The road seemed to be extremely dusty for that time of year.  I was traveling through the Rufiji River Basin near the East Coast of Tanzania.  It was the rainy season and naturally one would expect the roads to be muddy and the landscape to be green and lush.

The exact opposite was true. Village after village offered the same image: dusty roads, dry fields and markets void of fresh produce. The rains hadn’t come.

Rounding a sharp corner, I brought my car to a stop. There to my right, edging the road, were several acres of green.  Vegetables growing in neat rows were offset by coconut palm and mango trees. Further off of the road, spiky pineapples were ripening in the sun.

In the Center Was a Church

Centered amidst the green was a small church. The building was nothing to write home about; a beat up tin roof covered a few rows of crude benches.

News travels fast in the small villages that make up 90% of rural Tanzania, and after a short time I was introducing myself to a small group of kids, lighting me up with their bright smiles. Behind them came a small group of adults, the Pastor of the church leading them in my direction.

After lengthy greetings and explanations, I started to inquire about all the green that I saw around me. The Pastor began to paint a picture of prayer and planning. The small congregation had decided to dig a water well on the property, and with that well, they transformed the church’s property into a garden. 

The produce was used to support the Pastor and excess was sold to the community. In addition, they had enough water to sell at a price that undercut the larger companies that trucked in water from the river.

The Superstition of Folk Islam

Even though the community was largely Muslim, they held the Pastor and the church members in high regard. This was primarily due to the Folk Islam that was widely practiced in that area. The mixture of Islam with witchcraft led people to be superstitious, paying for small blessings and potions to cause the rain to fall and their crops to grow.  

Folk Islam is based on signs and symbols. If a potion works, the proof is made visible by a bountiful harvest. A property full of vegetables when all other fields are dry is a powerful sign that something was done right.  

“Just a few days ago,” the Pastor explained to me, “ a guy walked by the church and asked what kind of witchcraft we were using to get all these fruits and vegetables.  We told him that we don’t use witchcraft. We told him that Jesus has invited us to live an abundant life. By serving Him, we experience His fullness in our hearts, minds and physical lives.”  

The Pastor explained that many people had left Islam because of the visible sign of the green gardens surrounding the church. Even though the obvious reason for the green gardens was the presence of water and the management of their resources, the church never once claimed these as the reasons for their fruitfulness. It was their constant commitment to God.

The gardens provided them an opportunity to provide a faithful witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Longing for Formulas

Even though we don’t use the language of Folk Islam or witchcraft, we of a Western mindset are not that much different then the people of rural Tanzania. We look for signs as proof of whether some ministry, business or practice is effective or not.  Often, when a method is proven effective, the signs get bigger and brighter. The advertisement gets flashier and the customers come looking for the formula that will guarantee the results.

By contrast, the teachers and scribes of Jesus’ day had clearly seen the signs. Even then, they pressed Jesus for more, “We wish to see a sign.” (Matt 12: 38 ESV) The teachings, healings and miracles of Jesus were a powerful sign that God was at work though him. It was also a sign to the teachers and scribes that their man made power and authority was quickly eroding.  

Their demand of a sign was not to verify who Jesus was, it was an arrogant dismissal of the work of God and a refusal to be changed by what they already had witnessed.

Seek the Source   

The point of action for you and me is simple: what will we do when we see a sign?

Will we follow the bright lights looking for our own path to success? Will we arrogantly dismiss the sign because it challenges our position? I advocate that we observe the sign, but seek the Source and gain understanding. 

My interaction with the Pastor that day opened my eyes to the power of living authentically within a community. They were already farmers. They had the right resources. Their gardens caused people to stop and ask questions (me included!).

But it was their clear and consistent message about Jesus Christ that brought true transformation.