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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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

 

Mozambique: In the Way

Preaching in Mozambique

Sing it with me:

“On the third day of Mozambique, my true love reminded me”

“How little we’d done, how bored she was and how much we had to do in Malawi.”

Hailey and I knew the rest of the team had been busy reaching out to Tete. It was an odd feeling to have been invited on a mission trip, given a specific task and then told to sit and wait.

Jason with the football (soccer) boys

I had finished reading a book, written a blog and a half and gotten to know the Gimba family really well. I was done waiting. Saturday morning we decided we’d head out with one of the ‘field teams’ to do door-to-door (or yard-to-yard) evangelism.

When I think about door-to-door evangelism I get a horrible feeling in my gut. I think about all the times I have heard a knock on my door, peered out the window or peephole and seen bicycle helmets and neck ties. I never mind talking to Mormons on their mission (their commitment puts those of us who spend a week in a place, paint a few fences and rarely actually talk about our faith with others to shame), but I’d be lying if I said it was something that I looked forward to.

As if one conversation with a complete stranger can convert a person…

Or can it?

Think of how many times Scripture tells us of one quick life-changing conversation. The paralyzed man at Beth-zatha, the Samaritan woman at the well, the calling of the disciples. The list could go on and on. When Jesus was on His way he talked to people. And their lives were changed.

I can hear your internal monologue screaming at me right now. You’re looking at the computer screen and thinking, “But that was JESUS!” Yes, it was. But there were many others. The Church didn’t grow to where it is today because of sermons preached on Sunday morning (though it may have shrunk to the size it is in the US today because some of what is said during them).

I still here your thoughts (well, probably, because I have them as well), “but Dave, I wasn’t called to that type of ministry! I don’t have those gifts.” The all-too-often used excuse that keeps us conveniently confined to the comfort of our pews. I am not saying we are all called to be curbside prophets, but most of us have been given the ability to communicate in one way or another. What are you communicating?

We walked around all morning and talked with some women and their children, a group of 15 boys kicking around a makeshift football and a family who had fled from the Congo three years earlier because of its civil war. We shared stories, laughed at our differences and talked about Jesus.

In the afternoon we met with a youth group and then I went to meet with the executives and professionals I was supposed to work with the day before. Surprise, no one showed. To be honest, I wasn’t disappointed. I was exhausted.

On Sunday I preached on Jesus being The Way, The Truth and The Life. I mentioned that the early church was often referred to as “those that were in/on the way” and focused on the idea that we often try to jump to Jesus as truth and life without first getting in the way. We miss the point. We miss the journey.

Monday at 6 a.m. we piled back into the same Nissan we arrived in five days earlier. The car reeked of gasoline—spilled generator fuel. Wonderful. As if the six hours of stench weren’t bad enough, the shocks on the car were worthless. I’d start to fall asleep, into a gas-induced coma, and the rear of the car would swerve uncontrollably as the driver increased his speed.

Our journey to Mozambique was not at all perfect. It didn’t go as we expected and what I set out to do was not accomplished (many of the other outreaches were very successful). But sometimes, most of the time actually, we spend so much time focusing on the finish line that we forget about our role on the way.

Mozambican Waiting Game

We arrived in Tete just after 10:30. Exhausted, I flopped out of car and shook feeling back into my legs. We were taken to the house of the Nigerian missionaries and after a quick cup of tea went to bed.

The first thing you notice about Tete is the heat. Supposedly, it’s the cold season right now. Cold, like 100 degrees cold. After forgetting a few things on our journey to Mulanje, we didn’t want to forget anything this time. Naturally, I didn’t bring shorts. But at least I had jeans, a suit and a warm sleeping bag…

Thursday mornings blistering heat reminded us of what Lilongwe was like during the hot season. We sat out on the veranda of our new friend’s house, ate breakfast and reintroduced ourselves after the half-awake pleasantries of the night before.

The Gimba Family

Esther and Istifanus Gimba have been in Mozambique for almost three years. They work with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, which focuses on food programs, church development, disaster (flood/drought) relief, aids education and the empowerment of women. Their house was built by South African missionaries and is on the property of the Iglesia Reformada church (which we later learned is the local name for the CCAP).

The church in Mozambique is small and there is far less missionary and development presence than in most African countries. I’ve been told that bibles are so scarce that two people will tear it in half and one will get the Old Testament and the other the New.

After breakfast we rested and waited to hear about the day’s program. I was supposed to be leading a seminar for businessmen and executives. But it wasn’t going to start till Friday, so we had a day to rest.

Later, we visited two more of the small missionary network. Jenny is from the US and her husband, Michel, is from Switzerland. Michel works with the Wycliffe Bible Translators. Today he and his team had finished translating Exodus 40 into a local dialect. He discussed how difficult it was to translate the instructions for building the tabernacle in a way that makes sense (the whole time I was thinking, “I’m not even sure they make sense in any language…”).

They’ve been in Mozambique since 1995 and experienced what a country looks like right after almost 30 years of unrest and civil war. When they leave the country on furlough, their two elementary school aged boys ask when they are going home. Tete is all they have known.

The Church needs more families like this one. Instead of bringing a westernized version of Christianity (which, unfortunately often means colonization instead of Christianization), they are helping people see that Christ can be the answer to their unique questions and problems.

As we drove through the city of Tete two things stood out to me. Despite scars from the war and the obvious signs of poverty, the city was impeccably organized. The markets had clear lines and the roads were actually put together in a logical way. It was refreshing. I was later told that the Portuguese have a way about them that exudes order and structure. Mozambicans had absorbed this trait. It was fabulous.

Hailey enjoying the Zambezi River breeze
Hailey enjoying the Zambezi River breeze

The other thing I noticed was the plethora of men walking around in reflector-laden jump suits. These men were coming home from working in coal and diamond mines. As we were stuck in traffic on the Zambezi River Bridge, I debated rolling down the window and calling out “I think I’ve got the black lung pop!” to one of the men. Then I realized (1) I’d be the only one laughing—Ben Stiller, who is that?—and (2) it would be highly inappropriate.

The truth is, though it is brutal work and the employees are often under-paid (the average salary is between $150-200 a week, a generous wage for African standards but terrible considering the risks of the work), the discovery of these resources has quickly provided the Tete province with a way to generate their own income.

Fortunately, on Friday we woke up and it was much cooler. And there was actually a breeze. This time, as we sat on the veranda, coffee and tea actually sounded appetizing. We were told to wait for instructions about our program. 9:00 am came. 11:00. Lunchtime. Around 2:00 I finally found out I would be speaking that night at 6:30. And then, two hours later, found out I wouldn’t be because the people to whom I would be speaking were in a meeting to plan this year’s Independence Day Celebration for the city. But they’d be coming Saturday night. Great. Another day of nothing, another day of waiting.

Mozambican Border: Monopoly Money

Hailey and I were invited to go to Mozambique with the mission department of the Nkhoma Synod. Months ago, when asked if we would come, I may have been a bit over zealous with my answer. I said “yes” and committed finances to the trip without first consulting my wife (something I should have learned not to do A LONG time ago) or seeking the advice of our closest Malawian friend.

Needless to say, as we prepared for the trip, Hailey was less than excited about the idea of joining 40 Malawians in the bush of Tete. As I heard stories about past outreaches of the department I got increasingly nervous. We had visited the Malawian bush, but whenever I mentioned we were going to Mozambique the responses were equally shocking and depressing.

“Why?” “No one goes to Mozambique!” “Tete! There is nothing there!” A South African (also named Dave), who I met while getting my Malawian Driver’s License said, “Mozambicans are brutal to white people. Some, that live in South Africa, are even known to kill for just a few dollars.” Thanks Dave, real comforting…

I pictured all sorts of terrible scenarios. Sleeping in a car in the bush. Hot. Bat sized mosquitoes. Tribes, like wild African Dogs, circling us and barking “kill whitey” as they wait for Hailey or me to fall away from our comfortable pack of Malawians.

Some of our fears were relieved when Stephan, the director of the mission department (who also spent 20 years working with Campus Crusade for Christ), told us we’d be staying with a Nigerian missionary couple in a modern house.

We were supposed to leave at 7:30 in the morning, then it got pushed back to 9:00…We didn’t get picked up till almost 1:00 in the afternoon. We’ve learned that these things happen and you just have to shrug your shoulders and go with the flow sometimes. But it’s a lot harder to do that when you are anxious.

Eventually six of us got into a Nissan Pathfinder with all of our supplies and luggage (which quasi-comfortably sits 5) and made our way toward the Dedza border to meet with the rest of the team. We stopped on the Malawian side, got out and flashed our passports and drove across the border. The funny thing about the Malawian/Mozambican border is, in many places, it is wide open. Supposedly, it is okay to cross without passing through immigration if you aren’t going deep into the other country. But Tete is about 400 kilometers passed the border.

Hailey and I waited in line at the immigration checkpoint. As we were waved forward, we handed our passports to the officer. Stephan was standing right next to us; we didn’t think we’d have a problem at all.

Officer: (in an odd Portuguese accent that was new to me) Where’s your visa?

Stephan: They are with us, pastors working with the synod. They don’t need a visa.

Officer: Visa.

Me: We have a visa to be working in Malawi.

Officer: Mozambique isn’t Malawi, Visa.

Stephan: Can’t you do something for us?

At this point I thought we were going back to Malawi (Hailey would have been thrilled). It turns out we could get a visa for $75 each or 4,270 meticais (Mozambican currency). We asked if we could pay in Malawian kwacha. No. The angry officer stormed off with our passports–never a good thing.

A few minutes later, he called us to a back room. I stood to walk with Hailey and he said, “just the woman.” What?!? The only thing worse than running away with my passport was going behind closed doors with my wife. Our friend Jason could see the horrible thoughts that were running through my head and said, “she is fine.” I wasn’t convinced.

Twenty seconds later they called me into the same room. It was nothing. They just needed to take our photos to process the visas. The mood lightened a bit while the officers tried to figure out how to take a photo of someone with pale skin. Things seemed to be taking a turn for the better. Then they asked us to pay.

We had brought $200 for emergency money, but all the rest of our cash was in kwacha. After watching a fat officer struggle to add 75+75 (his friend had to tell him it was 150 and not 155), we handed over our two $100 bills. He examined them closely, sat the first one down and then looked at the second. “This one is no good, another one.” I explained it was all we had. He pointed to a red line on the bill. The ink that is often used in the states to check if it is a real bill or not had him convinced that we were giving him fake money.

I almost lost it. Our bill was straight from the bank, it looked brand new. I wanted to point out the colorful Mozambican monopoly money and say, “look at this crap!” Fortunately I remembered I was a pastor and on a mission trip.

I promised him it was real. He wasn’t buying it. He wouldn’t accept the bill.

He told us to go exchange the money for meticais (because if we had fake dollars, they’d accept it…). We asked him to point us in the direction of the exchange bureau; he pointed to a man on the curb outside. Great. Now we’d get screwed by two parties instead of one. Hailey went with Jason to exchange the money and I starred at the officers, who still held our passports, in obvious discontent.

We finally paid and got our passports back. I walked to the car shaking my head in disbelief. The bus with the rest of the trip participants had waited for us. It was now 5:30. I apologized to them all. They didn’t look surprised or bothered. Someone smiled and said, “That’s Mozambique.” What had I gotten us into…

 

Altar Call Anxiety

I know it is a pastor’s job to introduce people to Christ. For most, the
chance to preach the message of grace is at the heart of our calling.

Yet, I’ve never felt completely comfortable with the “saved” terminology tossed out by most evangelical speakers at camps and conferences. We often throw it out like it’s one of those orange and white life-saving rescue rings. The chance to “get saved” is flung out over the side of the boat, and all the person drowning has to do is hold on for dear life.

For a moment the rescued feel safe. Tears of joy stream down their face as they are reeled in from the stormy waters. Death has been averted…for now. Once back on the boat they realize the boat isn’t really the safe haven they had envisioned. Open waters call their name and, soon enough, they’re back in the drink.

Again the life buoy is thrown out to them and, once again, they’ll be pulled back to safety.  Oh, to “be saved” once again. They’ll limp down the aisle toward the pastor and will hear the same message they heard the year before, pray the same prayer and re-accept the same Christ into their hearts. They are convinced; this time it will be different.

Tomorrow, revival season begins in Malawi. From Friday to Monday groups will gather in homes, churches and large fields. People will sing for hours on end. Both good and bad sermons will be preached. And people will come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

This Easter season I will experience Christ’s resurrection in an entirely new way. At Lingadzi there are four preaching teams that will be sent out to each of the church’s places of worship. I am leading one of the teams.

At the end of every gathering my job is to summarize what the three preachers before me said (a difficult task considering they will all be speaking Chichewa) and to offer an altar call. I’m all for the message of grace reaching people in a new way. I’m all for people accepting Christ into their lives and having it change the way that they live. What I am not about (and am fact terrified of) is cheapening the death of Christ by turning it into a dog and pony show.

Jesus died once for our sin but the need for repentance is constant.

When guilt—more than grace—drives people to the altar, Jesus is nothing more than an artificial life raft. He may save us, but he is no longer the one who gives abundant life.

We need to preach that no matter what a person has done in the past—no matter how they have screwed up or fallen short—that they are still loved by Christ. Yet, at the same time, we need to preach that the grace that Jesus offers is costly and demands us to become imitators of the One who calls us to put on faith, hope and love.

Oh Death, Where is They Sting?

In life, “nothing can be certain except death and taxes.” Usually when people quote Mr. Franklin’s famous words during this time of year it is in a complaint about giving money to the government. While many tax themselves greatly to find ways to get out of paying one’s full duty, none of us can cheat death (unless we are Elijah, who didn’t die but rode off to heaven in a flaming chariot).

I am learning a lot about death in Malawi. For Malawians, death happens on a daily basis. Last Monday, the Masina family told me one of their cousins had just died from Malaria. She was two. Later that day I found out that one of my colleagues at the theological college lost his wife. She was 57. Africa is the only continent in the world where the life expectancy is still under 60 (I read today that in Swaziland it is 30…I turn 30 in a month).

As I sat with my friend Vasco at Mrs. Chikoti’s funeral we talked about the high mortality rate. He told me that there are hundreds a day in Lilongwe alone. He also said funerals are expensive and a burden to most families. He said, that before he would be able to actually mourn and grieve his father’s death he would be expected to take care of all those coming to the three day service.

The National Aids Commission did a study and found that, for a poorer family, a funeral costs between 120,000-140,000 Malawian Kwacha ($800-950). That’s a lot of money when you make less than two dollars a day. Wealthier families spend as much as a million kwacha ($6,700) per funeral. Many people here spend more on dying than they do on living.

I didn’t grow up where someone I knew died every other week. One in seven African children die before the age of five. Those that die have brothers and sisters. On Thursday a friend told me there were ten children in his family, there are now five. He just turned 29. Everyone here deals with death from a young age.

I preached this morning on Jesus’ death (an odd feeling—while most of the churches in the world were celebrating the Divine King’s Jerusalem entry, I was asked to preach on His execution…).  Jesus may have conquered death, but He still had to die. Before we can approach the empty tomb we need to come to grips with the magnitude of Jesus’ death. And before we can know what the power of Christ’s resurrection means for our own lives we have to come to terms with our own suffering and our own death.

During this last week, while I was thinking about death, I read an article written by Donald Miller. When Don’s book Blue Like Jazz blew up in the pop Christian scene, I’m not gonna lie, the pretentious theology student in me was a little turned off. But then I read his A Million Miles in A Thousand Years and I was taken aback by his desire to live a life that is worthy of a story. In this article he asks if we know how to trust God with our lives, but also with our death.

I’m not sure if anyone knows all there is to know about death. But my Malawian friends are teaching me a lot about how death is an unavoidable part of life.