Malawi Ministry Theology

Gasping for Air

I thought I was choking. I looked up to my mom and cried, “I can’t breath!” It was hot in the sanctuary and the red sweater she forced me to wear to church had a death grip around my neck.  I fidgeted in my seat in an uncomfortable tussle. It wasn’t fair! Why did she make me wear such a restrictive and suffocating article of clothing? I slumped in defeat, attempted to loosen my collar and let my ten-year-old mind wander past the words of the pastor.

Truth is, mom is a genius.  How could she have known she was really just preparing me for what was to come almost twenty years later?

I knew pastors in Malawi wore clerical collars. Weeks before Hailey and I arrived, we got an email asking if we could bring a few.  Our friends at the Josaphat Mwale Theological Institute really appreciated the delivery of collars by the La Jolla Pres. mission team in July (thanks Gibbs), but more were needed. I drove to the local Catholic goods store in San Diego to see what they had. Who would have known there were so many types of collars! Plastic collars, cloth collars, incensed collars, machine washable collars…you name it, they make it.  As the store clerk threw a variety in the bag, I couldn’t help but think they all looked equally stiff and stifling. It didn’t matter; I knew that if I were to really be seen as a pastor in Malawi I’d have to wear one. I even bought a special shirt, thinking it might make it more bearable.

I avoided wearing a collar for our first few meetings, but I knew it was inevitable that the day would come.  Yesterday was that day.  We were to attend a commissioning (installation) service for another pastor, so we could have an idea of what one looks like prior to our own.  First, I couldn’t figure out how to use the special shirt (Hailey and I decided it must be missing buttons…). Then, as we made multiple attempts to put the thing on “right,” we were baffled at how a Catholic Priest could dress all by himself, without the aid of a wife. You wouldn’t think it would be a difficult task, but they don’t just slide under the collar. Finally, we got it on. The memories of gasping for air as a ten year old quickly returned and were only intensified by the reality that I would have this thing on for the entire day.

If it weren’t for a sore rear end (five hours on a wooden bench will do that to just about anyone) and not knowing the language, the pool of sweat building beneath my jacket and clerical collar would have been more noticeable.  We sat upfront with the pastors and the honored guests, so my juvenile squirming had to remain to a minimum. During one song, as we stood, I wiped my brow and looked out on the congregation.  There is nothing quite like a thousand plus Malawians (the church was literally over flowing) standing, dancing and singing praises to their Creator. We sat down and a speaker got up and, in Chichewa, said, “God is good!” The church responded with a thundering, “ALL THE TIME!!!”  My cynical mind forces me to focus on the things I can’t comprehend and, too often, gets in the way of understanding this simple piece of theology. God really is good all the time; even when neighbors are starving, people are dying from curable diseases or when I was a 10-year-old sitting in a stale service gasping for air.

took 10 minutes to get it on!
Malawi Ministry Theology

Abusa (ah-BOO-sah)

“Good morning Reverend.” I looked around and eventually realized that the man standing directly in front of me with clasped hands was indeed speaking to me. I responded, “Ahh, good morning sir. How are you today?” “I am fine, and you?” The polite Malawian style of conversation is a thing of beauty, but will take some getting used to.

Titles are important here.  When you first meet someone you refer to him or her as Mr. or Mrs. so and so, or in my case Reverend.  Traditionally, once you get to know someone, the title is dropped and you then refer to one another using only a surname. First names are rarely used, and only between close friends. It is as if a first name is a private matter.  Occasionally we will get an odd look when we introduce ourselves as Dave and Hailey.  However, everyone we meet knows we are not locals (it is a bit obvious…) and the Malawians are gracious when we slip. When we do get told a first name it is anglicized or they use the English meaning of their Chichewa name (which is why we hear names like Precious, Remembering or Peaceful).

The Chichewa word for pastor is Abusa.  After arriving to Lilongwe three hours late, we were greeted by about fifty people. They waited the entire time we were delayed. We arrived to many women singing songs about our arrival. They sang songs praising God that their Abusa was delivered safely. We were caravanned to the church—more songs. I sat in my jeans and Padres hat as the men wore suits and women dressed in traditional women’s guild outfits. Our house needs a few more repairs so they put us up in a nice hotel for the time being. We were told to rest and get comfortable with our surroundings.  Our first days here have been humbling to say the least.

Everyday we have visitors at the hotel. Hailey has noted that I tend to emulate the mannerisms and sayings of the pastors and elders we meet. I have not been doing it on purpose, but I hope I’m not the equivalent of the person who shows up in Southern California from out of state dropping the frequent “dude” in an attempt to fit in.  We are told we will pick up the language and culture fast, but I am not so sure. While there is no way we will become experts, our short time here will surely be eye opening. My prayer is that we will learn to emulate much more than the language and ways of the local people.  It seems that Christians here know that God is in every facet of life. Christ is not someone or something that we simply stir into work, school, play, politics or family. Faith is both public and private.  Prayer is not an option. God is always good, even when we only see the bad because God has a plan that we cannot always understand. I, the abusa, have much to learn.

***I apologize for not posting any photos (Amy), we have not had much of an opportunity to take any “snaps.” Hopefully, soon enough the posts will include pictures…

Malawi Ministry Theology

Humps, Boots, Bits and Zebra Crossings

Dinner with Jondou and Becca!
Tea with the Harrisons!

We’re not in San Diego anymore. After stopping in New York, and being spoiled by our close friends Jondou and Becca for two days, we got on a plane for Leicster, England. England is a lovely place. We stayed with our friends Allison and Simon (Hailey and Ally met in college). It was great to get our bodies used to the time change in the comforts of a home with a few things that seem “normal.” As we inch our way across the globe we have slowly been moving from the comfortable to the unknown.

One would assume that England isn’t all that different from America, and in many ways they would be right, but hopefully the slight cultural differences have prepared me a bit for what is right around the corner. The game of “what do you call that?” kept us all constantly entertained. In England a hump is a speed bump, a boot is a trunk of a car, juice “bits” are pulp and a zebra crossing is a crosswalk in a street. I’d say the Brits have funny words for things, but then I’d be putting on the very American arrogance that I am attempting to take off. Quite plainly, I believe we Americans need to do a better job recognising that different is not wrong—just different.

Both Simon and Ally seem to have the gift of a calming presence—so it was good for a bit of their demeanor to rub off on us. They live in an area called the Highlands and it is predominantly a Muslim community. The call to prayer rings daily from nearby mosques. I had to check my predisposition and unfair assumptions every time I saw a woman drive by with a full veil or saw a group of men in their traditional dress. In this neighborhood, we were the minority and my hope and prayer is that it helped to prepare us for what is to come.

We walked to church on Sunday morning, worshiped with a very diverse congregation and heard the Gospel message from one of the church’s pastors, a former Sikh from Kenya. The worship service made me miss home, but also made me sad for the many homogenous congregations that lack the more complete picture of the body of Christ that this place provided.  The church was far from perfect, and our friends were quick to point out its flaws.  I suggested that it is far easier to be critical of a church when you are heavily invested.  You see the potential but dwell on its inability to reach it.  You care for it, so you weep over it. And you complain when the ideals that set up your very concept of church are threatened. Well at least I have and do. It’s like one of those pixilated mirage pictures— we stare too hard at the details and don’t step back to see the greater image.

We drank tea, lots of tea. We rested. We talked theology and prayed together. On Sunday night, our last night with the Harrisons, we worshiped together in the sitting room. It had been years since, without any particular rhyme or reason, I gathered with friends in a room and informally sang songs of worship—It was refreshing. They prayed for our travels, marriage and time in Malawi. We have one more flight and will be in Malawi tomorrow around noon. I think we are as ready as we can be…

20 kwacha (Malawi dollars) to the first person who points out the various British spellings of words in this post…

Malawi Ministry Theology

God of the small, big and HUGE

mmmmm, Ice Cream cake... (Thanks Tiffany!)

A few nights ago, I slept for a total of three hours. I worried about storage, foreign bank accounts and the family I would be leaving in San Diego to pursue God’s call to Malawi. I thought about the tears I hid from my nieces a week earlier while repeatedly explaining to them that they would not be able to walk to Africa to visit their aunt and uncle. Then I thought about how I always seem to sleep less and get a bit sick right before a big change. Before I knew it, the annoying but familiar alarm told me it was time to stop lying awake in bed and instead get up and get on with the day. It didn’t matter whether I lie on my back or stand upright, both tasks would be done in a sleepy daze.

A chronically busy-mind never ceases to be my worst enemy. Yet in the middle of little sleep and packing our lives into a 10×10 storage unit and the four bags that we are taking to Malawi I have found moments of overwhelming joy and peace. Sharing stories with former youth group students who have become great friends while making storage unit runs, having our small group lay hands on us and pray for our journey, sitting with my uncle at a Padres game in a luxury box that he and my aunt won and waking up crying on our last morning in the condo we have lived in for five and a half years has brought on an odd mix of emotions.

It has hit me. We are leaving; moving to another country that is very different from what we are used to. It is refreshing and scary. A change we are looking forward to, but one we are terrified of—an odd mix indeed. But this week, as our small group was sending us out in prayer, our good friend Bernie asked God to be in the middle of the things that seem small, big and HUGE. While we were being prayed for, the reality of God’s sovereignty and intricate involvement in our lives was something I could not ignore. Hailey and I are stressed in a way we have never experienced. I know in my head that God is in control, but the sinking feeling in my gut has only led to confusion in my heart. But God is Lord over confusion too. Scripture is relentless with telling us to not lean on things we understand, which is grand because I understand so little. Yet, for some reason I still allow my mind to wander when I should be sleeping. God is in control, in the small, big and HUGE. Thanks for that reminder Bernie.

Malawi Ministry Theology

Support Letters, Boxes and Stuff…

I hate moving, always have and always will. We have less than 3 weeks to pack our house, figure out what we want to bring to Africa, wrap up loose ends and make sure someone is there to pick us up at the airport when we get to Malawi. The physical process of going through ones belongings and deciding what is worth keeping and what deserves pitching is agonizing.  The amount of stuff we have accumulated in five years is overwhelming.  So much so that it is difficult to really know where to start.  Slowly we have begun, but we’ve only put a dent in what needs to be done.  Last week we sold the car that Hailey and I drove to prom 10 years ago. It was bitter sweet. But in the end, the car wouldn’t fit in the box next to slow cooker and the blender—so it had to go. I wonder what will be next on the pitch list.

Slightly less strenuous is the process of writing support letters. Asking your family and friends to partner with you as you step out in faith following God’s call, especially when that partnership involves asking for financial support, is a humbling task. I’m not sure if it is my own insecurities with money or that it is just an awkward question altogether, but our intention of the letter was to have financial contribution be ONE of the many ways to join us on this adventure—I hope it came across that way. Our prayer is that this adventure would be life changing, not only for Hailey and me but also for our community. Watching others get excited about our call has been among the greatest blessings of this entire process.  Other people’s joy doesn’t necessarily make the whole thing less scary, but it definitely affirms that this is where we are supposed to be right now in our lives. I get the sense that Hailey and I really aren’t doing this thing on our own. Maybe, more than anything, we are seeing and experiencing the culmination of what the Church is really all about.

family Malawi Ministry Theology

Thy Will Be Done: Malawi

Preaching in a village, Malawi 2008

It was late July 2007 and I found myself lying in a bed in a foreign place. A constant daze brought on by a high fever lingered in the air of my adopted room. My wife or father would come in every few hours to check on my condition, and then join the rest of our team. We weren’t sure how I got sick. Was it something I ate? Breathed in? Maybe drank? Did an odd bug bite me? After a few days rest, and a dose of strong drugs, I was myself again; ready to continue my first Malawian adventure.

About a year later, in 2008, I found myself in a similar position—this time without my wife and father. Something about my first trip to the country compelled me to come again. I was sure I wouldn’t get sick this time, but then the all-too-familiar late night sweats and nausea returned. Yet it was different this time, a little less foreign and a lot more comfortable.

Though the times I spent being sick in Malawi were far from the highlights of my time in the beautiful country, you can imagine that when 2009 came around and my church decided to invite our Malawian mission partners to the U.S. instead of sending a team there, I was quite relieved. Well sort of. Despite the miserable sick days and nights, there was a tiny part of me that longed to return to the place where the church loves with deep passion, serves with fervor and is thirsty for growth. Maybe I would someday, but not in the near future—I had other plans.

When Vasco, Davidson, Amos and Louis visited L.J.P.C. and other Y-Malawi? churches and American partners in March of 2009, all who were involved got to experience a small part of Malawi. Our friends preached with power, spoke with grace and loved their American brethren in a way that is largely unknown in the western world. On the last day of their adventure to the U.S. Vasco and Davidson mentioned that they had the perfect church for me in Malawi. I laughed. Knowing I would be graduating from Fuller Seminary the following June, they persisted. I continued to laugh. Thoughts of night sweats and nausea blotted out their continued efforts.

It was easy to say no. I had zero desire to live in another country, let alone in Africa. My plans involved being a pastor in an American church, having a couple kids and enjoying life—Yes, that was the map of my future. I graduated from seminary and emails came from Malawi. I interviewed with churches in the PCUSA, not finding the right fit, the emails continued to come. Hailey mentioned the church in Malawi and I still said no. I got bogged down in the depths of unemployment. My plan was failing. Pictures of a church in Malawi lingered in the back of my head. I saw smiles, people in need and a challenge that I could never take on with my abilities alone. I began to listen.

Was God really calling me to Africa? Malawi, really? It didn’t fit in my plan! I might get sick. I might be uncomfortable. I might…the thoughts consumed me. And as they overpowered my small brain it hit me: I have always lived my life safe, comfortable and full of worry.  Everything I had read and studied had called followers of Christ to lay down their will in order that God’s will would be done. I’d said it in conversation, preached it many times, but never done it. As Christians most of us pray, “thy will be done,” but live seeking my will. Well, at least I know I have. And, it’s time for me to listen. Malawi.