As Ash Wednesday drew near, I got word that a dear friend was laid up sick in the hospital. It got me to thinking of the times we chatted in his truck after church, listening to a little bluegrass and talking about the stars. I wanted more than anything to be at the hospital visiting with him and his family. The sorrow I felt as I imagined Joe in a hospital bed and Dolly by his side, the sadness I felt for being so far away made Ash Wednesday and Lent much more real to me (so much so that cornbread and sweat tea may become our traditional Ash Wednesday meal.). We are broken waiting for the hope of resurrection and restoration. We are longing for our King and the fulfillment of his Kingdom that seem so long in coming. So, since I can’t pull up a chair and visit with Joe and Dolly over some cornbread and soup beans for Sunday dinner, I’ve decided this Jula Journal is for them, a chat with Joe that the rest of you can listen in on if you’ve a mind to.
Joe, would you believe that I learned as much from you and my other friends at Westside about being a missionary as I did in college and seminary?
It’s true. You being in the hospital the other day got me to thinking about the time I visited you and Dolly a looong time ago, back when Uncle Jim was sick in the hospital. You probably don’t remember that day, but I do. I’d been mowing and ran the mower over a nest of yella jackets. They got stirred up and a hand full got into my pants leg and shoe and stung me about a dozen times before I could hop out of my pants. I didn’t know you all very well yet and didn’t really know what to say, so I mentioned that thinking it might break the ice. You went on to tell about a time you were a going fishin’ and decided to use yellow jackets for bait. (I thought that was plain crazy.) You said you found the hole to their nest and put a jar over the top of it and started stomping around the hole. Said you never noticed their back door, and Dolly spent quite a while doctorin’ up the 50 plus stings you got on your back that day. Seems like Ron told a story about a fella who ran his bush hog over a big nest of yella jackets too…anyway, I learned at least two things that day.
First, the beauty and power of a story…to draw people together. When I share the good news with my Muslim neighbors over here, we use Bible stories almost like you would in children’s Sunday School. It draws us in to the Word of God together. Second, the importance of visiting people when they or their family are down. Later, I learned from you all the importance of honoring the dead and comforting their families by going to funerals and even visiting graves. I always admired Dolly’s steadfast love in taking care of and visiting the graves of your loved ones. That’s one of my biggest lessons to learn here. Funerals are so important to Africans in general and Muslims in particular. Muslims get the family together 3 times (besides the burial that happens the day a person dies). The third, seventh, and fortieth day after the death the whole family and much of the village gets together to pray for the person who died. Or if they can’t afford all three, they just have one big get together on the 40th day. It gets expensive, because the family feeds everyone who comes–hundreds of people. The visitors contribute, but still it’s a huge cost. People leave work and travel from neighboring countries to come to the funeral of a family member they haven’t seen in years. If you don’t go to funerals, people assume you don’t love them. I’m glad you all got me started on learning that lesson.
Now I’m gettin’ hungry. I can’t hardly think of you and Dolly without cornbread, beans, chicken dumplings and sweat tea coming to mind. It’s a wonder I didn’t gain 50 pounds while I was at Westside. Tabitha and I have decided to make our home a welcoming place like yours was. We’re still beginners, but the last visit we had from our Muslim friends, we served them some rice and peanut sauce with my best attempt at copying Dolly’s sweat tea to wash it down. They liked the tea. Usually they drink their tea in shot glasses. Its hot, strong and very sweet. It’ll give you a headache the first time you have a shot. Hospitality is also very important here. Whenever I go to tell the gospel story in a village, they always serve me a meal. It’s usually cabato–that is corn meal boiled and then set to cool in a bowl. It forms up like jello and then you pinch off a piece while its still hot and dip it in some spicy sauce. Not exactly cornbread, but it still hits the spot. The day we heard you were sick, I had Tabitha make up some cornbread and sweat tea to go along with our chili and I told my kids some stories about Uncle Joe. I pray that in the same way you took this northern, city boy into your home and showed me God’s love by making me feel a part of the family, I pray God gives us the grace to welcome our Muslim friends into our home as family that they might discover the love of Jesus.
You’ve always had a way with words, Joe. I’ve read lots and lots of poetry in my time, but very little of it sticks in my mind like the little line you wrote for Dolly at a sweetheart banquet: “As sure as the vine grows ’round the stump, you’ll always be my sugar lump.” Do you remember that? Something about that simple line and the way you said made everyone in the room either laugh or get a tear in their eye. I’ve never even written it down, but it is engraved in my mind and heart. I’m hoping to tell God’s stories in a way that sticks like that. They like to tell proverbs over here, things like: “No matter how long a log stays in the river, it won’t become a crocodile” or “It’s best to learn to walk on one foot before your leg is broken.” I’m trying to use these and make up some new ones to make the gospel stick.
One of the things you taught me by example was to qualify my plans with, “Lord willin.'” It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves and forget God is king. But here in Burkina, Muslims have a similar expression. They say in Arabic Inshalla or in Jula Ni Alla sonna. They quite rightly think a person to be a bit prideful if he doesn’t qualify his plans this way. Beyond that, there probably never was a job that went less according to plan than being a missionary. Our plans are often upended as God steers things back onto his course.
Do you remember the times we’d chat out in the parking lot after church while the choir was practicin? Sometimes we’d listen to bluegrass on the radio. That’s another love you helped plant in my soul, bluegrass. I just learned that the banjo came from West Africa. People still play it over here, although it looks a bit different, being a goat skin stretched over half of a big hollow gourd with a neck and strings. They call it a cora. Apparently the slaves brought it along with them when they were forced over here hundreds of years ago. Anyway, one time you got to telling me about the Zodiac and the phases of the moon. You told me stories about how one field of corn planted during the new moon grew twice as tall as the field next to it planted during the old moon, or how wood shingles nailed on a roof during the new moon would peel right up. After telling Bible stories, I sometimes sit out with the village elders and look up at the stars. I point out a few constellations and they tell me their names for the same stars. I tell them stories passed down to me by another elder back in Jonesboro, TN named Yusufu (That’s Jula for Joseph). These stories about the stars and about planting get them started on their own stories and we’re drawn together to a place where this white, Christian city boy from America and these dark skinned, old Muslim men from a little village in Africa can listen to God’s Word together.
Well, I wish I was sitting with you back in Tennessee, but I’m also thankful for these memories and all that you and Dolly have taught me over the years without even trying to. We’re praying for you and I’m praying that my son Joseph (and the rest of us) grows up something like Joe Crain. I think he has your sense of humor and your love for life. I’ll get him started on the harmonica here pretty soon.
P.S. There’s a huge beaver like rodent over here called Agouti , some call it a “grass cutter.” Best eating in all Africa, tender like roast beef. Always makes me think of that ground hog sausage you gave me a few years back.