All In The Family

On August 6, we commissioned our Youth Mission Team for a week of service at the Cherokee Mission in partnership with the Cherokee United Methodist Church in the Qualla Boundary in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  Our texts for the day included Luke 8:19-21 and Ephesians 2, selected verses.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the link below:

 

In an hour and a half or so, a group of young people will climb into the vans and drive 521 miles south to the little town of Cherokee, North Carolina, where we’ll engage in our mission service and learning trip for this year. For some folks, this is “old hat” – heck, a few of these travelers have been halfway around the world with me at one point or another. But for at least four of us, this is the first Mission Trip with the Crafton Heights church. I would suspect that for most of the group, this is the first visit to a Native American Community. I would suspect that there are some nervous questions popping up in some young minds:

  • What will we be doing?
  • What are these people like?
  • Am I going to have to talk to people I don’t know?
  • Am I going to have to talk to people I DO know?
  • What will there be to eat?

With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share a bit about a time when my mind was filled with questions like that. In January of 2013, I was privileged to take part in a trip to the newest country in the world – South Sudan. Three of us from the USA and three from Malawi were going there to talk about the possibility of our churches becoming partners in ministry and mission. Not only had I never been to South Sudan before, I never knew anyone who had. When I arrived, we went to our guest house and I was told that the next morning I’d be preaching at a local church that would worship using Arabic as well as the language of the Nuer people.

Some of you might be surprised to hear this, but I get really, really nervous when I have to preach to people I don’t know. I wonder what I could possibly say that would make any sense to them. I don’t know their lives, their problems, their dreams… and, in this case, I didn’t know their language. Well, my friend Madut agreed to translate for me, and I told them a story. Listen:

My grandfather lived in a tiny town in Western New York. He had two sisters. Aunt Marian and her husband, Uncle Wilson, lived in a small house in town with their children. Would you believe me if I told you that they had 21 children? Two of them died in infancy, but nineteen survived. 21 people in one small house! Can you imagine? I sure could not. The were all older than me, of course, and while I met a few of them when I was a boy, I didn’t know them at all.

Jesus’ True Family, Anne C Brink, contemporary. Used by permission of the artist. http://www.annecbrink.com/index.html

When Aunt Marian died, I was living in another town an hour away. I went into the small town, where her 19 living children, 49 grandchildren, and 65 great grandchildren had gathered. In fact, the obituary listed all of her descendants, and then in the place where the community is usually invited to “calling hours”, it said, “blood relatives only”. The Funeral Home was not big enough for her family and her friends. I got to town and I ate breakfast in the local diner, and I mentioned that I was a relative of Aunt Marian’s, in town for the funeral. At another table, a man got a look of surprise on his face and said, “You’re in her family? Really? Me too!” As I wandered through that little town all day, every time I turned around, I found myself bumping into relatives that I never knew I had.

Of course, that’s been my experience in the Church as well. Every place I travel, I meet sisters and brothers I never knew I had. I show up in town, and find my way to a restaurant or a church, and every single day I run into people who look different than I do, who sing different songs or work in different places or have different ideas… We are not the same, of course – but we are family! Wonderful!

The Apostle Paul lived for a while in the little town of Ephesus. While he was there, he started a church. Things didn’t always go well for that church, and in fact by the time he got around to writing them several years after he’d moved away, they were bickering and feuding amongst themselves. He had to remind them that they were all one family because of what Jesus Christ has done. They hadn’t come from the same place, of course; they didn’t speak the same languages or know the same stories – but everybody at the church in Ephesus was being built into the same family as the people in Rome, or Jerusalem, or anywhere else that God was working in the world.

My grandfather had another sister: my great-Aunt Mae. She and her husband, Uncle Glenn lived on a big farm outside the small town. They never had any children. My earliest memories of Aunt Mae were that she was always mean and grouchy. When my parents dragged me into her presence as a child, she never seemed particularly happy to see me. However, once I was grown, if I came through town town and did not visit her, then she let me know that she was really unhappy about that. She just seemed so angry so much the time, and I felt like there was nothing I could do that would make her happy..

Fortunately for me, my Aunt Mae lived to be an old woman, and as I matured, I came to see things a little differently. The more I got to know her, the more I understood that she wasn’t really mad at me or any of the other people around her. If she was angry, she was mad at the world, frustrated with God, or disappointed in herself… because she never had any children. Here her sister had 21 kids, for crying out loud, all crammed into that tiny house – and she had none. I cannot imagine the pain of that for her.

This learning leads me to my second point: just as I did not understand the pain that my Aunt Mae may have had, there are many, many people in my family whose pain is simply unimaginable to me. We’re going to travel to Cherokee, North Carolina. What do those folks worry about? What are they afraid of? What makes them really, really happy? If we’re being honest, we have to say that most of us have no idea about the places that they hurt, or how, or why. So we’ll drive down there and hang out with them for a while.

Sometimes, the best I can do is to stand close to someone in my family who is aching or who is rejoicing and ask our Father to bring the thing that is needed, because there is nothing I can do but to show up and care.

So here is what happened next: as my Aunt Mae got close to the end of her life, she made me promise that I would preach her funeral. By that time I had learned that I never said “no” to Aunt Mae! When she died, every one of Aunt Marian’s surviving children showed up at the church. I can still picture them, all in the back left section of the church. At one point, I invited the congregation to share a word of testimony about the ways that Mae’s life had affected them.

One by one, Aunt Marian’s children stood up and said things like this: “I never had my own pair of new shoes until the summer I went to live with Aunt Mae.” Or, “The first time I ever owned a new suit or a new dress, it was when Aunt Mae took me shopping.” This is what that sad, disappointed, childless, and yes, grouchy old lady did: every year, she went to her sister-in-law’s home and took three or four children to live with her on the farm and help her and uncle Glenn with the work of the farm: the cows, the eggs, the crops. And she cared for them. And she loved them. And they loved her. It was my deep and abiding privilege to be able to hear them tell stories about the way that our Aunt Mae showed them love.

So this, my friends, is the stunning conclusion to my first sermon to be translated into the language of the Nuer people – a people who have lived a life that I could not imagine- a life of persecution, of displacement, of exile and return: It seems to me that what my family has taught me is that at the end of the day, we are measured by how we treat each other.

When Jesus talked about his family, he didn’t mention whether they knew his favorite songs or agreed with him on all the important issues of the day. He said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” When we come face to face with the Lord, it doesn’t seem as though there will be a test on doctrine, or church history, or political correctness. I think he’ll ask us, “Do you love me? Do you know I love you? And Have you followed me in my love for the rest of the family?”

Whether you are going on a mission trip to a new place with people you don’t know or not, know this, beloved:

Your family is bigger than you can ever imagine it being. We are limited by time and space and experience, but we can and will transcend those limits, sooner or later. You don’t know everyone in your family, and you won’t immediately recognize them. That beautiful blonde girl? That gay couple? That refugee who has crept through mud and muck? That kid who smells bad, or the guy who doesn’t look like you? Who are you to say that they’re not family? Just because you don’t recognize them? And when you do recognize them, you might not like them that much. That’s ok.

The different members of your family have been hurt in ways that you can’t see, and they have experienced pain that you don’t know about, and they hope for things of which you cannot conceive. Their experience may lead them to treat you in ways that rub you the wrong way. That’s ok. It is their hurt, their pain, their hope. You can’t take it away from them, or get them past it. And Jesus does not expect you to do any of that.

What Jesus does seem to expect, however, is that you treat them with love. To do your best to remind them of the fact that we are in the same family, and to share kindness and grace as best you can. When you are out and about with your family, remember to ask them to put up with you when you are falling short, and to extend to them that same courtesy when you can tell that it’s not their best day.

A long time ago, we had a program here at the church called “Kids Klub.” As scores of young people came in and out of this building for crafts and music and recreation, we had only one rule: “I am a child of God – please treat me that way.”[1]

Whether you’re heading to North Carolina this afternoon, Malawi later this month, or just going to stop by Giant Eagle on the way home, it’s good advice. Remember who you are. And remember who you’ll be meeting. Treat each other like you know that. Thanks be to God for people who remember that we are, in fact, children of God. Amen.

[1] I learned this rule from Dale Milligan and the Logos program. For more information as to how that program currently operates, check out https://www.genonministries.org/pages/logos-all-about-logos

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.

 

Report from Malawi, 30 December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

The joy of reunion after 18 years!

The joy of reunion after 18 years!

 

 

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

 

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

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

Gamaliel, Sophie, Dave, and Gregory

Gamaliel, Sophie, Dave, and Gregory

David leading devotions

David leading devotions

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

Carly shares her experiences

Carly shares her experiences

One of the youth choirs

One of the youth choirs

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

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

A tea plantation in Thyolo

A tea plantation in Thyolo

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

Entering the factory from the fourth floor

Entering the factory from the fourth floor

That's a lot of tea...

That’s a lot of tea…

It's chopped and dried...

It’s chopped and dried…

Getting closer to the final product...

Getting closer to the final product…

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

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