The Life Of The Party

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.  On January 28 we stood alongside the Pharisees watching Jesus live it up with with the “sinners and tax collectors”. Geez – talk about people who are frosted!  Yikes.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:13-22. For added context, we considered the prophecies of Isaiah 52:7-10. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Some of you may be aware of some part of this because of a rather celebrated posting I made on social media at the time, but I’d like to begin by sharing with you a memory of a recent car ride. I was driving a vehicle containing four generations, including a crying infant and a loudly-narrating toddler, four hearing aids, two functional hearing aid batteries, a retractable seatbelt that had retracted too far, a working GPS, and a co-pilot who made no secret of her disdain for the aforementioned GPS and its so-called “suggested route.” As the noise and confusion and general sense of anarchy in the car escalated, I said, “Do I have to stop this car right now? I’ll come back there and get things sorted out myself!”

Does anyone else have memories of hearing that phrase? My whole life, I’ve perceived it as a threat: “Do I have to stop this car?” “No! Dad, please, no! Don’t do it! I’ll straighten up!” No matter how bad things were in the back seat, not once did I ever perceive that it would be more pleasant for me if the pater familias had to make a visit.

It may be that others quietly pine for this sort of intervention. Perhaps my sister or brother remember the same ruckus in the rear of the old Ford and think, “Wow, it would have been so much better if Dad had ever once stopped and given David what he deserved…”

I’m thinking about that this morning because I remember that for hundreds of years, the Israelite prophets had lamented the fact that the world was in tough shape. People were simply not acting in accord with their best selves; they had left the intentions of God behind and were suffering because of it. But they continued to point to a day when God himself would sort things out. God would send the Messiah, who would visit the creation and bring about restoration, justice, and the rule of God.

Isaiah 52, which you heard a few moments ago, is not atypical. The coming of the Servant is described, and “our team” is urged to break forth into singing! Good news! And there is an implication that there are those for whom this will be less than pleasant: the Lord “bares his arm” and “all the ends of the earth shall see it…” Oh, they’ll see it all right. You just see what they will see…

And then the Gospel of Mark is written, and declares right there in the first sentence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. John attests to his power and authority, and Jesus demonstrates those things himself as he teaches, preaches, exorcises, heals, and forgives. These activities of Jesus raise no small amount of interest from his fellow Jews.

But there is something curious… the more he does that looks and sounds like the kinds of things that a son of God might do, the less likely he is to be publicly embraced by the status quo. In chapter 1, he is a guest teacher at the local synagogue; as chapter 2 opens, he’s preaching in a private home; and in today’s reading he’s actually out preaching in the open air. It seems as though the more Godly he acts, the less credibility he’s awarded.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

And then, in today’s reading, he meets up with Levi. Let me just tell you, this encounter does not bode well in terms of his popularity with the nation’s leadership team.

Think for a moment about those people who are so far under your skin that you have to relate to them as labels, and not people. I mean, you think of yourself as a fair-minded person, but seriously… you can only take so much, especially from people like THAT. Is it the illegals? The evangelicals? Those no-good (insert your favorite racial slur here)? Muslims? The gun-control or Second Amendment crowds? Are you irked by the gays, the child abusers, the folks from PETA? Who is it that you are likely to dismiss with a sneer of derision or anger?

I’m not sure who’s on your last nerve, but it’s pretty clear that in today’s reading, the folks on the outs are the “sinners and tax collectors.” We know that because three times in two verses, it’s pointed out to us that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” has really gotten to the most religious folks in town. The language and the scene as described sets before us a real drama: if Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, and if the purpose of the messiah is to come back here and sort things out, well, then, how will Jesus treat the likes of them? If he is who he says he is, he’ll let them have it, right?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

So how amazing (or infuriating, I suppose, depending on your perspective) is it when his first word to one of these people is not one of condemnation, but rather invitation? He looks the old tax collector up and down and then says, just as he had to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And he reinforces that by being Levi’s guest at dinner.

As that dinner progresses, we find that we’re on the outside looking in – just like the Pharisees. These are men who have spent their whole lives trying to figure out what it meant to be on God’s team, and here they are, watching this party, griping about the fact that Jesus was not giving Levi and his friends a good, solid theological butt-kicking. Not only was he not coming down hard on them, he was having a good time!

Here’s a question: to whom were the Pharisees complaining?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Jesus’ disciples. The implication is that at least some of the people who had accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow were themselves unable to swallow the notion that the Son of Man would spend any time with people like… like… like those idiots. Some of Jesus’ disciples were not at the head table, and were apparently uncomfortable with how things seemed to be progressing here – and so they remain outside with the Pharisees.

As he so often does, Jesus becomes aware of the situation and reminds everybody that the Gospel is, by definition, Good News. Good News to everyone. And then he goes on to give a couple of folksy illustrations about patching clothes and making home brew – simple analogies that point out that he is not some sort of agent of Divine retribution here to settle old scores and whip deadbeats into shape.

All of which suggests to me that if, God forbid, Jesus Christ himself were to walk into our worship service this morning and greet us face to face, his first question to you or to me would not be any of these:
– who are you sleeping with these days, anyway?
– how could you possibly have voted for that person?
– why do you have so much (or so little) money?
– where’s your birth certificate?
– if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?
No, it seems to me that if Jesus were to show up in our lives, he’d act about as he does here: “Do you want to go somewhere and sit down for a few moments? You know, I could eat…”

Jesus isn’t here to flip out on you, and he doesn’t appear to be interested in dealing with stereotypes. Instead, he seems to be eager to engage you – your deepest you, the core of who you are.

So then today, as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ and as a broken person who is doing his best to keep up with the man from Nazareth, I need to say that if you have shown up at this church – or at any church – and been told that Jesus is not willing to waste his time on you because you are gay or rich or undocumented or republican or stoned or young or old… then I’m sorry. To whatever extent the church has rejected you, it has failed Jesus.

If you have ever gotten the message that Jesus is more interested in some character trait, habit, or condition that you display or practice, then please forgive the church for being unfaithful to our founder.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Because it’s just not true. Jesus wants to sit down with you. And Jesus wants to sit down with those people.

And I realize that as I say this more than a few of us are sitting with the Pharisees, grumbling, “How can Pastor Dave say that? Does Jesus know what he’s saying? Does he know who they are? Does he care what they’ve done?”

Of course, Jesus knows all that. And we know that he knows that based on what he’s done so far in Mark’s gospel. He has been out teaching, because he knows that we are ignorant. He has been preaching, because he knows that we need to hear the Good News. He has been healing, because he knows our sicknesses; he has been exorcising, because he’s acquainted with our demons; and he has been welcoming because he’s aware of our estrangement. Jesus knows all that about us and comes to us time and time again… even when we can’t move toward each other.

Here’s the truth about the church in 21st-Century America: only 20% of people under the age of 30 believe that going to church is a worthwhile activity. 59% of young people who were raised in the church have dropped out. And a full 35% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 believe that the church does more harm than good in the world.[1]

So today, I have a word for those who are here, no matter why you may have come today. Can we join Jesus in remembering that the Gospel is good news for all people, and not a weapon with which we threaten those with whom we disagree? Can we remember that Jesus calls to us time and time again to invite our friends to come and see what he is up to, but never once commands us to go out and round up the sinners so he can give them the business? Can we join with Jesus in celebrating the notion that it is our deep privilege to share a word of reconciliation and hope and to seek to enlarge our world’s ability to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand?

This week, as you encounter another – especially someone for whom you have reserved some pretty saucy labels – can you pray for the grace to see them with the eyes of the savior, to hear them with his ears, and to speak gently and truthfully his loving words of invitation?

And let’s remember the truth: when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or when the Son of Man himself looks at us and says, “Do I need to come there and straighten things out?”, the answer is always “yes, please.”

Thanks be to God for the Son who comes and meets us in our brokenness and calls us to follow in his steps. Amen.

 

Later in the same worship service, I sang Rich Mullins’ “Surely God is With Us”, which is, I believe, an excellent insight into the ways that Jesus was received (and despised) by his community.  You can hear Rich sing it here:

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD

How Can This Be?

May 15, 2016 brought God’s people in Crafton Heights the opportunity to celebrate the Day of Pentecost.  Instead of a traditional reading of Acts 2, we participated in the scripture visually by using a resource created by Dan Stevers.  You can watch it, either by using the icon below or pasting this URL into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylrmhT6iGR8. Our second scripture for the morning was Romans 10:8-15

 

When we read Acts 2 in our day and age, it seems quaint, doesn’t it? I mean, while very few of us actually have fluency in another tongue, we are well acquainted with the fact that people use other languages all the time. Who hasn’t heard that chipper voice on the other end of the phone say, “To continue in English, press one; para Español, o prima dos”?
We know that language matters. Again, we see evidence of shoddy translations all the time. For instance, check out these signs from around the world:

Hikers in China must tell great stories about the disembodied foot that stalks the trails...

Hikers in China must tell great stories about the disembodied foot that stalks the trails…

Keep this in mind if you're stuck at an airport in India

Keep this in mind if you’re stuck at an airport in India

I'm pretty sure that the owners of this country lane are opposed to equestrian traffic, but...

I’m pretty sure that the owners of this country lane are opposed to equestrian traffic, but…

As the Captain of Road Prison #36 might say, “What we’ve got here… is a failure to communicate.”

Words are not the only way to communicate, but they are surely among the best, and the most tried and true means of conveying information and intent.

PentecostAnd Acts chapter two is about words, in a manner of speaking. As we read those words with our twenty-first century minds, we are fascinated with the linguistics of the situation on several levels.

First of all, this is the Sunday of the year when you are least likely to volunteer to be the lay reader, because you’re afraid that I’ll stick you with that nasty string of names: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” I know that those are words none of you want to read out loud in public.

And once we get past pronouncing those words, we tend to fall in love with the idea of all those different people speaking in all of those different languages. Have you ever been a part of a Pentecost service of worship where the congregation embraces different languages? Someone will read a verse in, say, Spanish or French, and then usually the pastor will trot out his or her Greek; depending on how resourceful and connected we are, maybe the church will hear some Swahili or Chichewa or Arabic or Mandarin… We love services like that. We are, sometimes, overly impressed with ourselves; we think about how gifted and creative and well-traveled we are; we admire those who can speak other languages and secretly wish that we’d have had the chance to travel a little bit more.

Have you seen services like that? Do you know what I mean?

Listen: none of that happened at the Pentecost about which we read this morning. That is to say, there is no record of the disciples pouring out into the streets and starting to preach, only to have Andrew go over to Matthew and say, “Dude, you speak Amharic? That is so cool!” We don’t see John interrupting his sermon by saying to James, “Since when did you speak Farsi? Give me a break, man!”

Notice this: there is no record of the disciples ever being impressed with their own ability to communicate in another language. Who is impressed? Those who cannot only hear, but who can understand the message.

Think for a moment about what it means to be able to hear something in your own language in a place where you do not expect it at all. I don’t know if you’ve every been in a place where you are the minority, linguistically speaking, but try to either recall from your own experience or imagine from something you’ve seen… What happens when you hear someone speaking your own language?

Years ago, several of us were privileged to visit a small congregation comprised of Seneca People at the Allegany Reservation near Salamanca, New York. We stayed with these Native American people, worked with Bible School, did a little painting, and so on. One night we met some of the tribal elders. Can I tell you how heartbreaking it was to hear these men and women weep as they remembered how the earliest leaders of their church – white missionaries – would beat them as children if they were caught speaking in their native Seneca tongue. “We were taught that our language was dirty,” they recalled. “We were forced to learn only the language of the whites.” Some of them remembered being unable to communicate with their grandparents as a result of this. Language matters.

I had a friend who died a horrible death as a result of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. As she lost her ability to control her muscles, she was increasingly imprisoned in her own body, and when she died I was one of two people in the world to whom she could express her thoughts. On many occasions I got calls to go to the nursing home in the middle of the night because there was something clearly wrong, but nobody could understand her. Language matters.

My neighbor Jessalyn and I were visiting in her back yard and I noticed a man standing in the middle of the street, not moving at all. He looked odd, and out of place. I called to him to see if he needed help or would like a cold drink and in a heavily accented voice he explained, “No, no, no thank you. Three months ago I have moved to your country from Ghana in Africa. Everything is so different here. But I found that if I come to this place, I can hear chickens, and that is the only sound that is anything like the sounds of home. So when I miss my wife and my daughters I like to come here to listen to the chickens. Is that all right? I am lonely, and the chickens, well, they help.”

Do you see? When you hear something in your own language, it means that who you are and who you have grown to be – that it’s understood. It means that I don’t have to translate myself or try to figure out what you really mean – I am understood. When you speak to me in my own language, it means that you know me. You accept me. You validate me. My stories are worth something.

Pentecost: True Spiritual Unity and Fellowship in The Holy Spirit, by Rebecca Brogan (used by permission, more at http://jtbarts.com)

Pentecost: True Spiritual Unity and Fellowship in The Holy Spirit, by Rebecca Brogan (used by permission, more at http://jtbarts.com)

When the visitors to Jerusalem heard the followers of Jesus speaking in all those different languages, they couldn’t believe their ears. “How can this be?” they wondered. “Does this involve me? Am I included?”

You see, usually when I hear people speaking in another language, I automatically assume that it doesn’t involve me. I am excluded. I am not involved. And therefore, whatever they say does not matter to me.

Conversely, when you speak to me in words that I understand, you invite me to a greater level of relationship and maybe even embrace. When you take the time to learn my language, you welcome me and say that my stories matter to you, and you’d like to hear them. When you adapt your ears and your lips to my speech and my hearing, you show something of Christ to me in your welcome and affirmation.

So this week, I sat and I listened to the thousands of voices wondering, “How can this be?”. I thought about all of those communities that were blessed because followers of Jesus were open to the idea and practice of speaking another language, of engaging a different culture, of being open to those with different experiences. And I wondered what that meant to us today. What languages surround this community? And are we open to learning them?

A number of people who walk up and down that street every day connect with a culture that might be summarized by the phrase “Black Lives Matter”. Some are actually connected with the BLM activist movement that has a network and a membership and a webpage, while others are more interested in not only pointing out that there is a disparity in the apparent worth of human life and that disparity correlates to the tone of one’s skin, but in changing that reality.

Others who share that sidewalk throw up their hands and say, “Seriously? Listen, pal – Blue Lives Matter!” And again, some of these friends have joined the activist network, contributed to the Facebook page, and make ample use of their own hashtag in social media, while others simply plead for the public to respect officers of the law as they should.

I could go on… we could talk about groups formed around racial affinity, social causes, cultural heritage, political identity… You know these groups, right? And would you agree that to some extent, each of these groups has its own language? Each group to which we belong chooses vocabulary and structure and seeks to create meaning and purpose for those who ally with the group, right?

Jim Wallis is an activist and preacher who has written a book on racism in the United States that is framed around a simple question: what if white Christians acted more Christian than white?

I have only read excerpts, and I cannot comment on the book, but that question got me thinking about a number of parallel queries:

What if American Christians acted more Christian than American? What if Republican or Democratic Christians acted more Christian than Republican or Democratic? What about Christians who are rich, or black, or liberal, or Penguin fans, or women, or straight, or left-handed or… well, you get the idea… What if we sensed that our primary call, our first identity, our life-shaping affiliation was not political or cultural or racial but spiritual? What would happen if we really, truly, believed that?

I think we’d start learning new languages, is what. I think we’d be moving into a sea of people who think that black lives and blue lives and trans lives and straight lives and unborn children’s lives and Sudanese lives and who knows who elses’ lives matter and that we’d be loving and supporting and listening and pointing to God’s power in such a way as to engender a whole new series of conversations that begin with the phrases, “How can this be? Am I included?”

Many of you will remember the horrific genocide that occurred in the African nation of Rwanda in 1994. In a hundred days, close to a million lives were lost – mostly members of the Tutsi tribe who were brutally murdered by their Hutu neighbors as the world watched.

And maybe you remember that at the time of the genocide, more than 90% of the population of Rwanda claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ. In 1994 Rwanda was regarded as one of the most “Christian” countries in the world… and yet hundreds of thousands of people were hacked to death… by machete-wielding Christians who apparently cared more about being Hutu or Tutsi than they did about following Jesus. The church failed in Rwanda.

And yet, in the southwest corner of the capitol city of Rwanda is an area called Nyamirambo. This community was home to both Tutsi and Hutu, and yet, according to researchers, there were were very few, if any atrocities there during the genocide. Following the devastation, researchers went to this village and asked why? The people there said it was because they were Muslim first, and Rwandan second, and Hutu or Tutsi third. One leader said,   “Because their identity as Muslims is so fundamental, so important to them, that they could not envision killing one another. Their commitment to Allah created their fundamental identity, more important than any tribal or national identity.”[2]

So I repeat my question (or Wallis’ question, if you want to be a stickler): what would happen in our neighborhood if we were more Christian than anything else?

Listen: week after week, we come into this building and we ask God to give us some direction for our lives. “Show us what you want”, we say. “Tell us where you are moving.”

And the only thing I can think is that God is simply shaking his head, saying “Seriously? What do I have to do to get you to want to learn a few new languages?”

When I travel to Malawi, I do my best with Chichewa. And I get it wrong. A lot. But that’s how I try to show the people there that I’m serious about hearing their stories. This Pentecost, I need to remember that my attempts to be multilingual do not require a passport. Just an open heart, and a willingness to step outside to the people with whom God is already engaged, and with whom God is passionately in love… even if they don’t sound, look, act, or think like me. Send me, God. Teach me, God. Use me, God. Help us to be the church that is willing to learn some new languages, God.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] L. Gregory Jones, “Secret of Nyamirambo: A Haven in Rwanda” in The Christian Century, Dec 13, 2005.

Water is Ready (Malawi 2015 #9)

Here in the rural districts in Malawi, the first words that are spoken to me in the morning are generally these: “Abusa? Water is ready.”

I remarked to my wife this morning how in so many ways that simple phrase sums up the gifts of the African partnership for me. You see, while “Water is ready” may be the first sentence spoken to me in the morning, it’s not the first thing that I hear. No, far from it.

Sometimes I am awakened by the call to prayer at a local mosque. More often, the first sound to reach my ears is a rooster’s crow. Fair enough, considering how many of his brethren I’ve put away this week (more on that below). But once I’m conscious, the sound that reaches my ears is that of wood being chopped and a fire being kindled right outside my window. Five minutes after the fire is started, I hear the weight of a heavy pot being placed on the fire as five gallons of water have been hefted from the borehole into our compound. Then I hear another pot, this one of cold water, being taken into the bathing room. Once the water on the fire has boiled, it is taken into the same room, which is essentially a four-foot square with a drain on the floor. There are the buckets of hot and cold water, and a third empty bucket in which to mix them to the optimum temperature. Lastly, there is a pitcher or small pot of some sort.

Our hosts for this week are Pastor Johnson Damalekani and his wife, Charity.

Our hosts for this week are Pastor Johnson Damalekani and his wife, Charity.

And that’s when I hear the magic words: “Abusa? Water is ready.” Then I climb out from under the mosquito netting and enter the bathing room, where I am free to strip and splash myself with water that is exactly right. As I stand erect and dump the steaming pitcher on my head, I wonder, “Would I be that gracious?” Not only that, but know this, beloved: this ritual happens twice a day. It is not only the manner in which I rise, but it is the expectation that frames my bedtime as well. When I demurred and said, “Ah, no, at home I wash only once a day,” I was told, “Yes, Abusa, but you are in Africa now. It is hot. It is dusty. Please, do not make me feel bad for putting you to bed when you are dusty.”

I have learned so much in Africa in the past twenty years. For instance, I’ve discovered that I really like “Stoney” ginger beer. I’m pretty good at telling jokes to an African crowd. I can barter in the market and baptize babies in Chichewa and drive on the opposite side of the road. But the number one thing that I’ve learned is that I am not as graceful and as hospitable as Christ intends me to be. While I end each worship service at Crafton Heights by saying, “honor all people”, I am a real piker in that department when I compare myself to my African sisters and brothers.

When I die, and you get around to putting together those photo collages, I hope that one of them will be of roads I've driven.  Here, I'm behind the wheel of Menes Makuluni's pick up truck, which he graciously lent us when the first two transport options for the day fell through.

When I die, and you get around to putting together those photo collages, I hope that one of them will be of roads I’ve driven. Here, I’m behind the wheel of Menes Makuluni’s pick up truck, which he graciously lent us when the first two transport options for the day fell through.

Below are some images of the day. They are fine photos, I know. But a picture can’t capture the warmth with which a cold bottle of Fanta is offered, or the insistence with which I should take another cup of tea after a long worship service. The smiles you see here are two-dimensional, whereas I have been given the gift of being welcomed and honored. I am forever grateful to my African family for teaching me to greet each new face, each new day, each new challenge, each new situation, as an opportunity to show gratitude and honor and joy.

Maybe the reason I keep coming back is that I’m a slow learner. I know that most of the people who are reading this know me only in the USA, where I am prone to rush and criticize and push far more than is necessary. I hope that you will catch me improving in my ability to serve with honor and grace.

Chances are, I will never, ever be able to knock on your door and softly say, while gently rolling my ‘r’s, “Water is ready.” Yet I hope that somehow in my daily life, someone will say, “Hey, that Pastor Dave – he’s noticed how tired I am; he cares for me.”

If that ever happens, remember where I learned it – in worship and in worshipful presence right here, in the Warm Heart of Africa.

Sharon with the women of the Mpasuka Bible Study, from whom she received the gift of a chitenge fabric.

Sharon with the women of the Mpasuka Bible Study, from whom she received the gift of a chitenge fabric.

Some of the congregation at Naperi Prayer House welcome us, after having waited for two hours for our arrival.

Some of the congregation at Naperi Prayer House welcome us, after having waited for two hours for our arrival.

Gabe preaching up a storm on the importance of being a follower.

Gabe preaching up a storm on the importance of being a follower.

The Saeya family hosted us for lunch today, and they were really interested in the photos I brought along to share.

The Saeya family hosted us for lunch today, and they were really interested in the photos I brought along to share.

Sharon posing with the Munyenye children, whom she taught to play UNO this evening.

Sharon posing with the Munyenyembe children, whom she taught to play UNO this evening after we shared a meal at their home.

They apologized for the condition of their prayer house, and felt badly about the fact that they had unfinished brick, yet the people of the Khole Prayer house adorned the building with bougainvillea and wire decorations. It was just beautiful.

They apologized for the condition of their prayer house, and felt badly about the fact that they had unfinished brick, yet the people of the Khole Prayer house adorned the building with bougainvillea and wire decorations. It was just beautiful.

2015 Malawi #6

If you’ve been following this journey, you know that the weekend was a rigorous exercise in missionary activity – we spent a great deal of time in conversation with our hosts, in meeting and greeting neighbors in churches and prayer houses, and bouncing across some pretty questionable roads in bone-jarring fashion. When I told the team that I said that they looked as if they’d been “rode hard and put away wet”, some of them suggested that I was speaking gibberish and that perhaps I should offer an interpretation in common English. Fine. From The Urban Dictionary:

The way someone looks or feels when they’ve had a hard time of it. From a horseman’s term, when someone has not taken care of a horse after a hard day.

He was all hot and sweaty, he looks like he was rode hard and put away wet.

The fact of the matter is that our team was beat. And when you’re worn out, what’s better than toting fifty pounds of luggage into the bus and riding on more of the same roads for twenty minutes – I mean, four hours? But that’s what we did, with the promise of some rest and restoration in the form of a retreat on the shores of Lake Malawi.

Our team is greeted at Naming'azi Farm Training Centre

Our team is greeted at Naming’azi Farm Training Centre

Before we arrived, though, we made a couple of stops. The scheduled stop was at the Naming’azi Farm Training Centre, a ministry of the Synod of Blantyre. Here, local farmers are invited to receive training in more sustainable and fruitful agricultural techniques. From composting to fruit-tree grafting to animal husbandry practices, the staff at Naming’azi are seeking to provide village farmers with new (or sometimes ancient) tools with which to ply their craft. It was a great opportunity for the group to see the Synod’s engagement, and we were particularly encouraged by the ways in which Naming’azi has partnered with other NGO’s (non-government organizations) to make goats available to local villagers. As we left the farm, Vanessa and I talked about the fact that a hundred and thirty years ago, the missionaries showed up and built churches, schools, and hospitals. My sense is that in many ways, the missionaries of the next fifty years will need to start farms – places where we can learn and re-learn the practice of stewardship of creation and gratitude for life. Perhaps when the Kingdom comes, it will look a little bit like Naming’azi.

Randy and John relaxing at the Farm

Randy and John relaxing at the Farm

Naming'azi Farm sits in the shadow of the Zomba Plateau

Naming’azi Farm sits in the shadow of the Zomba Plateau

One thing that has not changed about Malawi for centuries is the need for fuel to cook the family meals.

One thing that has not changed about Malawi for centuries is the need for fuel to cook the family meals.

Elephants&BoatBecause our trip to the farm took more time than we expected, we made a second stop. We pulled into the Hippo View Lodge at Liwonde for lunch, and although the iconic “river horses” were missing in action, we were treated to a view of a family of elephants stopping by the river for a quick drink. It was a joy to watch the team appreciate these enormous beauties, and I also was delighted to walk up and down the riverbank sharing my binoculars with families who had none. The awe and majesty of nature was clearly on display.

 

We arrived at the Boadzulu Lodge (“a place to call home”) in time for a warm dinner and vibrant devotions (led by Deac).

Gabe enjoys a sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Gabe enjoys a sunrise over Lake Malawi.

I found a pair of Lilac-Breasted Rollers!

I found a pair of Lilac-Breasted Rollers!

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This morning we awoke and traveled to Cape MacLear, where we were privileged to board a couple of small boats and see the amazing diversity of fish in Lake Malawi. One source indicates that Lake Malawi itself has more species of fish than all of the rivers and lakes in North America and Europe combined. A highlight was having the opportunity to watch several African Fish Eagles swoop down and grab their lunch from the water!

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Lake Malawi Cichlids

Lake Malawi Cichlids

Lake Malawi Cichlids

An African Fish Eagle takes his lunch before our eyes.

An African Fish Eagle takes his lunch before our eyes.

Enjoying the island off Cape MacLear.

Sharon enjoying the island off Cape MacLear.

Pastor Angelo and Elder Daniel get a review of the Partnership.

Pastor Angelo and Elder Daniel get a review of the Partnership.

The afternoon was spent relaxing, and quite a few naps were taken. I spent some time with members of the South Sudan delegation, trying to catch them up on 24 years of partnership history and tradition and give them a chance to assess how and where the SSPEC might be appropriately invested in this relationship.

 

 

DancerOur “day off” was completed by a festive meal attended by several representatives from the Mangochi Presbytery. We were then treated to a performance by a group of young people featuring traditional Yao dancing, drumming, and costumes. This was our best chance at spending some “down” time together as we prepare to be separated to our sister congregations on Wednesday. Bananagrams is an international sensation, and several times the Americans got “schooled” by our host, Jatto, whose command of the English language is amazing. It was a blessed day.

I have to say, Sarajane takes no prisoners when it comes to Bananagrams!

I have to say, Sarajane takes no prisoners when it comes to Bananagrams!

Malawi 2015 #5

The story of God’s people is one of being called and being sent. Of being invited in and offered welcome and of being charged to go out and follow where God leads. To ask which takes precedence is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Both are essential to the Christian life. To put it in reverse, one who seeks to be a Christian whilst inhabiting only either the call or the commissioning is attempting to do the impossible.

 

Paul puts it this way in writing to his friends in Rome:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Today was a day of investigating the calling and sending in many ways.

The 3 new pastors are welcomed by the Women's Guild.

The 3 new pastors are welcomed by the Women’s Guild.

We began by sharing in the celebration of the ordination of three young men to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in a three-hour worship service at Mulanje CCAP. In the PC(USA), the Presbyteries typically choose to perform the function of ordinations by means of Administrative Commissions, wherein a token representation of the Presbytery at large comes to a particular congregation to celebrate with the individual who is being ordained. That choice results in an intensely personal and localized experience, which is at once exhilarating and perhaps a little limiting as well. In contrast, the Blantyre Synod ordains by gathering as many members as can come and inviting them to work together to call their new brothers or sisters to the next level of service and discipleship. So rather than a five or six member commission from Presbytery, there were at least 40 pastors in attendance today, plus elder representatives and women’s guild members from at least seven of the Presbyteries in the Synod.

Pastors are typically given bicycles like this as they begin their ministry.  One fortunate fellow today was given a motorcycle with which to move through his parish.

Pastors are typically given bicycles like this as they begin their ministry. One fortunate fellow today was given a motorcycle with which to move through his parish.

 

I was given the honor of preaching at this momentous event, and other members of our team participated in various ways. The word was proclaimed, prayers were offered, and songs were sung in Chichewa, English, and Arabic. Amidst great pomp and not a little bit of ululation, we celebrated the great truth that God, through the Body of Christ, commissions certain persons to certain tasks.

Our team has attracted a great deal of media attention in Malawi this weekend.  I understand that in addition to a few newspaper articles, I've been on Malawian Broadcasting several times.  We hope that this exposure is good for the Synod and the rural churches.

Our team has attracted a great deal of media attention in Malawi this weekend. I understand that in addition to a few newspaper articles, I’ve been on Malawian Broadcasting several times. We hope that this exposure is good for the Synod and the rural churches.

Following the worship, we were treated to a delicious lunch at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Inglis, each of whom has been to Pittsburgh and who were glad to open their home to our team along with an equal number of Malawian guests. Well-fed in both spirit and body, we then set out to follow the call to serve.

Gregg with Mr. and Mrs. Inglis as well as Holiness, a Partnership Committee member

Gregg with Mr. and Mrs. Inglis as well as Holiness, a Partnership Committee member

 

One of the dramatic moments during today's revival meeting.

One of the dramatic moments during today’s revival meeting.

For the second day in a row, we visited the rather remote Gondwa Prayer House, where the Christians and their partners from St. James CCAP and the Synod had organized a religious revival meeting. This was a profoundly moving experience. We were privileged to hear two wonderful sermons preached by Malawian elders to a Malawian audience (they were translated for our benefit). Some of the songs featured dramatic activity, and the preachers themselves enacted some of what they proclaimed. By the end of the rally, a hundred or so adults and an equal number of children came forward for prayer and conversation with members of their own community about what it means to walk with the Lord day to day. As those neighbors engaged in conversation, other members of the community brought forward gifts of fruit and fabric for the members of our team. In this context, it ought to go without saying that there was singing. And dancing. A lot of both, in fact. Throughout the experience, there was an amazing spirit of joyfulness.

Sarah reads the scripture to the crowd at the revival.

Sarajane reads the scripture to the crowd at the revival.

Members of the SSPEC (South Sudan) delegation are leading the celebration.

Members of the SSPEC (South Sudan) delegation are leading the celebration.

And oh, the dancing...

And oh, the dancing…

 

As the sun was setting, we climbed back onto our coaster and sank heavily into the seats – it had been a long day. Paul wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news…” If you were to have asked us at that moment, as we contemplated our shoes and ankles covered with the red Malawian dust, I doubt that any of us would have declared our own feet to be “beautiful.” Yet somehow, in responding to the invitation to be sent into the world and to engage with God’s people in that way, we were surely given the opportunity to behold great beauty.

We returned to Blantyre well after dark, two hours behind schedule (surprise!). We were spent and weary, and as a friend of mine would say, we looked as if we’d been “rode hard and put away wet.”

But we were full, and ready for what tomorrow holds. Thanks be to God!

Did I mention that all of this happened in the shadow of Mt. Mulanje, the 3rd-highest peak in all of Africa?  Beauty indeed!

Did I mention that all of this happened in the shadow of Mt. Mulanje, the 3rd-highest peak in all of Africa? Beauty indeed!

Extravagant Gratitude

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 15 came from John 12:1-8 and focused on the day that Jesus re-visited the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus after he had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Think for a moment about a person you would say is a friend. A close friend. Think about the things you’ve shared, the things that person has meant to you over the weeks, months, and years. Do you have a picture in your mind of someone you’d call a good friend?

Think about how things are always just so easy with this person – there’s never, ever been a time when things were tense between you, or one of you made a mistake; things have always been simply perfect…

Yes, that’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? A friendship where there’s never any misunderstanding, never any cause to regret something you might have said or done…

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Jesus and Mary were close friends. We know that because John chapter 11 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. We see it when later in that same chapter, Jesus becomes aware of Lazarus’ death, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Mary that he breaks down and weeps himself. You know how that is, don’t you? You have a sense of being able to hold it together in a crisis, and then you see a beloved face, and you dissolve in a puddle of emotion.

Jesus loved Mary, and Mary loved Jesus.

But that’s not to say that things were always smooth. In fact, the last conversation that we overhear between these two sounds bitter and almost accusatory: after Lazarus dies, Mary hides from Jesus, and then finally faces him, exclaiming, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” She is sad, she is angry, and she says the first thing that comes to mind.

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Of course, we are not always at our best when we say the first thing that comes to mind, are we? You know how it is to be a part of a conversation that did not end gracefully: you said something to your boss or a coworker; a teacher heard you mouth off; you spoke in anger to one whom you love. Oh, you got out of the room, all right, but now you’ve got to face that one again, and you’re not sure how it’s going to go.

That was Mary’s situation. In John 11, her brother dies, and she does everything but blame it on Jesus. Then he raises her brother from the dead and leaves town. Not long afterward, he comes through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, and Mary’s going to come face to face with her friend.

This Lent, we’re talking about people who turn back to Jesus – those who encountered him, and then left for some reason, and then have come back into the relationship.

Sometimes, when people meet the Lord, we expect to see some sort of fundamental re-orientation of their lives. Think about Zacchaeus, for instance, or the Roman Centurion or Philip. Each of these men, and dozens more, could walk out of that encounter and say, “You know, I really missed the boat. I mean, I was so wrong. I was so off base. I will change my ways and get my life together.”

That’s not the case for Mary, though. There’s no evidence that Mary was a bad person, or had nasty habits, or was in any way reprobate. She’d had a bad day – her brother died! – and she took it out on Jesus…and now she has to face him.

The reading we had from John shows us how each member of this family re-turns to Jesus following the events of chapter 11. Martha, Lazarus, and Mary each have their own style of reconnecting.

Martha, the practical one, seeks to express her care for Jesus. “Relax, Lord. Being the Rabbi is tough work. Let me worry about dinner. You know, Jesus, you work too hard. Rest.” Martha is smoothing things over by making sure that all the details are well-attended.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Lazarus, the man who was, presumably, supremely glad to see Jesus a week or so ago, is content to simply sit at table with Jesus and soak it all in. He is enjoying the chance for fellowship, teaching, and conversation.

Both Martha’s and Lazarus’ approaches are valid expressions of a heart-felt joy in relationship, but I’d like to focus in on Mary’s response to the renewed presence of Jesus in her home.

She is, above all else, profoundly grateful. This is a woman who is clearly overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for all that Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead and thereby saving Martha and her from a life of poverty and difficulty. In looking for a way to express this gratitude, she goes to his feet and lets down her hair and focuses totally on Jesus – for Mary, there is simply no one else in the room.

Mary not only has feelings of thankfulness – she expresses those feelings with concrete actions. And hers is an act that has significant implications for her – we read that Judas was chafed because the ointment that she spread on Jesus’ feet was worth more than 300 denarii. A single denarius was the usual wage for one day, and so she is, in essence, committing an entire year’s salary to this celebration of gratitude. There is no indication that this is somehow “extra” ointment that she had laying around, or left-over from some other event. She took her best and, in an act of devotion, she poured it out on Jesus.

She was doing this, she thought, as a way to re-engage the Lord and to show him how glad she was that he was still willing to come into her home and life. She was not aware, however, that her act had an even greater implication until Jesus pointed out that this was preparing him for his own death.

And note with me, please, that when Mary does act on her feelings of thanksgiving, she acts in a way that, while incomprehensible to others, is totally authentic to her own life. Mary is not seeking to show up anyone, she’s not trying to get Jesus to like her better – she has no ulterior motives here – just spontaneous, extravagant gratitude.

Stained glass window, Meyer's Studios, Munich 1899

Stained glass window, Meyer’s Studios, Munich 1899

A third thing that I notice about Mary’s action is that her behavior – her choices, her outpouring of gratitude make the whole house a better place to be. The ointment that she uses is called “nard”, and it is an essential oil made from the roots of a plant called spikenard. This oil is intensely aromatic and fragrant, and was used in making perfume, incense, or medicine. While Mary is totally focused on making her own act of gratitude and devotion to Jesus, John points out that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary’s act of devotion and thanksgiving was a blessing to the people who were around her.

As we sit back and consider this encounter of one woman’s “re-turn” to Jesus, what are the implications for our lives?

I wonder…when is the last time you slowed down enough just to be grateful to God for who and where you are right now? I know, I know, you are not totally satisfied with your life. There are still some changes you need to make and some goals on your horizon. But seriously, some of you need to be asking yourselves, “How am I still alive right now? Why in the world am I here? How did I pass that class? Who am I that I get to do this, that, or the other thing?

I get it – your life isn’t perfect. But most of us slept last night in some degree of comfort. Most of us have access to food, and we are gathered in the warmth of this fellowship. Aren’t these good things? Do they matter to you? Can you be grateful for something in your life right now?

And if you can (as I hope you are), then how will you respond to that sense of gratitude in your life? How will you act upon the feelings you’ve got? Maybe that’s why you’re here. I get that – some of us came to church this morning just to say “thanks”. And some of us see this act of Mary bringing the nard to Jesus and say, “Yes, of course – I am giving of what I have as a means to demonstrate my joy in Jesus.”

To be honest, that is the only reason for giving that is really comprehensible to me. I know that God can’t love me any more. I know that there’s no way in blue blazes that I am going to be able to do enough to solve one of the world’s problems with what I give…but I am so deeply appreciative of what the Lord has done for me that I don’t really feel as though I have a choice here – I can only respond in generosity as I consider the extravagant blessings in my own life.

So maybe you have a posture of gratitude, and maybe you want to join me in expressing that gratitude in an act of giving. Does our response make the world a better place? Just as the whole house was filled with the aroma of Mary’s nard, are my neighbors better off because I’m grateful to God? Is the way that I treat them or the others around me reflective of the deep sense of gratitude that I owe to our creator? Does your gratitude to Christ spill over so that others are aware or encouraged or enriched?

Another way of asking that same question, I suppose, is this: does the way in which I experience and express my gratitude lead others to become more aware of God’s care in and for their lives, which will lead them, in turn, to a place where they can embrace the savior with gratitude and respond in a way that is authentic to them?

Listen, my friends: Jesus is here, now. He has come to this place, even after I have not always treated him in the way that he deserves to be treated. Today, you and I have the opportunity for a fresh engagement with the Lord of life, a new opportunity for hope and healing.

In view of that, can we resolve to move forward in a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude? And can we decide that our thanksgiving will have practical implications for us and the rest of the world? Can our lives today be anchored in a thanksgiving that is not limited to mere sentiment, but one that blossoms into action that grows into love expressed for the world?

This is a new day, a new season, and new opportunities. Thanks be to God for the chance to respond with joy and gratitude. Amen.

Welcome to Mexico (Texas Mission 2015 #4)

Our congregation has been sending men and women to participate in the work of Christ’s people in the Rio Grande Valley for six or seven years.  In that time, a couple of groups have crossed the border and visited Mexico.  Others have toured with the US Border Patrol and seen the Rio Grande and looked into Mexico.  We have shared deeply and widely with our partners and our hosts, and it’s been a great gift to our congregation and neighborhood over the years as people have come back changed as a result of the time invested here.

In 2015, though, we have been someplace we’ve never been – right here in Texas.  The “chemistry of the company” on our team, combined with the deep faith and graciousness of the families with whom we have served, has immersed us in a sense of connection and relationship that is deeper than that we’ve seen in previous trips.

One of the “rookies” on the trip is a man goes by the nickname “Libby” (it’s a long story).  Libby is a co-worker of Mike’s who has also served alongside our congregation’s feeding ministry with “The Table”. When he heard about this trip he was eager to be a part of it.  We were glad to welcome him, as Spanish is his first language and we can always use a translator on site.  It has been a rich experience in all kinds of ways, and one of the things that Libby has enjoyed is sharing memories of his childhood in Los Lorenzos Guanajuato, Mexico.  As we have spent our days immersed in the Mexican culture of the neighborhoods, Libby has helped us understand the culture and history of many of the people with whom we are spending time.

Gathering around the shared feast is a sign of Christ's Kingdom.

Gathering around the shared feast is a sign of Christ’s Kingdom.

I mentioned in an previous post the amazing hospitality that we’ve received.  Yesterday, the homeowners with whom we have worked cooked us a hot meal for the second time in as many days – home made flour tortillas and beans and eggs and… oh my.  As we sat and enjoyed the food, the conversation, the sunlight, the sounds and smells and friendship, Libby looked at me and smiled and said simply, “You’re in Mexico now, Pastor.”

We didn’t cross the border, but we’ve lowered some boundaries.  And that is a good thing.  I think there is something gospel-ish about that.

And, of course, we did a little work.

God is good, and we have known, seen, felt, and tasted that in a new way this week.  Thanks be to God!

Joe finishes installing the baseboard.

Joe finishes installing the baseboard.

Bob worked to install handrails to the entrances of the home.

Bob worked to install handrails to the entrances of the home.

Mike puts down the primer.

Mike puts down the primer.

Tim offers a lesson to a painter in the making.

Tim offers a lesson to a painter in the making.

Chris and his apprentice add the finishing touches.

Chris and his apprentice add the finishing touches.

The blue room nears completion!

The blue room nears completion!

And the whole gang, together as we prepare to head for home.

And the whole gang, together as we prepare to head for home.