Unfiltered Ministry: Give Me Jesus

It’s always refreshing to talk without a filter.

Vasco & Davidson in Dana Point.

Last week two of my friends were in town visiting from Malawi. These two guys, Vasco and Davidson, were instrumental in getting Hailey and me to spend a year in their country. They also both went out of their way to help us to feel comfortable while away from family and all that was familiar. Having them in our home was both an honor and inspiring. In more ways in one, they reminded me to get back to what is important.

Vasco has always challenged me to think about ministry, culture and the church in a new way. While he and Davidson were here, we spent plenty of time talking about how things were in Malawi and how the church is doing here in the U.S. They were on a whirlwind of a tour that started in Michigan, stopped at a conference in Colorado and ended in California. While in Orange County I introduced them to some folks at St. Peter’s, had a few meetings with others who had gone on trips to Malawi and took them to see Saddleback and Mariners. They laughed at the monster church campuses. There isn’t a building in the entire country of Malawi that would fit as many people as the sanctuaries (auditoriums/arenas?) of those two places. They saw plenty of the American Church.

As we visited and shared stories I was reminded of why I enjoyed ministry so much in Malawi… Jesus. I was able to focus on Jesus for an entire year.

Here, I find myself getting caught in all the other parts of the church. There’s programs, politics, finances, denominational stuff, congregational expectations, buildings, growth plans, etc. All filters that all too often sift out what (or who) is important. I am not saying those things are entirely unimportant, but they can’t be the thing. And we, or I, often allow them to be.

Ella meets her Malawian uncles.

As we talked, Vasco and Davidson laughed. All that stuff exists in the Malawian church. And, really, I knew it to be true (I once moderated a 7 hour session meeting on a Saturday morning while only understanding half of what was said…makes meetings here seem like a breeze). But, because of my position and the cultural barrier, it was impossible to be immersed in what, all too often, become gigantic distractions. I could focus on loving God and loving people. Christ was essential and it felt like the rest sat in a blurry background.

One of my favorite hymns is Give Me Jesus. It was made popular by Jeremy Camp and a few other contemporary musicians but it has been around for a long long time. At the end of each verse is this line, “you can have all this world, but give me Jesus.” My personal prayer is that I’d learn to live this song.

The New Normal

NOTE: I wrote this blog two days before Ella was born and never posted it. Still catching up. 

Hailey and I know our lives are about to change forever. We planned for it.

Crib, clothes and more. Friends & family are the best!

Our friends who are parents have told us to go to the movies (we’ve been to the theater more in the last 6 weeks than we had the entire previous year), go out to dinner, get plenty of sleep and spend time talking—do whatever we can to get time alone, just the two of us.

The advice has been wonderful. But, at the same time, we’ve been married for seven years and  were also gifted with 10 months together where almost every night was spent alone with one another-without a tv, consistently working Internet and the other distractions most of us consider necessities. It’s odd to be at this stage and feel…well, ready (even if there is some uneasiness at the same time).

We’ve spent the better part of the past few months acquiring furniture, clothing and all the modern amenities people have told us we just have to have. And we’re extremely grateful for what we have received. Most of what we have is hand-me-downs or gifts. We wouldn’t be able to have this kid without the generous support of our friends and family.

In Malawi I learned that it really does take a village to raise a kid. Most children have multiple fathers and mothers (here we’d call them uncles and aunts) and each is equally important in the upbringing of a child. Our village has come through.

No carseats, only chitenjes…

As our home fills with baby stuff, I can’t help but think about the children we grew to know a year ago. When my daughter is born, she won’t be the first child I’ve named (in Malawi the parents do not name the child, the uncle does). Mothers rode in the car I drove and I didn’t worry once about whether or not the chitenje  around their chest carrying their newborn would pass Child Safety Seat Laws. I saw women unabashedly breastfeed without a hooter hider and (eventually) thought nothing of it. And I saw children thrive without Baby Einstein, pacifiers or diapers that always fit.

Two completely different worlds with different definitions of need. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in the middle–but maybe that’s a good thing.

Hailey and I are cherishing our last few nights as a family of two, but we’re also dreaming about the sleepless ones ahead. I’m positive we’ll miss the times we had alone, the feeling of being rested, and the ability to go out whenever we want. But I also know the “new normal” will provide all kinds of new experiences, stories and life lessons. And I can’t wait.

Holy Week & The Easter Prayer

Prayer at Chamatao C.C.A.P.

I have to be honest. When Hailey and I agreed to go to Malawi last year I prayed a prayer that my mind knew was wrong but my heart rationalized as okay. You know the type—one of those childish conditional prayers. They’re what we pray when we’re in trouble, in need of something in a hurry or (as it was in our case) about to make a big life decision; Lord if I do this for you, then you’ll do something for me.  Or maybe it’s, God if you do this for me, than I promise I’ll…

I prayed, “Lord. If Hailey and I go to Malawi for a year, you’ll need to give me a job and my wife needs to be pregnant soon after we get home. That’s my price. Deal?” It was as if going to Malawi was a giant sacrifice, a price I’d pay to get what I wanted.

It’s a prayer that our consumerist society teaches as valid. But it’s terrible theology. God honoring the cravings of my heart today [I have a job and Hailey is pregnant] is not some sort of reward for an “offering” I made last year. It has more to do with surrendering my will to His.

The idea that God’s providence can and should be changed because of something we do or a demand we make shrinks faith down to a controllable bargaining tool. Scripture tells us that, while showing an abundance of grace, God punishes those who fall away from his will and changes the understanding of success for those who learn to live under it. We don’t teach it enough, but consequences for actions are rampant in the Bible—just because the punishment doesn’t completely fit the crime [grace] doesn’t mean there isn’t significant damage and pain when we fall away from God’s plan.

I had a professor in college that messed up my understanding of prayer. He believed that the only valid prayer was for the revelation of God’s will. Praying anything else would belittle God’s role as God and our role as humans.  In praying thy will be done, we seek to align with what God’s desires are for our individual and corporate lives. God’s heart for the world remains primary and our own longings secondary. It helps to give us a “big picture” prayer mentality.

Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemane are the perfect example of this prayer.

My father, if there is any other way. Get me out of this. But please, not what I want. What you want.

This prayer is extremely difficult when we long for something or someone, and God doesn’t answer the prayer the way we would have hoped.

In many ways, Dr. McCant was a crazy old man—the most unorthodox Nazarene I’ve met (he also made bold statements like, “if my Rabbi isn’t going to heaven then neither am I!”). He had one of those brilliant minds that didn’t always equate to brilliant teaching. I often walked out of his class confused, with less understanding than I had when I arrived (then again, maybe that was his whole point?). At the very least, a year in his class taught me to think before I pray.

Thanking God for providing is different than boasting to Him about what we have earned, praying for victory is completely different than praying for our enemies, and saying “God is good” has little to do with our current life circumstance (it’s a statement of God’s Sovereignty, His good and perfect plan. One we often can’t see or explain). My “Malawian sacrifice” taught me these things. God didn’t need me there; I needed to be there. I needed the lesson in obedience.

It’s Holy Week. Followers of Christ should be in deep prayer. As you reflect on what happened during this week years ago, I’d hope you’d do so focused on a will that’s not your own. Sometime, before easter egg hunts and caserole consumption ask yourself these questions. What’s on your agenda that needs to be set aside in order to get inline with what God is doing in the world? How does your story need to be altered so you can play a bigger part in His? And, are you trying to pray your will into God’s plan or are you praying His will would become yours?

 

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.

Malawi Driving

This is my first time posting from my phone, so forgive me if the format is off.

Yesterday we took on a bit of an bit ambitious goal. I was told it could be done, and deep down I knew it was true, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t terrify me. We were going to start off early , drive to visit my friend Sydney at his home in Chamatao (last year it took all day to get there by public transit), then head east through the Nkhotakota game reserve and back south to Salima where we’ be staying the night at a church member’s lake house. I figured I’d be behind the steering wheel for about six hours, half of which would be on dirt “roads.”

Needless to say the day was stressful.

But we made it. It was great to see Sydney and his family and deliver a gift to my niece Rebecca Grace. Brandt got to see what a remote village was like and how different some people live. And though the drive was indeed painful (my neck still hurts from a pot hole I hit), we were able to see a lot of the central region of the country.

Now we’re enjoying the lake. We got here at sunset, ate dinner and went to bed. We woke at 5 and watched the sunrise. I’m now sitting on a flipped over fishing boat and enjoying another majestic Malawi morning. Word can’t do justice to the beauty of this place. Here are a few snaps from our journey:

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The Malawi Morning Calm

I forgot how quiet the morning could be in Malawi. For most people the day starts well before 6:00. I hear at least six different species of birds from the front porch of Manse #2. It won’t be long before the cool crisp air will be taken over by the musty heavy heat of a humid day. The colors of Mr. Masina’s yard are as vibrant as I remember. Yeah, it’s good to be back.

This is the time I love here. Soon enough something will frustrate me. The mini-buses will honk annoyingly; the realities of a crushed economy, corrupt government and people in great poverty will be painfully visible; and I will have to focus intently during conversations so I don’t miss what a friend may be trying to communicate. But not now.  Not yet.

I know in an hour or so it will all change.

Living in Malawi taught me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Yesterday, while driving to the Malungunde market to get some drinks to go with lunch, a madwoman stood in the middle of the dirt road pointing a stick at our truck. I couldn’t steer around her. She was mumbling something under her breath, maybe a spell of some sort. I said something to Brandt like, “welcome to Malawi.” The four of us in the car joked that the topless stick-touting woman had taken a fancy with one of us. When we pulled over she stood next to Brandt’s window smiling awkwardly. He rolled up his window and locked the door. Yup, she was in love with him…at least that’s how I saw it.

When we returned to drop off our glass bottles, she was at it again. This time she didn’t have a stick, but was getting down to the song in her head that no one else could hear. I tried to convince Brandt to go dance with her.

It’s been fun to see Malawi through new eyes. To taste nsima for the first time, to wrestle with being azungu in a muntu world and to be exhausted at the end of a day just because the culture is that different.

Every day is a new adventure. And there is something attractive about living life in this way, but there is also something that is absolutely draining. But I’ll let that part come later, for now I’ll enjoy the peace and quiet.

Here’s a few photo’s…

Our room looked the same as it did when we left...
Abi & Chester (a new addition to the Masina Family)
Brandt on a run in Area in 12

 

 

Malawi, My Remedy

When Hailey and I left Malawi in July 2011, I vowed I’d return within a year. I wasn’t sure what it would look like or how I would get there, but I knew that if God willed, it would happen. At the same time I was ready to leave. Our funds had run out, we were tired, we longed for our families and (to be brutally honest) we really missed the comforts of Southern California. It was time to come home.

As I was called to St. Peter’s, I made it clear that I still had a passion for what God was doing in Malawi. I still had much to learn from my brothers and sisters. I’d like to think that part of the reason I was called by St. Peter’s was because of God’s call on my life for missional living. Regardless of the cultural context, I have a deep desire to see God move in new and different ways. Staying connected to Malawi reminds me of my calling.

A generous tax return for 2010 (that’ll happen when you’re married and only one of you has a consistent job for half the year) provided the funds. Talks with my wife and boss provided the timeframe. And a call to my good fire-fighting friend Brandt, presented a travel partner (I would have come alone, but part of being passionate about what God is doing in the world is sharing it with others—that, and 36 hours of solo travel sounds miserable…). I’m thankful for his sacrifice and adventurous spirit.

We’re on the familiar leg between England and Kenya. I despise this part of the flight. I can never sleep on these things. The cabin is dark. A few screens flicker. And even though the guy across the aisle has the entire center row to himself, he is sprawled out uncomfortably close to me. I smell his socks and something’s up with his leg. He keeps itching it on the armrest as if it were a tree and he were a dog with fleas. No wonder I can’t get any sermon writing done…

I’m tired. Emotionally, spiritually and physically—I am beat up. And, I’m going to a place where I’ll preach a ton, be in constant conversation and live in a house where I always have to be “on.” I’m not even there yet and I’m uncomfortable. But, there is something tells me I am flying to the remedy of my fatigue.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t I think I will come home completely rejuvenated, full of energy and ready to figure out all of the cultural issues and challenges of growing a church in Huntington Beach.  I won’t have the solution for dying denominations, stale approaches to community development or apathetic families.

The problems of the country are complex, but, somehow, life itself remains fluid. Maybe that’s just it. What attracts me to ministry in Malawi is its simplicity. The Gospel matters. Everything else is secondary. I don’t think I always see life through those eyes when I’m in Southern California. My second home, the warm heart of Africa, reminds me of what my priorities should be.

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.

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.

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.