In June Arthur and I are taking our first trip further afield since we arrived in Dodoma. We are off to Songea for the baptism of our friend John’s little girl. Both Arthur and I have been invited to speak. Arthur will preach at the Sunday service and I will teach some women on the Saturday. This feels like a bit of a gear shift for us. Our preference is to listen and learn before jumping in to ‘doing’.
But one thing we are learning is that sometimes the learning is in the ‘doing’. Just as everyone in town stops to watch this mzungu try to get tie the baby on her back, just as we went to the front of the line at the baby clinic, we won’t be able to fade into the background in Songea either. Relationships are built by being involved in people’s lives. To observe only is to keep people at arm’s length. So we’re going to do the teaching, approaching it as a learning experience.
Make no mistake: I feel completely inadequate for this task. I might be a Bible teacher, but I’m a novice when it comes to Tanzanian culture. What do I know about these people’s lives? How on earth can I apply the Bible with any insight? Guest teaching is always tricky because you don’t know the people you’re speaking to. Guest teaching in another culture is downright terrifying!
Add to this the wazungu (white person) layer. Now, on one hand, we’ve been invited to teach because we are friends with John. He’s heard us teach before and has respect for us. But we’re also told that people will come from surrounding villages to hear us teach, expecting to hear God’s word from Australia. It’s unsettling for me that people would listen to me simply because I am white. I feel that I have done nothing to deserve their attention other than be born Australian. Not only do I feel inadequate to teach; I also feel unworthy. Why am I being afforded such honour?
There’s much to unpack about why Tanzanian Christians honour wazungu Bible teachers. There are both good and questionable reasons and results. But one of the reasons this is so uncomfortable for me is that I am used to accepting honour only if I feel I have earnt it. Honour that is not merit-based is intensely uncomfortable for me.
This aspect of Tanzanian culture is teaching me new dimensions of the scandal of grace. However much I blush to think of teaching in Songea next month, it reminds me of how entirely ineligible I am to be a child of the King, let alone his representative in the world. Just as I am baffled by the idea of being treated as an honoured teacher in Songea, I can give no reason for why Christ should count me as his sister and ambassador. And yet, he does.
It can be challenging, as an ethically concerned western person, to see yourself as undeserving of grace. It’s part of the reason so much of our apologetics and evangelism focuses on trying to convince people that they’re sinful. I don’t find those sorts of reflections particularly helpful myself, mainly because they tend to lead me to self-flagellation rather than thankfulness. But being asked to teach, an honour I don’t deserve, helps me to understand how the prodigal son might have felt when he intended to beg his father to take him back as a slave, only to be clothed with a robe and given a ring as he sat down to eat the fattened calf.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.