When I was a kid, I remember coming home from school more than once to an amazing cacophony. As I stepped onto the porch, I could hear the vacuum cleaner whirring away. Louder than that, though, was my parents’ old hi-fi record player, blaring either George Beverly Shea or Tennessee Ernie Ford. The loudest of all, though, was my mother, singing at the top of her lungs,
Shall we gather at the river –
The beautiful, the beautiful, the river?
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God!
Know this, dear friends: my mother had many, many gifts. Music, however, was not among them. In fact, there were days when I hesitated to invite my friends to play at my house after school lest they find themselves treated to a concert by a trio whose most talented member was, in my twelve-year-old opinion, a Hoover upright.
That image came back to me the morning that we gathered with a group of people in our partner church and sang (in a way that may have been a mild improvement on my mother, the Hoover, and George Beverly Shea),
Ndiye Mzimu Wakuyera
Atipatsa ife makhalidwe
Ofanana naye Yesu
So far as I can tell, the Chichewa lyrics have no discernible relation to my mother’s favorite hymn, but I’m here to tell you that the tune is the same.
I’m pretty sure that the old American gospel song is referring to the day, bye and bye, when we are called from this world of toil and care and freed to live in heaven. Maybe that’ll happen just the way the songwriter hoped it would, and I’d be OK with that. But tonight I write in a land that is shaped by a river: the mighty Shire that flows from Lake Malawi to the Zambezi and then to the Indian Ocean.
And I write as one who is profoundly marked by experience in a city that was built on not one, but three mighty rivers: the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio, which eventually joins the Mississippi and spills into the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the deep and substantial gifts of the international partnership is that we don’t have to wait for pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye. I am sitting in the remote town of Ntaja, where we have spent the evening with fellow Christians who have become friends. We have eaten well, we have talked of important issues in the world, we have shared stories of family, and we have laughed. Oh, we have laughed.
And while I will not be sure of this until tomorrow evening when I am reunited with our whole team, I have every reason to expect that in eleven congregations in numerous villages and cities across Southern Malawi, a scene like this played itself out again and again and again. We come to Balaka or Blantyre or Nansambo or Luchenza not as tourists and not as donors. We come as partners, as the Apostle Paul would put it, “fellow members of the household of Christ.” We are the saints. And we have gathered by the river. And it has been good – very, very good.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to suggest that traveling to Africa is the only way – or even the best way – to grow in appreciation for the body of Christ. And I’m not suggesting some escapist strategy wherein we hide out in a corner somewhere and sing “Kum Ba Ya”. I won’t be surprised if we get back to Blantyre tomorrow and discover that someone’s trip has been interrupted by an illness or somehow marred by errors in judgment, execution, or misinterpretation. Partnership is a tool that the church can use – and like all tools, it’s not foolproof, and it’s not for every situation. Yet it is the tool that I believe God has used with great impact in my own life as well as the congregations with which I am closest.
So thanks, mom, for teaching me that if only the best singers sang, the world would be too quiet. Thanks, partners in Malawi and in South Sudan, for teaching me that each voice has something to add. And most importantly, thanks be to God for a glimpse of God’s ultimate intentions, a community where there is boundless laughter and love and joy. I can see that a little more clearly tonight, and I am grateful.