Who’s your mentor? Meet two of mine.

I shouldn’t be up this early. My body is confused. My head is spinning and my stomach is reeling from a bug I picked up on our last day in Malawi. Jetlag wears on one’s ability to turn back the clock to “normal.” Yet, my soul is at ease. Moyowo Ngwabwino, Moyo wanga ulitu bwino.

There is something peaceful about early mornings, even here in America. The internal alarm that has gone off at 4 a.m. the last two mornings has given me ample time to pray and reflect. Oddly, I am thankful to be awake (ask me if I feel the same way this afternoon and you might get a different answer…).

On my trip I spent time with two pastors that I will forever look to as mentors. Their ministry contexts could not be any more different, yet they exude many of the same qualities—a rare mix of humility, strength and creativity. The first was Eugene Peterson. I’ve never met him, but many of his books have fed me over the years (Under The Unpredictable Plant was especially helpful while Hailey and I were living in Malawi last year). I had started his memoir, The Pastor, a few weeks ago but set it aside when my grandma passed away. Hours of flying provided plenty of time to finish it. The second was Vasco Kachipapa, the moderator of the Nkhoma Synod. I’ve mentioned him a few times before (here, here and here).

It’s funny. If you talk about Eugene Peterson with Christians in the U.S. they will all mention The Message. In Malawi, very few know of his work and ministry. Maybe a hundred Americans know Vasco, but in Malawi he is the figurehead for the Presbyterian Church in the central region. Because of the lack of seperation between church and state, he has influence over many non-Presbyterians as well. Millions look to him as their leader. But if you sat down with him in his living room, you’d never know.

Vasco came to greet Brandt and I on our first day in the country. And later during the trip we had dinner with he and his wife Madda. [on a side note; we got lost getting to their house. There is nothing quite as terrifying as being in a questionable African neighborhood in the dark alone. Two mzungu’s driving slowly down dirt “roads” are a perfect target. The next day we found out that two people were taken from their car, beaten and robbed the night before in the exact location…] There is something refreshing about being with him.

Vasco talked of the travesty of the political situation in Malawi and told the story of sitting next to the president during dinner and asking him to pass the salt. People often recognize his voice from radio interviews and are shocked by his stature (he is 5’9” and as skinny as a rail). They expect more; he just laughs. He speaks his mind and people listen, but he never holds his role as anything but a gift from God…maybe even a gift he didn’t want.

He serves with an ethic unlike any other pastor I know, unabashedly seeking to serve and worship God while ignoring the pressure to please the people of his congregation and denomination. Yet, this is the very reason people follow him. His church had over 200 people become members last week and over a thousand are going through the year long catechism class that focuses on what it means to be a Christian. It’s not a program that attracts people to his church, it’s his clear sense of “follow me, while I follow Jesus.”

Peterson gives great words that describe Vasco’s approach to his vocation and role in life.

Most pastoral work consists in pointing away from yourself to something other than you…you are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed. To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way. A certain blessed anonymity is inherent in pastoral work. For pastors, being noticed easily develops into wanting to be noticed…pastoral ego ‘has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self.’

Thank you for your words Eugene. And thank you Vasco for giving me a living example to follow.

  • Christy Zatkin

    What a great commentary on Vasco. I don’t think we in the U.S. appreciate what an amazing man he is. May I used part of this when we introduce his coming to LJPC?

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