Anybody Want a Sandwich?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  After a break for Easter and my travel to Malawi, we dove back into this discussion on April 22 as we considered the intertwined stories of Jairus’ family and an unknown woman.   Our texts included Mark 5:21-43 as well as the 24th Psalm.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/scene1_2018-04-22_11-28-31_t001_in1.mp3 into your browser.

What is your all-time favorite sandwich?

I drank a lot of coffee here back in the day…

Years ago I was having lunch with a group of pastors down at LaVerne’s Diner in the West End – a place that, sadly, is no more.  It was one of the shiny-on-the-outside, Art Deco on the inside places that featured lots of formica, good coffee, and simple food. As LaVerne herself came to take the orders, she asked what I wanted.  I said, “LaVerne, it all looks good.  You decide. Give me your best sandwich.”

She said, “Well, what do you like? How do I know how to make it?”

I said, “There’s no ingredient on this menu I won’t love.  You make me the one you like best.”

So she went back to the kitchen and pushed the cook, John, out of the way.  Every now and then she would yell to me through the window separating the counter from the kitchen: “Will you eat onions?…What about cheese?…” and so on.  Each time, I simply responded, “LaVerne, make your best sandwich.”

She came out with our four plates and put them down in front of us.  I picked up mine, which was essentially a glorified cheeseburger, and took a bite.  “Mmmm,” I said, “Outstanding!  This is delicious!  What do you call it?”

And LaVerne got a little red in the face and looked down and said, “Well, it’s the ‘Big L’.” Because of the look on her face, and the way that she treated me every time I went into the restaurant after that, the “Big L” was my favorite sandwich.

What’s the point of a sandwich, anyway?  It’s a simple dish wherein bread serves as a container or wrapper for some different kind of food. Of course, having the bread makes the delivery of the other food a bit easier (can you imagine ordering a grilled cheese and then saying “hold the bread”?).  But the best sandwiches rely on an interplay between the bread and the filling.  You can’t have, for instance, a Monte Cristo sandwich unless you use French toast.  Can you make a gyro if you use a croissant instead of a pita?  Of course not…it’s just a lamb sandwich.  The bread and the filling go together to make the whole package – which is often more than the sum of its parts.

Our scripture reading for this morning is a peculiar bit of storytelling that the theologians call “a Markan sandwich”.  At least eight or ten times in his Gospel, Mark will start off by telling us one story, and then just when that one gets going, he’ll switch his theme.  When he’s finished interrupting himself, he’ll get back to the original thought.  Now, you know as well as I do from personal experience that when someone does this in conversation, it can be frustrating and difficult to follow.  However, when Mark does it, it almost always provides us, as hearers of the gospel, with a chance to look at how the stories connect with each other.  In fact, often times the “bread” of the story will serve as a commentary on the “meat”, and vice-versa.

So today, we have a typical Markan sandwich for our worship meal.  The outer layer is a story about a wealthy, powerful man named Jairus, and his sick daughter.  The filling is a story about a poor woman who was herself sick, and who in fact had nobody besides Jesus to whom she could turn.

Do you remember where we were when we last saw Jesus in the gospel of Mark?  He had taken us over to the region of the Gerasenes, where we had to spend the night in the graveyard with a demon-possessed madman, surrounded by pigs and pig-farmers.  You may recall that we thought that the disciples were not all that happy to be there, so you can imagine their relief when, upon coming home to “our” side of the lake, they are met by Jairus.

What a contrast between the wealthy, respected, learned, distinguished leader of the community and the total loser with whom we had to spend the night among the tombs. I’m sure that the disciples followed this conversation between Jairus and Jesus with great enthusiasm: “OK, Now we’re getting somewhere!” They have to be thinking that this conversation with Jairus is an indication that Jesus is wising up and that things are going to get better for him, his ministry, and for them.

But no sooner had they started off towards Jairus’ home when Jesus stops the procession.  In the crush of the crowd, someone has brushed up against him.  Jesus stops, and demands to know who it was.

The Woman With the Issue of Blood, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Do you think that the first disciples of Jesus ever snapped – if they ever looked at Jesus and said, “What are you, nuts?  Give me a break!”  Well, that appears to be what happens in this morning’s reading.  “Come on, Jesus, there have to be 200 people around you. How can you even ask a question like that?”

It was more than simply an issue of Jesus feeling as if his personal space was invaded. Virtually every adult Jewish male in that day would have worn a prayer shawl while walking around – and surely a Rabbi such as Jesus would have had his on.  The edges of these shawls were woven in such a way that they ended in four tassels, called tzitzit.  The prophet Malachi, writing about four hundred years earlier, said that the “sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings”.  The faithful Jews of Jesus’ day had come to believe that was a prophecy about the coming Messiah – that he would be so Godly that even if one were to touch his “wings” – his tzitzit, that one would receive healing. When this woman reaches out and receives healing in this way, Jesus allows her to confess her faith that he is, in fact, the messiah.

I am unaware of the name or artist for this work. i would appreciate it if someone could teach me those things!

Meanwhile, Jairus has to be thinking, “Look, I’m not opposed to healing or theological conversation, but the fact of the matter is that we’re in a race against time here…” And in fact, while Jesus is still speaking to this un-named woman, they get word that they are too late.  The girl has died.

Yet as you have heard, that’s not the end of the story.  Jesus takes Jairus and his family home and raises the little girl, much to the amazement of the mourners who had gathered.

So there you have it – the sandwich.  Mark could have told us about the healing of Jairus’ daughter, and then said, “and the cool thing was, there was this other healing while Jesus was on the way…”  But he doesn’t.  He wraps them together, and in so doing, he invites us to compare them. So let’s do that now – let’s take a look at the different healings that comprise this “sandwich”.

Jairus’ Daughter Woman who was bleeding
Powerful, wealthy family with many resources Unknown, unconnected, un-named woman who had “spent all she had”
A public appeal to healing based on status A secret approach made in fear
12 years of joy-filled living with a beloved daughter 12 years of isolation and shame – living as one “unclean” and unwelcome
She was a precious child She was nobody’s child (she is never named or acknowledged until Jesus himself calls her “daughter” in v 34)
A public approach results in a private healing A private approach results in a public healing
Jesus risks being labeled as “unclean” by contacting a dead body Jesus is rendered “unclean” by being touched by a woman who is bleeding

Note that in both cases Jesus – just as he did with the fellow who roamed amongst the tombs and the pigs – risks “crossing to the other side” to be with folks who matter to God.

When LaVerne made me that “Big L”, she took special care to combine the meat and the condiments and the bread.  I learned something about her in the choices she made, and in the way that she made that sandwich and served it to me.

When Mark uses a “sandwich” to tell us about a Jesus who heals both Jairus’ daughter and this sick woman, he tells us something about that Jesus.  What can we learn from this passage?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need to remember that not every interruption is a negative thing.  I get my day all planned out and think that I have all my ducks in a row…and then something else happens.  If I’m paying attention to Jesus, I can learn that sometimes some incredibly important things can happen when I least expect them.  What would happen if I were to treat each “interruption” in my day as an opportunity to learn more about God’s purposes for the world or for myself?

Planning is a good thing, and I’d encourage you to do it.  But I’d warn you to not get so lost in your plans that you miss the chance to see God at work in the unexpected each day.

But more than a lesson about scheduling and planning and interruptions, this is a story that speaks to me about hope.  There is hope for everyone, Mark says.  Even if you feel as if you have suffered for a lifetime – did you notice that the woman’s illness had lasted as long as the little girl’s life? – there is the possibility that God will make his presence known to you, or through you, in amazing ways.

And this hope is available to everyone – even to “outsiders”.  The woman who had been bleeding suffered from more than a flow of blood.  The cultural law mandated that for the health of the community, she had to refrain from contact with any other human being as long as she bled.  She was in a hell of loneliness and isolation – she was outside of any group you could think of.  Yet this is the one that Jesus calls “daughter”.  He blesses her.  In naming her healing publicly, he restores her to her life and to her community. There is hope for those of us who feel as though we are on the outside looking in.

When we are feeling “on the top of our game”, it’s easy to suffer though a tough time.  But when we feel unworthy or unclean, it’s a little easier to feel that anything bad that is happening to us is simply judgment – I’m just getting “what I deserve”.  This sandwich reminds me that there is hope for healing and joy in everyone’s life – not only those who are pure, but for those who are struggling and for those who feel like we’ll never be good enough.

And lastly, as Jesus confronts the evil of death in this passage, we learn that it’s never too late for hope.  The little girl’s parents must have felt a little foolish when Jesus went in and took the hand of their daughter and spoke to her corpse…yet Jesus restored her to them.

Is there a part of your life where you have given up hope?  Is there something in you that you feel is too far gone?  Let me encourage you not to laugh at Jesus with the other mourners, but rather to allow him and his disciples to enter into the deepest and most painful part of your grief…to enter into the place that you think might even be dead…and to allow him to speak to that.

The sandwich that Mark fixes us this morning reminds us of the truth of the Psalm: “The earth and everything on itbelong to the Lord; the world and all of its peoplebelong to him.”  If the healing and hope of Jesus does not include both the unnamed woman and the rich man’s daughter as well as both the disturbed man who roamed amongst the tombs and the eager disciples who gave their lives to the Lord, then it’s not really hope at all.  It’s a reward for people who are in the right group at the right time in the right place. Yet this is a bold claim that in fact, the promises of Christ are open to all, and the presence of Christ is universal. My prayer is that this will nourish you and sustain you and encourage you to move forward in your journey of faith with the one who is the “sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings.”  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Partnership in African Mission Final Update (#10)

In one of my first messages to a Malawian congregation on this trip, I shared the news that people in Pittsburgh were preparing to run a marathon this spring.  Explaining to some of these folks exactly why anyone would voluntarily attempt to run 26.2 miles took some doing, but we got there.  I said that one of the customs in such a race is to have people line the path and offer encouragement by cheering or sharing water with the racers.  Nobody really sees the entire race, but each step is witnessed and applauded.

I believe that in many ways, that’s a good analogy to the trip that Brian and I have shared with our Malawian hosts, South Sudanese partners, and my friend Lauren.  We’ve been running up and down and all around the country, and it’s been tough in some regards – but so worth it! And just like the end of the race features the finish line and the time to rest, so our sprint through Central Africa brought with it a “last day” and one last chance to take in the beauty of this nation and her people.

We began by attending the 6:00 a.m. English-speaking service for the Mawira CCAP in Liwonde.  It was the first time that the service had begun at that hour, as it has been pushed back to accommodate a third worship service on Sunday morning in this rapidly-growing congregation.  Nevertheless, the small group of about 60 swelled to well over 100 by the time 6:30 rolled around.  The service was led by the Youth of the congregation, and it was tremendously encouraging to see how these kids are moving in leadership and ministry in this congregation.  I was especially delighted when I realized that the pastor of this church is my old friend Dennis Mulele, whom I first met while doing a famine relief trip with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in 2003.  He really made an impact on me during that trip and it was a great joy to reconnect in worship.

With Dennis Mulele at Mawire CCAP. The first time we met, the only gray was in our clothing!

 

Sharing the story

 

Offering the benediction.

Following the worship, we spent the afternoon in Liwonde National Park.  This park has been steadily improving in terms of security (anti-poaching) and accessibility of wildlife during the time I’ve known Malawi.  The location – right in Liwonde, about five minutes from the church – made it a great option for us to relax and unwind with a drive through the park as well as a “boat safari” on the Shire River. It did not disappoint in the least!

The graceful Impala!

 

Kudu

African Elephant

This is a really bad photo of a jackal, but it’s the only jackal I’ve ever seen in Malawi.

 

A warthog with baboons in the background

 

Little Bee-Eater

 

Hippopotamus

 

Pied Kingfisher

 

The African Fish Eagle is the national bird of Malawi. It looks like the North American Bald Eagle, but it is not quite as large.

We made it home after dark and have spent the last 18 hours or so resting, packing, doing some last minute shopping, and enjoying a Penguins win from afar!  We are so grateful for the ways that this trip has allowed us to carry the best wishes of Pittsburgh Presbytery into our partnerships here; for the chance to grow in friendship with each other and those who have accompanied us; for the grace of God that has sustained us in so many ways.

So for now, we say, Tionana, Malawi – “so long” – but not “goodbye”!

If you would like to hear more about this journey, find out how you or your (Pittsburgh Presbytery) congregation can be involved in the Partnership, or are interested in knowing about the upcoming plans to host a delegation from Africa in October 2018, please click  here or simply come to our next meeting, Monday, May 7, 2018 at the Pittsburgh Presbytery Center (901 Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15233).

Mulungu Akudalitseni – May God bless you!

Partnership in African Mission Update #9

“Always go to the wedding,” my father-in-law says.  “You’ll get to see almost as many people as at the funerals, and they’re a lot more fun.”

There are a lot of reasons I like to pay attention to my father-in-law, and this one is easy.  When we found out that the proposed “summit meeting” for our partnership conversations would not be happening in January, we looked toward a post-Easter date and were thrilled to discover that if we came to Blantyre in mid-April we’d be together with our dear friends Silas and Margaret Ncozana in time to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary.

The day was packed full – first, there was a “wedding” with a renewal of vows at St. Michael and All Angels CCAP.  Then a “town reception” at a nearby garden spot, and finally many of the international guests headed north to Kutchire lodge for a meal and a chance to sleep in the Liwonde National Park.  It was a great day in so many ways, and one of the best of them was the chance to connect with friends who have become dear over a quarter of a century of partnership.  I’ll confess that I stopped taking pictures and started just engaging with the people who were there, but here are a few images of a great day.

The happy couple processing into the church.

 

Sue Makin helped me to fall in love with Mulanje Mission hospital and so much more about this lovely land. It was a joy to visit!

 

McDonald Kadawati was the General Secretary of Blantyre Synod about a dozen years ago, and here he is greeting Brian Snyder.

 

Misanjo Kansilanga was the General Secretary when I did the pastor’s exchange in 1998.

 

It seemed odd, but incredibly fitting, to run into Dan Merry on the campus of Blantyre Synod. We had the chance to reminisce about all the miles we’ve put on the road together in all sorts of places!

 

This was a different kind of reunion: Lauren and Brooke live and teach together in Mulanje, but as Lauren has been traveling with me for the past 10 days or so, this was the first time they’d seen each other in nearly two weeks!

 

Lauren shows her new dress, purchased with the help of Angella Lanjesi.

 

Again, please do not take these photos as representative of the entire day or the vast range of participants.  As indicated above, it’s just a glimpse into a day celebrating a marvelous couple whose love for and with each other has strengthened and encouraged countless other people in thousands of “villages” around the world.  Thanks be to God!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #8

Deep and wide.

Breadth and depth.

Those are good matrices for a number of human experiences, and partnership is surely one of them.  The last couple of days have given us a chance to experience the deep reaches of partnership experiences, ranging from intensely personal to those instances where we simply do not know, and cannot guess what might occur.

Lauren Mack is a member of the Crafton Heights church who has been serving since August as a teacher at the St. Andrews Mission Secondary School in Mulanje.  This gave us a perfect excuse to drive down to Mulanje for a day and a half so that we might be able to appreciate the mission and purpose of that institution, see where Lauren and her friend and colleague Brooke are staying, and connect with some of those involved in the Partnership in that area.  Our initial stops included the historic Mulanje Mission Hospital, the St. Andrew’s manse, and dinner with the Presbytery partnership committee.

Lauren is greeted by Ms. Chirwa, chair of the Mulanje Presbytery Partnership team.

 

Touring the Mulanje Mission Hospital.

 

Meeting at the manse with Abusa Paul Mawaya

 

Partnership meal!

On Friday we awoke determined to climb, at least partially, up the side of Mount Mulanje with the notion of taking a quick dip in the icy waters of Nkhalambe Falls.  This pool is both broad and deep… and icy!  Nevertheless, Lauren and I took our chance to say we swam in the waters of an amazingly beautiful African stream.

Climbing up Mt. Mulanje

 

I told her we should pause for a photo. Meanwhile, I was dying for breath! I asked our photographer to take an extra half-dozen or so just so I could rest…

 

After about an hour, we make it to the falls!

 

And about four minutes later, here we were! Since the water flows out of the mountain, it is extremely cold year round.

 

Not long after we got in, a police unit came by. They couldn’t figure out why knuckleheads like us insisted on swimming on a cool, rainy day… so the took some photos of us swimming for the folks back home!

After our morning hike, we headed back to Blantyre but first took a stopover in Mpemba, where Mrs. Sophie Mnensa lives.  Sophie and her late husband, Ralph, were our colleagues on the Presbytery’s first pastor exchange program in 1998, when our families spent about 12 – 14 weeks together, half in each home.  This was an example of the depth of the partnership in our lives – to see how fully we have been able to engage with and for one another over two decades…

Greeting Sophie…

 

Sophie is able to video chat with her sister, Sharon – all the way in Pittsburgh!

 

Can you tell it’s not just Sophie who’s excited to see Sharon?

 

In 1998, the Carvers stayed with the Mnensas and spent a lot of time with two little boys – Gregory and Gamaliel (aged 2 and 4). In the same year, the Mnensas stayed with the Carvers and spent a lot of time with a three year old girl named Lauren. How exciting to see those kids together today? Who would have thought our friendship and partnership could have brought us this far?

 

Ralph died in 2002, but Sophie asks me to walk with her to his grave each time we visit. it is an honor to do so.

We arrived in town to see that our friends from Blantyre Synod had set up a banquet honoring the arrival of team from the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique.  This church body, like Blantyre Synod, traces its roots back to the early Scottish missionaries.  Several years ago, when we were beginning to envision a tripartite arrangement between South Sudan, America, and Malawi, members of the CCAP Blantyre Synod were exploring the reality of coming alongside this Presbyterian denomination in their closest neighbor.  That work is culminating this weekend as well over a dozen congregations will become formally twinned with one another – Mozambican and Malawian.  While this is not “our” partnership, it was a thrill to bear witness to the birth of a new reality in shared mission.  In many ways, this is the “breadth” of the church – it’s more than Pittsburgh can do right now, but we sure loved sitting on the sidelines and cheering on our brothers and sisters.

Brian, seated at “the Mozambican table”, brings greetings to the assembly.

 

The Moderator of the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique

 

I can’t get over the fact that on Wednesday, we had lunch with South Sudanese, and just a few days later, we’re having dinner with Mozambicans. What a joy indeed!

This has been a day! But thanks be to God, we’ve had the resources to thrive throughout it.  Thanks for your prayers!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #7

Wednesday brought another transition for our experience in Malawi.  We woke bright and early after having rested well during our stay at the Makuluni home in Ntaja.  There was a brief time for greetings and farewells, and then we headed back to Blantyre – a three hour drive.

Our host in Ntaja, Edith, stands with me and members of the Tongwe family (who hosted three young women from Crafton Heights in 2017).

Hope Mkandawire, who hosted two of our young adults last year. Note the envelopes in my left hand – messages I’ve been entrusted to carry back to Pittsburgh.

Upon our arrival in Blantyre, we were privileged to reconnect with our brothers from South Sudan, who had been the guests of the Synod whilst we were visiting Mbenjere in Ntaja.  During a farewell luncheon for them, Rev. James and I signed the official copies of the “Memorandum of Understanding” between the three church bodies (Rev. Mbolembole, Moderator for Blantyre Synod, was compelled to be out of town and therefore had signed them previously). I cannot emphasize enough how incredibly fruitful this time has been, particularly in terms of strengthening the pan-African portion of our tripartite agreement.

Rev. James Par Tap and I signing the M.O.U. in Blantyre.

Davies presents a farewell gift to Rev. Deng.

After escorting our friends to the airport for their flight back to Juba, Brian, Lauren, Chikondi and I visited the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission, the arm of the Synod responsible for the most direct relief and development work.  Here we were very engaged by a presentation from the Director and two members of her management team.  I have long been impressed with this group and their dedication to serving the poorest of the poor, and hope that we will have the opportunity to continue to work to strengthen their ministry here.

In Lindirabe’s office taking in an incredible amount of information that was shared with great passion.

Our day ended with great fun and laughter as our hosts, Davies and Angella Lanjesi, invited Lauren and me to prepare the evening meal.  When Davies stayed in our home, he remarked that he really enjoyed the fish filets I served.  I told him that I had caught and filleted the fish myself, and he said, “One day, you will be in our home and you will show us how you make these filets”.  Yesterday, apparently, was that day!  Lauren prepared fried chicken for the first time, and after the meal we introduced her to the wonders of Malawian sugar cane.  We spent literally hours around the dining room table laughing and enjoying the time together.  It was a great day.  Thanks for your prayers.

The lesson begins…

Just a couple of folks making dinner…

Tastes like chicken!

Enjoying the sugar cane.

Partnership In African Mission 2018 #6

When I was a kid, once a year or so we’d travel up to western New York and spend time with the family.  Mostly, it was fantastic: we’d play whiffle ball beside the runway of the Dansville airport, go swimming in my cousin’s pool, and walk around Aunt Mae’s farm. There was so much to DO!

But some days we didn’t “do”.  Some days we had to put on clean clothes and get in the car and go “visiting.”  To my nine year old self, that was horrible – walking in and out of people’s homes, doing nothing but talking and drinking tea (or sometimes Coca-Cola)…I just couldn’t see how adults could want to waste time “visiting” when there was so much DOING to be done.

Well, as you know, I’m old now.  And while I really enjoy doing, I find increasing value in “visiting”.  Taking time to stop and enter into people’s homes and lives and open mine to them.

While much of this visit to Malawi has centered on getting stuff done on behalf of the International Partnership Ministry Team, we needed to take at least a day and connect with our partners at the Mbenjere CCAP in the trading center of Ntaja.  The first time I came to this place it took at least three or four hours to get here from Zomba.  There was no paved road, and it was arduous.  That was 23 years ago, and so much has changed. The town is growing, the drive is much easier, and the church is thriving.  It has been a real joy to connect with old friends and make new ones.

Here are a few photos of our day of visiting.  If you’d like to see more, well, let me know.  Maybe we can get together and… well, you know.

Mrs. Rose Chitedze was a Session Clerk at Mbenjere and a visitor to our home. Although she has now moved, she took a minibus to visit us early in the morning before starting her work.

 

Walking to town from Menes and Edith’s home.

 

Many years ago, our sisters and brothers in Mbenjere CCAP asked for some assistance in digging a borehole for clean and safe water. It was our privilege to help contribute to this project and it brings joy to see it in use!

 

When the idea for the borehole project was conceived, it was beyond the scope of both Mbenjere and Crafton Heights churches. The Bower Hill Church, now served by Brian Snyder, came to our assistance. It was fun to see Brian take a hand in partnership at the borehole!

 

One of the highlights of the morning was a brief time of reception and worship at the church (on a Tuesday morning!!). Here we are exchanging gifts with Session clerk Fletcher Tewesa.

 

Afternoon coffee and tea under the moringa trees.

 

Even a regional power outage did not prevent us from enjoying a delicious meal and warm fellowship at the home of Hope and Shamim Mkandawire. It was a fine ending to the day!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #5

Relationships.

For me, at any rate, that’s what partnership in mission is about – taking intentional steps to befriend and come alongside someone else to the end that each of us may somehow become “de-othered” and befriended.  For many years, I have sought to walk the path of partnership so that individual Christians might grow in faith resulting in the strengthening of local congregations which leads to the reinvigoration of larger church bodies to the end that the global church is a more capable witness to Christ.

But it all starts with a willingness to take a step, to extend a hand, and to tell or listen to a story.

Today was a day that demonstrated how significant interpersonal relationships can be.

We started the day by leaving the site of the Partnership Conference in Mangochi and heading south to the Zomba Theological College.  There, we were met by my old friend Takuze Chitsulo (who studied in Pittsburgh a little more than a decade ago), the Principal at Zomba Theological College.  After a formal welcome in his office, our team was privileged to enjoy lunch together. It was a deep privilege to watch and listen and Brian and some of the colleagues from the College asked probing questions and looked for ways to enhance the institution’s ability to train young leaders.

Takuze Chitsulo (bottom R) provides a brief overview of ZTC to the team.

 

PC(USA) Volunteer in Mission Donna Sloan engaging in some serious conversation with Rev. James.

After a delicious meal, our team was split.  I was surprised to find that when we left the Principal’s office, I found my friends Fletcher and Hope, who had ridden a minibus about three hours to Zomba simply so that they could welcome us to the place and then escort us to our next stop. So as Davies Lanjesi took the brothers from South Sudan on to Blantyre, our group of three became a group of five heading toward Ntaja.  En route, we made a quick stop at Chilema Conference Center, where we had the opportunity to view the famous “Chilema Tree”.  This magnificent specimen is a single tree, perhaps as old as 75 years.  Its many roots and trunks cover an acre, and it is the only banyan tree in the entire nation of Malawi.  It is simply incredible, and Lauren said that JRR Tolkien must have had this in mind when he wrote “Lord of the Rings”.

“Chilema” means “abnormal” or “malformed” in the local language. You can see why the place has this name…

 

Upon exiting the understory of the tree, we ran right into one of the biggest smiles and best preachers in Malawi – Elder Hastings Phale.  I’ve worked with him in both Malawi and Pittsburgh, and it was a profoundly joy-filled occasion to see him at Chilema.

One of these guys is an incredibly amazing preacher. The other one wears snazzy shirts.

Not five minutes after we left Hastings, we were pulled over at the Malosa turn-off by a couple with smiles bright enough to blind us.  Abusa Johnson Demelekani and his wife Charity were out doing some shopping and we (almost literally) ran into them.  We piled out of the car for a quick hello and a hug, and were further gratified by the power of relationship.

But the most profound relational experience of the day came when we arrived in Ntaja.  Here, we were privileged to greet, and then be hosted by, Menes and Edith Makuluni.  In 1998, when Lauren was five, Menes visited Pittsburgh and stayed in her home.  Since then the families have corresponded, and both Menes and Edith have visited the Mack home.  Tonight, the circle was completed as they welcomed her into their home.  What a great joy it was!

We spent at least an hour this evening reflecting on the changes that have come into our lives in the past two decades – noting the times where God has been faithful and celebrating the power of friendship to bring healing, challenge, hope, and comfort when it is needed.  Menes and Edith rejoiced at the ways that Lauren’s walk of faith has progressed and she bore testimony to the fruit of their faithfulness as well.

Relationships.

They make us stronger, better, and more apt to know something of God’s purposes in the world.  Tonight, I’m grateful for the web in which I’m bound.