What Difference Does It Make?

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 30, we witnessed the dancing of King David as the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem… and considered how dangerous worship can be..  Our text was II Samuel 6:12-22 and we also listened to Colossians 3:15-17

To listen to the sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below.

 

Well, good morning! How are you feeling? Have you checked your vital signs lately? Heart rate? Blood pressure? Cholesterol?

I’m asking because of an article recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers followed a group of nearly 75,000 people for twenty years, and found that women who went to church more than once a week had a 33% lower risk of dying during the study period than those who never went. These people had higher rates of social support and optimism, lower rates of depression, and were less likely to engage in some key self-destructive behaviors. See? You mother was right. Going to church is good for you. And if this study is right, judging by how often I see you, some of you are going to live forever.[1]

One might conclude from this study that worship is a fundamentally safe place and involves little risk. I’d like to challenge that assumption.

Worship is – or ought to be – dangerous. It was in the days of King David. The beginning of chapter six, which was not included in our reading for today, describes how the Israelites organized a great big religious festival in order to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Things were going along more or less as choreographed when all of a sudden one of the oxen pulling the wagon stumbled a bit, and the lay reader for that day, a man named Uzzah, reached out to grab the Ark. No one is exactly sure what happened here, but the result was that Uzzah was struck dead by the hand of God. Apparently, he thought that it was his place to “manage” God, or that God needed his help in order to stay on track, and God didn’t appreciate that.

Well, nothing takes the wind out of the sails of your church service like having the hand of God smite one of the lay readers, so folks scattered and they tucked the Ark into the garage of a local non-Israelite until someone came up with a better idea.

King David was so scared that he didn’t do anything about it for three months, because that was the day he realized that worship could kill you.

And we read that in 2017 and say, “Wow, I mean, I thought I was going to die of boredom a few times, but nothing like that has ever happened around here…”

That may be because we’re more comfortable with the worship that Uzzah was liable to lead. I’m not here to speak ill of the dead, but we all prefer to know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and how much it’s going to cost. We like worship to be energizing, but even moreso we want God to be predictable and well-managed.

If that’s how we treat our relationship with God, then we’re doing it wrong. The act of worship and the life of the disciple is a wild ride that is fully engaging and utterly transformative. It will change us.

One of the best letters I have ever received came to me from a 12th grade student who had joined me on a short-term mission pilgrimage to the developing world the year before. It was about ten pages, hand written, and in it she dropped the “F— bomb” more than you might typically think necessary in a letter to one’s pastor. The first four or five pages were angry accusations that our trip to visit the world’s poor had totally screwed up her life and her plans for her senior year. She wrote, “When I returned from that trip I discovered that all of my friends were shallow, self-centered, and materialistic. Worse, I saw that I was all of those things, too. Of course, we were all like that last year, but I didn’t know it. Now, thanks to you and that stupid trip, I know who I am and I know the world I live in and I know some of what God expects of me. All I wanted was to be dumb and happy and enjoy my senior year, but now I keep having big thoughts about how screwed up everyone’s priorities are. And it’s lonely here.”

By the time she got to page ten, she was thanking me for giving her an opportunity to take this trip, but it was a fascinating bit of self-revelation for a young woman to share… God is dangerous and unpredictable, and if we think that showing up in worship is a nice little way to pass the time and maybe impress your boyfriend’s parents, well, we’ve got another thing coming.

David and Michal in the windows of St. Therese Church in Vasperviller, France

Part of why worship is dangerous is the fact that it reveals to us and to the world who and what we love. In the reading from II Samuel, for instance, David’s wife Michal isn’t participating in worship – she’s watching, from a distance. She was in a prominent place where she’d be noticed, but not expected to actually do anything. And she comes down hard on her husband for behaving in a way that she thought compromised his position. She screams at him, “Is this any way for a king to act?”

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the Hebrew word for “king” is melek. The melek is the one who has unbridled authority and does what kings do: grab, take, seize, rule… all in their own power.

When Michal challenges David, however, he says, “Yes, I am called to this office… as nagid – “prince”. When David was anointed, he was called the nagid of YHWH – extending the power and benefits of God’s realm in submission to the God who had called him to service and sacrifice on behalf of God’s people. YWHW is the King; David is the nagid who serves at the King’s pleasure.

David realized that the act of worship is a means by which we discover and announce to the world the things that are most important to us.

We say things like this all the time at church, of course. But I’m not sure that we really mean them. You all love that old hymn by Isaac Watts that goes, “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.” I know you do. We sing several versions of that here.

Whole Note = “certain terms and conditions may apply. Not valid every Sunday.

You know that hymn ends with what musicians call a “whole” note, right? That is, it’s an extended period where we sing the same note and the same word… Unless we’re honest, and we admit that’s where we slide in all of our terms and conditions…

Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all…unless it’s opening day of trout season…or my kid is in a Sunday soccer league…or I had a date last night that was really fantastic but it just got too late and…” You see? That “whole” note allows us the time to tell God what we really mean.

The act of worship is important and defining. In choosing who and what to worship, we allow those things to shape our priorities and practices. Our worship forms our identity.

In 1957 the New York Giants baseball club uprooted itself and moved to San Francisco. The team was losing fans and revenue and the West Coast beckoned alluringly. Reporters asked the team’s owner how he felt about leaving the kids of Manhattan, and he replied, “I feel badly about the kids, but I haven’t seen many of their fathers at games lately.”[2] In other words, it’s easy to say “Oh, I’m a big fan”, but unless we’re showing up at the ball park, nothing will change.

So, the choices we make about worship are fraught with meaning and reveal a great deal about not only who we worship, but who we are. The final point I’d like to make about worship this morning is that proper worship makes the world a better place, even for those who do not believe.

Detail from the Maciejowski Bible (13th c.). The caption for this image in Latin reads, “How, having completed the sacrifices, David blesses the people, distributing bread and other foods among them.”

When David brings the Ark to Jerusalem, he offers sacrifices of meat and grain. The reading describes how everyone in Israel got a square meal that day. In and through his worship, David blessed both the people of Israel and those in his own home. The things that happened between David and God leaked out of David into the world around him, and that world became a better place because David had been in worship.

There is a great deal of American Christianity that is unsettling to me because we come to worship as consumers. We are feeling a little sad, or wonder about our purpose in life might be, or are afraid of our own mortality, and we think, “You know what? I’m going to get myself to church. That will make me feel better.” And it does. We come out, we sit with our friends and we sing some perky songs; the pastor gives us a nice little pep talk and I feel better about my life. Worship is a refuge. A sanctuary. An escape.

We all need that from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling at home with or encouraged by worship. But the main goal in worship is not to make you happy. Some years ago a fellow pastor told me that as he was greeting people after worship, folks were walking by exchanging the usual niceties. One woman, though, took him by the arm and said, “Pastor, that was a very moving service. I must say, however, that I did not care for the second hymn – not one little bit.” The pastor replied, “Well, then, how fortunate for everyone that we didn’t come here this morning to worship you.” That man knew the truth: the main aim of worship is to point to God and to seek to shape ourselves to become more and more the people God intends us to be for the good of the created order.

When we give our hearts and minds to God, our lives will reflect the things of God. To put it another way, your neighbor’s life should be better because you are here worshiping this morning. If the things that we do and the ways that we do them on Sunday mornings do not lead to this neighborhood knowing more of God’s love and grace and blessing, then we ought to pack up and go home and try something else.

When David worshiped God, the people around him were blessed. Does that happen in your home? On your street? In your workplace? At your school? What difference does any of this make to the people who have never been here?

If we do this right, more children will be coached and mentored and loved because we’ve been here. The lonely will be visited, the poor will be fed, and those who would abuse their power or authority will be challenged.

This story about David and his dancing before the Lord is not here to impress on us what a great guy David was. It’s here to demonstrate how powerful and awesome David thought God was – and how far-reaching the implications of that were for David and for those who surrounded him.

Frederick Buechner describes this well in his brief essay on David:

With trumpets blaring and drums beating, it was Camelot all over again, and for once that royal young redhead didn’t have to talk up the bright future and the high hopes, because he was himself the future at its brightest and there were no hopes higher than the ones his people had in him. And for once he didn’t have to drag God in for politics’ sake either, because it was obvious to everybody that this time God was there on his own. How they cut loose together, David and Yahweh, whirling around before the ark in such a passion that they caught fire from each other and blazed up in a single flame of such magnificence that not even the dressing-down David got from Michal afterward could dim the glory of it.

He had feet of clay like the rest of us, if not more so – self-serving and deceitful, lustful and vain – but on the basis of that dance alone, you can see why it was David more than anybody else that Israel lost its heart to and why, when Jesus of Nazareth came riding into Jerusalem on his flea-bitten mule a thousand years later, it was as the Son of David that they hailed him.[3]

I hope and pray that your participation in worship this morning, this month, this year, does more for you than lower your blood pressure and pep you up. My prayer is that this practice of worship would ignite in you a holy fire so that you, and we together, might be a blessing to the world because of all that God has done in and for the likes of people such as we. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/16/health/religion-lifespan-health/

[2] http://www.sbnation.com/2012/10/29/3570908/san-francisco-giants-new-york-giants-franchise-moved

[3] Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 23-24).

Report from Malawi – 8 January 2017

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.

Having been refreshed by time at the lake and as a team, on Saturday morning 7 January we headed south to explore the last two days of our time in Malawi. As we drove from Mangochi to Blantyre, we made several stops. One of these was at the Naming’azi Farm Training Center. This is a demonstration farm and educational facility used by the Synod of Blantyre to help local farmers learn the best techniques for animal husbandry, crop rotation, natural weed and moisture management, and more. Because a significant partnership has recently ended, there is not much actively going on at Naming’azi at the moment, but it remains one of the best ideas going – God’s people grappling with issues of food production in an era of climate change and increased attentiveness to the problems associated with chemical used in agriculture.

The Naming'azi Farm Training Center sits at the base of the massive Zomba Plateau. Here David and Joe tour with BSHDC Director Lindirabe Gareta

The Naming’azi Farm Training Center sits at the base of the massive Zomba Plateau. Here David and Joe tour with BSHDC Director Lindirabe Gareta

From there we proceeded to the region around Chileka, where we were honored to visit a support group for individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS. The village where we were hosted is one of many that is home to such groups across southern Malawi. The Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission (BSHDC) invites community members to form such peer groups in order to promote awareness, reduce stigmatization, enhance adherence to drug therapy treatments, and monitor individual concerns at a local level. One concern that has been noted is that many of these families struggle with nutrition, particularly for their children. Using funding provided by Pittsburgh Presbytery’s International Partnership Ministry Team, the BSHDC is making bags of specially-enriched corn flour called Likuni Phala available to families during the “hungry season” of January and February. This flour contains corn, soya, sugar, and vitamins and is extremely effective at forestalling malnutrition (especially in children). We were surprised not only to be present for a distribution, but to have a role in it.

Part of the communal support group for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Part of the communal support group for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Sharing some Likuni Phala in the community.

Sharing some Likuni Phala in the community.

One of the benefits of a trip like this is to be able to call attention to challenges and possible responses. Here I am talking with the Malawian Broadcasting System television and radio teams at the food distribution center.

One of the benefits of a trip like this is to be able to call attention to challenges and possible responses. Here I am talking with the Malawian Broadcasting System television and radio teams at the food distribution center.

On Sunday, we achieved our goal of sharing in worship with an urban congregation. Unlike Mbenjere CCAP (where we visited on 1/1), St. Michael and All Angels CCAP is comprised city dwellers who are significantly better educated than the average Malawian and many of whom hold key positions in the nation’s business, governmental, and philanthropic communities. We were asked to provide leadership for the 8:30 service (one of five worship services at St. Michael’s each Sunday), which meant that each of us had a reading, and I preached and led the prayers.

Preaching at St. Michael and All Angels church in Blantyre.

Preaching at St. Michael and All Angels church in Blantyre.

Katie reads from Philippians 1 at St. Michael's.

Katie reads from Philippians 1 at St. Michael’s.

I was delighted to run into Glomicko Munthali, who I believe was the first chair of the Blantyre Synod Partnership Committee in 1991.

I was delighted to run into Glomicko Munthali, who I believe was the first chair of the Blantyre Synod Partnership Committee in 1991.

Following the worship, we were treated to an amazingly delicious Farewell Luncheon hosted by the Blantyre Synod Partnership Steering Committee. During their speeches, members of this body, along with General Secretary the Rev. Alex Maulana, expressed their deep appreciation for the presence of a youth missionary team from Crafton Heights and they expressed a desire that the vision and diligence of this group (especially in terms of fund-raising and preparation) might serve as an encouragement to a group of Malawian young people to embark on a similar journey. A personal highlight of this occasion was the fact that Davies Lanjesi made a special effort to include Mrs. Sophie M’nensa, and she and her grandson Gamaliel were able to join us for both worship at St. Michael’s and the banquet.

With the Revs. Billy Gama and Alex Maulana along with Davies and Angella Lanjesi at the farewell luncheon.

With the Revs. Billy Gama and Alex Maulana along with Davies and Angella Lanjesi at the farewell luncheon.

With Sophie and Gama after the luncheon.

With Sophie and Gama after the luncheon.

Continuing to tell the partnership story: here Rachael and I are interviewed by Blantyre Synod Radio.

Continuing to tell the partnership story: here Rachael and I are interviewed by Blantyre Synod Radio.

Our travels concluded with a stop to visit my old friends Silas and Margaret Ncozana in their modern/traditional Ngoni-inspired home in the Chigumula area. Here, we shared much laughter, deep appreciation for the work of partnership in our own lives, and an expression of the challenge that lies in front of all who would serve the Lord and his people. The young people were grateful for the Ncozana’s hospitality and humor; they listened to a few more stories about the old days in the partnership, and heard Silas charge them to become leaders in the days to come. It was a beautiful ending to a good and rich journey.

Sharing time with Silas and Margaret!

Sharing time with Silas and Margaret!

Silas shared with us the Ngoni tradition in which he said that anyone who was a witch was forbidden to enter the home. Each of us drank from the gourd - and a witch would die immediately. We all lived, and later discovered that the beverage was a home brew made from baobab fruit.

Silas shared with us the Ngoni tradition in which he said that anyone who was a witch was forbidden to enter the home. Each of us drank from the gourd – and a witch would die immediately. We all lived, and later discovered that the beverage was a home brew made from baobab fruit.

As we prepare to pack and weigh our bags in preparation for the longest flight these young people have ever known, we are filled with appreciation for the opportunities we have had, and we ask your continued prayers as we seek to continue to learn from and grow into these challenges. I will say again that I cannot imagine this trip having gone better – the hospitality was amazing, the team was pliable and energetic, we grew in our understanding of so much – it was all simply beautiful. I hope that these few blog postings have given you at least a little bit of a window into the richness of this experience for this team. Thank you so much!

Report From Malawi – 3 January 2017

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.

Well, what a difference a day makes! The rains that began on Monday night returned – with purpose and determination – on Tuesday.

Our program called for us to visit the Mkuluwiri Prayer House in the morning. I was already nervous about this trip because the last time I tried to visit the place, the vehicle in which I was riding became mired in the mud along the side of the road and it took about six hours and about forty people to lift it onto the hard-packed clay of the “main” road. Perhaps the Malawian branch of the AAA has improved in the last seven years, but I wasn’t eager to test that theory. I was glad when the day dawned bright and clear and I could see that the road was good all the way through to the prayer house – even though we had a few sprinkles as we drove.

We had just arrived at the prayer house when the heavens opened. I mean to tell you, it was raining HARD! We tried to begin a worship service with a couple of dozen eager and intrepid souls, but the torrents of rain pounding on the tin sheets made it literally impossible to hear anything.

The rains came so quickly. This ground was dry 30 minutes before this photo was taken.

The rains came so quickly. This ground was dry 30 minutes before this photo was taken. Thank goodness for 4 wheel drive!

Carly's not sure about it, but I kept the beat for a while and then passed the drum to David.

Carly’s not sure about it, but I kept the beat for a while and then passed the drum to David.

We sat in the darkness and noise for a few moments, and then one of the men began to sing. The chorus picked up, and we discovered that 35 people singing at the top of their lungs is a prayer and praise that can transcend the din of the downpour. One of the men then retrieved a drum from the back of the building, and I got the other one – to the amusement of our hosts! We taught the Malawians “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High” and “When Jesus Says Yes (Nobody Can Say No)”. Eventually the torrent subsided into a hard steady rain and we decided to continue. Carly preached her first sermon ever, and she’d tell you that it was a little on the short side. Oddly, no one there complained about a short sermon! She was great. We left the gift of a soccer ball and shared a few more songs, and then began the drive back to the paved road. I was more than a little nervous after the addition of an inch or two of rain, but our trusty Nissan Patrol got us through the muck and mire and saw us through.

Carly presents the truth about the ways that God's people are united in so many ways - based on Acts 1.

Carly presents the truth about the ways that God’s people are united in so many ways – based on Acts 1.

 

"I've got rhythm! I've got music..."

“I’ve got rhythm! I’ve got music…”

 

Sharing a hymnal while singing in the near darkness during a downpour... worship has its challenges!

Sharing a hymnal written in a different language while singing in the near darkness during a downpour… worship has its challenges!

 

The downpour meant that we could not actually use this gift today, but it was gratefully received as a symbol of partnership in reaching young people with grace and hope!

The downpour meant that we could not actually use this gift today, but it was gratefully received as a symbol of partnership in reaching young people with grace and hope!

The second stop of the day was cancelled due to the rain, and we had a leisurely lunch break together at the manse (pastor’s home). That gave us a chance to do a little reflecting, to play some Bananagrams, and be bored for a few moments.

Longtime friend of CHUP Edith Makuluni is a nurse at the Ntaja Health Center, and we visited that facility in the afternoon. It was crowded and hot – Tuesday is the day when patients living with HIV/AIDS receive their anti-retroviral treatments, and many people had come in for treatment of various illnesses and maladies after the long New Year Holiday. We toured the labor and maternity rooms, where we met and prayed with about eight women who had just given birth; we then visited a group of expectant mothers who have come to the Health Center in anticipation of their labor beginning (the Health Ministry encourages pregnant women to come to the hospital on their due date, even if labor has not yet begun, so that if there are difficulties with the delivery there is some experienced help on hand).

With Edith at the Health Center

With Edith at the Health Center

We also took some time to simply walk through the town of Ntaja, and it’s no understatement to say that each of our young people found some aspect of that experience to be simply overwhelming, if for no other reason than sensory overload. The tremendous crowds, the pungent aromas, the raucous din of the mosque and the music and the vendors… well, it was an experience to say the least.

The "new" church building is nearing completion. It is a marked upgrade from the older structure in terms of size, ventilation, and shelter.

The “new” church building is nearing completion. It is a marked upgrade from the older structure in terms of size, ventilation, and shelter.

When we were walking past a field of maize (corn), and I saw how the stalks had been bent by the rain, I considered how much this experience must feel overwhelming to those who have not traveled to Malawi or anywhere in the developing world before. I was reminded of the brief poem written by Robert Frost, entitled “Lodged”:

The rain to the wind said

“You push and I’ll pelt,”

And they so smote the garden bed

That the flower actually knelt

And lay lodged – though not dead.

I know how the flowers felt.

As I considered the adventures of traveling through this landscape in the rain, I also remembered the words of the Psalmist: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry mud, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” (Psalm 40)

I continue to be ceaselessly proud of this team and the work that they are doing to share grace and friendship to their hosts and to each other. I am also amazed and impressed at the work that our hosts are doing on our behalf. My prayer is that the seeds that are planted on this trip will continue to bear fruit of hope and transformation in the weeks and years to come.

The girls and their Malawian Family!

The girls and their Malawian Family!

Menes was the first host I ever had in Ntaja, and I'm delighted to say that we've spent wonderful times in each other's homes and presence for almost two decades now!

Menes was the first host I ever had in Ntaja, and I’m delighted to say that we’ve spent wonderful times in each other’s homes and presence for almost two decades now!

Relaxing at the Manse with Fletcher and Menes... and bananagrams!

Relaxing at the Manse with Fletcher and Menes… and bananagrams!

Report From Malawi, 1 January 2017

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.

Do you know how it is when someone tries to tell you about something, and you think you know what he or she is talking about, and then when you experience it yourself you think, “Wow, so this is what my friend was meaning…”? You know that sometimes you can hear about a thing a hundred times, but when you experience it – well, that’s just different, that’s all?

In our preparation for this journey, I told the team, “You know it gets hot in Ntaja.”

“That’s ok, Dave, it will feel nice after how cold it has been in Pittsburgh.”

“No, I’m telling you, it gets really hot in Ntaja in January.”

“Yeah, great. It’ll be great.”

Even Malawians, upon hearingour plans to spend four days in the community where our sister church is located, would say something like, “Ntaja? Oh, it’s hot there.”

We left Mulanje on the morning of Saturday the 31st and headed for Blantyre. We drove to Blantyre, where the Synod Partnership Steering Committee had organized a lunch for us along with our friends from Ntaja at the Grace Bandawe Conference Center, and then we headed north and east to the trading center of Ntaja. We drove through a landscape peppered with thousands of villages, baobab trees, banana plants, and all kinds of wondrous and unusual sights, and finally arrived in Ntaja shortly before nightfall.

Enjoying a fine lunch at GBCC

Enjoying a fine lunch at GBCC

We reunited with Beatrice Mfune, who got to know the team at the New Wilmington Mission Conference.

We reunited with Beatrice Mfune, who got to know the team at the New Wilmington Mission Conference.

The entire town was experiencing a power outage on our first night, which made getting acquainted with our host families and the new accommodations a little more difficult. Our team had to learn a new style of sleeping (with mosquito nets), a new way of bathing (using water drawn from the borehole and heated over a fire), and all of this took place while it was hot. Did I mention that I anticipated warm weather in Ntaja?

During the day, I would suspect the thermometer climbs to the mid or upper 90s, and at night the outdoor temperature cools somewhat. However, the draperies and closed windows needed to protect sleepers from mosquitos mean that it remains very, very warm indoors at night. I think that the heat has presented our young team with very, very significant challenges. In fact, one member of the team said to me, “You keep talking about being out of our ‘comfort zone’. I need to tell you that I have been uncomfortable in every single way for at least the last thirty hours.”

That said, they have done admirably! One of the last things that Katie saw in 2016, for instance, was a shooting star. One benefit of being in a remote African community in the midst of a power outage is that when it’s dark – it’s DARK. For the first time in her life, she saw a blaze of light streaking across the heavens, and it was a joy.

We attended New Year’s Day worship, which lasted from about 8:40 until about 12:30 or so. There were more choirs than we could count; a significant welcome from the community; and our team was even recruited to be the “honorary deacons” for the day, which meant that for about twenty minutes as the congregation brought forward their offerings, the young missionaries from CHUP collected, counted and recorded the gifts from the various zones within the church.

Preparing for New Year's Day worship in Ntaja.

Preparing for New Year’s Day worship in Ntaja.

Carly summons the worshipers by ringing the church bell.

Carly summons the worshipers by ringing the church bell.

Children's sermon.

Children’s sermon.

Rachael assisting with collecting the Children's Offering.

Rachael assisting with collecting the Children’s Offering.

The best sermon these people have heard all year!

The best sermon these people have heard all year!

Carly reads the scripture.

Carly reads the scripture.

The honorary deacons counting the tithes.

The honorary deacons counting the tithes.

Presenting gifts!

Presenting gifts!

Rose Chitedze shares her thoughts about partnership.

Rose Chitedze shares her thoughts about partnership.

We were treated to a fine meal at the home of Mr. Haiya, who was celebrating his birthday on January 1, and then returned to the church for a three hour meeting with the “Youth Group” of Mbenjere CCAP. In Malawi, membership in the “Youth Group” begins at about age ten and lasts until age 35 – a little different than our experience. There was a wide-ranging discussion on a variety of issues, and each of our young people spoke with poise and clarity. I was very, very proud of them.

Mr. Haiya's birthday celebration!

Mr. Haiya’s birthday celebration!

Rachael speaks to the youth of Mbenjere.

Rachael speaks to the youth of Mbenjere.

Katie interprets the role of youth in Crafton Heights.

Katie interprets the role of youth in Crafton Heights.

Dinner with Fletcher and his family was delicious.

Dinner with Fletcher and his family was delicious.

Our friend Fletcher, who visited CHUP in July 2016, hosted us for dinner, and then we retired for the evening. It was a good day in so many ways, and I commended our team for working through the discomfort that the climate and some of the other new things presented to them and for carrying out this mission of partnership very, very well.

 

Are You Like Mike?

The scripture is full of invitations to act – to set things into motion.  In worship on August 30, the folk in Crafton Heights thought a bit about ways in which “going through the motions” is helpful and ways in which that becomes a distraction or even worse.  Our scriptures for the day included Mark 7:1-8 and James 1:22-27.

 

If you were around after worship last Sunday, you might have overheard Brad discussing a rather unusual problem: he was trying to give away Steelers tickets and he couldn’t find any takers. He had a number of seats to the game between the Steelers and the hallowed Green Bay Packers, and he was having a hard time finding anyone who was interested in going along. Who passes up Steeler tickets? FREE Steeler tickets at that!

Oh, wait, you say – it was last week’s game? A preseason game? No thanks. I’d rather water my lawn or sort out the coins that have piled up on my dresser.

Tomlin2Preseason football is meaningless, some people say. Not only that, it’s dangerous for some players: just last week the Steelers lost at least two key players for some time due to injuries incurred during the preseason game. But perhaps worst of all, preseason football is BORING. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has gone on record as saying that he does not play preseason games to win. When asked what his goal was in a recent preseason contest, the coach said this: “We’d like to keep penalties to a minimum. We’d like to play assignment-clean football. At this point we’ll see where we are in that regard.”[1]

Yes, because nothing says “excitement” like “assignment-clean football.”

But the fact that the coach isn’t playing to win doesn’t imply that he doesn’t care about the game. Far from it: Coach Mike believes it’s important to see who is growing as a player and who has lost a step; he wants his team to try out new formations, and the individual players to develop some muscle memory in terms of how to do what they’ll need to do once the season starts. “I think the preseason is very necessary to develop regular-season readiness,” Tomlin said, “and the only way to do that is to play. I’m always a healthy guy play type of guy.” He remembers that almost every single good team in the NFL ended last year with a loss. Coach Mike is one of the best coaches in football because he usually knows why he is doing what he is doing.

So maybe, in spite of the fact that very few of us in the room are ready for life in the NFL, we can “be like Mike” when it comes to being ready for whatever comes our way. Sometimes, you put yourself through the motions because that’s what gets you ready for the things that really count.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were amazingly adept at going through the motions. In fact, they were so good at going through the motions that they challenged Jesus about it one day.

washinghandsThe Hebrew scriptures command the people of God to be grateful for the food that they enjoy and the land from which it comes, but there is no commandment specifying exactly how that is to happen. Over the years, the religious leaders built up a number of traditions so that by the time that Jesus was born, the way that one demonstrated one’s gratitude to God was to pour a specified amount of water (that which could be contained in one and a half medium eggshells) over the hands in such a way so that it covered at least the middle knuckles of each finger. Having done that, your hands were clean, your gratitude was apparent, and you could enjoy the meal.

james_tissot_pharisees_400When the Pharisees condemned the disciples for failing to wash their hands, they weren’t concerned about hygiene, or spreading germs. They were offended because Jesus and his followers didn’t go through all the motions – they were not keeping the traditions that came, not from God, but from other Pharisees.

Jesus’ response is quick and to the point: “Why do you care more about trying to prove to other people how holy you are than you do about pleasing God? You’ve left your relationship with God out of the equation here, and you’re not honoring him with your life, your thoughts, or your hand-washing. You’re just showing off. Learn the ways of God first, and then see how human traditions fit into them.”

So if you’ll allow me to extend the sports analogy a little further, I might say that for people like this, all of life is like a preseason game. There is a repetition of the basics that just goes on and on and on; there are dozens of opportunities for people to get hurt or inflict injury on someone else; there’s not much connection between what they do day in and day out and things that matter eternally; and there is real uncertainty as to why they do what they do.

Which leads me to the story of another Mike. It is a true story.

On September 10, 1945, Clara Olson, of Fruita Colorado, sent her husband Lloyd out to prepare a chicken for the evening meal. Clara reminded Lloyd that her mother was coming for dinner, and that her mother really enjoyed, of all things, the neck of the bird. So Lloyd selected a strapping young rooster that weighed about two and a half pounds and took it to the chopping block where he lined up the axe in the hopes of making Clara’s mother a happy woman. He struck the blow and the chicken went running around the barnyard as is typical of these animals once they’ve lost their heads.

Lloyd&MikeWhat happened next, however, was surprising. Instead of eventually dropping over and expiring, as you might expect, the bird shook off the effects of the decapitation and never looked back (which would have been impossible, given the fact that he no longer had eyes). He walked around the barnyard and made as if he was pecking for food. Lloyd left the bird and presumably made other arrangements for his mother-in-law’s evening meal.

The next morning, Lloyd found the bird, whom he came to call “Mike”, sleeping with the stump of his neck under his wing. He decided that if the bird was that intent on living, he’d find a way, and so he began a regimen of feeding Mike grain and water through an eyedropper.

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

In the next 18 months, Mike the Wonder Chicken grew to weigh more than eight pounds and was a feature at sideshows and other venues where the eager public lined up to pay a quarter a head (pun intended) to see this oddity. He was insured for $10,000 and his fame was broadcast in Time and Life magazines. I’m sad to say that while the Olsens were bringing Mike home from one of his trips to Los Angeles or Atlantic City, they woke up in the middle of the night to find Mike choking. They were unable to find the eyedropper and because of that, “Miracle Mike the Wonder Chicken” passed onto whatever eternal reward awaits barnyard chickens.

It is amazing to me that a chicken can live for a year and a half without a head…but perhaps it should not be a surprise. The reality is that far too often, churches and Christians are like this Mike: they exist, but not fully. Somehow, they have become cut off from the head of the body, which is Christ, and found a way to perpetuate their existence in isolation from the One who first called us and who directs and sustains us.

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

Think about it: a lot of churches have clean and shiny buildings filled with busy staff people and very efficient programs, but there is no apparent connection between all of the business inside and God’s movement and purposes in the world.

A lot of Christians get up in the morning and sit in front of their bibles or TV screens for a few moments, and then run out the door to make it to the church work project or to volunteer at the clothing drive or the strawberry social but somehow, in the midst of all of this energy and excitement, there is not any vital connection with the One who called them into being and charged them to follow. They are simply running through the motions, doing what Christians are supposed to do because that’s what they do.

“Miracle Mike” the Headless Chicken is indisputable proof that it is, at least in some cases, possible for an organism to exist and even grow while severed from its head.

But why? Can we really call that “living”? Is it wise for us to emulate that kind of existence?

As we wrap up this summer and turn the corner to fall, I’m here to tell you that you’re going to receive a lot of invitations from your church family. Can you volunteer with the kids from time to time, or fold the newsletter? Do you plan to come to the All Church retreat in October? You know, the folks at Real Food and the Table are looking for some energetic hands. And don’t forget small groups like FaithBuilders and the Tuesday morning ladies.

There is a lot of church-related busy-ness that goes on in our lives. And to be honest, on a lot of days, a lot of us show up at these programs and feel like we’re just going through the motions. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves employed in a series of worthwhile activities that repeats itself again and again and again but fails to lead to any greater meaning. Imagine how terrible football would be if every game ever played was like a preseason game!

James warns us about this (about collecting activities and practices without meaning, not about preseason games) when he calls us to live life with the “revealed counsel of God” foremost in our thoughts. We listen for the call of God and then we respond with actions that have meaning and purpose and lead us in a particular direction.

1-ephesians-4-body-of-christJesus leads us in this way of reflective action, and is perhaps assisted unknowingly by Mike Tomlin. In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be taking a hard look at Jesus’ call to come out and go through the motions of faithful living – to be present to people who are in need, to be open to God’s call in Bible Study, and to be focused on building a community that forms and shapes us.

We go through these motions not because serving others, reading scripture, or spending time with the community are ends in themselves, but because these exercises are the means by which we stay connected with our head, who is Jesus. These practices, carried out with faithfulness and diligence and joy under the guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead us into the fullness of life in Christ – so that when we are presented with a challenge, an opportunity, a burden, or a new set of circumstances, we are able to respond to it as Jesus would. We engage in these behaviors so that when Christ calls us to be his functioning, alert, alive Body in this time and this place, we’ll be ready to do that. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] This quote and the one to follow are both taken from http://espn.go.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelers/post/_/id/8038/tomlin-wont-play-to-win-preseason-games

See You At The River (Malawi 2015 #10)

When I was a kid, I remember coming home from school more than once to an amazing cacophony. As I stepped onto the porch, I could hear the vacuum cleaner whirring away. Louder than that, though, was my parents’ old hi-fi record player, blaring either George Beverly Shea or Tennessee Ernie Ford. The loudest of all, though, was my mother, singing at the top of her lungs,

Shall we gather at the river –
The beautiful, the beautiful, the river?
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God!

Know this, dear friends: my mother had many, many gifts. Music, however, was not among them. In fact, there were days when I hesitated to invite my friends to play at my house after school lest they find themselves treated to a concert by a trio whose most talented member was, in my twelve-year-old opinion, a Hoover upright.

That image came back to me the morning that we gathered with a group of people in our partner church and sang (in a way that may have been a mild improvement on my mother, the Hoover, and George Beverly Shea),

Ndiye Mzimu Wakuyera
Atipatsa ife makhalidwe
Ofanana naye Yesu
Anatsika Kumwambako.

When it comes to the Chichewa lyrics, I'm always ready to give it a go!

When it comes to the Chichewa lyrics, I’m always ready to give it a go!

So far as I can tell, the Chichewa lyrics have no discernible relation to my mother’s favorite hymn, but I’m here to tell you that the tune is the same.

I’m pretty sure that the old American gospel song is referring to the day, bye and bye, when we are called from this world of toil and care and freed to live in heaven. Maybe that’ll happen just the way the songwriter hoped it would, and I’d be OK with that. But tonight I write in a land that is shaped by a river: the mighty Shire that flows from Lake Malawi to the Zambezi and then to the Indian Ocean.

And I write as one who is profoundly marked by experience in a city that was built on not one, but three mighty rivers: the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio, which eventually joins the Mississippi and spills into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sharon warmed up to little Dalitso ("Blessing") by - what else - play!

Sharon warmed up to little Dalitso (“Blessing”) by – what else – play!

One of the deep and substantial gifts of the international partnership is that we don’t have to wait for pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye. I am sitting in the remote town of Ntaja, where we have spent the evening with fellow Christians who have become friends. We have eaten well, we have talked of important issues in the world, we have shared stories of family, and we have laughed. Oh, we have laughed.

And while I will not be sure of this until tomorrow evening when I am reunited with our whole team, I have every reason to expect that in eleven congregations in numerous villages and cities across Southern Malawi, a scene like this played itself out again and again and again. We come to Balaka or Blantyre or Nansambo or Luchenza not as tourists and not as donors. We come as partners, as the Apostle Paul would put it, “fellow members of the household of Christ.” We are the saints. And we have gathered by the river. And it has been good – very, very good.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to suggest that traveling to Africa is the only way – or even the best way – to grow in appreciation for the body of Christ. And I’m not suggesting some escapist strategy wherein we hide out in a corner somewhere and sing “Kum Ba Ya”. I won’t be surprised if we get back to Blantyre tomorrow and discover that someone’s trip has been interrupted by an illness or somehow marred by errors in judgment, execution, or misinterpretation. Partnership is a tool that the church can use – and like all tools, it’s not foolproof, and it’s not for every situation. Yet it is the tool that I believe God has used with great impact in my own life as well as the congregations with which I am closest.

Johnson and Charity Damelakani, our hosts in Ntaja, my colleague in ministry, and our friends.

Johnson and Charity Damelakani, our hosts in Ntaja, my colleague in ministry, and our friends.

So thanks, mom, for teaching me that if only the best singers sang, the world would be too quiet. Thanks, partners in Malawi and in South Sudan, for teaching me that each voice has something to add. And most importantly, thanks be to God for a glimpse of God’s ultimate intentions, a community where there is boundless laughter and love and joy. I can see that a little more clearly tonight, and I am grateful.

Mrs. Rose Chitedze, a visitor to Crafton Heights last year, invited us into her home.  This is her family.

Mrs. Rose Chitedze, a visitor to Crafton Heights last year, invited us into her home. This is her family.

The Sunday School program for the children meets in the unfinished "new building" of the Mbenjere Church.

The Sunday School program for the children meets in the unfinished “new building” of the Mbenjere Church.

A significant portion of Mbenjere CCAP's "Executive Committee" welcomes us to worship.

A significant portion of Mbenjere CCAP’s “Executive Committee” welcomes us to worship.

We were privileged to be invited to the "Youth Group" (in Malawi, that's the term for what we might call "young adults" in the USA).

We were privileged to be invited to the “Youth Group” (in Malawi, that’s the term for what we might call “young adults” in the USA).

One of the things we did at the "Youth" meeting was to practice some of the initiative games I learned in South Sudan and discuss the ways that the church can bring healing to its community.

One of the things we did at the “Youth” meeting was to practice some of the initiative games I learned in South Sudan and discuss the ways that the church can bring healing to its community.

Malawi 2015 #8

On Wednesday morning, our time on the shores of beautiful Lake Malawi came to an end. As mentioned in the previous entry, our friends from South Sudan really opened the eyes of many of their partners with an informative and personal reflection on the history of their nation and church. The bus ride from Mangochi to Zomba featured in-depth discussions about the nature of ministry in South Sudan, the needs and the gifts of our partners there, and the ways in which our lives and callings can intersect. It is worth noting here that our colleagues from South Sudan seem to be very interested in partnership with individuals and congregations in Pittsburgh, but positively passionate about the possibilities of deepening ties with the CCAP in Blantyre Synod. There have been many times on this journey when I’ve compared our tripartite partnership to a stool, indicating that it was possible to balance on a chair with two legs, but a stool with three functional legs was even better. That third leg is getting sturdier each day!

Davies Lanjesi and Silas Ncozana, representing the present and past of the partnership.

Davies Lanjesi and Silas Ncozana, representing the present and past of the partnership.

We traveled south from the lake to the town of Zomba, a journey of about three and a half hours. Here, we were met by many from the Blantyre Synod Partnership team as well as many dignitaries from Domasi Presbytery and the host congregations for those of us who have sister churches in the northern part of the Synod. Newly-ordained ELDER Davies Lanjesi and his Partnership Steering Committee team organized a fantastic lunch buffet for us at the scenic Ku Chawe Inn on the upper slopes of Zomba Plateau. The Rev. Dr. Silas Ncozana gave a stirring history of the Pittsburgh-Blantyre Partnership and we rejoiced in the fruit of recent days as well. One surprise for me was when Silas said, “I really appreciated that sermon you preached in Mulanje on Sunday!” I apologized for not even recognizing that he was in attendance, and he said, “I wasn’t! It was on the national radio twice!” I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time!

CK and Doreen Chirambo are Partnership Pioneers who came to join us in Zomba.

CK and Doreen Chirambo are Partnership Pioneers who came to join us in Zomba.

Our congregation helped to provide this borehole, which supplies clean water to thousands of people.  It is my great honor to drink from it!

Our congregation helped to provide this borehole, which supplies clean water to thousands of people. It is my great honor to drink from it!

After lunch came a pivotal moment in our pilgrimage, where our team of sixteen split into thirteen as we paired up with hosts and departed for Balaka, Nansambo, Chiphola, Sande, Blantyre City, and other destinations. Sharon, Gabe, and I headed to the north and to the east, up to another plateau atop of which rests the small town of Ntaja. Here, we are staying with Abusa Johnson Damelekani and his family as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the twinning of the Mbenjere and Crafton Heights congregations.

The Mbenjere congregation is home to about 700 Christians and is divided into 15 “zones”, each of which is guided by a team of elders and gathers for midweek prayers in various homes. In addition, there are three smaller worship centers, called “prayer houses” that are attached to this main congregation. I should note that Abusa Damelekani has four other congregations (and each of them has zones and prayer houses as well!).

A portion of the student body at Michongwe School.

A portion of the student body at Michongwe School.

Our task on Thursday was to introduce ourselves to the community, and it was a grand day. We began with a breakfast in the home of one of the elders, and from there we proceeded to the Michongwe Primary School. This school has at least tripled in size since the first time we visited it, and there are now 3800 students in grades 1-8. These students are taught by 58 teachers and 14 student teachers. The crowds are so large that on some days as many as 17 classes meet outside under the trees. The students held an assembly in our honor, and Dr. Sharon Carver presented an impassioned plea for the students to work hard and stay in school (especially the girls!). I got the kids to sing Palibe Wofana Naye with us, and then we were deafened by the sound of the entire student body singing the Malawian National Anthem at the top of their lungs. Such pride in their nation! We met with many in the teaching staff and also heard a presentation by two young ladies who are studying to enter a secondary school course in tourism.

"I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made." (Psalm 139)

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139)

We then were pleased to visit the Ntaja Health Centre, where our friend Edith Makuluni has worked for many years. She was off today, but we were given a full tour of this clinic, which functions as essentially the Malawian equivalent of an “urgent care” center in the USA. A highlight for me was being given the opportunity to speak and pray with a group of about a dozen extremely pregnant women and their “guardians”. These women have come to the Health Centre because their deliveries appear imminent, and most have been accompanied by another family member who will care for them, cook their meals, and so on as they await the arrival of their babies. I explained to them that one of my highest privileges in ministry is greeting new babies and reading with them the 139th Psalm. We read this together, and I encouraged the women to remind their children over and over again that they have been “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

Gabe in his preaching debut.

Gabe in his preaching debut.

The afternoon was spent visiting one of the zone meetings, where Gabe Kish honed his preaching skills by leading an inspiring Bible Study from Acts 2:42-47 about the church’s call to celebrate the awesome nature of our God. Following a time of worship, the group stayed for well over an hour of question and answers about the church in America, and Crafton Heights in particular. It was a very fruitful time of discussion and sharing, and if you can judge by the size of the crowd that followed us singing and laughing as we walked the mile or two back into Ntaja center, they enjoyed it every bit as much as did we.

The Nkuna North District Prayer Meeting from Mbenjere CCAP.

The Nkuna North District Prayer Meeting from Mbenjere CCAP.

Of course, the entire day was punctuated by way too much food (prepared by our friends Mr. and Mrs. Haiya and Mr. and Mrs. Mphaso – Mrs. Mphaso is better known to some old friends at CHUP as “Ronnie Gonani”, a visitor in 2000). Tea was drunk, biscuits were shared, and joy abounded. I believe that’s how partnership works!

On a sad note, we learned today of the untimely death of Silimyake Mutafya, a beautiful and engaging young woman who visited our congregation in 2012. She got married in 2013 and was expecting her first child when something went wrong with the pregnancy and both she and the baby died. It was a grim reminder that we can take nothing for granted.

Tomorrow we will be up and out early again, as we visit several prayer houses and zones. As always, your prayers are appreciated. Zikomo kwambiri!