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Christmas Huntington Beach Malawi Ministry preaching Theology

Christmas and Church Culture

For many, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But for some Christmas is miserable. Think about how hectic it would be to work in retail right now…You can only hear the same song over and over again so many times or squeeze out a fake smile to the over-the-top rude customer who has to get the perfect gift for their kid.

And then there are the awkward family moments (you’re either 7 or are lying if
you’re thinking, “nah, not in my family.”) or the painful memories. I don’t mean to be Scrooge or the Grinch, but for some, January can’t come fast enough.

Working at a church during the Christmas season can be equal parts mesmerizing and horrifying. On one hand, it’s the time we thrive. Generally, as we approach the 25th of December, talking about Jesus is accepted by most in American popular culture. And more people come to church than any other time of the year. On the other hand, it is when the church is at it’s worst. More often than not, we fall into the trap of over-programmed services and under-whelming theology. How do we balance the proclamation of the birth of our Lord and the commercialization of Him? When do the popular (and generally accepted) views of Christ water down the significance of the Kingdom come?

This dichotomy is even more noticeable when Christmas falls on a Sunday (every six or so years, give or take a leap-year).

A week ago I had a conversation with my sister and she wasn’t happy. Her pastor had cancelled services on Sunday morning. A few days later, enough people complained so Sunday morning church was back on (which got me thinking, when does the act of people pleasing get in the way of the health and direction of the Church?—a blog for another day…).

While having an internal debate about this cultural conundrum, I came across this blog where Jon Acuff talks about Christmas, being a pastor’s kid and the positives of canceling Sunday morning services this year.

Over the years I’ve mentioned this a few times—one of my greatest fears in being a pastor is the affect my profession will have on my family. What will they have to give up? Who will they be with on Christmas morning when I have to work? What traditions am I missing out on because duty calls.

But how much of this is cultural? In Malawi, no matter the day on which Christmas falls, there is a morning church service. But on Christmas Eve, I wasn’t even close to church because there was an expectation that I’d be elsewhere. The priorities were different. Three years ago I was in Norway over Christmas. Days before Christmas it was IMPOSSIBLE to find a shop that was open (outside of 7/11), yet everywhere you looked there was smoke coming from chimneys and families in the living room (a living Thomas Kinkade painting).

Yet, in the U.S. we say, “shop like crazy, Church happens Christmas Eve and Christmas day is for family.” And often our church holds it as Gospel. Christmas falling on a Sunday is a good thing. Even if it is just subconsciously, it forces us to ask questions about who we are, what we believe and where the Church fits into the mix.

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Leadership Ministry

Steve Jobs: leader, lunatic or a lil’ of both?

I finished the Steve Jobs book last week. My first reaction was, what a complicated, confusing and brilliant man. And, what a jerk!

The book affirmed all that I had heard about how miserable he was to work with and for. The reality distortion field that he lived in created an atmosphere that would either (1) make it miserable to go to work every morning—that is, if you were fortunate enough to actually leave the office—or (2) drive you to work the hardest you ever had.

The book also makes it painfully obvious that same reality distortion field contributed quite a bit to his sickness and eventual death.

At the same time, these are the things that helped him to be successful. His continual drive to make great products instead of making a ton of money (not that he didn’t do both) really has changed the way we live and function today—no matter what tool you are using to read this blog, his fingerprints are all over the technology that created it. There’s a good chance he was the most influential visionary of this century.

And while I may disagree with much of his leadership style, it worked. I am convinced that his well-known tirades, bipolar emotions and self-absorption had a lot to do with making Apple a great company.

But that got me thinking all sorts of things: Was Steve Jobs a great leader or just a great visionary? Are the two at all separate? Does one have to be a visionary to lead? Is it possible to be a great visionary and terrible leader? Steve jobs got his people to buy into his vision, but is it really buying in if you just fire everyone that disagrees with you?

As a pastor, I’m often asked to lead in one way or another and I’m constantly trying to become better at it (whether that is reading or getting feedback from mentors). I couldn’t help but read this book with my role in mind. No, I’m not dealing with customers in the church (the whole CEO Pastor, church-consumer culture drives me a little crazy to be honest), but I am dealing with people.

Any sales or marketing guru would tell you, after believing in your product, knowing how to relate to and work with people (i.e. your customers) is most important. Leadership is a field that crosses into any industry that involves people, including the Church (yes, I understand the irony of writing that I don’t like church-consumer culture and then calling ministry an industry in the next breath).

Try this: Throw out his new age and messed up spirituality (which brings up another and maybe more important question: can you separate a leader from his/her beliefs?) and ask what a church would look like with a Jobsesque leader at the helm. He was a dynamic communicator, a refreshing visionary and millions of people followed him. But does that mean he left us with any concrete lesson about leadership?

At the end of the book, Isaacoson gave Jobs a chance to reflect on his legacy in his own words. There are good quotes throughout the entire book, many of which could apply to how pastor’s lead, but these two at the end particularly grabbed my attention:

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

I hate it when people call themselves “entrepreneurs” when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company which is the hardest work in the business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will stand for something a generation or two from now.

NOTE: I saw this book, at the bookstore on Saturday. I probably won’t read it, but it is clearl that many think Jobs has revolutionized the way one leads.

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Huntington Beach Malawi Ministry moving

Starting Over: Huntington Beach

Installation at St. Peters

Starting over can be exciting, especially in ministry. But it can be dangerous as well. When we jump into a new job, role or duty in the church we can’t help but think about how we can bring a new energy or point of view to the congregation. It’s easy for me to pray and dream about how the community would benefit from one change or another.

But, in doing so, I often fail to honor the tradition or history of those who have put their own blood, sweat and tears into what already exists. In the process of thinking of or introducing a “needed” change I end up belittling something that may have had a profound impact on someone’s faith or life. It makes it hard to sit back, watch and learn about the culture of the church and surrounding neighborhood. Patience is a virtue because so few of us possess enough of it.

At the same time, there is a reason I was called to this church at this time. The balancing act of old ways, new spins on old techniques and new philosophies of ministry are often lost in a mirage of excitement.

At the ripe age of thirty, this is a lesson I have continuously had to re-learn.

Over the last two years I’ve been ordained, commissioned, inducted, decommissioned (which was changed to a send off in hopes of a continued relationship between the PCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in Malawi) and now installed. Needless to say, it has been a whirlwind.

Now that the storm has settled a bit, I finally feel like I’m in the place I’m going to be for a while. Huntington Beach is wonderful. And St. Peters By-the-Sea is a great church—a community ripe with potential. I’m trying to rest in God’s grace while learning about what role He has for me. To do so, I am fighting the temptation to move and shake before kneeling and praying.

My last sermon in Malawi was on God’s Sovereignty and how it relates to leadership. There were 8-10 Malawian pastors there, so I talked a good amount about being called into leadership and, specifically, into ministry. Here is a clip from my manuscript:

In Malawi it seems being a pastor is a sought after and respected job. If you become a pastor, it is like you have obtained some sort of rank. People look up to you like you are a chief. (ASK CONGREGATION: “Am I right?”) In many homes you are seen as an honored guest and are served first. While everyone else sits on the floor, you sit in a chair…you get the picture. I’ve even been told that sometimes people here aspire to become pastors because they want that status. To these people I want to say, “You’re in the wrong job. Jesus was washing feet and serving his disciples, not sitting around getting big, fat and happy.”

Before Malawian Induction Service with Vasco and Sydney

I went on to say that we need to follow the Apostle Paul’s message, “follow me, while I follow Jesus.” Vasco Kechipappa, the Moderator of the Nkhoma Synod (which means he is in charge of about 140 churches), was in attendance and had been in the middle of a nasty countrywide attack. I told the congregation that we all followed him, because he is this type of leader.

A few weeks ago his two-year term came to an end, and even though he was hoping he wouldn’t be re-elected, he was…collecting almost 90% of the votes. People follow him because it is so clear that he is seeking after Christ with all of who he is.

It is my deepest desire to lead this way—Patiently praying while following the Father.

Categories
Malawi San Diego

Reality Check: Lights Are Out Nobody’s Home

My buddy Mike (www.prinephotography.com) took this photo during the blackout while everyone else was partying...

Some will remember it as the power outage of 2011. I found it funny that in the middle of a supposed crisis people were flooding twitter and facebook posting pictures and hashtags of #sdblackout and #sdpoweroutage. Lines at convenience stores were out the door, freeways were packed and people stayed up late to drink all their cold beer and eat all their ice cream before it went bad. School was even canceled. Some turned to their makeshift emergency kits, others partied like they were with Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Breshnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs.

Let’s be honest. It was a little ridiculous.

I find it a bit ironic, with all our technology, that losing electricity for less than a day had such a great effect. Societies with way less infrastructure deal with outages all the time. They grab candles and move on. San Diego freaks out.

This is one of the first things that Malawi taught Hailey and me. We lost power almost weekly and some of our friends lived in places without any power at all. The week before Easter one of the engineers working on a water turbine died while trying to repair it. Much of Malawi didn’t have power for chunks of the day for two weeks. You learn to live with it, adapt and get on with what you were doing.

Want light after the sun goes out? Fire up the generator. Wanna charge your mobile phone? Take it to a charging station (a shack with wires attached to a car battery). When living with less is the norm, small things don’t seem to bother you. When you have a ton, twenty hours without power causes communal chaos.

Dinner uncooked in an electronic oven? Cook it on a fire. Can’t watch TV? Read a book. Can’t go online? Have a face-to-face conversation (what a concept!). Let’s be realistic about when it is actually appropriate to freak out.

For those of you who thought having no power for a couple hours was a catastrophe, I’m scared to see how you will respond when a real one comes. And those of you that partied all night are probably the same people who wore tin foil on your noggins for a y2k bash years ago. The world didn’t end then. And it didn’t this time either. Perspective can be everything and sometimes we all need a little more.

Categories
family Huntington Beach moving

The Stress of Getting Settled

Fargile? Someone was tired while packing...

It’s crazy how stressful moving can be. There is something about coming home from a new job to a new house that welcomes the old friend of anxiety. And there is something about driving on new streets or going for a run in a new neighborhood that brings about the old friend of confusion.

Everyday you set goals like, I’m going to unpack ten boxes and organize half a room. And then you end up putzing around in one box because you find something that you haven’t seen in five years. When did I get that? or Why do I have this? The boxes speak of what once was. Each is full of stories and memories. But if you hold on to what once was too tightly, it’s hard to move forward with what’s happening now.

Two years ago I was a stay at home husband. It wasn’t exactly a title in which I took pride. I looked for jobs, but couldn’t find one. It was a blast getting to ride my bike and surf as much as I wanted. I enjoyed cooking and taking care of things around the house for my wife. But, deep down, it stressed me out. It got old very fast. A year ago I was getting ready to move to Malawi. I packed up my life into a ten by ten storage unit. I was worried about moving all the way to Africa and about saying goodbye to what was comfortable. It too stressed me out.

And now, I have a job that I am going to love. I live in a community that I am going to love. I live with the woman I love. I’m not far from family and some of my best friends that live less than 15 minutes away. And…it’s stressful.

As a trophy husband, as uncomfortable and humbling as it was, I eventually reached a place where I was at ease with my role. And, believe it or not, I actually could have lived in Malawi longer than I did and would have been just fine. I know Hailey and I will grow to appreciate our new community in Huntington Beach and I know my gifts are a perfect fit for my role at St. Peters By-The-Sea. But that doesn’t make the transition easy.

I look forward to actually being here. But for the time being, the process of settling down is simply unsettling.

Categories
Malawi Ministry Travel

Going Home: Slowing Down to Catch Up

Friends from Lingadzi escorted us to the airport

I wondered if I would ever be able to call Malawi my home. I love Malawi-I learned a lot from my ten months there and believe that most in the western world could grow quite a bit by spending a few moments with a Malawian-but I don’t completly fit in. It isn’t my home.

Our last week was wonderful and stressful. People flocked to our house and there were many heartfelt goodbyes. Every night we had someone over for dinner and during the day we tried to tie up as many loose ends as we could. We had little alone time to process the fact that we were leaving.

Saying bye to Precious & others in Nkhoma Village

Now we are gone.

I wear my heart on my sleeve. Always have and always will. I was surprised that I was able to hold it together without crying for most of our goodbyes. I only really lost it once.

To be honest, I wasn’t as excited to go home as one would think. I was looking forward to seeing friends and family, but there were very few things that I was really excited about. People have asked, “what food did you crave?” and “where were you looking forward to going right when you get home?” Other than Sushi and the beach, there wasn’t much.

My friend Abel says, “Home is home.” For me, home will always be San Diego.

Gotta be 23 kgs!

We’ve been in Southern California for a week and I’ve had a plethora of emotions. I’ve loved sitting down with a few friends and telling stories. For the most part, people are eager to listen and I am willing to share.

I wouldn’t say I’ve had a huge amount of culture shock or anything like that, but there is one thing that seems to continuously catch me off guard. Crowds. Costco, church, freeways—they all have freaked me out. For some reason, returning from Malawi has given me a slight case of agoraphobia. I’m not sure why.

I officiated a wedding last weekend and, to be honest, I was a bit terrified of what might happen because of my new found fear. What would have happened if I had a panic attack right in the middle of the couple’s vows?

The wedding was great and I was fine. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times where I snuck away to “the bathroom” just to take a deep breath. I needed to step away to slow down and catch up to the faster pace of life (yes, I realize how oxymoronic that sounds).

And I’m still catching up.

 

Categories
Malawi Ministry Travel

Going Home: Gadget Lust

Hailey and I are on a train from London to the airport in Birmingham. Over the last few days, as we have been preparing to enter back into the world we have known for the majority of our lives, we have been talking a lot about the re-entry process.

We’ve talked about the friends we will see, the food we’ll enjoy and the general change of the speed of life . One of the big things that has stood out to me since being in the UK is all of the advanced technology.

Heidleberg Printing Machine Movable Type

Much of living in Malawi felt like we had gone back in time. The Nkhoma Synod still prints all their books and forms on Heidleberg Printing Machines (they date bake to 1850…), ox carts are a staple in transportation and many people actually prefer to cook over an open fire instead of a stove.

To be completely honest, Hailey and I are looking forward to phones that work and internet that is fast. We won’t have to worry about electricity going out or water shutting off. One of the first things we will do when we get back is get new cell phones (don’t try to call our old numbers quite yet, they won’t work).

But how much technology is too much? When did Kip Dynamite’s wedding song–Yes, I love technology. But not as much as you, you see.  Still I love technology–become a prophecy about how we in the U.S. live? We say we love our family and friends, but spend more time in front of computers and televisions than ever before. In Time Magazine, I read that the average American watches two hours and fifty one minutes of t.v. a day during weekdays, which is up something like seven minutes in the last six years. Overall reading comprehension is up, but the majority of what is read doesn’t contribute at all to the intellectual well being of our soceity. One only needs to look at the highest circulating magazines or most visited web content of 2010 to see that there is a lot of garbage consumed by the public on a daily basis.

When does the world of iphones and androids get in the way of face to face interaction and personal conversation? How much has the western world sacrificed by idolizing the creations of Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs?

Right now I’m sitting across from an English businessman who has a blackberry, an HTC Storm and an iPod touch on the table. He’s listening to music on the iPod and has sent emails and texts on both phones. There’s probably $1000 worth of technology in his paws. Add in the iPad I’m typing on, the kindle in Hailey’s hands and you get a disgusting collection in a confined space.

In the western world we have an unhealthy addiction to the newest, the fastest and the greatest. And I am just as guilty of this need as anyone else. I look forward to being home, but am terrified of the gadget lust that is awaiting me.

Categories
Malawi Travel

Just Be vs. Hurry Up & Wait

Patience is a virtue that most of the western world acknowledges, but doesn’t at all practice. While the LJPC team was in Malawi we spent a good amount of time waiting. One time, while waiting for lunch, Mr. Bob Kennedy (as he was affectionately called by many Malawians) leaned over and said, “I get it! We’re not really waiting for anything. We are just…here.”

After only a few days in Malawi, Bob had learned what so many Malawians have come to know as normal. Just being is enough. Waiting with one another is being with each other.

While Hailey and I were getting on the tube yesterday she told me I needed to stand to one side of the escalator because people were trying to get around me. They were rushing. She said, “I guess were back to the world were time is kept and people are always in a hurry.”

She was right. The west is a world where waiting is seen as wasting. And it’s a shame. We don’t know how to just be.

Tube Station in London: Waiting=Wasting in the Western Frame of Mind
Categories
Malawi Ministry Travel

Culture Clash: Beautiful Discomfort

Jason translating for Kim (photo taken by the wonderful agogo Christy Zatkin)

I haven’t posted a blog for a couple of weeks. I’ve started many, but haven’t had time to complete them. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’ll have plenty of time in airports and airplanes over the next few days.

It’s been a crazy month; one that has left me tired and confused. I’ve had little time to process the fact that our time in Malawi is actually coming to an end in less than a week. A few days after my in-laws left, the first folk from the LJPC Malawi Mission Team arrived. Two days later the entire team was here.

My Malawian friends had always told me that hosting a mission team was draining. I used to laugh and shake my head; I had been on many mission trips and even had played host in the US. How difficult could it really be?

Christy and Tobias making windows...

Within a few days I realized how tiring it really was. It was great to share what our world has looked like the last ten months with friends from home. When you’re on a team that parachutes in for a few weeks, you usually don’t get to see the real Malawi. Our hope for this team was that, because we had been here for some time, we’d be able to facilitate friendships and interactions that might not normally occur.

 

Hailey and I purposefully planned to have Malawians and Americans working alongside one another for the entire trip. It was beautiful to see the two teams become one. But it was also uncomfortable at times.

I often felt like I was standing in no man’s land without a culture to call my own.

  • Malawians are tough people. I’ve seen many function well on little to no sleep, pick up things with bare hands that would burn holes through mine and do things with their teeth that would cause any American dentist to cry. On one hand they are very resourceful and on the other extremely wasteful. They work very quickly but often do so without paying much attention to detail.  For most Malawians, time is relative and secondary to community. Family is extremely important, but communication within it is often poor. Hospitality is a must and most go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome. Life is not compartmentalized into secular and spiritual.
  • Americans are needy in a completely different way. They are used to many creature comforts and often have an unhealthy superiority complex (a blog for another day). They are efficient but get cranky when things are done differently. Most are punctual and keep time. What they know is normal, so everyone else should live and function in this way. If not, the other is seen as wrong or unintelligent. They don’t really know how to live in community or honestly put someone else’s needs, desires or well being above their own. And, they love their stuff and have a ton of it.

Please forgive me for being hypercritical. I’m not trying to single out any one person. Nor do I mean to offend anyone (and I apologize if I have). I hadn’t spent this much time with a large group of Americans for ten months and I largely forgot what my own culture looked like. I also had become so entrenched in Malawian culture that I forgot many of its annoyances. I was seeing Malawi through new eyes all over again.

It was difficult, wonderful and challenging all at the same time.

One night the American half of the team walked to dinner. I said the journey was about a half a mile. While walking some joked that I had “become Malawian” because the distance was longer than what I mentioned. They were tired, hungry and not used to walking in such a state. When we got to the restaurant, I turned around and ran back to get the car for our return after dinner. For fun, I set the odometer on the way back. The team was right, it was more than a half a mile—a whooping whole kilometer (about three fifths of a mile)!

A Malawian wouldn’t complain about the distance. They wouldn’t mention that they were

Bob, Rev. Phula and Tobais "cutting" glass

sick, tired or hungry. They’d go with the flow and let life happen. But it’s the same lack of urgency and attention to detail that leads to avoidable deaths in the country’s hospitals.

 

As we dropped the LJPC team off at the airport I was relieved and terrified. During the eleven day visit we had preached and prayed in a Muslim community, visited various institutions at the Nkhoma Synod Headquarters and brought much needed love to the Malingunde School for the Blind by providing a camp for its students and renovating their dormitories. And the whole time the American team encouraged and worked with the Malawian church.

I was relieved because the entire trip I had been standing between two very different cultures. I was terrified because I didn’t fit in either of them.

UPDATE: After writing this blog I read this quote by Eugene Peterson in his Under the Unpredictable Plant. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.

North American religion is basically a consumer religion. Americans see God as a product that will help them to live well, or to live better. Having seen that, they do what consumers do, shop for the best deal…It is interesting to listen to the comments that outsiders, particularily those from Third World countries (Eugene, I love what you write and it has taught me much, BUT you need to use the term”developing countries” here my friend…), make on the religion that they observe in North America. What they notice mostly is the greed, the silliness, the narcissism. They appreciate the sze and prosperity of our churches, the energy and the technology, byt they wonder at the conspicuous absence of the cross, the phobic avoidance of suffering, the puzzling indifference to community and relationships of intimacy

 

Categories
family Malawi photography Travel

Zambian Animals

My father-in-law is a hunter. When I was in high school and first started showing up at the Nordmarken house, I quickly noticed the many paintings that hung on the wall. Bears and elk. Birds and fish. Horses and wolves.

My father-in-law also likes to talk. Not long after Hailey and I started dating, I began hearing all sorts of stories about hunting trips to Alaska, Mexico and Texas. When Hailey and I got a bit more serious my greatest fear was that he was going to ask me to join him on a hunting trip. I’m not sure any 20-year-old kid would be thrilled about walking around the forest alone with his girlfriend’s rifle-carrying father. Especially when that 20-year-old kid has never fired a (real) gun…

As I got to know Mike, I learned that his love for animals didn’t just include killing them. He was (and is) obsessed with how they live. This love wasn’t lost on the family. The Nordmarken kids grew up with ducks, rabbits, fish and the snakes their dad had caught in nearby canyons. When Hailey and her siblings were young, while most kids enjoyed the sound of a crunching snail under their feet, they would catch and race them. To this day, Hailey points out interesting animals when she sees them.

So when mom and dad Nordmarken decided to come to Malawi for a visit it was only natural for us to spend a few days in the Zambian bush. Hailey and I had been on safari before, but only in Malawi. We were thrilled to be seeing a new place and (hopefully) new animals.

A part of being an animal aficionado is enjoying the hunt and paying extremely close attention to detail. Mike and Sarina (mother-in-law) were fascinated with a lot of what we saw. They wanted to know about every little bird, bug and fruit. At first it drove me crazy; I wanted to see lions and leopards. I couldn’t care less about knowing how old an animal is or was by how hard its poop is or how its skeletal remains are put together.

The truth is, again, the journey is important. What you see and hear along the way is usually want leads you to your goal.

On the last night we were winding down our final game drive and still hadn’t seen a leopard. On our way back to camp Hailey heard dogs in the distance. But it wasn’t dogs. Turns out the bark of a baboon is quite doglike.

The frantic barking was a warning to the rest of the animal kingdom. A leopard was on the prowl. We radioed over to the other car and found the hunting cat. Had we not stopped to listen, there’s a good chance we would have missed it. Here is a small sampling from that night (and the rest of the trip as well):

 

shooting in the dark is difficult, even though it's a bit blurry this is my favorite shot of the night
nice kitty...

Thanks for a great trip mom and dad!