celebration of the Lord’s resurrection included Muslim friends who had agreed, because of our friendship, to come and share in our holiday meal. Our house was filled with the aroma of leg of lamb roasting in the oven. I can truly say that it was a joy, not a sacrifice. I would choose lamb over ham any day, all things being equal!

But flavor aside, there’s a reason to appreciate the different menus for Christian holidays in different part of the world. The ham on the plates of many of us gentile believers is one more reminder of how Jesus is the Lord and Savior for all peoples everywhere. It’s a reminder of how the Lord values the diverse cultures humans have developed and validates many parts of them, allowing Christian faith to flourish with distinctive practices in a wide variety of places. (Even while working to redeem those living in diverse places in a way that transforms even the darkest aspects of their societies).

A reader of the New Testament will not have a hard time recognizing that we are free to make ham – or any other meat forbidden in Israelite law (Easter lobster, anyone?) – the center of our meals and celebrations based on Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and the principles of Paul’s teachings in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 & 9. In my opinion, it reflects the genius of the church on mission in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit guides the church to recognize that many specific Hebrew practices can be set aside in non-Jewish churches in order to focus on what’s most important: that people can be drawn into worship of Jesus Christ and become part of the people he is forming out of all nations of the world as members of his everlasting kingdom. Thus, in the early days of the church, Romans and Greeks (and in later days Germans, French, English…Americans, when our country finally came into existence) could celebrate in this beautiful, hilarious irony: an event that began with a Passover lamb for the people of Israel is now celebrated in many nations with an Easter ham! Some claim that even the name “Easter” comes from the name of a pagan holiday, though the historical evidence for this claim is debated. Even if this claim is true, though, I think that our response should not be to expunge the name from church usage, but to laugh out loud at the remarkable victory of God through the church that it represents. After all, hardly anyone thinks of the pagan god some claim was once worshipped on a day called “Easter.” Instead, millions in the English-speaking world ponder the magnificent victory of Christ in the resurrection!

But I will not resign myself to a lifetime of Easter ham just yet, because I have a biblical basis for eating the lamb I prefer – especially when living among Muslim neighbors, who follow similar food laws as Jews. For just after one of those passages in which Paul affirms the freedom to eat meat that has not been deemed pure by the law, he speaks of his readiness to adapt his eating and behavior for the sake of focusing on the gospel:

‘For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. ‘ 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Through the New Testament, then, I have made peace with both Easter ham and Easter lamb. In my home overseas, I will savor the taste of lamb and seek opportunity to invite my friends and neighbors into the story of the Lamb of God, the star of the story of Easter. I pray that the people groups living around me will understand the significance of what He did at Easter. I will do everything I can to make the body of Jesus, broken for us, the focus, not which type of animal flesh we are serving at mealtime. And when I’m treated to a non-Kosher, non-Halal menu in my North American home, it will call me back to the wonder of the Savior for all peoples, the Lamb who can bring glory to himself even through an Easter ham.


Jonah and the Anti-Jonah (3 of 3)

The book of Jonah, as you probably know, is in the section of the Hebrew Bible that we call the “Minor Prophets.” What you may not know is that, in early Hebrew bibles, these twelve prophetic books were all copied onto one scroll. In Hebrew, then, the whole collection of twelve Minor Prophets takes the title: “The book of the Twelve.” This may have been a practical decision: they were all too short to get their own scroll, so they were grouped together. But some scholars also note broad, overall themes which tie the individual books together. While the twelve individual books are separate and easily distinguishable in a book-form Bible nowadays, early scribes and scholars would likely have seen them as one unit since the twelve prophets’ writings were together on one scroll back .

(As a side note: It makes me think that, with the invention of the codex and its pages, old-time scribes must have sat around bemoaning how their progressive young students – “kids these days” – just didn’t know how to take the time to read a good scroll, since their attention spans had been ruined by all this new-fangled “flipping pages.” But back to the subject…)

In my previous posts, we looked at how the message of the book of Jonah is more robust when we examine the entire book at once, including all of its narrative details. Now I want to take one step back and ask, Would our understanding of the book change if we looked at it with reference to the books around it? Is the message of Jonah related to other prophetic writings in “The Book of the Twelve”? And if so, what more can we learn?

To begin, what can we say about the twelve books? They proceed roughly in chronological order, starting with messages given when both Israel and Judah existed as independent kingdoms (Hosea-Micah). They then lead to oracles delivered to Judah after the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed (Nahum-Zephaniah). Finally, the last three prophets are heard, whose messages were delivered after the return from exile, when God’s people were restored to their land (Haggai-Malachi).

The book named for the prophet Jonah is an oddity among the other books of the minor prophets in terms of style. The majority are composed of oracles: messages that were spoken by the prophets on behalf of the Lord, usually with a group of listeners in mind. Jonah, however, is primarily a story about the prophet’s own actions (and attitudes). Out of the twelve books, only two give us a real glimpse into the soul of the prophet/author instead of focusing on the words of a message from God to the people. One of these books is Jonah, and the other is Habakkuk.

Jonah and Habakkuk’s books focus on portraying their experiences with God rather than announcing their messages. Jonah’s experiences are portrayed through a story: a narrative of how the prophet responded to God’s actions of mercy toward a wicked nation. The book includes a psalm composed by Jonah. Habakkuk’s experiences are portrayed through a dialogue, revealing the inner workings of his mind and soul. In this, the prophet seeks the Lord’s response to the evil dealings of the people of Judah and of the Babylonians, who will be sent to punish Judah. Here, the Lord responds to his questions.  And like Jonah, the book of Habakkuk includes a psalm.

Interestingly, these two books, which stand out for their literary styles, have also been placed in what we could call symmetrical locations in the Book of Twelve: Jonah is the 5th from the beginning, and Habakkuk is the 5th from the end. In my humble opinion, this is an intentional symmetry, and we are meant to notice these two prophets and to see what’s going on in their hearts and minds. I believe Jonah and Habakkuk serve as representatives of the two parts of the Jewish nation mentioned in the prophets.

Lest you think I’m just playing a silly math trick with this 5-in-5-in routine, let me put this in the context of the messages of the twelve books in this scroll. The prophets who spoke before the exile repeatedly address two themes: impending judgment for sin on the unrepentant, and the restoring of a faithful remnant after a time of punishment. The Minor Prophets who came before Jonah showed the unfaithfulness of Israel and Judah despite God’s faithfulness (remember Hosea and his wife?). In Jonah, we see a representative of this disobedience and lack of repentance: a servant of the Lord who, despite the specific attention and help God gives him, stubbornly refuses to repent and accept God’s will.

But most of the prophets up to the time of Habakkuk speak not only of judgment on sinful Israel, but also of the future restoration of a faithful remnant. The Prophets who come after Habakkuk focus on the faithfulness of God toward this remnant. He delayed punishment under the repentance and reforms of Josiah (in Zephaniah). He allowed for the rebuilding of the temple once he had restored the remnant to the land (in Haggai). He gave them a governor who was a descendant of David (in Haggai and Zechariah). In Habakkuk, we see a representative of the faithfulness of a part of Judah: he is a servant of the Lord who, despite great hardship and sorrow, remains steadfast, repents, and embraces God’s will.

To summarize, I believe we are meant to understand Jonah as personifying the stubbornly unrepentant people as a whole, and Habakkuk as the representative of the faithful remnant. Together, they reveal the choice presented to Israel, and, by extension, to us – the choice between stubborn, selfish non-repentance or steady faith in God. Unlike Jonah, Habakkuk contemplates the coming judgment on his people, yet expresses a deep and unwavering faith in God. He heeds the Lord’s statement that “the just shall live by faith.” He chooses to trust God, whether he understands or not. He chooses to praise God, whether he prospers or not.  This stark contrast between the two prompts the question in my mind: Is Habakkuk the “anti-Jonah”? Let’s take a deeper look at these two prophets.

Like the Israelites throughout the Old Testament, Jonah is given a special calling by God, but, rather than carrying it out, he disobeys. This is exactly what the prophets of God rebuke the people of Israel and Judah for doing. When God takes dramatic measures to preserve Jonah and give him another chance, Jonah gives thanks, but he is never repentant. This is not unlike the people of Israel in the book of Judges, where God rescues them again and again, but true repentance never takes place! When Jonah finally follows God’s instruction, he grudgingly carries out God’s command by his actions while his heart remains far from the Lord, a familiar pattern in Israel. Jonah’s attitude underscores this powerful prophetic message, later carried by Jesus to the Pharisees: conformity to laws without repentance falls short of what the Lord seeks from his people!

The events of Jonah’s book take place in a time when he and the nation of Israel were in secure and prosperous circumstances. God had given them victory in battle, as prophesied (by Jonah, if we accept him to be the prophet referenced in 2 Kings 14:25). God’s people were blessed economically in spite of the unrighteous king Jeroboam II. Perhaps it was this dominance and prosperity that made Jonah’s pride just too great to accept God’s mercy toward a repentant rival capital – Nineveh. The shade the Lord gave Jonah from the vine reflects an extra measure of comfort and abundance given as a gift despite the fact that his heart was not aligned with God’s. If we see him as a representative, this comfort evokes the security and abundance given to the entire nation in the time of Jeroboam II. Jonah’s anger over the loss of his shade reveals his resentment toward the rival Nineveh and any loss of personal comforts on their account. He is like the people of his nation, who, rather than pointing other nations to God, follow the flawed mindset that the God of Israel cares only about Israel. He represents the Hebrew people described by the prophets as living in luxury, yet facing impending judgment for unfaithfulness (Amos 6:1-7). Jonah’s heart is hard, and no amount of victory, prosperity or comfort could change his heart.

Let’s return to Habakkuk, whose circumstances and responses are quite opposite from Jonah. In Habakkuk’s book, we get a window into the soul of a man grappling with injustice, wrongdoing, suffering, and violence, and yet seeking, at all costs, to maintain his trust in the Lord. When he points out the evil and injustice among his fellow Hebrews (Hab. 1:1-4), the Lord assures him that they will be judged (1:5-11). The scenario here is the opposite of Jonah: rather than send one prophet (Jonah) to warn a wicked nation of judgment, the Lord warns one prophet (Habakkuk) that his people will soon be judged by a wicked nation!

Habakkuk is clearly baffled by the idea that an even more wicked, idolatrous nation will be used to judge the people of God. The Lord himself describes them as “guilty men, whose own might is their god” (1.11b). Habakkuk expresses his chagrin in his second question (1:12-2:1),when he wonders how the Lord could “idly look at traitors, and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (1:13b). He knows the Lord’s character – righteous and pure – and this seems so inconsistent! The Lord replies by promising that this wicked nation, the Chaldeans, will also be judged. It may seem slow (2:3), but the Lord will, in time, act with justice (2:4). When Habakkuk hears this promise, he responds with a psalm recognizing how the Lord has proved his power in the past (3:1-3), extolling the might of the Just, Divine Warrior (3:4-16), and professing his commitment to “quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon him” (i.e., on the enemy, 3:16b). To conclude, he then produces one of the most eloquent expressions of unconditional faith in scripture:

“Though the fig tree should not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord ;

I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God , the Lord, is my strength;

he makes my feet like the deer’s;

he makes me tread on my high places. “

Habakkuk 3:2,16-19

Once again, it is clear that the contrast is strong between the attitude of Jonah and that of Habakkuk. In his psalm, Jonah exults in salvation, which makes him feel proud and vindicated (Jonah 2). In his, Habakkuk anticipates the shame and confusion of military defeat and economic difficulty, yet professes that his trust will never be shaken (Hab. 3:16-18).

Neither prophet lacks knowledge of the Lord’s character, but their knowledge took each of them to different places. To put it simply, Jonah knew that God was gracious and merciful, and he didn’t trust Him (Jonah 4:1); Habakkuk knew that God was a just and holy judge who would carry out vengeance on wrongdoers, and he trusted Him. Jonah had experienced God’s compassion and patience, but his heart remained hard; Habakkuk apparently hadn’t seen God working in his lifetime (Hab 3:1-2), but he trusted as he continued to wait for God’s deliverance.

Both prophets were right to think that God would and should judge evil, but both were forced to wait for the just judgement to happen later. The waiting is what brought the challenge for both men (as it does for many), as they wrestled with their attitude toward the Lord’s timing. Jonah wanted to see God bring judgement immediately on those who were doing evil…but they repented! This was not the final word: God would later judge Nineveh (see the book of Nahum). But Jonah was angry that it was not happening now, in front of his eyes. Habakkuk was troubled that the Lord would soon allow judgment to come on his people at the hands of a wicked nation, but the Lord tells him to trust that justice will be done to them as well, even if it seems slow in coming (2:3). The idea is not that evil should or will go unpunished. The lesson is that the Lord is the one who knows when and how it ought to be punished, and the righteous person who “lives by faith” trusts his timing, even when it goes beyond his or her own comprehension. Habakkuk ends by worshiping God, envisioning his might and ferocity when judgment finally comes, and pledging allegiance to his Lord through thick and thin. Habakkuk trusts the Lord, and no amount of defeat, poverty or difficulty could change his heart.

Each prophet had a conversation with God that played out differently, with a different party asking the questions. Remember how the Lord asked Jonah questions – in the same way that He questioned Adam and Eve in the garden? Well, in Habakkuk’s case, the prophet is the one who asks the Lord his questions (1:2; 1: 12-13, 17). And while the questions God asks Jonah seem to only reveal Jonah’s stubbornness and lack of repentance, the questions Habakkuk asks God reveal God’s patience and faithfulness. Habakkuk’s questions lead him to a place of renewed faith in the Lord. This is worth noting since we as humans tend to carry a burden of guilt over questioning God, and it is not uncommon to hush questions deemed impertinent in church settings. Yet scripture seems to indicate that God can handle questions, and that he is perfectly capable of justifying himself (remember the book of Job?). It is far more worrying for us as people to be questioned by God, as we humans are always incapable of justifying our actions.

Finally, the contrast between the two prophets attitudes is exposed by anger. Who is angry at the end of each book? In Jonah’s final chapter, Jonah is angry. God is slow to anger with those who do not deserve it, but Jonah is slow to let go of his anger with Nineveh and with the Lord. Since running away had not worked out, he resigned himself to grumble against God and wish for death. In Habakkuk’s final chapter, however, the Lord is angry. Habakkuk’s indignation had softened as he dialogued with the Lord, and he had become patient and calm as he understood that it was just a matter of time. Instead of running away from God or trying to justify his anger, he brings his complaint before God. God responds, saying “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3). Habakkuk 3 puts the righteous anger of the Lord, the Divine Warrior, into focus.  He will pour out his wrath on the wicked and unjust. Habakkuk is free to sing to God and rejoice in Him.

In the end, Jonah’s stubbornness leaves him alone, uncomfortable, angry, suicidal and at odds with his Maker. It challenges us to set aside two major things that can take us to the same hardened, unrepentant place: first, the arrogance that led him to be a self-centered mess of self-pity; second, prejudice, the fruit of arrogance, by which we decide for ourselves who are the deserving and undeserving people of the world. How do we successfully avoid these things? By following the model of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk challenges us to do two important things that enable us to trust the Lord in the face of injustice and evil. First, we ought to bring our questions, our problems and our doubts before God. Faith asks why. Faith laments the wrongs in the world. And faith asks (and expects) God to deal with these problems according to his character. We don’t show faith by looking strong, speaking “Christian-ese” and pretending nothing’s wrong. We show faith by longing for a righteous God to step in and right the wrongs in the world. We express faith by crying out to him. Second, we ought to praise. Habakkuk’s book ends with a Psalm. Remember how great and holy God is, and how inscrutably wise he is in his timing. Think about it. Talk about it. Pray about it. Write about it. Sing about it, like Habakkuk did when he wrote this Psalm in chapter three. It is through praise that we see God’s might as greater than our challenges, and we see his presence as more precious than our success, prosperity and comfort.

Jonah and the Worm: the neglected end of the story (2 of 3)

In the first two chapters of Jonah, discussed in my previous post, Jonah tried to run away from God, ended up in the ocean, and was saved from death by a large fish. What happened next?

As chapter 3 of Jonah begins, we move into what is usually portrayed as the “happy ending” in the Sunday school version of the story. But with a closer look, we will see that the details of chapter 3, while presenting a happy turn of events for Nineveh, are actually leading us into the real crisis and the primary message of the book.

As chapter 3 begins, things are looking up: the word of the Lord comes for a second time, commanding Jonah, “”Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2)  This time, Jonah went, “according to the word of the Lord.” He’s moved from disobedience to obedience. But what kind of obedience? What’s in his heart? When we look at his message, it gives the impression that Jonah is preaching like a teenager who’s been forced on stage by his parents – fulfilling his duty, but without much enthusiasm. His message is just one sentence long: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4b).

The book of Jonah appears in a collection of prophetic oracles (from Isaiah to Malachi) that include expressions of great poetry, eloquence, and poignancy. From the standpoint of the human authors, books such as Isaiah, Amos, and Nahum were crafted with thoughtfulness and creativity – at the place where divine inspiration met passionate creative effort. But the best oracle Jonah can muster in this story is one abrupt declaration.

The response of the city of Nineveh is in line with that of the sailors in the first chapter of the book. One simple, seemingly dispassionate statement from the prophet elicits a dramatic response. Everyone in the city, from the king on his throne to the lowest person, repents in sackcloth and ashes (literally!). They give meticulous attention to showing they are earnest, even to the point of compelling their livestock to fast and put on sackcloth and ashes (3:7b-8a).  The rulers of Nineveh decree these actions based on the hope – however remote – that God might show mercy. They do not have history of covenant relationship with God on which to pin their hopes; just a possibility. They pose the rhetorical question, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9). Verse 10 reveals that, in fact, God did relent from his punishment in response to their repentance. God’s plan to make himself known among the nations goes ahead in all of Jonah’s actions: After using Jonah’s disobedience in chapter one to bring the idol-worshiping sailors to himself, God has now used the prophet’s obedience in chapter three to turn a great city away from evil. The prophet must be overjoyed at this great success! Right? Well, actually, something different is happening in Jonah’s heart and mind…and that’s what chapter 4 is about.

The next scene, at the opening of chapter 4, tells us what’s going on in Jonah’s heart – and it’s ugly. In this final section, we begin to think that the whole point of this story may not actually be about Jonah’s obedience, or about Nineveh’s repentance and the results of his ministry. The focal point is Jonah’s heart condition, and his refusal to repent even as the Lord steadfastly seeks to win him over. One sentence sums up Jonah’s response to Nineveh’s repentance and God’s mercy: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (4:1). Aha. Remember how the sailors in the first chapter feared God “exceedingly”? (1:10, 16)  Now we see in Jonah an emotion of equal intensity – except that the emotion is not fear of God, but anger towards him! Read on: “And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.'” (4:2)

Here is the contrast the author wants us to see: When pagan sailors, in chapter 1, learn who God is, they fear and worship him; when the prophet Jonah, on the other hand, observes the extent of God’s merciful character toward the wicked (i.e., anyone other than himself), he hardens his heart and resents God’s character. With the final statement of his prayer, Jonah continues his morbid outlook from the first chapter: “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). He still sees death as preferable to submission to God’s will! His actions changed – he went to Nineveh- but his heart did not. Thus, as we understand from the teaching of the other prophets, true repentance has not taken place.

This time, the Lord responds verbally to his prayer with a question. Generally, when God asks a person a question in the Hebrew Bible, it’s because that person is in trouble! (Remember God’s first question to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”…God did not ask it because he did not know where they were!). The question cues us in that Jonah is about to be shown just how wrong he is. The Lord asks, “Do you do well to be angry?” (4:4). Well, I think everyone, including Jonah, knew the right answer to that question!

Jonah then sets up camp looking over the city, apparently still hoping that the Lord will change his mind and rain down fire on the city.  As he sits, the Lord shows him grace by bringing a physical comfort to Jonah. He “appointed” a vine to grow to give shade in the heat of the sun. This word “appointed” is important: it is the same word used when the Lord summoned the great fish (1:17), and it will be used again when God brings a worm to eat up the vine, then sends a hot wind to make Jonah miserably sweaty. (4:7) It’s the language that describes God calling a prophet as his spokesperson. And the use of this word underlines another contrast in the story: all of nature responds to God’s call, obeying without question, while the prophet struggles to respond to God’s call and obey with the right attitude. God used a one-sentence sermon to bring one of the most wicked cities on earth to repentance. They were quick to repent! Yet he had to marshal all the forces of nature in an effort to bring his chosen prophet to repentance.

What about this other key idea, “repentance”? How does it play into the story? “Repent” can be translated more literally as “to turn,” and in the ESV we see it being used to describe the action of the people of Nineveh. (3:8-10)  We also see another word, “relent”, paired with it in reference to God: when Nineveh repented, God relented. Both involve changing a course of action. And Jonah indicates that it is precisely the Lord’s tendency to “relent” – to change his course of action when sinful people cry out and turn from evil – and that infuriates Jonah. (4:2)  But here’s the question the storyteller is asking: Will Jonah turn away from the sinful attitude in his heart? The wicked city of Nineveh repented. The perfectly holy and wise Lord relented. But Jonah will not turn away from his self-absorbed anger. Thus, the Lord uses an object lesson to try to get through to him.

When the Lord causes a vine to grow up with miraculous speed to give Jonah shade, the “exceedingly angry” prophet now finds something to be “exceedingly glad” about: he feels more comfortable! This is a development that merits strong feeling! However, this feeling soon evaporates. “But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.'” (Jonah 4:7-8)

Here is where it is not too hard for me to imagine myself in the story. I just spent two years living in Niger, West Africa. During the hot season, when daily highs reach 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit (and in the “cool of the night” it’s still a balmy 85 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s sometimes tempting to feel that it would be better to die than to live! And often, just when I’m having a few moments of rest in the cool of an air-conditioned room or under a powerful fan, the electricity cuts out. In that moment of frustration, “Good-bye, cool air” and “Good-bye, cruel world” do not seem that far removed from each other!

When Jonah lost his shade it became clear that, while the comfort of the shade may have calmed his disposition temporarily, the anger and self-pity in his heart were still simmering below the surface, and they quickly come boiling up again. The Lord then patiently asks another, similar, question: “But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ ” (4:9a). While Jonah kept his silence earlier, now his rage explodes: “And he said, ‘Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die’ ” (4:9b). Then God gets to the point of the illustration. After zeroing in on the one person (himself) for which Jonah was still capable of feeling pity, the Lord now draws a comparison between Jonah’s pity for the plant and the Creator-God’s pity for the people he has made in his image. God gets the final word as the book closes, again with a question:

“And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’ ” Jonah 4:10-11.

In all of this drama over rebellion and disobedience, the Lord really has longed for Jonah to understand his heart, to identify with the compassion the Lord feels for his creation. The Lord wants these morally lost people to find their way, and this alienated nation to be reconciled to him. And this is accomplished! Oddly, the one person in this story who stubbornly refuses to align his heart with the Lord’s, right up to the end of the story, is his chosen prophet from the chosen people; the one character we would expect to be spiritually healthy!

So what was the obstacle for Jonah? Something about Nineveh brought a strong reaction in him. Perhaps it was that the people of Nineveh, the Assyrians,  were among the political-military rivals of Israel during the time of the Israelite kingdom. Jonah was being called to love the enemies of his nation by warning them of the impending judgment, and he was not ready to accept that the Lord could transform them rather than destroying them. Jonah had decided that they were in a different, less worthy category of humanity than he was. Pastor Tim Keller says that our tendency as humans is “to like those who like us or are like us.” For Jonah, the people of Nineveh do not fit either of these categories, and thus deserve destruction, not mercy. Though he recognizes the salvation he individually received from the Lord in his prayer (chapter two), it does not leave him ready to see others come to salvation. Though he has been the Lord’s instrument to turn people from the nations to repentance and true worship, the very success of his message makes him feel that life is no longer worth living. He is not buoyed up by the wonder of the Lord’s work in the nations, but is drowning in a stinking pool of self-pity. He can live with a great city perishing in their sin; he cannot live with physical discomfort, nor with his faith community being disrupted by foreigners joining the circle.

And the story ends with the Lord’s final question, as if the needle was lifted off of the record. Did Jonah understand and accept this? Did he finally recognize and change his heart? We can only speculate about what happened to this character in the story, but we can understand what we are to do as readers: we ought to seek to be sensitive to the Lord and ready to repent. Ready to repent of our self-pity, when we must sacrifice comforts for the sake of our calling; Ready to repent of our resentment, when we disagree with how God has chosen to direct our lives and our service to him; And ready to repent of our hardheartedness towards the groups of people we have decided in our hearts are undeserving of mercy.

This story has been meaningful for me in the midst of the difficulties of moving across cultures and living in a harsh environment for the sake of fulfilling the role the Lord has given me in his work among the nations. More than once, the Lord has used it to jerk me out of my self-pity over the comforts I sometimes must sacrifice. I have been challenged to keep a sensitivity that will allow me to rejoice in the fruit the Lord brings, and to remember that he is concerned both with what is happening in the great city where I work and with what is going on in my heart.

What kind of practical example can I give to show what this kind of repentance and alignment with God’s heart for the world might look like? One striking example for me came in a conversation with my sister-in-law, who teaches English as a second language in a culturally diverse area of her city on the East Coast of the U.S. She described seeing families arrive in her city who come from a Muslim people group that has been severely persecuted as a minority in their country. Right now, debate rages in the U.S.A. over accepting refugees and immigrants from the Muslim world. But as these refugees entered her city, her reaction was not based on the politics of the left or of the right, but on sharing the Lord’s heart for the world. She described how she rejoiced to see them enter her church’s neighborhood, where people who love Jesus could reach out in love, serve them and share the good news about Christ with them. In her heart, the gospel won. Sensitivity to the Lord’s work among the nations was more important than a certain brand of nationalism, more important than keeping a distance from people who were not “like her.” We can only hope that Jonah, in the end, arrived at a similar attitude.

What other examples do we find of the alternative to Jonah’s attitude? Where can we look for a positive contrast? The place of the book of Jonah among the other prophetic books and in Israel’s history gives us some clues….and this will be the topic of the third post on Jonah, coming soon.

Jonah, the Storm, and the Big Fish (1 of 3)

Three cartoon figures march across the screen – a mammoth, a saber-tooth tiger and a sloth – as my children and I watch their journey across a frozen landscape at the dawn of the Ice Age. The mammoth looks to the left as they pass Stonehenge. “Modern architecture!” he exclaims derisively, “it’ll never last!” I laugh out loud. My 3-year-old and 5-year-old stare blankly.

If you have ever watched a kids’ movie with young children, you may have noticed that certain elements of the story are not meant for the children, but for the adults who are watching with them. I’m at the stage in life where I observe this quite often: the embedded humor in books and movies makes me laugh, but is lost on my kids.

This is similar to the experience I’ve had with the biblical book of Jonah. I heard the story of “Jonah and the whale” as a little blond boy in Sunday school; When I got a little older and read it for myself, I was baffled by the conclusion of the book.  The “moral of the story” in chapter four was often omitted in the children’s version; and as an adult, I was struck by just how much is overlooked throughout the book. These days, I find myself laughing, with new understanding, at the satirical humor of the book.

This is my attempt to point out some of those details, in the hope to increase our enjoyment and understanding of the book of Jonah. To start, allow me to retrace the familiar events from the famous “Sunday school story” of Jonah:

The Lord tells Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh with a message, but Jonah disobeys: he gets on a ship going the opposite way. The Lord sends a storm, and the ship is in danger of sinking. When the men find out that Jonah is the cause, they throw him into the sea (even though they don’t want to). God rescues Jonah by sending a whale (here, many storytellers will point out that the Bible literally says “a big fish”) to swallow him. Jonah prays from the belly of the whale and the whale spits him onto dry land. When God tells him, again, to go to Nineveh, he obeys. When he finally preaches to Nineveh, the city repents and is saved.

That’s the typical Jonah story. And there’s not really anything wrong with it, in one sense: These events, with the lesson of obedience to God, form an important theme of this narrative. But when we look with grown-up eyes at this story, there’s much more depth to tease out in each scene of the book. There’s more to the story.

Let’s begin with chapter one: where Jonah, a chosen prophet from the chosen people, is upstaged by a bunch of pagan sailors. As the ship sails, the Lord takes action: he “hurls” a storm onto the sea (1:4), which threatens the ship. In response, the sailors “cry out” to their gods and “hurl” cargo into the sea, seeking to save the ship. What is Jonah doing in the midst of this? He’s asleep in the bottom of the ship (1:5). The captain of the ship has to come rouse the prophet of the Lord and say, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god!” When everyone realizes that Jonah is the cause of this trouble, they ask more about who he is. Jonah states simply, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). He knows the LORD, and yet it does not seem to bother him to be running away from the Creator God. The sailors, however, “were exceedingly afraid and said, ‘What is this that you have done!'” (1:10). What a stark contrast between Jonah and the sailors when they’re faced with the danger of the storm: the pagan, idolatrous sailors are quick to fear the LORD, while Jonah, the prophet, is comfortable in his disobedience, even though he knows the LORD is the one, true, all-powerful God.

The contrast grows as Jonah tells them that the solution to their problem is to throw him into the sea. Now, based on how the LORD is presented throughout the Old Testament, we know that he is merciful. So, we may assume that if Jonah were to cry out to his God, as the captain urged, the situation would resolve. But this would require obedience and repentance, and we will later see that Jonah both begrudges submitting in obedience to the Lord, and also firmly refuses to repent up to the end of the book. The sailors, on the other hand, want to believe Jonah (that throwing him into the sea will end the storm), but they feel a tension with their moral conscience. Unlike the prophet, who was lost in a REM cycle while the lives of the others were in danger, they value life. This includes the life of the one who is foolishly bringing this trouble on them. They’ve already tossed their cargo (= their income) overboard, and now they expend more effort seeking to row to land. But the storm only grows worse, “Therefore they called out to the LORD, ‘O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you'” (1:14). They do not understand exactly why, but they finally accept that this is the Lord’s doing, and obey the prophet’s word. The verb “hurl” shows up again, as they hurl Jonah into the sea. When they see the immediate calm that comes, we read again that they “feared the Lord exceedingly,” and then offer a sacrifice and vows to the Lord. While the prophet of the Lord sinks downward into the sea, ready to give up his life rather than fear the LORD and obey his command, the gentile, polytheistic sailors have come (in spite of God’s prophet) to recognize and fear the true God, who is worthy of their worship and sacrifice. Earlier in the Hebrew Bible, Israel was called to be a “kingdom of priests” and the Lord promised that “all nations would be blessed” through Abraham’s descendants. When we imagine how these glorious callings for God’s people will be fulfilled, a scene like this is not the first thing that comes to mind! But the Lord continues doing what he wants to do in the world: even when he has to drag his unwilling servants along; even when the only way to bring fruit from a situation is to redeem the stubbornness and disobedience of those he has called.

Through the first chapter, Jonah has been in continuous downward motion as he sought to move “away from the presence of the Lord.” In 1:3, he “went down” to Joppa, where he found a ship, paid the fare and “went down” into it. In 1:5, as the tempest howls on the sea, the author reminds us that Jonah “had gone down in the inner part of the ship and had lain down.” In chapter 2, Jonah spoke to the Lord from inside the belly of the fish, and he picked up on this theme, describing just how far he’s fallen. He described the Lord as the one behind his descent into the depths: “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3). Cradled in the belly of an aquatic creature below the sea, Jonah says, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (2:6).

Jonah prays a fine prayer, in principle. In fact, it could probably be made into a worship song and sung in church without any controversy. Yet, in the context of the book, it’s lacking the thing the Lord desires most: repentance. In his prayer, Jonah points out his action in seeking the Lord’s salvation – “I called out” (2:2) and “I remembered” (2:7); he favorably contrasts himself with those who worship idols (2:8); he announces what he promises to do (2:9) and he thanks the Lord for his personal salvation (2:2b, 2:6b, 2:9b). All of his phrases and ideas are good, in one sense: they fit with the language of faith that God’s people use. And after this low point, he will obey and go to Nineveh as the Lord told him to do. Jonah shows that he is grateful for the salvation he received, but his prayer does not show a willingness to change his perspective. What becomes evident in the second half of the book is Jonah’s refusal to repent and align his heart with the Lord’s – despite his outward obedience. And from the Lord’s perspective, it’s not enough for Jonah to simply be better than “those who pray to idols” or to only be thankful for being saved. The Lord longs for Jonah to realign his heart with God’s heart through repentance.

More on that in the next post.

When Time Stands on Its Head

“Should we get some massa?” I asked the kids as we pulled up in front of our house. Every morning, a lady in our neighborhood makes this pancake-like fried food in front of our house, sitting in the shade of the tree just to the right of our gate. Since we don’t share a common language, we are not really on a first name basis. We just call her “the massa lady.”

“No! I don’t see the massa lady outside right now,” replied my daughter.

She didn’t see her because it wasn’t morning, and so the massa lady was not in her usual spot. In a sudden change of routine, she was sitting over a wood fire and iron griddle on the other side of the street, at 6:30 in the evening.

This month the city’s schedule is running on an abnormal rhythm. Why is it all mixed up right now? Because it’s Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting observed once a year (lunar year, that is) by our Muslim neighbors.

Personally, it’s thrown me out of my routine. It already took a long time to get used to the normal rhythm of life here, and now it’s off-kilter yet again. When people live cross-culturally, one of the hardest adaptations is the difference in the sense of time. Getting a sense of mealtimes, an idea of when people work and when they relax, when it’s okay to stop for a visit or to make phone calls, how long you should expect to wait at a government office or place of business, whether it’s better to be on time or to be late when you’re meeting someone – these are all aspects that vary with culture, and can leave us frustrated or disoriented until we understand and accept them.

Of course, when a Westerner is leaving for Africa, everyone warns that things will go more slowly: Americans and other westerners have a reputation for being time-conscious and in a hurry, while Africans have a reputation for focusing on relationships and moving more slowly. Interestingly, living in a large, multicultural capital city, I have found that many people here are just as pressed and time-conscious as I am.

The typical daily schedule here is greatly affected by the climate: the afternoon is very hot, and those who can work efficiently during this time of day, generally, are in air-conditioned offices. The average person, though, works during the morning, when it is still (relatively) cool, breaks for lunch around 2:00pm, naps during the hottest hours of the day, then starts working again around 4:30 pm. If you want to annoy a guy here, call at 3:00 pm and ask him to come to your house: he will be napping. This also fits with the Muslim times of prayer: The mid-day prayers happen sometime between 1:00 – 1:30pm (depending on the season), so it’s a natural time to pause from work, and afterward, break for lunch and a rest. Between 4:00 – 4:30pm, the afternoon call to prayer calls them out of their slumber and back to work for a few hours, until the first evening prayers. Since the two evening prayers (one when the sun sets, and the other at the last light of day) are roughly an hour apart, this time becomes social hour. It’s not enough time to go back get any work done, and dinner isn’t quite ready for most people; they’ll eat after the final evening prayers.

A 2:00pm lunchtime and an 8:00pm dinner time don’t sync with a typical American schedule. But some days I need to follow the “normal” work hours here, and so these are the times I eat. But mostly, our family opts to eat somewhere between the classic American 5:30pm dinnertime (although, I know, it’s not necessarily the norm today) and the usual Nigerien time (8pm) – – so we eat around 6:30pm. Our mealtime depends on another cultural schedule difference: we put our young children to bed at an “American” time: 7:30 – 8:00pm. When I tell my friends here that our kids go to bed at this time, their eyes practically pop out of their heads: “That early?!” they exclaim. We’ll hear or see Nigerien children in the street until 10:00pm or later.

So why has the normal schedule changed this month? Well, those who are observing the fast (the majority around us) cannot eat or drink anything during daylight hours. So their day starts when neighborhood kids do everyone a favor by banging pots and pans a little before dawn to wake everyone up for their final food and drink before sunrise. (Since we don’t want to avail ourselves of this service, we keep our windows closed and AC running through the night!) Once the call to maghrib prayers sounds at dawn, they’ll be suffering until the sun goes down. This year Ramadan falls during hot season, so you can imagine that those who do not drink anything on days with a high of 105° F prefer to extend their afternoon naptime!

For non-Muslims living in this environment, this has a couple of implications. First, the common wisdom during Ramadan is, “If you need to get something done in an office, go in the morning – don’t wait till the afternoon! IF the person you need to see is there in the afternoon, he or she will be grumpy!” Second, do not expect to buy lunch out at your usual place. I like to buy street food for a mid-morning snack (or maybe we should say a second breakfast). Eleven months of the year, all over the city, you can find ladies selling various fried delicacies that are pretty similar to pancakes, hush puppies, corn dogs (just without meat), or falafel in the early-to-mid morning. A filling breakfast costs about 30 cents U.S. These everyday treats are also available in the late afternoon, and can fill in the gap nicely on nights when I have to eat a late dinner. But during Ramadan, there’s no point in trying to sell them during the day. With the couscous-based dish I love to eat for lunch – dembu – it’s the same story: these vendors come out in the evening to sell to hungrier-than-usual customers.

While evening is pretty much always a good time to get together with friends in Niger, it’s a rather late evening this time of year. You could visit when they are breaking the fast: at this joyous moment of relief a drink and some food will be passed your way, and their eyes will begin to brighten from their dreary, food-deprived state. If not at that time, then it needs to be later, because the evening prayers are extended during Ramadan. From 7:45 to 8:30pm, we hear the imam over the loudspeaker two doors down, calling out the next step of the ritual prayers, which are repeated 14 times during this season. After this, some will socialize and some will remain at the mosque to listen to teaching or Quran reading well into the night. Some students have told me they just stay up all night, during the hours they can eat and drink. But I guess there are plenty of university students in my passport country that do that even without a religious fast!

This year, I have gone out to find some of my favorite street foods in the evening, so I am not suffering from massa or dembu withdrawal. I have had some short nights, as I’ll see one person around 9:00pm to talk into the night, and then head off in the morning to see another who wanted to meet early in the day before the fatigue sets in. But hey, I’m not fasting – – so at least I’m allowed an extra coffee and a snack during daylight hours to help carry me through.

Feeding Birds and Foreign Constructs

Nestled inside a Christmas-themed gift bag was the item I had been waiting for: the shiny red and silver metal poking out of the top was a bird feeder. It glimmered with the reflection of the white, fluorescent lights of our living room and of my hope to attract some of the brightly colored birds native to West Africa to our yard. For many months of the year here in the African Sahel, the landscape consists mainly of dusty shades of brown, tan, red and orange. Against this backdrop, I find it breathtaking when a brilliantly painted Sahelian butterfly or bird crosses my path. I hoped for the simple daily pleasure of seeing a few of these birds outside of my window while enjoying my  morning coffee. By offering them something good to eat, our paths could cross more often as we inhabit the same space.

With anticipation, I planted a nail partway up the Acacia tree outside our window and hung the feeder, filling it with millet from the local market. I waited a few days. The birds hadn’t found it yet. I waited a few more days. Still nothing. Was something wrong? Perhaps the location was not good. Maybe my target audience would never run across the feeder hanging here. I noticed some birds landing on the other side of the yard. Would they find it over there? I moved the feeder to a different place for a couple of weeks. Still no luck.

What about the food? Perhaps a different type would work better. When I googled a question about attracting birds in West Africa, I found dozens of entries advising me on which seed mix to use for various types of North American birds. But for West Africa? Rien. So I put the question out to other expats in my city. They all recommended millet for birdseed, just like I was using. But one person said that they’d had better luck with a simple clay dish, rather than a bird feeder imported from the U.S. Was this manufactured bird feeder a foreign cultural construct, too strange for these African birds to comprehend? Perhaps I needed to better contextualize the gift I was offering. I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever get to observe birds from my window, but I hung the feeder back on the Acacia tree anyway, with a faint hope remaining that it would be discovered and enjoyed. It was good food, after all. Birds need food. And they love millet, right?

Several days later, I glanced out the window and saw four small songbirds lined up along the roof of our carport, just several feet above the feeder. It was almost as if they were talking among themselves, wondering aloud whether that was food in the feeder, asking if it was safe to go land on it, leaning forward and daring one another to try it, then straightening up without having mustered the courage to approach. Then it happened: One yellow-breasted bird with gray wings took flight from the edge of the roof and landed on the edge of the feeder. He pecked away at a few grains of millet. A second red-headed bird (apparently comforted by the fact that the other was safely enjoying a meal) alighted on the feeder, and began contentedly eating away. At last!

These small songbirds (I have yet to identify their species) have become repeat visitors. And, at last, the other day at breakfast, as I took a sip of coffee, I looked out the window and smiled as I watched three little birds peck away at the grains in the feeder. It turns out, the cultural medium was a little different, but not too strange. The target group I had chosen was not the wrong one, it just took them a bit of time to discover the goodness of the gift I was offering. In the end, birds need to eat, and I was offering good grain. It just took a little time and patience.

Attack of the Joking Cousin

Just a few weeks ago, we hosted a Christmas party at our house. Most of the people who live around us are Muslim, and so they do not normally celebrate Christmas. But the universal allure of free food brought about 25 adults and 40 children into our yard.

Hosting people from another culture is a bit nerve-racking, especially when you are the étranger living in their culture. Your guests all have shared assumptions about the roles of hosts and guests which you, the foreigner, may or may not have discovered through personal experience and the snippets of cultural insights collected over time.

As I invited people in the days leading up to the party, I hesitated over one invitation. Most of the people we invited were from our neighborhood, part of the urban mix of Zarma, Hausa and Fulani families that mix and mingle in the course of everyday life. But I also wanted to include another group of friends from outside the neighborhood: a group of Touareg students from a different region of the country who have become friends of mine. But I hesitated as I thought about it, recalling negative comments that this group had made about the other groups living in Niamey, as well as the tone of comments some neighbors had made about the Touareg people in general. Would this mix create tension? I pushed my questions aside and invited them anyway.

After a number of neighbors had arrived and taken their seats, two of my Touareg friends showed up. Their light brown skin, traditional powder blue clothing and white turbans stood out in the crowd, symbols of their ethnic and cultural pride. I led them to seats next to me, joining the gray-haired Zarma man I had been chatting with just before their arrival. A few minutes after exchanging greetings, the Zarma man turned to my turbaned friend and asked where he was from. The Touareg student gave the name of his village, and my Zarma friend grunted an acknowledgement. He followed with a question that brought my previous concerns rushing back:

“Tell me,” he said to my friend, “is there one single Touareg who isn’t a liar?”

I held my breath. Was this the moment I had feared? Could my friend, who seemed an otherwise kind and friendly person, really be so blunt and insulting about his stereotype? To my relief, my Touareg friend took it in stride. He smiled calmly and responded,

“Yes. Me.”

After a couple of similar insults, each countered by calm, smiling responses, the Zarma man turned to me and explained, “You know, there’s a relationship between the Zarma and the Touareg. As soon as I meet a Touareg, I can say whatever I want to insult him, and he will know that it’s okay. I can joke with him and insult him, because that’s just what the Zarma and the Touareg do.”

Aha. Now it came back to me. I had heard and read about this feature of African culture: joking cousins. People in certain relationships can afflict each other with all types of insults, mockery and practical jokes, and it is all taken in fun. There’s no reason to be angry. It can happen between cousins with a certain relationship in a family, between people with certain roles in society, or between certain people groups. Some claim that this tradition between different ethnic groups has helped to maintain peace in Niger between groups that might otherwise see each other as rivals.

I had heard about this tradition, but this was the first time I had seen it play out. I breathed an inward sigh of relief. My Zarma friend then recounted how he had once traveled to Agadez, a large city in the Touareg region in the north of Niger. He had to spend one night in the city before continuing his journey to a remote location in the Sahara. Taking full advantage of his status as a “joking cousin” of the Touareg, he grabbed hold of a stranger passing in the street.

“I’m coming home with you,” he said. “I’m going to sleep at your house tonight.”

“You’re crazy!” the Touareg man replied.

“No, you’re the one who’s crazy,” replied my friend. “You’re about to let a complete stranger sleep at your house!”

He held on to the man until they arrived at his house. He ate and slept there that night, then continued on his journey.

Every person who is insulting or demanding toward others has a different reason for being that way. In this case, my friend was not bitter about life; he was not a spiteful person; he had neither a personal grudge nor a deep-seated racial prejudice. He was, in fact, doing nothing more than fulfilling social obligation.

Biking: noble or embarrassing?

I purchased a bike to use in West Africa before I even arrived. I knew I would want one. When I lived in France, I had a bike and loved using it both as part of my daily commute and for longer weekend rides. Occasionally I overloaded the bike just a bit coming back from the grocery store, and I had to move quickly to save the bag with the eggs from falling. Only once, though, did I lose a glass bottle on the pavement. More enjoyable were the kilometers of paved biking trails or packed gravel paths along rivers, through parks and forests, passing mountains, farms, houseboats and wildlife. Biking was enjoyable, economical and environmentally friendly.

Once I got attached to biking in France, I wondered why I hadn’t started earlier. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest (just before France) there were many enthusiasts, but I wasn’t one of them. In the Seattle-Portland corridor, some love biking simply as a weekend sport, while others embrace it consciously as a “green” way to get to work. Riding a bicycle is generally seen as the activity of an environmentally conscious and physically fit person. People who ride their bikes to work are seen to be people who are doing something noble. It’s not (usually) because they can’t afford a car to take them to work; it’s because they’ve left their vehicle at home and have chosen to get on a bicycle for the good of their health, the environment, or both.

Biking in West Africa got off to a slow start for me. Repeated slow starts, in fact, caused by repeated flat tires. Every second or third time I took the bike out, I found one tire or the other was losing air because of some sharp, unseen object in the streets. The good news is, tire repairs were cheap. The bad news is, it was never more than a few rides until the next repair was needed. I realized quickly that if this bike was going to be used, I had to call in help from the outside. So I got a hold of some slime-filled, puncture-resistant inner tubes from the U.S., and my bike has been rolling for months since then.

With that practical problem resolved, I’ve been able to discover what’s culturally odd about riding a bike in Niger.

Some days in Niger, I  ride my bike to work in the morning. The heat isn’t as bad in the mornings, it’s a 10-minute ride from my house, and I get there a few minutes early to wash off and change into a clean shirt (the heat isn’t as bad in the morning, but it’s still hot). Perfect. Now my wife has the car to haul the two kids around wherever she needs to go, I’ve got a tad more exercise in my week, and while I inhale plenty of air pollution on the way, I’m not guilty of producing any on my commute.

But nobody looks at me admiringly here. Nobody applauds. Nobody comes up to chat about the sport of biking or doing something good for the planet. They mostly point. Sometimes they grin. And usually, at least once per commute, someone looks at me and bursts out laughing.

The stares are normal. Those come if I drive or walk down the street, too, because I’m white and most of my neighbors are not. I’m getting used to that. But bursting out laughing caught me by surprise. Why was it so funny that I was riding a bike? When I put on my running shorts and jog a couple miles, I can tell some people think it’s odd, but they don’t point and laugh. So I asked my African co-worker, “Why do people laugh when they see a white guy riding a bike?”

He laughed nervously and looked away.

“It’s okay,” I pressed, “I won’t be offended, I’m just curious.”

He replied, “It’s just that, we see a white person and we think, ‘oh, he’s well-off’ and so we think, ‘why isn’t he driving a car?’”

“Oh, I see. So bikes here are for people who can’t afford cars or motorcycles.”

I explained how some people from my hometown are proud of riding their bikes to work, even if they have a car. Now whenever I ride my bike to work, we have an exchange that goes like this:

“Ah, you’ve taken the most economic method of transport today!”

“Yes, and the most environmentally friendly!”

“And you get exercise, too!”

And then we laugh, because he understands where I’ve come from, and I now better understand where I live.

And somehow, when I know there’s someone laughing with me, the people who laugh at me when I ride past don’t bother me so much.

Who’s got change?

“That’s 3000.” the shopkeeper in the market gave me the price in CFA (the West African regional currency).

“But I just need the base for the light,” I told him, “not the light bulb. I already have one of those at home.”

“Okay,” he said, “then it’s just 2700.”

I handed him a bill for 5,000, and he gave me 2,000 back, then fished around looking for the rest of the change. But he didn’t have 300 CFA. So he said, “You have 300 francs credit. What else do you need?”

I hesitated for a moment: 300 CFA equals about 50 cents in U.S. currency, so maybe I should just tell him to keep it. Then I remembered that I had actually wanted a small light fixture and bulb for the shadowy corner near our front door. He showed me the options, and I chose the two items. Then he calculated the new total: 3300. Uh-oh. Once again, there was no change. This time, I just told him to keep the change and went on my way.

In this case, it was not too surprising: it’s one young guy in a market stall, not a large, well-funded store. Of course he won’t always have exact change. But often in the market, the vendor can run next door to get change from his friend. This week, though, it seemed that nobody had change. Just two days before, at a grocery store in town frequented by expatriates, my bag of ground coffee was priced at 2250. But when I checked out, there was no change for the 2500 I gave him. The owner didn’t make any offer to round the price down; if I wanted the coffee, I needed to figure something out. So I bought a pack of gum with my coffee.

My losses in these two cases were reduced a couple of days later when I came up short of the amount needed for a kilo of bananas, but the produce guy gave me a kilo anyway. His friend’s nephew was with me, so he cut me some slack.

I’ve gone into my bank to ask for coins several times to help relieve the endless shortage of change. Sometimes they’ve had it, other times not. One day they advised me to go the the central branch of the bank in town to get change. When I was in the neighborhood for another errand, I found a spot in the crowded lot and went into the lobby. I pulled a ticket from the take-a-number machine, and checked which number was currently being served. There were only 87 people ahead of me, with 4 tellers serving them and not an empty chair in sight in the waiting room. Even being in the minority privileged enough to have a bank account doesn’t make it easy to resolve the change crisis.

It all makes me wonder who exactly does have change around here? The taxi drivers and the ladies who sell fried food by the side of the road are constantly being paid in coins. Are they hoarding it all in their piggy banks? (or whatever the halal equivalent of a piggy bank is?) Have all the better-off people in town neglected to clean out their couch cushions and car seats?

Until the mystery is solved, I’ll just keep watching for the right size purchases to break a 10,000 (the largest bill I ever deal with), and hold on to the small bills and coins until they’re absolutely necessary.

The good news is, loyalty does pay off in this situation. When I needed change to pay my guard the other night, I walked to a shop just down the street where I’ve been a regular customer. The owner asked a couple different people for change, before chasing down a friend passing in the street. He handed me the small bills accompanied with a favorite West African phrase: “On est ensemble” (We are together). His shop doesn’t take Visa, and there’s no card to scan for the customer rewards program. But loyalty is still good currency.

Pink is for Girls…and Presidents?

Pink is for girls, blue is for boys.

At least, that’s what the idea that was reinforced for me over and over while growing up in North America. And following this strict logic, some people told us while my wife was pregnant with our first child that they wouldn’t know what to buy for our baby if they didn’t know the gender: should it be a blue or pink outfit? (As if the choice of baby clothes is binary, and while shopping for baby clothes, all the other colors of the rainbow suddenly cease to exist.) Associating gender with these two colors is, for better or for worse, strongly ingrained in our minds.

But the significance of colors swiftly changes when you travel outside of western culture. On my first visit to West Africa, a long-time expat here observed that “Here, a man can wear a pink “boubou”* and carry a tea set, and it’s just normal.” So while I still hesitate to don purple or pink clothing items even in this context, none of my African friends here would think twice if I did. My 4-year old daughter is already well conditioned by American norms: one of her favorite activities is to put on three or four layers of pink clothing (it’s cool season right now, so she won’t pass out from heat exhaustion), and she tells me that blue is for boys. Meanwhile, I chuckle at the teenage boy walking down the street to school with a pink Disney-princess backpack.

This cultural difference is pretty insignificant in every day life, of course. But I found the use of pink striking when campaigning began for the elections later this month. One morning, we left the house to find that hundreds of colorful banners had appeared on the streets and on houses, each color representing a party and candidate. A long stretch of paved road nearby currently sports a pink flag on each light post. If I had seen this in the U.S., I would think that it was an awareness campaign for the fight against breast cancer. Here, as I looked closely to match the colors of flags and banners with the posters for candidates, I discovered that pink represented the current president in his campaign for re-election. Pink stands for the most powerful man in the country!


I commented on this difference to some African friends: in one place, pink is for women’s health, in another it stands for the man who leads the nation. As we discussed the different connotations of colors in our different cultures, one of them said, “Red is the color we don’t like here. To us, it represents death.” That comment made me think twice about giving my wife a Valentine’s card with a giant red heart on it this weekend. But in the end, I shouldn’t worry: she’s American, so to her red is still the color of love.


* The traditional robe worn by West African men