Report from Malawi, 31 December 2016

On Christmas Day, 2016, a group of five young adults and I embarked on an African adventure that was over two years in the making.  Carly, Katie, Joe, Rachael, David and I are pleased to be in Malawi for nearly two weeks embracing (and being embraced by) the gift that is the partnership between the churches of Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA) and Blantyre Synod (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian).  Here is part of our story.

Today we were able to spend the entire day with the people of Mulanje Presbytery. Mulanje Mission is one of the historic emphases of our partners in the CCAP. In addition to the worshiping congregation, the mission station includes the MMH, a primary and a secondary school, and a nursing college.

Our day began with an insightful visit to the village of Milonde. This community of subsistence farmers lies at the base of the Mulanje Mountain, and the partnership team of Mulanje Presbytery was eager to show us the progress they are making on the construction of a new manse. The previous manse is approximately 60 years old, the tin roof is rotting and the bricks are crumbling. It was wonderful to see the ways that the local leadership is partnering with this village to bring help to this pastor and congregation.

The Pastor, some key leaders, and children of the village welcome us with smiles.

The Pastor, some key leaders, and children of the village welcome us with smiles.

Walking towards the Mulanje Mission Station.

Walking towards the Mulanje Mission Station.

mmharchFrom there we proceeded to the Mulanje Mission Hospital, where we were pleased to hand over medical supplies that the team had brought along. These included more than a dozen boxes of surgical gloves, 8 portable blood pressure testing units, 8 blood sugar testing kits, and a wide variety of resources used in treatment of diabetes. Many of these supplies were purchased by the members of our team using a list provided by the staff at MMH. Our young people have worked several times in recent years to raise funds to be used at MMH to combat famine and other maladies; it was a joy to see the facility and meet some of the people responsible for carrying out the mission.

Handing over supplies to the Supervisor of Nursing at MMH

Handing over supplies to the Supervisor of Nursing at MMH

In one of the treatment wards at MMH

In one of the treatment wards at MMH

We visited a lot of maternity and childcare units at MMH. Here’s a mom and baby that did not require medical care.

In addition to touring the hospital itself, we were shown the Nursing College. Our guide was our friend Keith Lipato, who stayed in Crafton Heights during the summer of 2016. We also took a brief tour of the Secondary School. Even though the students are all on holiday, we appreciated the chance to see some of the space used for education.

With Keith Lipato outside "Pittsburgh Hall" at Mulanje School of Nursing.

With Keith Lipato outside “Pittsburgh Hall” at Mulanje School of Nursing.

The Computer Lab at the Secondary School. It was challenging for our team to note the differences of the equipment here compared to that which they've enjoyed.

The Computer Lab at the Secondary School. It was challenging for our team to note the differences of the equipment here compared to that which they’ve enjoyed.

The clergy and their spouses of Mulanje Presbytery meet once a month for a day of reflection, planning, and fellowship. They invited us to join them for an hour or so and we were glad to do so. They were very interested in hearing about the role that youth group has played in the lives of our missionary team, and shared with us some of the ways that their congregations are seeking to be active in ministry with youth here in Malawi. One of the younger pastors offered a powerful testimony to the ways that the church ought to help nurture young people, and said that he himself was the result of a process that shaped and cared for young faith. I kept thinking, “This guy looks familiar to me…” As we said our goodbye to the group, he said, “Do you remember me? You preached my ordination service in 2015. I am here because you and the team from Pittsburgh helped me to become a pastor, and now I am one of the youngest ones here. Thank you for bringing these young leaders to visit.” He then gestured to another young man and indicated that he, too, had been ordained at that same service in Mulanje in July of 2015. Upon leaving, our team was unanimous in saying that they had really enjoyed the gathering and felt both challenged and encouraged by the pastors and their spouses.

The community of Mulanje sits at the base of the amazingly beautiful Mount Mulanje, the second-highest peak in Africa. The CCAP has a facility here that has been used for youth camps, conferences, training centers, and the like. We took a brief lunch and then spent several hours in the afternoon climbing part way up the mountain. We reached as far as Ngarambe (sp?) Falls, which could be translated as “Old Man Falls”. I sure felt it by the time we arrived. The air temperature was in the high 80s and the water was in the high 40s. It was bracing, to say the least! Since our entire team is accomplished swimmers, we were able to go into the “deep end” – right under the falls. The water is incredibly deep, and many of us took advantage of the cliffs along the side to jump from a height of 15 or 20 feet into the pool. There were probably a hundred other bathers there, mostly Malawians who were intimidated by the deep area and instead played in the shallower pools just downstream. It was a great way to relax on an afternoon when we were so tired!

Rachael enjoying a swim on the mountain.

Rachael enjoying a swim on the mountain.

Talk about your leaps of faith!

Talk about your leaps of faith!

Joe takes on the situation head-on.

Joe takes on the situation head-on.

Cumberland Street heading to the source of the falls.

Cumberland Street heading to the source of the falls.

A view of the mountain

A view of the mountain

We closed out our evening with a delicious partnership dinner at the lovely hotel where we’ve been accommodated these two days, and then finished our day (as per our custom) with a time of prayer and devotions.

Saturday we leave for the town of Ntaja, where we’ll spend some days with our sister church, the Mbenjere congregation. A special note to the families of our team: internet service may be spotty, so please don’t worry if you don’t hear anything for a few days. We’ll do our best. In the meantime, please hold us in your prayers, as we remember you in ours.

Report from Malawi, 30 December 2016

On Christmas Day, 2016, a group of five young adults and I embarked on an African adventure that was over two years in the making.  Carly, Katie, Joe, Rachael, David and I are pleased to be in Malawi for nearly two weeks embracing (and being embraced by) the gift that is the partnership between the churches of Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA) and Blantyre Synod (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian).  Here is part of our story.

For the second evening in a row, our team approached the end of the day by sitting together in my room and watching a slideshow of the day’s events on my laptop. When the first few photos came up, Katie said, “Wait – that was today? That seems like it was at least four days ago! We did so much today I can’t keep track!” And she was right. Here’s a glimpse into how our team spent its second full day in Malawi.

The team and I enjoyed a visit with "Mum and Dad" at what I have known as "The Chirambo Hilton".

The team and I enjoyed a visit with “Mum and Dad” at what I have known as “The Chirambo Hilton”.

We received an invitation to breakfast from long-time friends of the partnership (and of mine!) Clevin and Doreen Chirambo. Although we only had a few moments together, it was great for me to spend time in their home again, and I was able to convey to the team a sense of the ways that this couple has inspired and strengthened the partnership for nearly its entire twenty-five year history.

The joy of reunion after 18 years!

The joy of reunion after 18 years!

 

 

In 1998, the Carver family and the M’nensa family were selected for the first “Pastoral Exchange” program in the partnership. That meant that for six weeks, the late Rev. Ralph M’nensa and his wife, Sophie, came to our community, worshiped with us, worked alongside us, visited in the homes of folks from Pittsburgh (and six other states, Sophie reminds me), and more. Then Sharon, Ariel and I followed them to the village of Machinga, Malawi, where we did the same thing. It was a beautiful and formative time of life in so many ways. Ralph passed away in 2001, but Sophie has remained a dear friend, and I was honored to bring our team from CHUP to her home for some tea on Thursday morning. Most of this team was born the year that Sophie and I met. It was a particularly emotional gathering, as David presented Sophie with a framed photo of his baptism – an event in which Abusa Ralph shared. Sophie could not believe that the baby she was holding in the photo was the amazing young man who stood before her! Sophie cares for (and is cared for) by a number of her grandchildren. Two of these men, Gregory and Gamaliel, shared in our daily life back in 1998. I am not ashamed to tell you that more than a few tears of joy and amazement were shed during this visit.

 

Sophie shares the gift of a new soccer ball for her grandchildren.

Sophie shares the gift of a new soccer ball for her grandchildren.

Gamaliel, Sophie, Dave, and Gregory

Gamaliel, Sophie, Dave, and Gregory

David leading devotions

David leading devotions

The “meat” of our day involved a program organized by the Synod of Blantyre Partnership Committee. Delegations of youth leaders from at least three congregations met at the Chirumba CCAP (partnered with Heritage church) for an opportunity to worship and learn together. Many of the Malawian young people were part of several choirs which performed. We laughed when they expected us to sing as an A Cappella group, but we did teach them “Firm Foundation” and “Who’s the King of the Jungle” as examples of songs that had been helpful or meaningful to our team in sharing and nurturing faith. David led the morning devotions for the entire group, and that led to a fascinating discussion about what it meant to be a blessing to the world in the way that Abram was called to be a blessing in Genesis 12. Many young people present shared practices that their own congregations have used to engage and equip young people for ministry in their own communities and beyond. I am not stretching the truth at all when I say that the Malawian youth were deeply and profoundly moved by the testimonies our team shared concerning their call to invest in the partnership with Malawi and the steps that led us toward this amazing journey. We prayed, we sang, we ate a lot of “biscuits” (cookies), and took several thousand photographs.

Carly shares her experiences

Carly shares her experiences

One of the youth choirs

One of the youth choirs

Many of the participants of the day's events gather in front of the Chirumba CCAP.

Many of the participants of the day’s events gather in front of the Chirumba CCAP.

A tea plantation in Thyolo

A tea plantation in Thyolo

We departed Chirumba and headed for the Mulanje district, and on the way we were pleased to stop at the Naming’omba Tea Estate, where we were afforded the opportunity to get a glimpse of the journey that begins with the “tender little tea leaves” grown in the fields and winds up as the dried brown leaf flakes with which so many billions of people around the world begin their day. It was fascinating to see the steps: withering, fermenting, cutting, drying, sorting, and more that took place on a four-level facility in the Thyolo highlands district.

Entering the factory from the fourth floor

Entering the factory from the fourth floor

That's a lot of tea...

That’s a lot of tea…

It's chopped and dried...

It’s chopped and dried…

Getting closer to the final product...

Getting closer to the final product…

We ended the day by being welcomed to Mulanje by many members of the mission and congregation. We were met at the manse by Abusa Billy Gama and hosted for dinner and the evening at the Hapuani Village Lodge… but more about Mulanje tomorrow!

Everyone is healthy, the “chemistry of the company” is fantastic, and God’s Spirit is moving in and through every aspect of this journey. Thanks to all who have helped to make it a reality, and who join us in prayer for partnerships of all kinds this day!

Report From Malawi, 29 December 2016

On Christmas Day, 2016, a group of five young adults and I embarked on an African adventure that was over two years in the making.  Carly, Katie, Joe, Rachael, David and I are pleased to be in Malawi for nearly two weeks embracing (and being embraced by) the gift that is the partnership between the churches of Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA) and Blantyre Synod (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian).  Here is part of our story.

Breakfast..."the most important meal of the day", right?

Breakfast…”the most important meal of the day”, right?

It is hard for me to believe how deeply our team was able to dive into the “Warm Heart of Africa” on their first full day in Malawi. Everyone rested very well and awoke to an exquisite Malawian breakfast consisting of eggs, cereal, bread, sausage, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, fruit, juice, milk, tea… it was a bit overwhelming (but we did our best!). From there the day developed into a non-stop opportunity to engage the new-ness of this society and culture in many ways.

Rose measures Katie for her new dress.

Rose measures Katie for her new dress.

Our first stop was at the home of a woman named Rose, a self-employed tailor/seamstress here in town. The members of this team had asked about the possibility of having some clothing made out of Malawian fabric, and Rose and her team took our measurements and told us how much fabric we’d need.

Our next stop gave the team the opportunity to experience the mysteries and mathematics of the monetary exchange process. We visited several bureaus and shopped for rates until we found someone who was able to help us translate some of our US dollars into Malawian Kwacha. This is not a simple process, and while I was taking care of some of the business, the young people made their first foray into a Malawian shopping market.

The "On-Air" Studio for Blantyre Synod Radio

Inside the “On-Air” Studio for Blantyre Synod Radio

From there, we visited the offices of Blantyre Synod. The entire Synod staff is on holiday break, but we had the opportunity to visit the iconic St. Michael and All Angels Church and several other sites of both historic and spiritual significance. Abusa (Pastor) Mbolembole, from St. Michael’s CCAP, welcomed us into his study and we had a good discussion about some of the practices shared by vital churches in both Pittsburgh and Blantyre. We also had the opportunity to tour the studios of the Blantyre Synod radio station, which is a fairly new ministry designed to help the entire population of Malawi encounter the Good News of hope and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. We developed an appreciation for the ways that broadcast ministries such as this can extend the possibility for meaningful relationship as we considered our own congregation’s recent experiment with live-streaming our Christmas Eve worship service – which opened the possibility of such worship to many who were unable to be physically present in worship.

The Cathedral Church of St. Michael and All Angels.

The Cathedral Church of St. Michael and All Angels.

Upon awakening this morning, we were informed of the death of a friend of our host. We were honored to be asked to attend her funeral, which we did following our visit to the Synod complex. The service of worship took place at the massive St. Columba CCAP, and lasted about 90 minutes. There was energetic preaching, dynamic singing, and most importantly the opportunity to see how a community gathered in support of a family immersed in grief. On a personal note, I was so glad to see many old friends at this funeral – an opportunity just to say “Muli bwanji?” to folks who have been an important part of my partnership experience over the years.

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions…

We left the church and visited one of the fabric merchants in downtown Blantyre. What we were afraid might be a cumbersome process of having the six of us agree on fabric for our clothes turned out to be, instead, a very pleasant and informative glimpse into that industry here in Malawi.

Our host and friend, Davies, had arranged for us to visit a small Eco-lodge located in Mvumbwe. Game Haven Lodge“ is a conference center/resort/restaurant/golf course that seeks to provide the opportunity for a small section of Malawi to be inhabited by many of the creatures that once roamed free across the continent. We were treated to a ride through many acres of Malawian countryside that is being transformed back into the bush… and on the way were privileged to encounter antelope, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, and dozens of amazingly beautiful birds. We then enjoyed a delicious meal with an amazing view.

Abusa Mbolembole joined us for dinner back at Davies’ home (if it seems to you like dinner was right after lunch, it seemed that way to us, too!). This gave us further opportunity to consider the role of youth in the churches in Malawi and in Pittsburgh.

We wrapped up our day with a devotion (the team is taking turns leading these daily sessions) which evolved into a two-hour debrief of our experience of the intersection of our cultures and practices. What a rich time, full of laughter and questions and wonder. We looked at the photos we’d taken during the day and planned the events of tomorrow.

I’m disappointed to tell you that many of the photos we took with people in them came out too blurry to use – but all of the images in this posting were chosen by the team, who wanted you to see a little of what we were able to see in our first day in Malawi. Thanks to you for your support and encouragement; thanks to God for making this experience possible.

A Blue Wildebeest is ready for his close-up.

A Blue Wildebeest is ready for his close-up.

This majestic creature stood so still that one of our team asked, "Is it real? I mean, is it alive?"

This majestic creature stood so still that one of our team asked, “Is it real? I mean, is it alive?”

While we toured Game Haven in a vehicle, this was a chance for something extra for David and Joe.

While we toured Game Haven in a vehicle, this was a chance for something extra for David and Joe – approaching a pair of Kudu on foot.

Gerard is a school teacher who has given generously of his time to help enrich our time in Blantyre.

Gerard is a school teacher who has given generously of his time to help enrich our time in Blantyre.

The African sky was changing all day - but always beautiful.

The African sky was changing all day – but always beautiful.

A little down time while we wait for transport? Why not teach Davies how to play 'Bananagrams'?

A little down time while we wait for transport? Why not teach Davies how to play ‘Bananagrams’?

Report from Malawi, 28 December 2016

The CHUP Malawi Mission Team 2016-2017 on board Ethiopian Airways in DC!

The CHUP Malawi Mission Team 2016-2017 on board Ethiopian Airways in DC!

Many of my friends know that in November of 2014 I was approached by two young women in the church youth group – they made a formal visit to me in my study – who asked whether I thought it might be possible for the three of us to visit Malawi some day. They had grown up hearing stories about the ways that God has used the people, the spirit, the challenges, and the gifts of Malawi and South Sudan to form my heart, mind, and spirit; they had seen other people who encountered God’s call in such travel, and they asked me to pray with them as to whether such a journey might be possible for them.

If you know much about me, you can imagine how thrilled I was with this question! That initial appointment in my study evolved into a series of discussions, which led to more dreaming, which involved more people, which led us into fund-raisers and orientations and great conversations with parents and grandparents and finally culminated in a gathering in our church basement at 7:30 pm on Christmas day, where our team set off for a Malawian adventure.

Fresh as a bouquet of daisies after the first flight, here we are boarding in Addis Ababa heading to Blantyre.

Fresh as a bouquet of daisies after the first flight, here we are boarding in Addis Ababa heading to Blantyre.

By the time the second flight rolled around, they were ready for some serious sleep!

By the time the second flight rolled around, they were ready for some serious sleep!

In fact, someone found an entire row which was just about exactly Carly-sized!

In fact, someone found an entire row which was just about exactly Carly-sized!

The original two dreamers, Carly Barnes and Katie Phelps, were joined by Katie’s sister Rachael as well as David Salinetro and Joe Connor. Our journey began with a drive to Washington DC where we spent the night in an airport hotel prior to boarding the long flight to the nation known as “the Warm Heart of Africa.” We endured a 13 hour flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where after a short layover we transferred to a five hour leg that led us to our arrival in Blantyre, Malawi.

Safe Arrival in Blantyre celebrated by group that included our friend Rose Chitedze, who traveled all the way from Ntaja for a 10 minute welcome and a chance to sing "Palibe Ofananaye!"

Safe Arrival in Blantyre celebrated by group that included our friend Rose Chitedze, who traveled all the way from Ntaja for a 10 minute welcome and a chance to sing “Palibe Ofananaye!”

Here we were greeted by my dear friend, Dr. Davies Lanjesi, along with a dozen or so members of the partnership team. Our entire group is being housed in the Lanjesi home for two nights as we adapt to the new time zone (Blantyre is now 7 hours ahead of Pittsburgh) and wrap our heads around the opportunities that await. We appreciate your prayerful support and ask God to challenge, confront, comfort, and mold us as we spend time with some amazing people in the days to come.

Zikomo Kwambiri!

Davies and his daughter Chikondi try out the custom-made corn hole game we brought as a thank-you gift.

Davies and his daughter Chikondi try out the custom-made corn hole game we brought as a thank-you gift.

Angel (r) and Thokondwe (l) join the family in testing out the corn hole game. This set, bearing the logos of CHUP and the International Partnership team, was custom made by Tim Salinetro.

Angel (r) and Thokondwe (l) join the family in testing out the corn hole game. This set, bearing the logos of CHUP and the International Partnership team, was custom made by Tim Salinetro.

One of the folks who came to greet us was little Madalitso, the daughter of Lindirabe Gareta, the director of the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission (yes, she brought her parents and older brother, too!).

One of the folks who came to greet us was little Madalitso, the daughter of Lindirabe Gareta, the director of the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission (yes, she brought her parents and older brother, too!).

The ladies spending time with Madalitso

The ladies spending time with Madalitso

The Little Things — A Christmas Story

Every year it is my practice to write a story that will explore and, I hope, deepen the meaning of Christmas for those who are present in worship.  Many of these stories have been collected in a volume published in 2011 by Lulu press entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas.  If you’d like to know more about that book or how to purchase a copy, please simply click here.  In 2016, we experimented with making a live feed of our worship service.  I am not sure how long it will remain up, but if you are a Facebook user you might find it on my Facebook page.  The text for this story is an unusual one for Christmas: I Corinthians 1:26-31.

I met Wayne Barker in an unusual place. I had stopped to fill my tank and I looked across the parking area at the service station and I saw an enormous man crawling around on his knees. I wandered over to see if I could help, and he was muttering to himself… using mostly words that are not common in church. I asked if there was a problem and he looked up and said, “Yeah, I think. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a real problem or not but that little screw cap from my tire fell while I was adding air, and now I can’t find it. Why do they make those things black anyway? Isn’t every gas station parking lot in the world black? And they are so small!”

So because I didn’t want to appear insensitive, I gave the area at least a cursory glance, but it was so rainy that I was relieved when he stood up and said, “Sheesh. Forget about it. I’m sick of these pebbles grinding into my knees, and besides, I must have some sort of slow leak. I’ll get a new one when I get the tire fixed.”

Perhaps like a lot of big guys, Wayne isn’t good at little things. If you were to see his dresser at home, you’d see that it’s covered in an ocean of “small”. Pennies and paper clips, loose keys and nuts and bolts are heaped in piles, waiting for someone to be attentive.

Wayne Barker is a “big thing” guy. In his work as a heavy equipment operator, he lives in an oversized world. The tires are bigger, the holes are deeper, the sounds are louder… and all of that is OK with Wayne.

When he’s not moving huge piles of dirt with enormous machines, Wayne is shaping trees into objects of beauty. The day I met him the back of his truck was filled with rough-hewn maple. He told me he was on his way home to spend the weekend turning that wood into a queen-sized rocking chair.

You see, his only daughter, Megan, was pregnant. With twins. He had already made a special crib for her – it was, essentially, a “double wide”. There were two sides, and space for two mattresses, but the babies would be able to reach through and touch each other if they wanted to. He hadn’t planned on making a rocker, but he was fed up with what he called “discount store cheapies”, and apparently he’d been to Megan’s home twice already to measure the doorways. He wanted to make sure he was building the absolute biggest chair that could fit into her home.

When Wayne starts something, he’s all in. That would explain why he didn’t leave the house after he got home that Friday afternoon. He was building. Cutting. Sanding. Joining. Making the world’s greatest daughter – the world’s most important mom-to-be – the best rocking chair in the history of furniture.

But at about 4 on the following Monday morning, his plans went awry. He was awakened by a call from his panicked son-in-law, who simply said, “We’re at the hospital. Get here as soon as you can.”

Wayne flew out the door and was immediately confronted by a flat tire on his pickup. Evidently the leak we’d seen on the previous Friday had gotten worse over the weekend, and the vehicle was not drivable. He let out an involuntary scream (again, using language I’ll not repeat here). At that moment, his neighbor arrived home from his shift as a taxi driver. When Wayne explained the situation, the man immediately said, “Get in!”

That made Wayne a little uncomfortable, because he’d never really spoken to his neighbor before. He was from India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh or somewhere, and he was a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or something. Wayne had always thought of him as being odd, and yet here he was going out of his way to help.

When they got to the hospital, Wayne pulled out his wallet but the neighbor waved him off, saying, “This? This is a little thing. Go inside. Go!”

When he got inside, he was, himself, smaller than he’d ever been. There were lights and noises and people rushing in and out. Wayne didn’t understand everything, but what he did understand scared him to death. Apparently there was a problem with the blood flow to the babies, and unless they did something, at least one of them would die before it had a chance to be born.

His daughter told him that they were going to do something called Laser Ablation. Using an impossibly skinny needle, the medical team inserted a small laser right into Megan’s womb, where they re-arranged some of the blood vessels using a laser beam shot from inside the needle.

When Wayne saw the size of the camera, and the laser, and the babies in the womb, he couldn’t believe his own eyes. How could something so small be so amazingly important? More than that, how could something that little do anything worth doing?

I’m happy to tell you that the surgery was a success and Megan was able to leave the hospital a few days later with nothing more than a band-aid on the outside and, more importantly, two increasingly healthy children on the inside. The babies were able to develop normally for another four weeks until she went into labor and delivered them last month – six weeks early.

Wayne got his tire repaired, and then he took his first step in learning the lessons of littleness by crossing the street and properly introducing himself to, and then thanking, his neighbor. And he has been in the neonatal intensive care unit every evening to hold his grandchildren. They are so little that he can easily hold one in each hand – or he would if the nurses would let him get away with it. For five weeks, he has marveled at their size and remembered how frightened he was the day of the procedure.

Of course, when he holds the children in the NICU, the nurses come by and offer comments about how big they are getting (which, of course, they are, compared to the other babies in that unit)… and when he shows photos to anyone at work, the constant comment is, “oooooh! Look how little!” (which, of course, they are, in comparison to everyone else’s grandchildren).

So these days, when he’s at work with his big equipment doing big jobs, Wayne Barker notices little things that are simply crucial. The other day, he observed how a tiny sliver of metal called a cotter pin that costs pennies and can be bent with his bare hands is absolutely essential to holding the bucket on his backhoe. He thought about it again while he fished around in his pocket for the key that started up the earth grader. Even in the hospital cafeteria, he noticed that he had a huge bowl of soup that was vastly improved by a few grains of salt.

Wayne isn’t at the hospital tonight, though. The babies are coming home on Monday, and all of these big thoughts about little things have brought Wayne to worship.

Here’s what I mean: for most of the past 33 years, Christmas has been BIG for Wayne and his family. He’s the guy who bought those giant stuffed bears. You couldn’t get into his living room once the tree was set up because he chose the biggest, fattest tree he could find. And when it came time for dinner, well, Wayne didn’t think it was worth eating if the turkey was less than 24 pounds.

And yet, this year, he can’t take himself away from the smallness of it all. Tonight, he is filling his heart, mind, and spirit with thoughts of littleness. Thoughts of one star, twinkling in the murky depths of space. One child, coming to reveal the whole heart of God to humanity. One candle, beating back the darkness in defiance of the drafts. One congregation, trying to live in ways that will change the world.

Up until now, Wayne Barker hasn’t had time for the littleness of Christmas. All of that has been nonsense to him – that is to say, it made no sense at all. And maybe, tonight, it still is nonsense.

But this is what he knows: that tonight, four miles away the heart of his heart is beating double time because something amazingly and improbably small had come in and changed reality.

And tonight, for either the first time or the hundredth time, he gets it. He understands what the Lord was saying to the prophet Zechariah all those years ago:

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts… For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel… (Zechariah 4:6,10)

Although that’s an obscure book, it had always caught Wayne’s eye because Zerubbabel was a builder – and he took some grief from others on account of the fact that he seemed to always start slow and start small. But lately, it seemed to Wayne, that starting slow and starting small might just be the way that God likes to operate.

So tonight, Wayne is trying to get in touch with the littleness and the subtlety and even the weakness for which the Almighty seems to have an affinity. He’s lighting his candle, dusting off his hope, and trying to get ready for the changes that need to take place… in him… in his neighborhood… and in his world.

It’s a little thing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s no better time than Christmas for the little things.

Wishing you all the grace to find energy and devotion to learn the lessons of littleness in your particular corner of the world today.  May you be surprised by what is vulnerable or even weak in yourselves, and may be be an agent of grace in this world.

Watch Your Step

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights marked the fourth Sunday of Advent 2016 by giving some thought to what it means to be a people of peace in a culture that seems riven by conflict.  Our texts included Isaiah 2:1-5 and Luke 1:67-79.

Do you like hockey?

I do. I mean, I really do. I’ve been watching more and more of it in recent months. 20 years ago, you could say that I had a passing interest in the game. That grew to the point where 10 years ago I might have been called a “mild” fan. Now I find myself watching most of the games on TV, and I even go to a few. I love it.

rondaveA couple of months ago I came across a pair of tickets and so my neighbor Ron and I went to see the Penguins take on the Sharks in a rematch of this year’s Stanley Cup finals. Early in the second period, the Sharks scored and that quieted the fans down a bit. Not long after that, it appeared as though Hornqvist put one in for the Penguins, but the replay showed it was a bad goal, and so it was disallowed. And then the Sharks scored again.

By the end of the second period, we were down 2 – 0, and in addition, two of our defensemen were injured and out of the game. During the intermission, Ron turned to me and said, “OK, this is all right. They’ve got a two-goal lead. That’s the most dangerous lead in hockey.”

I looked at Ron as if to say, “Nice try, neighbor. But let’s go get some nachos or something to redeem this evening.”

In the third period, the Penguins scored three times in seven minutes and ended up winning the game. I like hockey – in part, because it’s possible for my team to come back in a big way.

Believe it or not, there’s an Advent connection here.

Today is “peace” Sunday. We’ve talked about the ways that Advent leads us toward hope, love, and joy; today we are considering the notion that peace is reflective of the Lord’s intentions for his people.

advent-candle-flames-1200x450If you have any access to any kind of device that is capable of relaying any information about the world outside of these walls, you will know that this has been a tough week for the team that follows the One who is sometimes called “the Prince of Peace”. Just on my phone – a three inch screen – I’ve seen…

  • the most recent devastation of Aleppo
  • The next steps toward genocide in South Sudan
  • I had a friend call and describe how the house across the street from him had been shot up in a drive-by
  • We saw the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings and heard the verdict in the trial of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in a Charleston church
  • There was a shooting on Barr Avenue – five or six blocks from here – over a parking place
  • Another friend about whom I care deeply received word that a loved one had attempted suicide

Sometimes, I just don’t get it – we come in here and we read these words about swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, but I don’t know, man. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Jesus – I’m a big fan… But when I look around at what’s going on in the world – even in my little corner of it, which is a pretty sweet little corner… it seems like we’re in a really tight spot. This is worse than a 2-goal deficit, if you know what I mean.

I just don’t see how Team Peace can pull this one out. There always seems to be more hatred, more violence, more death. It’s hard. I mean, it’s just really hard some times.

I said I like to watch the hockey games. And at least once a week, I do. But when I watch them, I use the amazing little feature called DVR – that allows me to skip the commercials and, more importantly, the intermissions. I turn on the game at 8 or 8:30 and I watch it straight through.

Usually.

On November 16, the Pens went down to Washington and played the Capitals. It was horrible – they wound up losing 7-1. I can guarantee you that I didn’t watch that whole game. I mean, we fall behind 4 – 0, 5 – 0… it’s time to let my wife have the remote control. I don’t have time to watch that kind of performance.

Why? Why do I give up like that?

There are at least two reasons. First, I give up because I can. Look, it’s a hockey game. If a bunch of well-paid, enormously-talented young men want to spend a couple of hours crashing into each other, loosening teeth and creating bone-jarring collisions long after the outcome has been decided, well, they can be my guests. But I’m not interested in that kind of a “contest.”

And secondly, I stop watching because I’m well aware of the fact that I have no impact on the outcome of the game. I’m a fan. I’m not even in the same city, often. What can I do about it?

But if you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor a bit, I’m not merely a fan of Team Peace. Like you, I’m one of the players. I have a stake in the game, and I have a responsibility toward the other players and the team.

Look at the reading we’ve had from the Old Testament. After Isaiah tells the people what the Lord is going to do, in verse five he looks at his audience and says simply, “so let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

zaechariah-and-elizabeth-with-johnIn Luke 1, the old man Zechariah sings a song we know as the Benedictus. He starts by recounting what God has already done: God has redeemed, raised up, showed mercy, and remembered. The next verse is about what his son, the one we would come to know as John the Baptizer, will do: John will prepare the way for the messiah, and he will tell the people of God’s saving love and forgiveness. And the final refrain describes what is going to happen as a result: the tender mercy of God will come upon us, and it will shine on those who are in the darkness and under the sentence of death, and it will guide our feet in the paths of peace.

In both of these passages the implication is unmistakable: God has acted, God will act, and there is a role or a responsibility for us. There is a path that we must take – the work that is before us is to walk the pathways of peace.

OK, so what does that mean? How do we live in such a way so as to prepare for a reality in which swords and spears are superfluous? How do we live in a way that recognizes the fact that our God is a redeeming, raising up, merciful, remembering God?

It means that we get out there and we live the faith that we talk about. We walk in the light. We move through the shadows. We stay on the path.

And how do we do that? Well, here’s a clue: the paths of peace do not begin and end in this room.

Let’s go back to hockey. What’s the part of the telecast that I hate the most? What’s the reason that I use a DVR to watch the games?

The fact that NHL games have not one, but two intermissions. From where I sit, an intermission is 17 minutes of bad commercials, useless commentary, and talking heads. There is no action at all.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a little like worship – an artificial interruption of real life where a couple of people do a lot of talking, sometimes someone tries to sell you something, and not much appears to be going on. Maybe Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was right when he said in a 1996 interview, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[1]

Exactly. This? This is not very efficient.

carlyle-practice-620-thumb-620xauto-357815But listen to this: in the NHL, the intermission does not exist for the spectators or the fans. When that horn sounds and the teams traipse off to their locker rooms, that’s a chance for the players and coaches to get together and see how things are going. They look at who’s hurting. They talk about strategy. I can imagine that someone might come up to Sidney Crosby and say, “Look, #43 has been trying to ride me up the boards all night. What if we faked a breakaway and you gave me a pass a step behind him?” The players and coaches use those 17 minutes to take a breather, to hydrate, to adjust their equipment, and to reflect on what’s working and what’s not.

Nobody connected with the NHL thinks for a minute that intermission is the reason to sell tickets or play the game. But successful teams realize that it is crucial to use these breaks from the action to reflect on where they have been, to correct or adjust strategy, and to choose how to move forward into the time that remains.

And here’s the problem: many churches, Christians, and pastors act like the hour we spend in worship every week is the primary means by which we follow Jesus Christ. And that’s just not true. It’s a load of hooey, in fact.

The path of peace brings you by here now and then – but you’d better be walking in that path 24/7/365.

When I was growing up, I thought that 11 a.m. on Sundays was the time when Christians played the game. I thought that was the most important hour of the week. That worship was where the action was – it was what counted.

I was wrong. This? This is intermission. This is where we all stop our running around and beating ourselves and each other up and we come in here and we catch our breath for a bit. This is a sanctuary – but it’s also a locker room.

And I gotta tell you, team… it looks like we’re getting beaten pretty badly right now. Team Peace is taking it on the chin.

What are we going to do?

We could quit. Forget trying to do anything meaningful about the pain, suffering, and dis-ease around us and focus in on the things that we like. We have great coffee hours. And the kids seem to enjoy each other. Maybe we just re-think where we’re going.

I suppose you could call in the substitutes. Maybe you want to get a new coach? I hope not. I kind of like it here… and besides, no matter what you do with the lower management, the Ownership is not likely to change any time soon, if you know what I mean…

So how do we respond to the fact that we are living in a world that is by many measures more violent and less peaceful?

What if we got ready to take five key young leaders and immerse them in a cross-cultural experience that will not only knock their socks off, but just might screw them up for the rest of their lives in terms of their ability and inclination to fit into a materialistic and violent culture?

What if we took a couple of thousand dollars and bought a new furnace for the Open Door on Friday morning and then hosted a party for 200 neighbors on Friday evening?

The ministry down at the Table, where we offer a hot meal and warm fellowship to dozens of people who need it, seems to be taking off. How about we recruit a few extra folks to staff that?

We could prepare a group of twelve adults to travel to the southern border of this country, where they could learn about issues of poverty, justice, and immigration while helping churches in that area reflect the love of God through the provision of adequate housing…

Do you see what I mean? You don’t come in here because this is the place where you act like a Christian. You come in here because this is the place where we catch our breath; we talk to the team; we listen for some new direction or fresh ideas; we revisit the basics; we share our heaviness and our joy – before heading back out to where the action is.

Come Saturday night (Christmas Eve) we’re not going to stand around and sing old songs and light candles because we think that kind of nonsense actually accomplishes anything in our ongoing battles with addiction or depression or ISIS or materialism or fear or war-mongering or greed or racism…

We engage in those practices because they remind us that at the end of the day, light does shine! Peace will reign. We are not here to offer a little mumbo-jumbo that somehow erases all the pain; we are here in order to be shaped and challenged and refreshed in our attempts to live lives of peace all week long!

So rest this morning, saints. Catch your breath. In a few moments, we’ll have the choir sing a little number. I think you’ll like it – it’s a real toe-tapper.

But that’s not the point. The point is getting you equipped, getting all of us ready to get back out there and continue walking in the paths of peace, even when it seems rough.

God is doing a new thing. Not just now, but tomorrow morning and on Thursday and yes, on Saturday night. Remember that, and move toward that all week.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Interview with TIME Magazine, January 13, 1996

Was Jesus Happy?

A message about one of the central themes of Advent as preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on December 4, 2016.  The texts for the day included Psalm 47 and John 15:9-17.

 

Are you familiar with the game known as “Would You Rather?” It’s a conversation-starter featuring questions in which players are asked to choose between one of two options. You can’t say “both” and you can’t say “neither”. Some are simple matters of preference: “Would you rather be a firefighter or an astronaut?” Others seem irrelevant to me: “Would you rather eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life or give up Instagram?” And some are downright cruel: “Would you rather listen to Nickelback every day for the rest of your life or read the entire 56 page iTunes terms and conditions every day for the rest of your life?”

Here’s one for Advent: Would you rather be happy or joyful?

Maybe that’s a trick question, so let me ask you to ponder this for a moment: is there a difference between joy and happiness? On the one hand, we tend to use those words differently. On the other hand, the dictionary uses those words to define each other:

Happiness (noun)

  1. the quality or state of being happy;
  2. good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.

Joy (noun)

  1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation…

Maybe me asking if you’d rather feel happy or joyful is akin to me asking whether you prefer rain or snow. Is there a difference between water and ice? On the one hand, there is no difference at all. Ice is water. Water becomes ice. In either case, we’re looking at two atoms of hydrogen for every atom of oxygen. But on the other hand, we surely experience rain and snow differently, don’t we?

J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, once wrote “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” (from Nine Stories, De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”)I like that.

Joy is a form of happiness to be sure, but it is not exactly the same. It’s the kind of happiness that comes to us in surprising ways, that runs over us, or that seeps into us even when we’re not quite sure what we’re looking for.

Happiness, in my mind, can be very fleeting and tends to be related to some sort of outward circumstance: “I won the lottery!”, or “He went to Jared’s”, or “That was the best steak I’ve ever eaten in my life.” Joy, however, tends to be longer-lasting and is related to something that is more inwardly-focused: “My life is so much better since I stopped worrying about money!”, or “I am loved!”, or “Everybody seemed to really enjoy themselves at dinner tonight…”

Maybe another way to think about it is this: we are often happy because of some physical sensation or material object (“Have you seen my new car?”); we tend to experience joy as a result of a spiritual awakening or a burst of gratitude (“It is so wonderful not to have to wait at the bus stop every morning!”).

gaudeteI bring all of this up, of course, because this month we are looking at the traditional Advent emphases of the church. As such, I note that on this, the third Sunday of Advent, we celebrate what the church has called Gaudete Sunday – the Sunday of Joy. The name comes from the beginning of the liturgy that the early Christians used in Latin: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete (Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice). You may not have noticed, but in addition to lighting our first two Advent candles – purple to symbolize the reflection and repentance appropriate to the season – this morning we lit the one pink candle. Many churches use the pink candle to remember and proclaim that even as the days become longer and darker, there is a sense that joy is on the horizon. You may not be happy about the fact that it’s freezing outside and it will get dark at 4:30 and our boiler is struggling to keep up with the draft in here… but we can celebrate the truth that none of these things matter in comparison to the gift of the Christ child.

This kind of thought is especially meaningful to me this year as one of the most important part of my Advent disciplines is preparing the team of five young leaders from Crafton Heights for a visit to our sister church in Malawi.

It has been my great honor and deep joy to worship with the church in many, many places around the world: from Malawi to South Sudan to the Soviet Union or Mexico or Haiti or Korea or South America… I am thrilled to have been present in so many different kinds of worship. Yet one thing strikes me, and frankly, annoys me. When I am with a group of Americans at worship in the developing world, the almost universal reaction is this: “Wow, Dave, did you see that? I mean, these people are so poor! Their lives are so difficult! And yet they are so happy!”

smilesI want to tell you, nothing chaps my hide as quickly as having some well-meaning person look at an economically challenged community and say, “Sure, they’re poor, but look how happy they are. I could never be happy like that.”

The reality is that reasoning comes from a false equivalence. We fall into that line of thinking when we assume that our happiness is dependent on our outward situation. People aren’t happy being poor or facing difficulty. Yet they can be filled with joy even in those circumstances as they hold to a higher truth. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”[1]

That rings true in our Gospel reading for today. I don’t think that many people would consider the events of Maundy Thursday and call Jesus “happy”. We have read from John’s description of the Last Supper. He is on his way to what scholars have called “the agony in the garden,” where Luke tells us that he experienced such stress that he was sweating blood. He spent the night preparing for his own suffering and death – this was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “good day”.

And yet, here he is, however improbably, telling his best friends (all of whom would scatter in the moments to come) about the joy that he has, and about his longing for them to experience the same joy in their own lives.

You know the truth: viewed through any lens but that of faith, this is a nonsensical proposition. There is simply no call for Jesus to be happy about his impending pain, suffering and death. Of course. And I cannot believe that he is happy about those things.

But what if Jesus is not, in fact, happy about his impending torture and the agony of the crucifixion, but rather is filled with some sort of joy as a result of participating in God’s plan of redemption, healing, and hope? What if the thought of other people, such as his disciples or even us, sharing in that mission was enough to give Jesus the ability to look past the anticipated pain and torment of the days ahead and into a reality where human hearts were shaped according to God’s design?

And what if our friends in Malawi or elsewhere in the developing world are not happy because they are privileged to live in some of the harshest places on the planet in terms of infant mortality, HIV/AIDS infection, or access to clean water… but rather, they are filled with joy at the prospect of being able to participate in the body of Christ at work around the world? What if, instead of wondering why someone can be so happy while they are so poor, we committed ourselves to sharing in the transformative work of Christ in a way that focuses less on what we have and more on who we are?

I know I’ve been quoting a lot of theologians this morning, but here’s one more. This is from the late Theodor Geisel, who considered this very mystery in one of his more celebrated works:grinch

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, “How could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.”

And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more.”[2]

What if the point of life is not to be happy, but rather to share joy? If that’s the case, then we can seek to spread the joy of Advent each day no matter what our current situation. Pope Francis, preaching on Gaudete Sunday in 2014, said “Many people in the rush toward Christmas fret about all they still haven’t done for holiday preparations,…Think of all the good things life has given you.”[3]

Can we do that? Can we, gathered here in this place, make today a day of joy?

Here’s what I want you to do. When you get home, don’t worry about the fact that you’ve got that list of cards to send or gifts to wrap. Instead, take a breath and make a phone call or write a letter to one person and express gratitude for that person and his or her place in your life.

And now some of you are saying, “Great, Dave. Thanks for that. You should know that the person I’d most like to share that with has died, and this is my first Christmas without her or him.” If that’s the case, then go home, take a breath, and remember that person. Give yourself permission to weep for your loss, if need be. Grieve over what has been taken… but – and this is a very big but – rejoice that you had that time with that person. Give thanks for what you have received.

Today, I want you to remember that while we sometimes think of happiness as being fleeting, joy is a kind of happiness that comes from a deep, deep place – it is a gift that is received.

To put it quite simply, spiritual experience, whether it be of faith, hope (or expectancy), or love, is something we cannot manufacture, but which we can only receive. If we direct our lives to seeking it for ourselves we shall lose it, but if we lose our lives by living out the daily way of Christ we shall find it.[4]

The joy of the Christian life comes as a result of a process. When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he talked about his desire that their joy may be made “complete”.

This gift of joy is one that comes over time, and it is cumulative. In John 16, or James 1, or Psalm 16, or I John 4, or John 17, or Philippians 2, or II John 12, of dozens of other places, some biblical writer talks about having a joy that is some how “made complete”. Today, ask God to help you view your reality and your gifts and your opportunities in such a way as to be able to take a step closer to that kind of completion.

Today, let us join with Jesus and the shepherds, with Mary and Joseph, with the people of God in Malawi and South Sudan and a dozen other places around the world to spend less time looking for ways to make our lives easier, or more fun, or less mundane, and more time searching for opportunities to participate in the Big Thing that God is doing. The Big Thing might hurt. I’m guaranteeing that it’ll cost you. But the result, my friends, is joy. I promise. Better than that – God promises.

And wouldn’t you rather be joyful?

Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1] The Heart of Henri Nouwen, quoted at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/14116

[2] Dr. Seuss, How The Grinch Stole Christmas (New York: Random House 1957)

[3] “Pope Francis: Enough Gloom, Try Joy Ahead of Christmas”, The Whittier Daily News 12/14/14, quoted http://www.whittierdailynews.com/social-affairs/20141214/pope-francis-enough-gloom-try-joy-ahead-of-christmas

[4] “Yielding to God”, Philip Britts in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough, 2001), entry for December 9.