Waiting for Lent in the Shadow of Christmas

Easter comes crazy early in 2013; March 31. And with an early Easter comes an even earlier lenten season (Ash Wednesday is February 13). Ten days ago I picked up and began reading N.T. Wright’s Lent for Everybody, Luke. Our church is thinking of using it this year as a study. After a few pages I looked up and saw Christmas decorations scattered all over the floor. The Christmas tree was still lit.

I was waiting for Lent in the shadow of Christmas.

Wright’s writing has always challenged me. His ability to draw out deep theological questions while not shying away from a firm conviction is fantastic. I only read bits and pieces of Rob Bell’s Love Wins and only glanced over Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell, but both those guys, while being phenomenal (and sometimes divisive) communicators, seem to be N.T. Wright light (read Surprised by Hope to see what I mean).

This little book is a great. He gets to the point of Lent on the first day.

..come with your hopes and longings, your awareness of the ways in which the world is still out of joint. You might begin, today, by thinking about some situations, whether in your own life or far away, where the world is not yet right. Hold them before God in prayer and patience. And then look for the signs of hope around you, the first stirrings of God’s new life. And give thanks to God for the way in which he is at work in the world today.

  • The world is out of whack – We’re reminded of this daily. We’re all hurt and we all, intentionally or unintentionally, hurt others. (read Romans 3:9-20 for a morning dose of total depravity).
  • But God is still at work – All too often we forget this. Our sinfulness keeps us from seeing what God is up to in the middle of our broken world. God remains perfectly good. And we’re in need of his perfect grace.
  • Prayer and Patience – Ultimately, this is what the season of lent is about. We wait. We pray. We give thanks. How are you doing these things?

I love the season the Church will be entering into in a month. It’s rare that we get to celebrate Jesus’ birth, mourn his death and return to celebrating in the resurrection in such a short amount of time (just over three months). Lent always teaches me something. I’m looking forward to what this year will bring.

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.

Countdown to Fatherhood: One Month

Thanks for the photos Mikey. www.prinephotography.com

Fatherhood. Over the last 8 months I’ve debated how much or how little I should write about becoming a dad. Hailey and I have read books, attended classes and spent a lot of time talking about the whats, hows and whys of our impending (and exciting) life change. We can’t wait to have this little girl.

BUT, I haven’t spent much time processing on paper. And I figured now—a month away from Kid Rohde’s due date—and the day after Father’s Day, was as good of a time as any to write down a few thoughts:

 

  1. Birthing Class—When I was in middle school, during sex ed, my teacher made me stand on top of the table and scream “penis” and “vagina” at the top of my lungs until I could do it without laughing. I was that kid. I’d like to think I’ve grown up, but I also felt like that dad in birthing class. I found myself laughing when no one else was, shaking my head at questions common sense should have answered and making faces when the videos got a little too graphic for post meal education. I look forward to being a dad, but I’m terrified of the whole birthing process—and I’m not even the one pushing the child through my body.
  2. Doctor’s Appointments—I wish my 8th grade teacher could see me now, walking into an OBGYN office like it’s normal. This has been one of my favorite parts of our pregnancy (which is weird to say, our pregnancy…I know I had something to do with it and I may even have a belly like I’m with child, but let’s be honest, men don’t get pregnant). Going to the doc’s office to ask questions, see how much Hailey’s stomach has grown and hear our daughter’s heartbeat has been unreal. I wouldn’t miss an appointment for anything. This is happening. That thing moving around, throwing off my wife’s hormones and stomping around on her bladder isn’t an alien or a thing at all, its not even an IT—she’s a little girl—our little girl.
  3. Fear—Every 5-6 hours I have a freak out moment. They wake me up in the middle of the night. “Can I really do this?” “Am I ready to be a dad?” I’ve always loved kids—I spent much of my career in family ministry because of it—but I could always send those kids back home after a few hours. What happens when home is your own house?  I’ve been told that the greatest test of trusting God is knowing that He loves your child more than you can or ever will. Conceptually and theologically, I get it. Practically, I say bull. I want to control every aspect of this kid’s life—from her actual birth to when she eats, sleeps, poops or begins to date (thirty sounds about right…). But I don’t get to. And that is frightening.
  4. “That’s Just Your Theory”—I’m convinced there are more theories about birthing practices and infant care than there are actual babies alive in the world today. With every birth, comes a new method—maybe we will paten the Rohde Method, it will pay for our daughter’s college tuition. Everywhere we turn someone mentions new approaches to feeding, ways of avoiding sicknesses and how we should create the perfect atmosphere for healthy development. At first we were like sponges soaking up as much as we could. Now we’re like the old grimy thing that has sat by your sink for 8 months. We can’t soak up anymore. We’ll try our best, but I can’t guarantee bits of old food won’t be spread all over the counter while we listen.

Thirty-One Days…

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?

 

Life in the Middle: Grandma’s Memorial Service

old photo of g-ma used in memorial service bulletin

I was honored when my dad asked me to preach at his mom’s memorial service. Then it hit me…I’d actually have to keep it together long enough to get through a sermon. I couldn’t be the somewhat level-headed support to the grieving family that I have normally been during memorials and funerals. I was the grieving family.

Preparing for my grandma’s service was difficult. I put it off for a week and then fought through two days of tears before writing anything at all. I don’t always manuscript my entire sermon, but figured that if I got choked up and couldn’t get through the whole service someone would be able to step in and finish.

Writing is always thereputic for me. It helped me to grieve. It allowed me to miss grandma. But it also gave me perspective. Here is the script:

Pastoral Words of Hope

I have many memories of grandma. We all do. And I hope, as we mourn our loss, we’re able to continue to share them with one another. The pastor in me knows to say that the best way we can celebrate Ella’s life is by telling and re-telling these stories. The grandson in me wants to shutdown, close my eyes and move on to what’s next. Deep down, I know the reason that the pastor tells families to share memories is for their own healing.

And I guess…that is what today is all about. As a family, we need to mourn. We need to hurt. We need to cry. But we also need to laugh. We need to smile. We need to know that, as the earth melts and moves away—as our lives shake and look different, and as we figure out how to function without grandma—that there is a God calling us to His side; to wipe away our tears, to not simply get us through the mourning, but to help us grow closer to Him and to one another in the middle of it all… But that doesn’t mean it should be easy.

There are a few images of grandma that will be forever burned into the place in my brain where memories rest, occasionally coming to life when a person, place or story is remembered. I don’t know the scientific name for this place, but I know it exists. It was in her old age and illness that Grandma taught me that this place never deteriorates.

Even in the end of her memory loss and struggle—she knew that Elizabeth was her granddaughter—even if she got her confused with great grand-daughter Lindsay. She knew that my mom was “that girl” that my dad brought around. She even had memories of “Jimmy,” her own father-in-law. And I have to believe, even if she didn’t always express it, she also knew that she was loved and cherished by her son Brian.

The last time I saw grandma, Hailey and I went with my dad to help her finish moving out of one of her rooms and into a new one. We hadn’t been back from Malawi for more than a month. She was eating lunch. I walked in and said, “Hi grandma. I’m David your grandson, and this is my wife Hailey.” I didn’t expect her to remember me at all. She was happy that day. And she looked up and said, “Oh, I know. And you just got back from a trip.” I couldn’t believe it.

I felt horrible for not saying bye to grandma before we left a year earlier. Dad told me that she wouldn’t know me anyway, so I shouldn’t have worried about it.

But Dad, you were wrong. I’m sure she didn’t always remember who each of us was, but deep down…somewhere…she knew.

I’m grateful to have that last memory of her. But there are many more in that bank of frozen images as well.

I see the family sitting around grandma and grandpa’s dinner table learning the card game “hand and foot.” And I see the art that she had painted hanging on the wall and sitting on an easel in the laundry room. I taste the soup and sandwiches that she served Liz and me for dinner at 4 pm when we’d spend the night. I hear her scolding her favorite golfer on tv for missing a putt. And I hear the old electric organ that she let us pound on when we were bored at their house.

I actually have many vivid memories of grandma and grandpa’s mobile home. They had this corkboard on their wall when you’d walk in. It had pictures of all of us from different stages in our lives, from Indiana to Florida to California. They loved their family.

Their house had the feeling that a grandparent’s house should. As a young boy, I remember it feeling a bit foreign because it was full of “old people things.” It smelled kinda funny too. It wasn’t quite home, nor—if I’m completely honest—was it all the way comfortable. But I knew that every time I arrived I was safe and in a place where my childhood mind could wander into one mystery or another. I also knew it was a place where I was loved, no matter what I had done at home.

As I let my adult mind reflect on grandma, and as I try to grapple with what it means to be grandson, son, soon to be Father, friend and pastor, the passage that was read earlier brings both great hope and great comfort.

The Gospel of John puts Jesus’ words very simply. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, and believe in me.” Jesus had been sitting, having an intimate experience with those who were closest to him—the people he claimed were his family.  And right before this passage we read that he knew the hour had come for him to depart from the world and go to the Father. His disciples were afraid and didn’t know how to go on without their leader and friend. They may have even expected something else.

We often read the passages about Jesus telling his disciples about his death with glazed over eyes. We know the whole story. Or at least we often treat Scripture this way. We flip from Genesis to Revelation and think we’ve seen—or read of—the beginning and the end…. But we do so without realizing we are living in the middle.

God created the earth, humanity sinned, Jesus was born to take on that sin, He was crucified and then he rose from the grave. We live—in the same way as the disciples would eventually—between the time of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of our own.

Jesus knew that his disciples were uncomfortable with the unknown—with living in the middle. It was scary. And it was painful. It hurt so much that Jesus could see that their hearts were troubled. And what were His words of encouragement?

Believe in God. And Believe in Me.

Those are words that I’d pray we’d hear today.

Jesus went on to tell the disciples that there was a house with rooms prepared for each of them. I wonder what images popped into their head as Jesus spoke?

I hear these words and can’t help but think of a house kinda like grandma’s. One where a little boy’s mind can wander and dream. One that is different from where I now live, but oddly familiar. One that is completely safe. A place where you’d walk in and know you were loved even though you had done nothing to deserve it.

I just hope it smells a bit better than grandma’s house did.

I love Jesus’ next words. “I am the way, and the truth and life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He doesn’t say, “I point to the way” or “I point to the truth and the life.” He says HE is the way.

I spent a few moments last week going through grandma’s bible. I never had any deep or long talks with her about faith, but looking at how she had underlined certain passages made me smile.

She had highlighted the Doubting Thomas story. I don’t know how she resonated with it, or what it was about it that made her bracket it in her Bible—but I’d like to think it had something to do with wrestling with being in the middle of the story.

Being in the middle is difficult. Thomas new this as well as anyone. And it’s only natural to doubt all that you know when the foundations of what you believe are shaken. The middle hurts. It even hurts when we know the final outcome.

We all knew this day was coming for Grandma. The honest truth was, it was just a matter of time before she got tired of fighting. But if we are completely honest with ourselves, we’d realize that it is the same for us.

I don’t mean to sound morbid, but we will all get tired of the earthly race. And, whether or not we like it, it will finish for each of us at some point.

Scripture is littered with stories about people dying and passing on a legacy to their children. Much of what was recorded in the Bible was done so in order that future generations would remember who God was and what God had done.

My hope is—when I finish this race—that I’d be able to say that I passed on something that was not only honoring to God but was a visible sign of His love for a broken world. I look around this room and am confident that this is exactly the type of legacy that Ella has left for us. Will you pray with me?

My sister and I playing with grandpa in the house I described in my sermon

Lent Lesson from Grandma

Grandma & Niece Lindsay

Today you may see people walking around with a black smudge on their forehead. Do me a favor when you see them—even if you think they just look ridiculous and there is no significance to the day—stop and reflect on the frailty and enormity of life itself.

Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is connected to the times in Scripture where individuals expressed their sorrow for sin. In most services today, as people come forward, the pastor/minister/priest says something along the lines of “from dust you have come and from dust you will return, go and turn from sin. Hear the good news.” We’re called to reflect on our sinful nature, the gift of the cross and our life here and now.

But those two concepts-frailty and enormity-stick out. They seem to not fit together. At times, they even contradict one another; but that isn’t always the case. Not for those who have spent any amount of time with the sick and dying.

This is one of the many lessons I learned while in Malawi, but if I really think about it, it’s something I have been taught here as well. I just haven’t always been paying attention.

Children’s Hospital—Some of the children had lived in the hospital for months. Others, only for days. They just happened to be there today, on this day—three years ago. I was a chaplain in the Clinical Pastoral Education program and was asked to administer ashes to those who wanted them. There is nothing quite as humbling as placing ashes on a smiling sick child’s face and telling him or her that they will return to dust. It makes death a reality, a painful—seemingly unfair—reality.

Grandpa’s Inurnment—I was still in seminary, not even sure if I could “officiate” something like a committal to a final resting place. Through tears I got through the liturgy. I reflected on what my grandpa had told me before he died-that he was ready, had lived a good life and was tired. Placing the urn in the wall I said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” Time crawled to a halt as I lifted the urn into the wall. As far as I know, I was the last one to touch my grandpa’s remains.

Next week, I’ll return to a re-opened wall to place Grandma next to Grandpa.

Grandma’s Death—President’s Day 2012. I got to the hospital a half hour after she had breathed her last breath. The door of her room closed. Dad alone by her side. Grandma still; her body frozen in a position that whispered I’ve finished this race. The truth is, Grandma’s dementia and Alzheimer’s had changed her in her last few years. She’d forgotten names and how to function as she once had. But that’s not the grandma I will remember, not the strong woman who helped my dad become the man he is today or the loving Grandma who spoiled my sister and me. The woman lying in bed, the one who was done fighting, was one who had triumphantly battled for 94 years. Before we left her side, my dad brushed her hair back and whispered, “you did good mom, you did real good” (forgive his poor grammar). She had, and so had he. We walked out and it was finished.

When I place her remains next to grandpa’s urn, the Scripture I quote will be the same that many of us will hear today as the Lenten season begins. In the middle of reflecting on Christ’s sufferings, the frailty of earthly life screams in agony. But once I step back and see the magnitude of the big picture—the enormity of creation and our relationship with the Creator, the ashes and dust, death itself— I’m reminded that there is a God who cares for each of us deeply, who redeems and loves us enough to take care of all our pain and suffering.

Thank you grandma, for one more lesson.

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.

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.

3 Punishments: Two Curses & A Promise

I threw my Old Testament class for a loop a few weeks ago. We had spent about 20 hours going over the historical setting, context of and the different theories about the Pentateuch’s composition. After the fourth lecture or so I could tell they were less than thrilled to hear about another dead guy’s opinion. Running without knowing how to crawl, let along walk, seems to be a common theme in Malawi—Biblical study is no exception.

After convincing myself that I had dutifully explained that it is possible to critically study Scripture while still holding it 100% authoritative, we finally opened the book of Genesis.

I lectured for about an hour on the two accounts of creation (yes, Scripture has two sometimes conflicting accounts about the formation of the world) and then I tried to convince them that the significance of the Primeval History (Gen 1-11:26) is theological in nature. I explained that while debating the how of creation, we often miss the why, which (regardless of how you interpret the first chapters of the Bible) has to remain central.

For the most part they were tracking along, so I figured I’d drop the gender role bomb. Malawi is a very male dominated society and, similar to much of the conservative evangelical western world, Scripture is often used to defend man’s domination over woman. I had them turn to Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25 and 3:14-24.

Gen 1:28-28. God created humankind in God’s image, both male and female, god created them. Most in Malawi read from the Chichewa, King James (KJV) or Nearly Inspired (NIV) versions of the Bible—which all wrongly translate humankind as man.

Gen 2:18-25. Verse 18 reads, “it is not good for humankind to be alone.” Again, not man. It’s not until the end of verse 23 that we see a distinction between genders (“this one shall be called woman”).

I said that if you want to use Scripture to defend male dominance, you have to look somewhere other than creation—somewhere like God’s response to original sin.

Gen 3:14-24. Three punishments; two curses and one promise. The punishment for the serpent; it was to be “cursed among all animals.” The punishment for man; the ground itself is cursed because of his actions. The punishment for the woman; a promise that childbearing will be painful AND her husband shall “rule over” over her.

We debated the issue for a bit and it was refreshing to see that at least a portion of my lectures on the work didn’t fall on deaf ears. I mentioned that the discussion we were having-one that asks what happens when one interpretation of Scripture confronts culture-was one that needs to be had frequently within the church, and too often it’s not.

A week or so after our discussion at JMTI, a good friend and mentor of mine posted this article about Scripture and Homosexuality (which was responding to this article) on facebook.  What followed was a very well thought out, though incomplete (really, how does one have a full conversation on facebook?) discussion about Scripture and culture colliding when it comes to sexual ethics.

In mentioning homosexuality and the church I do not mean to beat the dead horse that has unfortunately become the theological center of the destruction of the Western Church (the Church takes its focus off of Christ and then, somehow, is surprised it is dying?…a post for another time). I bring it up to ask this question; when it comes to any sort of Christian Ethic, are we to strive for the pre-fall understanding of our relationship with God and others? Or do we just accept that we live in the post-consequence world?

But we don’t only live in the post-consequence world, we also live in the post-resurrection world—where death has been conquered and love of God and neighbor is to reign supreme. But what does that mean for how we act and live in today’s world?