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“But who do you say that I am?” Matt. 16:15

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A letter from Rich Hansen in Ethiopia

Chrismas 2011

Dear friends in Christ,

Last Friday at our school’s end of the semester worship service, I glanced at one point at students around me—some on their feet dancing, some seated with hands clasped to their chests, some women vocalizing the high-pitched “lelelelelelelele” exclamation often part of worship here—eyes closed, faces intense, oblivious to everything but the Lord. As my spirit was bathed in the swirling eddies of warm faith all around me, I again felt profoundly grateful that God brought Marilyn and me here to these students. Not for the first time, I prayed that some small measure of their faith would rub off on me.

But, wonderful as it was, all this was a prelude to what happened next: a talk by my colleague Ermias, our missions professor. 

Rich with Ermias

He began by telling of his father, a robber who lived out in the bush almost on the Kenyan border, preying on whoever seemed most vulnerable. By middle age, though, he decided to marry, and he chose a woman who was third wife to another man in his village (polygamy is still common in some areas). Ermias’ father and his new wife ran away from the village and started a new life in a new area.  Soon a baby son was born, but he became sick after only two months and would not nurse.  Consulting the local witchdoctor for help, his father was told the ancestors were angry and would require a sacrifice of a sheep to spare the child.  Being very poor, his father refused.  Soon after, the child died.  He never told his wife about the visit to the witchdoctor.

Two years later Ermias was born.  Uncannily, he also became sick in his second month, exactly as his older brother had before him.  Again his father beat a path to the witchdoctor.  He was told the ancestors were so angry over his disobedience that not only would Ermias die, but their third child not yet born would die as well. This time he told his wife all that had been prophesied concerning her child.  She was in utter despair, completely helpless and without hope.

As Ermias’ mother was weeping in her hut, assuming it was her tiny weakened son’s last day of life, a neighbor woman happened by.  After hearing the whole story poured out between sobs, the neighbor replied: “There’s a new religion someone came to the village to speak about just last week.  I don’t know if it will help you, but what can you lose?”  At the absolute end of her rope, Ermias’ mother inquired further.  This new religion didn’t ask for sacrifices, like the witchdoctor.  It spoke of a God of love, not vindictiveness like the ancestors.  This new God’s promises were of new life, not death. That night she prayed to this new God, then slept peacefully for the first time since the crisis began.  When she woke the next morning, rather than discovering that her son had died during the night as she expected, the baby was ready to nurse. The crisis was over.

Ermias concluded by reflecting that his mother was an illiterate woman who never knew much of the Bible. But neither was she ever the same.  He said, “She told me this story a hundred times as I was growing up!”  Even so, he told it with such joyful radiance, it could have happened yesterday. Life went on. His father married more wives.  Ermias grew up, earned a Ph.D. at Fuller Seminary in California, and now teaches at the only Christian graduate school in Ethiopia.

Haven’t all of us heard of the babe born in Bethlehem a “hundred times”? Yet listening to Ermias’ own birth narrative, I am amazed all over again—just when we are most helpless, most despairing, most hopeless, God breaks into our end-of-our-rope lives with tangible power to help us…save us…heal us. No wonder the students all around me that night worshipped with such fervor.  God has indeed really come!! (Sometimes it takes a new story to remind us.)

May this amazing, incredible good news of God’s breaking into our lives and world be yours all over again this season!! 

Rich and Marilyn


The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 95
Blog: Meskel Musings
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