The following post was written by my wife, Mary.
Monday, January 5, 2015: We woke up at 3 a.m. for our 5:25 flight to Chicago, but our departure was moved to 7 a.m. The pilot finally arrived at 7:30 a.m. so we didn’t leave until 8:15 a.m. Consequently we missed our connection to Washington DC, went standby on the next flight, but missed our Ethiopia flight. We then rerouted through Frankfurt, Germany, so that we could arrive in Ethiopia on Tuesday evening (15 hours later than expected) rather than Wednesday morning, when my husband was scheduled to preach his first sermon.
As we relaxed over lunch in DC, we chatted with a middle-aged man named Jim at the next table. “Where are you headed?” “Ethiopia.” “Purpose?” “Conference for ministers.” He told us later that because we were going to a place not associated with vacation, and because we seemed relaxed about our delays (we had worked through our frustration earlier), he asked his next question, “Can you explain predestination to me? And do we have a free will?” Joel eagerly explained with Scripture and diagrams. Jim grew up Roman Catholic but said it never did anything for him. He was repulsed by scandals in the church. But his interest and curiosity about God has been growing. He doesn’t have a Bible, but when he rides his Harley in the wild hills of Texas, he has experienced the beauty and presence of God. He doesn’t want to bother God or take up too much of His time by praying too much to Him. And he doesn’t feel right just asking for things from God without giving back in return. He ventured a logical, fatalistic attitude: “If God knows whom He chooses, then what difference does it make if I seek Him?” Yet he is searching for God. When Joel explained praying by ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), he said, “I have experienced adoration and confession; that is very helpful.” We encouraged him to pray without ceasing, that God has time for him and millions of others—24/7, because of His gracious and omnipotent nature. We explained God’s secret will and revealed will and encouraged him with God’s invitations to repent and to believe, and to come unto Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. He had tears in his eyes and wondered aloud if this meeting was planned by God. We believe it was. Joel encouraged Jim to email him with questions and promised to send him the new Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible and several other books. Joel prayed with him and we walked away greatly encouraged, thanking God for this opportunity to share His goodness. Then, too, I noticed a few others listening in to our conversation in the cramped quarters of the restaurant—so maybe other seed was sown as well!
On to Frankfurt, Germany, an overnight trip. I slept some, Joel not so much. Three hour layover, then off to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, with a stop in Jeddah, the capital of Saudi Arabia. We were very pleasantly surprised to be bumped up to business class! We were waited on hand and foot with elegant food, and seats that reclined fully! This was one time in my life that I wished the flight was longer!
It took a long time to get out of the airport—health scan, purchase visas, wait for luggage, find our Ethiopian friend. He is a PRTS grad who still lives in Grand Rapids and is working on his doctorate at Southern Seminary. He invited us and arranged our trip. A generous donor paid for the expenses of ministers traveling to the conference. Ethiopia is an emerging country. It is the birthplace of coffee, which is still a main export, along with livestock and water. The 94 million people are 65% Christian, 33% Muslim, and 2% no religion; they have gotten along peacefully for a long time. There is beginning to be some external influence to agitate the Muslims to become more conservative and work against Christians. Ethiopia’s military is strong, and terrorists are imprisoned or executed. The people are very warm and friendly and affectionate, marriage is esteemed highly, and homosexuality is illegal.
Our hotel was right next to a hilltop Ethiopian Orthodox church, and the priests were chanting/singing over a powerful loudspeaker until 3:30 a.m. Believe me, it was not a lullaby. Ethiopia celebrates Christmas on January 7, so Joel preached to about 400 people on the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus. How fitting that on the way to church we passed a number of shepherds herding their sheep to market for families to buy one to slaughter for Christmas dinner. The church is more than fifty years old and has started fifteen daughter churches. Some of the old elders were the founders: kind, wise, and dignified men. Our friend said the streets were quite empty compared to a normal day, though I thought they were teeming with people. It is a family day; many go to church. Addis Ababa, population nearly 4 million, is not an international city. We saw thousands of people today, and only five white folks besides those in the mirror. It is a city in transition. There are many shanty towns—houses made of sheets of aluminum and scrap materials along dirt pathways. Yet high rises, highways, and railways are replacing them. The infrastructure is improving, but things like internet, phone service, and utilities are works in progress. China is funding many projects. They see great potential in the country because of possible oil and mineral resources. They employ hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians since labor is cheap. The Ethiopians like Chinese involvement more than American because the Americans criticize some things about the country and the Chinese remain silent.
After lunch, we headed to Nazareth 65 miles away for Christmas dinner with our friend’s in-laws. Once outside the city, the scenery was open and beautiful: mountains—mostly brown because it is dry season, but with trees dotted on the landscape and some canyons. Nap time on the way. It was the old father’s 95th birthday that day. His wife is 73, and she wasn’t feeling so well. We asked them if they loved the Lord. She replied, “He’s our only hope and our only Father.” They have been married 55 years, and had twelve children, eight still living. Two daughters worked hard to serve the meal: “hospitality bread,” “injera”—a tortilla-like bread made from a grain named tef, with different types of “wot”—stew or meat. We had lamb, and chicken with a spicy sauce. It was different, tasty. They had a “coffee ceremony,” which they do up to three times a day: spread grass on the floor, build a fire on a little charcoal burner, roast wild coffee beans, let everybody smell them, grind them, heat the water on the charcoal, wash the cups, pour the water over the beans, serve and drink the coffee. One of their daughters lives in her own little house on the property, takes care of her parents, and runs a small business—she showed us her two cows that she milks in order to sell the milk and cheese. Her ex-husband was present. He is very intelligent, has an advanced college education, and could have been an ambassador to Egypt but chose to waste his life on alcohol and drugs instead. He is homeless. Our Ethiopian friend very strongly admonished and evangelized him. He resisted at first, but our friend pressed him for his soul’s sake. He finally said he would acquiesce to God. Our friend prayed with him. We continue to pray that this is a real and dramatic change in his life.