hospitality and rest: answers to a missionary predicament

A little over a week ago, I offered an installment of “Missionary Predicaments” in which I discussed the difficulties of finding rest as a missionary in rural Tanzania.  [And in case you’re wondering why so many more people read that post than any other of mine… it’s because it made that day’s Freshly Pressed.]  I promised to give a report on how our family has decided to solve this problem of seeking rest while in another culture.  This post is that report.  The original post, complete with background and cultural issues involved, is here.

Overwhelmingly, your answers affirmed that, yes, it is extremely important to have times of rest — and that everyone deserves this, no matter who they are.  I’ll be both honest and blunt; my post wasn’t really about whether or not we need rest — this much we know.  Rather, we wanted to discover a culturally appropriate way to find (or create) that rest.  So, for the sake of brevity, we’ll assume at this time that we all agree rest is needed for the missionary living in Tanzania.

Your Answers

The following seemed to be the standard answers for how to create a time for sabbath:

  • Tell people knocking on your gate that perhaps you can meet another day.
  • Ask local pastors how they find time for their families.
  • Make it clear when you are off-limits to visitors.  But try to be polite.
  • Pray, and God will give you an answer to your questions.
  • Don’t try to be so much like a Tanzanian; you’re not one.
  • Send visitors to someone else who is available on your day off.
  • You can lie if that’s what it takes to get rest.
  • Have some cardboard cutouts of people readily available.  It will look like you’ve already got guests.  [This was my favorite answer.]
  • Leave town.

Jesus’ Example

I can’t think of a single time in scripture when Jesus turned away someone seeking his counsel or company.  [If you know of one, please provide it.]  Rather, it seems if Jesus was approached, he willingly shared his time with that individual or group.  We will strive to do the same.

But Jesus certainly valued rest.  He purposely sought sabbath and time alone with the Father.  He also modeled this for his apostles.  We will aspire do the same.  [Though I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable insisting I have free time for watching West Wing or Scrubs.]  We will set aside free time, but if it is interrupted we will minister (hopefully without complaining).  Have a look at Mark 6:30-34:

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.  Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.  But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.  When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  So he began teaching them many things.

Firstly, I should ask, “Since when is running faster than taking a boat?!”

Secondly, I should be clear that finding personal prayer and Bible study time here in Tanzania is not our difficulty.  I am generally up before sunrise every morning, with at least a couple of uninterrupted hours to read, pray, and write.  Christie also has been able to find time for her personal devotions.  And nearly every evening after dark, it is only our family together until we go to bed.  We sing with Baylor after reading a book to her, pray together, and generally are able to relax a bit.  I don’t want to come across as if we’re never alone or can’t find time to read our Bibles or even chat.  Rather, it’s a full day off that we seek — or a weekend of sorts.  A time we know can be used for going running, reading, watching TV, or playing a game.  These are our solutions:

  • We will be available to those who seek us at any reasonable hour of the day — which generally are the only hours people visit.
  • We will continue to have Bible study times, family dinners, and general relaxation at times when people ordinarily do not call on us — early morning and after 7 pm.
  • We will set one day aside as a sabbath each week, but if it is interrupted so be it.  We won’t lie (which is culturally acceptable) or attempt to explain why it’s important for us to rest.  We will have compassion and minister to those whom God leads our way.
  • But also like Jesus, we will regularly create moments of sabbath.  We will do this primarily in two ways:
    • by joining with our teammates here in Geita.  When spending time with our missionary friends, it is very unlikely that we’d be interrupted — because, whether we are at our house or someone else’s, the host already has visitors.  And having guests is an extremely acceptable reason for not spending time with others in Tanzanian culture.
    • by occasionally leaving Geita in search of rest.  We can get away to Mwanza for a weekend without much difficulty.  And we actually need to be there periodically anyway — to restock on supplies we can’t get in Geita, check our post office box, and get repairs or regular maintenance work done on our truck.  Also, it’s in many ways easier for us to relax in Mwanza because there are places that are actually restful to us: a restaurant on the shore of Lake Victoria with hamburgers and skinny fries, a hotel that lets us swim in their pool for an affordable daily fee, and other missionary friends with whom we can visit.
  • We will “build up” time for those weekends away in Mwanza by working 6-day weeks during our time in Geita.  We feel one day off per week is both reasonable and mostly possible.  It will give us enough rest to minister well here in town, and will afford us opportunities to truly enjoy our rest in Mwanza in ways we can’t here in Geita.

Related Thoughts and Items of Interest

One interesting idea in the course of this deliberation was brought up by a couple of the shepherds from our sending congregation.  They reminded us that it’s important to model sabbath for the people here in Geita.  My wife is incredibly wise and brought to that conversation the fact that Tanzanians commonly celebrate and experience sabbath by visiting other people’s homes, or by hosting others in their homes.  What, to us, feels like work is, to the people of Geita, rest.  So by regularly using what would have traditionally been one of our days off as a day to host Tanzanians in our home, we are encouraging them in their mode of sabbath, and actually helping them to experience it.

Many suggested in the comments section of the original post that we should set aside a day off and stick to it — by politely explaining the importance of our day of rest.  This is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with this problem in the U.S., but is not here in Tanzania.  To tell someone “no,” and then explain that I need rest, is to bring something harmful into the relationship.  I realize there are good intentions behind this idea, but I don’t feel it is respectful of the context in which we live.  It would be far better for me to set aside a day, and lie in order to preserve it, saying I have lots of office work to get done.

Because of our American worldview (and our idea that all Christianity is black and white), we struggle a great deal with this.  How could being honest and politely explaining you need rest be worse than lying to someone about what you have to do that day?  The closest cultural equivalent I can think of would be to ask why you would tell your friend she looks fine when it’s quite obvious she gained at least 20 pounds over Christmas break?  Here in Tanzania, they wouldn’t lie about that.  They would congratulate their friend on gaining weight.  They would literally say, “Wow, you look fatter!”  And both people involved would have smiles on their faces.  Now imagine telling that Tanzanian Christian that in the United States he should lie if ever asked a question about another individual having gained weight.  That’s as close as I can get, I think, to why it’s better to do the cultural thing, even if it involves lying.  A relationship is more important than a lie that is culturally acceptable.

Though, to be sure, note that while I think lying is better than merely saying no (even if lovingly), this is still not the route we’ve decided to take.  We believe there is a third culture that exists — and Jesus demonstrated it clearly.

What are your thoughts?  Especially others living in cultures not their own?  How have you successfully dealt with this issue?  And does anyone want to wade with me into a discussion on lying?  [I thought it would get more attention in the original post, but few addressed it on any level at all.]


Filed under missionary predicaments

21 responses to “hospitality and rest: answers to a missionary predicament

  1. the comment about stop trying to fit in because you aren’t Tanzanians is a bit out of touch. in order to reach these people, you have to observe their customs and blend in with their society (within biblically acceptable guidelines) I think you came up with great solutions considering the things you have to deal with. God bless!

    • thanks, trapper. yeah, the way i like to word it is that i should offer as few obstacles or barriers to the gospel as possible. me being white is already one, and swahili being my second language is another, and the fact that i own and drive a truck is yet another — we could go on…

      so any barrier i can realistically remove, i do — or i try really hard anyway.

      • yes indeed! there are already plenty of obstacles to the gospel without us making more. it just goes to show that to share the gospel effectively we must have a servant’s heart, putting others before ourselves — which is not a popular idea to most Americans.

      • Ike

        “me being white is already one”… “and drive a truck is yet another”.

        Well….now that I know you are a “redneck” just take a drive in your truck and pull off somewhere and remove the shotgun hanging behind you and go hunting. Do you have those old jiffy pop popcorn’s hanging on your walls for fire alarms?

        • good idea, ike. now if i’n just figger out what to do with this here’n rebel flag and all them car parts in my yard…

          ‘n we ain’t got no jiffy pop alarm ya’ hear. our good ol’ coon dog, buster, ‘ll do jis’ fine.

  2. Kim

    I absolutely believe you need to meet these people where they are, not where you are. So becoming more like them is definitely called for, not more american.

    But I think this whole thing is pretty interesting. I bet a lot of the comments you received said things you and your wife had thought about the situation, but seeing them in writing from others helped clarify what would work for you.

    Glad you guys have found a workable solution, but more importantly, I’m glad you addressed the issue as that is the type of festering problem that can wreak havoc longterm.

  3. mikevalstephens

    Sounds like you found some good solutions. A restaurant on the shores of Lake Victoria…that sounds like it would make my stress just float away. How far of a drive is Mwanza?

  4. mikevalstephens

    Oh, and is it really a lie if the person you are talking to understands the truth of the situation regardless of the actual words being spoken?

    • mwanza’s only 124 kilometers away, but we have to cross a finger of lake victoria on a ferry. so the trip usually takes about 2 1/2 hours, though i’ve made it in 2 hours before. and a 4-hour trip isn’t impossible either.

      and that’s a really good question about whether or not it’s a lie — when they know and understand completely the situation. i lean more toward it not being a lie, or not being wrong — one or the other… you?

  5. Pingback: 2010 in Tanzania — Missionary Blog Watch

  6. Wanna know something shady I sometimes do? (Ssshhh!) We live in Nigeria, where relationships also trump, and to turn away a visitor is insulting…. so sometimes, when I don’t think I can handle another visitor and I am screaming for rest, I shut the curtains and lock the door (because, yes, sometimes people just walk in). Not exactly ideal, but it works for a quick fix sometimes, anyway. So far people have come back, so I don’t think we’ve insulted anyone too much. 😉

    p.s. Came across your blog while looking for rest things for missionaries. 🙂

    • christie, thanks for coming by the blog — and for commenting. i can’t say i envy you living in nigeria; isn’t it super hot there? and don’t worry… you’re hiding behind the curtains secret is safe with me…

  7. mama c

    I believe you have chosen wisely to honor Jesus and the people with whom you came to share Him. Your responses were loving, tender and self-sacrificing. Sometimes it seems as though America doesn’t really have a culture until you spend time in another culture. Suddenly the differences become apparent because of small annoyances that go against the grain. My first few days in Mexico magnified how time-oriented Americans are. I remember being so aggravated because of the way people lingered over their coffee and conversation instead of keeping to the pre-determined schedule. After realizing my error of self-importance, I began to appreciate the value placed upon relationships in their culture. People are more important than schedules. Your responses touched my heart. Thanks for remembering what you are there for.

    • thanks, mama c. i appreciate your encouragement.

      as for americans being time-oriented, i think even referring to it that way shows our bias and deeply imbedded worldview. i’d argue that africans (and mexicans) are also time-oriented. i think we describe it better when we say we are “clock-oriented” and they are “event-oriented.” where we see it as disrespectful to be late for a meeting by the clock, they see it as disrespectful to start the meeting before all the people are present. so events begin when everyone is present, and the clock isn’t as important. but that’s still being oriented by time.

      what are you doing there in mexico, if it’s alright that i ask?

      • mama c

        Do you ever feel that God takes you places and connects you with people just to make your heart a little bigger? Sometimes that involves growing pains and a download of love from God that is soooo overwhelming. In 1997 our youth took their first mission trip to Hidalgo, Mexico. I went along as a chaperone . . . didn’t know any Spanish . . . knew nothing about missions . . . hated beans . . . hated being dirty . . . felt so uncomfortable and out of my element. In a village where people lived like they did here about 200 years ago, I felt like I had been transported in a time warp and was experiencing major culture shock, culture lag, the bends. But after three days of inwardly complaining to God but outwardly seeing Him move, I cried out to Him, ” I don’t care where I sleep! I don’t care what I have to eat! I just want to be where You are moving!” I have never been the same. I have been back to Hidalgo about 12 times for short term missions experiences, some as short as 10 days, others as long as 6 months. We have taken over 100 on their first experiences in missions.
        The last 3 years I have not been able to go. A dear friend has been battling cancer and I moved into her bed and breakfast inn to help pick up the slack and keep it going. (I am a public school teacher and have summers off.) In retrospect, though I deeply miss mis hermanos en mexico, I know God has a purpose for where I am. I stumbled upon your blog because of my heart for missions and this inn where I am working. We long to convert this inn from a business to a ministry to missionaries. We believe this property is meant for ministry. (The inn’s website is I just happened to google “missionary rest” hoping to learn how we can transition into meeting the needs of missionaries returning home for rest and furlough. Your blog appeared and I read it. As I mentioned in my first comments, I was touched by your heart’s reply to your situation. Believe it or not, I have never commented on anyone’s blog before! I was surprised to see your response today.
        By the way, I love beans now. :0) Isn’t God amazing!

        • that’s a beautiful story, mama c. i pray that God works great things for your plans to minister to missionaries home on furlough. it will be a blessing to many, i’m sure. i’ve got two things to share with you, both unimportant but perhaps interesting:

          1) i also hate beans. i live in africa where lots of people eat them, but i despise them. still.
          2) my first international missions experiences was to mexico in 1992. it wasn’t those two weeks that pushed me towards missions as a lifestyle, but it was a start.

          • mama c

            1. Maybe God will do a miracle for you as He did for me. During my 6 months stay we were ministering in a poor village where we ate beans for every meal. Hating beans, I dreaded the next meal and asked God to please help me like beans. It was practically instantaneous for me. Just ask Him.
            2. Yes, it seems Mexico is a great “starter” culture for missions. It often seems over-evangelized (if that is possible) but still has 64 indigenous languages many still not translated for Bibles.

            Below is some contact info for a sweet, powerful couple who live in Tanzania. I met Gerald and Aisa when they came to the inn where I work. The last place I knew where they were was Dodoma, Tanzania. They are awesome servants of God, if you ever feel a need to contact them. They speak Swahili and are indigenous Tanzanians.
            Gerald and Aisa Ole-Nguaine

            Blessings to you. Thanks for taking time to write to me.

  8. Laurie

    I found your post because I was looking at how to sign up to host missionaries who are back in the states for whatever reason. Anyway, I loved the original post to this one & have signed up for your blog emails, and this post of your decision of what to do it excellent. I really respect your heart and how you desire as much as possible to follow Jesus’ example and to meet the culture as it is & not be any more “American” than necessary.
    As far as lying, I was going to say what someone has beaten me to – if what is actually being communicated is in fact clear, that perhaps the words that are said are not actually a lie, even if they are not literally true in a direct sense. Kind of like using metaphors in writing. Anyway, I think you have found an excellent and Godly way to deal with the whole issue, and I am very much looking forward to reading more of your writings. Thanks for sharing.

    • thanks, laurie, for coming by. and thanks even more for giving our situation some thought and for being willing to host missionaries in your home.

      as for how all of this is playing out in the day to day, it’s going well for the most part. i mentioned that we’d have family time in the early morning and after 7pm — this has really been the only struggle. we’ve got several groups of kids who really enjoy coming by to practice their english and see the white baby, and they generally all come between 6 and 9. we’ve ended up having to try and politely explain to them that it would be better for them not to come so close to — or after — dark.

      explaining such might be rude in some situations, but we’ve discovered that it’s not normal tanzanian culture for these kids to come to our house in big groups like this anyway. so (we think that) we feel like we don’t mind responding outside of the norm if the request is outside of the norm. we’d like to be treated more like our other neighbors than like the “special” family on the block that offers free english help.

      i do have in my mind some activities for training young men at our house — but these “events” will be based around scheduled times. not come-and-go.

      thanks, again, for coming by, laurie.

  9. Laurie

    Also, as I am very late in seeing the whole discussion, I wonder how things are going & how your solution is working? Praying it is going well. 🙂

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