The Church has Voice Immodulation Syndrome

Rockin my soul in the bosom of Abraham
Rockin my soul in the bosom of Abraham
Rockin my soul in the bosom of Abraham
Oh, rockin my soul…

The song blared from one of the houses in our neighborhood interrupting an otherwise quiet Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure if it was a worship team rehearsing or an impromptu worship gathering. After the sixth or seventh chorus I gave up on tuning out the inconsistent drumming and Nintendo toned keyboard and sought sanctuary and sanity inside the house. Fortunately this place is large enough that what can be heard clearly at one end of the property isn’t noticeable at all from the other (I don’t know the square footage of this place, but it’s huge).

It seems that every weekend there is at least one loud party or celebration. A few weeks ago the party came to Manse #2. The youth had asked if they could hold their semi-annual bash here and we, of course, said sure. They joked that they had waited to ask us because they knew that Mayibusa didn’t enjoy loud music (she’s often seen in church with both fingers in her ears).

But Hailey is not alone; church is very loud. The other morning we walked through the rain into the daily prayer service (which, I know I’ve mentioned before, starts at 5 am) and saw about fifteen people worshiping…with the leader singing into the mic like there were fifteen hundred in the congregation. As I walked up to preach, I was handed the same microphone, needless to say I quickly set it down.

Usually we can hear the praise team practicing from a few hundred feet away. I couldn’t imagine living any closer to the church—I’m not sure when I’d sleep between the daily devotions, Sunday services and monthly all-nighters. I know I sound like the disgruntled church neighbor that lives across the street from most churches, but I’m starting to understand that perspective…and I’m a pastor at the loud church.

Part of it is just the Malawian way. Sitting through a Chichewa church service can be like hearing a sermon from Jacob Silg. When it’s not people talking it’s roosters crowing or our turkeys squawking. Everything is louder here. On multiple occasions I have stopped on the road to notice shouting people, positive of an impending fight, and then I’m reminded that I live in a place where confrontation is about as common white pastors. Malawian’s are just loud.

When we were taking Chichewa lessons our teacher told us that voice inflection is just a part of the language. You don’t say chonde (please), because it is begging, you just lighten your voice when asking a question. The volume of your voice indicates the importance and urgency of a message. And I guess that is true everywhere, it just seems to be exaggerated here.

I know the Church believes it has an important and urgent message, but so does the guy driving down the street with a p.a. strapped to the roof of his car shouting nonsense. It’s not the sheer volume of a church’s message that is going to change a neighborhood, city or nation. Jesus actually taught quite the opposite. Instead of making our neighbors angry about our noise (no matter how unstable or nonsensical they may be), let’s love them with the quiet—yet impossible not to notice—message of the grace of Christ

They Call It “The Bush”

Living in the city of a developing country can be a funny thing. One day in church an announcement was made about a Malawian who was marrying a Mozambican and everyone laughed. I leaned over to the person next to me and asked, “Why is everyone laughing?” “Mozambique is the bush.”

We have a friend from Zambia who is quick to reminds us, compared to Lusaka, Lilongwe is the bush. I have yet to hear someone describe their own home as the bush—most are proud of their village heritage. But there is always somewhere farther away or worse off. Everyone has a place to pity.

The dichotomy between life in Lilongwe and life on the outskirts is shocking. Unlike the established world, where the rich often seek to live away from city centers (i.e. the houses with the best views, most land, etc.), in poorer countries the wealthy seek to move closer to the busyness. Here, the urban are wealthy.

A week ago Hailey and I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the bush. We have spent plenty of time in villages that border main towns— still villages, just ones with the benefit of living near developed roads which weakens the blow of poverty. Some suggest that infrastructure improvements—like paved roads— are the key to helping countries like Malawi become self-sufficient (I don’t disagree, but the corruption in the county has to be discussed as well—a topic for another post).

My friend Sydney had been lobbying for me to come visit and preach at his church, Chamatao C.C.A.P., for some time. And we agreed that early in the new year was the best time.

After two cramped bus rides and a three hour adventure in a flat bed truck we arrived at the Mdoni Trading Center. We stopped and five or six people began unloading some supplies we had picked up along the way. Fuel for a generator, a few bags of fertilizer and some tools—all necessities for a distant rural community.

Sydney’s house and church sit on a few acres of ridiculously fertile soil. Fields of tobacco as far as the eye can see. Corn is the main food produced and consumed in Malawi, but tobacco is the cash crop. While there is no excuse for the greed and injustice of large cigarette companies, seeing fields of the cancerous plant is oddly breath taking.

In the distance were the Chipata Mountains, Nkhotakota and Lake Malawi. In the 19th century Nkhotakota served as a major slave trade center. Thousands were captured and shipped across Lake Malawi to Tanzania and Mozambique, where they were forced to walk to the shores of the Indian Ocean before boarding boats to be sold in Arabic nations. Tragic.

Sydney’s family welcomed us and neighborhood children sprinted toward the truck as we unloaded our things. The negative impact visiting missionaries and aid organizations have had on developing countries is most apparent in the way its children react to visitors. Most kids have been conditioned to beg for money because, at one point or another, someone gave an older brother or sister a hand out. In many ways, we have ourselves to blame for being seen as an “endless resource.” Not here. These kids were simply curious.

We bathed in water drawn from the community borehole and warmed on a fire before eating dinner. By the time I got in the bathroom the sky was a mix of deep purples, blues and greys. I closed the door of the bathroom, took off my shirt and noticed I wasn’t alone. CHICKENS! I opened the door and our hosts were laughing–not sure if it was a joke or just a routine occurance. Something tells me, when bathing with birds, one doesn’t get too clean.

Sydney’s boys spent an hour firing up the generator, a rare treat reserved for holidays and visitors. Then, as if it were a game, they swung at the bugs attracted to the light from the naked bulb hanging over our heads.

The night rain panged off the sheet metal roof and kept us awake for hours. I preached the next morning and we were once again humbled by the gift-giving sprit of the Malawian people—eggs, bananas, mangos and chitenge.

We spent the rest of the day walking in the market and tobacco fields. Sydney told me of his plans for the church and of the challenges of working in a place as poor as Chamatao. A man met us, bought us cokes and we sat on a porch—the white guy on display for the entire market.

It didn’t rain that night. It felt like I had just fallen asleep when I heard Sydney’s voice, “Dave?!?” The sun was ascending over the mountains and the flatbed had arrived for our journey home.

Christmas in Malawi (Part 4): Holiday Hangover

Most of the Christmas dinner crew

The Christmas season is nearly over.  Decorations are being put away and children are preparing for the inevitable return to school.  Eggnog is being replaced with champagne and resolutions are rattling around in brains full of nostalgia and the anticipation of new beginnings.

If I were at home, in San Diego, I’d be trying to squeeze every last drop out of Christmas.  Stealing cookies from mom’s cookie tins, enjoying left over Stromboli (sandwiches I dearly missed this year) while suffering through the end of another disappointing Chargers season and sneaking away to the movie theatre for one last holiday flick.

I’ve already written a bit about how different Christmas is here. Instead of spending Christmas Eve with family and friends, we were with a few hundred strangers commemorating the opening of a tomb for the former wife of the current president. I was supposed to preach Christmas Eve, but it turns out the Malawian government has as little regard for other people’s time as the rest of the country (the event started four and a half hours late—we didn’t get home till 11:30 pm).  And instead of opening presents with our nieces in the comforts of my sister’s house on Christmas morning, we sat in our room and cried over the works of art they sent us (which are now proudly displayed in the dining room).

Abi & Love baking cookies

A lot of our Christmas celebration was frustrating. But much of it I will never forget. We baked cookies for neighbors while singing Christmas carols in the kitchen with our Malawian family. We cooked a Christmas feast for twelve with everything from turkey to sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. After dinner we sat and watched the Grinch on TV—Hailey and I were the only ones not encountering Dr. Seuss for the first time. We experienced some of our standard Christmas traditions again for the first time through the eyes of our new friends.

The Christmas hangover can be a beautiful tool for avoiding the inevitable pangs of returning to normal life. We loathe moving forward because it means going back to work and separating from family until

the next holiday. We hold on to the lights, nights and sites of Christmas because, for so many of us, they represent what is right and good in the world.

As a child I wondered why the celebration had to stop. Living in Malawi has taught me that it doesn’t. I am not proposing that we should live in a constant euphoric dream world full of sugarplums and fairies. I am simply saying that family meals, gift giving and celebrating Jesus’ birth should not be pinned to one calendar day (or month for that matter). The joy of living in community is one that is a gift that we must cherish daily.


Memorial Service of the Former First Lady

The Pluralism Fallacy (i.e. The Church in America is Dying)

The Church in America is dying. Fewer and fewer people turn to their local congregations to find ultimate truth. And even fewer still allow what they hear in church to change the way in which they live. Denominations are scrambling, doors to community churches are closing and our grandmas are crying because Sunday morning fellowship has given way to the NFL and little league baseball.

I have visited and studied a variety of churches in the U.S. and learned that there are many ways to do church (ecclesiology). Big, small, traditional, contemporary, charismatic, small group focused, missional, alternative—really the list is endless.

I told myself, that during my time here in Malawi, I wouldn’t compare the church here to the church at home. I would fight the inclination to say that one did one thing better than the other. I’d accept the differences and learn from them. That was all. But as I try to be honest with what I am experiencing, I am learning that the aforementioned task is impossible. Other than a few small encounters with the church in Mexico, all I really knew up to this point was American Church.

Most suggest that one of the main reasons that the American Church is struggling is because of pluralism or a changing culture. Fine. But let’s not pretend we are living in the first pluralistic society or the only civilization approached with drastic ‘new’ ideas.

We simply don’t know history well enough. In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of Christ. The incarnation occurred during a period in history that was, at the very least, just as pluralistic as our world today. Yet, God chose that time. God chose a messy world, full of competing spiritualities and idol worship. Why? Because the fullness of time had come (Gal 4:4-5) and it was the perfect setting for the birth of the Church.[1]

If you doubt my statement about the pluralistic nature of the world in which the church began, go and read Tertullian or Justin Martyr. Times were ugly and confusing. And ripe for church growth.

Africa is a pluralistic society and the Church is growing at an alarming rate. Most in the western world argue that faith here is a mile wide and an inch deep, I may have even quoted it at some point. But last I checked faith doesn’t equate to knowledge about God. Faith is knowing God— believing in what we cannot completely see or comprehend (something I constantly wrestle with). It’s what drives one to seek after the will of the Creator with reckless abandon in order to see the Kingdom grow.

And this is happening in Africa (well, Malawi at least), even as traditional forms of spirituality have walked dangerously close to the message of Christ. I may be out of line, but I am going to say it anyway. I think the American Church has gotten stuck on finding the perfect blueprint of how Christian faith is to be done. It is not pluralism that is killing the American Church; it is its focus on finding the ‘right’ ecclesiology for a world that is increasingly changing. Ecclesiologies cannot keep up. Thankfully living and preaching Christ is not dependent on one particular culture.

Kwame Bediako, a Ghanaian Theologian, puts it this way,

“The Christian affirmation about the unique status of Jesus Christ in the midst of the plurality of religions does not arise, first and foremost, from theological propositions or creedal formulations, or from statements of faith. It arises from the recognition of the divine nature expressed in actual historical existence [of Christ].” In other words what remains important is not a formula of church but the “actual historical achievement in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

We have made it too easy to avoid preaching and living Christ in our communities by making excuses and somehow convincing ourselves that the world is too complex for the simple message of Christ.


[1] Alexander the Great had made Greek (a language of the masses, not the church) the language of commerce, which (it could be argued) had the same effect on globalization that the Internet does today. And the Pax Romana meant relatively safe travel.

The Cost of Rain

We were told it would come at some point. Every day, for the last month or so, we could see clouds in the distance. Aggressive clouds—the type that you look at and think, “those things are angry and will dump bucket loads on this dry and crusty land.” We had a small foretaste of what African clouds could do last week, but today the main event commenced.

The rainy season is here.

Before moving to Malawi, I had never lived in a place that relies so heavily on rain. Shoot, for most of my life, rain only meant I couldn’t surf for a week (due to pollution) and that my bike rides were going to be difficult and uncomfortable. But rain also meant mud football, reading in coffee shops and nights at the movies. And it came so infrequently that it didn’t infringe too much on normal life. I cherished the rain, as rare as it was, because it was a change of scenery and pace. I’m sure, had I grown up in a place like Seattle my sentiment would be very different.

I once heard a sermon by Rob Bell where he said that people who live in ‘seasonless’ places are robbed of fully experiencing the ebb and flow of God’s creation. Along with this, he argued, such people aren’t given a predetermined time of year for rest, working extra hard or celebration. As a native San Diegan I want to argue with him, but I can’t. He is right. Ecclesiastes is clear that there is a season for everything. The creation story reeks of a timely order. And one cannot read many of Jesus’ parables without having at least a small grasp on agrarian culture. It could be argued that human innovation and modernization has hindered our ability to live balanced and healthy lives.

Electricity, transportation and the Internet are wonderful inventions. Each has had a positive impact on the way in which our world functions—but at what price? Some may consider it a silly question and argue that progress is simply just that—moving forward in a logical manner. Fine. But does progression have a cost? I would say it does.

Take the Internet. I love it, use it daily and am in no way against further development of social media and web entrepreneurship. But the truth is, it can hurt just as much as it can help (in the past 5 years 81% of divorce cases used facebook/twitter as evidence—risky tools or neutral toys?). It spreads just as much misinformation as real information (ask your doc what s/he really thinks of WebMD). And much of the counter-productive functions of it take up more of our 168 weekly hours than we’d like to admit.

Years ago the rainy season in Malawi began in September and continued through March.

drippy leave

During the last few years the rainy season has started later and later (the last week of Nov. the last two years), while still ending in March. Two fewer months of rain is a big deal when your only export completely relies on it. Climate change is far from a political buzzword here—it is a harsh reality.

I don’t have any answers, just plenty of questions. Does further development have a cost? And if so what, how much can we really afford to spend? Should we make any attempt to slow things down? Why? Why not? What do you think?

The Dark Side of the Warm Heart (part 2)

PRAY FOR YOUR PASTOR OR HE WILL DIE!!! The words echoed off the walls of the church.

It was our first Sunday at Lingadzi C.C.A.P. and there was a guest preacher who was, to say the least, fired up about the need to pray for church leadership. I spent the rest of the service combing my Bible and wrestling with the message that was being given. It was the first time here, of many, I found myself wanting to stand up in the middle of the service and scream—no, NO! Where are you getting this?

It’s not that I completely disagreed with the speaker’s sentiment (shoot, we pastors can use all the prayer we can get!); his exegesis was just um, how do I put this gently—terrible. Though I didn’t learn anything about the Bible from the sermon that Sunday, I did learn a very important message about Malawian Culture. Death is real and scary.

The average life expectancy in this country is just over 50. Young children die from curable causes daily. The infant mortality rate, though improved, is among the highest in the world. Malnutrition runs rampant, which is what happens when a coke is three times less expensive than a bottle of clean water. I won’t even get into the appalling effect that AIDS has had on this place.

I know no other way to say it—Poverty Sucks. Poverty kills. And it is a fixable problem.

My grandfather had a saying that my family often quotes, “If money can fix it, it isn’t really a problem.” Some would argue that he was wrong, that it is the appropriate allocation and use of funds that truly fixes problems. Fine. But that doesn’t help the newborn who had a simple procedure done, but won’t live because the hospitals in Malawi don’t have the necessary equipment for the child’s recovery-or her family.

Last week, a neonatal surgeon told Hailey that Malawian doctors are immune to infant death because of its frequency. That is tragic. It needs to wake us up to what is wrong with a world where the rich are more concerned about their souring portfolios and estates than they are about dying children.

Maybe it’s just too overwhelming. Maybe we think we really can’t make a difference. Or we simply don’t know where to start because the problem is just that overwhelming. I don’t think it’s because we just don’t care. Whatever it is, the excuses need to stop. People are dying.

1. Exegesis is just a fancy word for how we look at and attempt to understand the original meaning of passages from the Bible. It is opposed to ‘eisegesis,’ where one subjectively reads his or her own interpretation, culture or experience into what is written.
2. To give you an idea, in 2008 the infant mortality rate of Malawi was 6.9%. That same year, the U.S.  rate was .07%.

You Don’t Want to Hear This

I’ve been told I can be very critical. I have always enjoyed contemplating issues I have no business assessing and attempting to solve problems way beyond my limited intellect. I can’t help it; it’s just the way I’m wired. I had a professor in college who coined the phrase, “hopeful cynicism.” I hated it—did he not see the blatant contradiction? But truth be told, he was giving a name to my type. Yes, my name is David Rohde and I am a recovering hopeful cynic.

I spent a long time seeking a call in the U.S. before realizing that God wanted to teach me a few things in Africa. During my search, a very wise woman said, “Dave, it doesn’t surprise me that you haven’t found a call yet—I’m not too sure I see you in a traditional pastoral role.” What! The words stung. And she continued, “Think about it, you have always been one to challenge the status quo, to question what is going on and why it is happening, and until you find the church that is willing to be pushed in that way your search will continue.” My brain’s cynical cog immediately began to spin but screeched to a halt as I realized my dear friend was quite right. I am very critical of the Church and the people that it is composed of. But it’s only because I care deeply for the body of Christ and the message we are supposed to be sending to the world.

One of the many blessings of being in Africa has been escaping the everyday use of unneeded technology. Before we left Hailey and I relished the idea of nights with books instead of television, writing instead of wiing (google became a verb, can’t wii be one as well?) and hearing silence instead of a stereo. Don’t get me wrong, I literally cried over not having Internet (and surprise surprise—now that we have it, I find myself wasting plenty of time with drivel of little importance). During our first few weeks my best friends were Henri Nouwen, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Malcolm Gladwell. Their books told of great tales, encouraged me and even fed my hopeful cynicism. Now I found myself pushed and pulled by the great minds of Dale Bruner and Francis Chan.

Last week I had the opportunity to preach six sermons, one right after the other. Being that I had little time to prep, I chose to preach on Jesus’ parables. Six parables, one a day. Seems easy enough right? Bruner and Chan showed me otherwise. I’ve been stuck on Jesus’ words at the end of the Parable of the Sower, “Let anyone with ears, listen!” Pastors and Christian speakers spend countless hours trying to figure out how to make their next message accessible and more appealing to anyone and everyone. We take classes, go to workshops and read books about ‘Performing the Word’ (seriously, I had a book in seminary with that title). We choose our words carefully and try to think of engaging and relevant illustrations in an attempt to make the most attractive story ever told even more attractive—as if it is even possible. Yet Jesus tells us that the people who are really going to pay attention—to allow the Gospel to completely change and shape their lives—already have the ears to listen. It’s humbling really, and equally terrifying.

It’s terrifying because too many Christians (including pastors) have not heard the message that, for many of us, has been preached our entire lives. It’s time that we ask, “how does the power of God’s Word transform how we act and live every second of every hour of every day?” We follow Jesus up to a point—only until His Word confronts our lifestyle, politic, relationships or expectations. We want a safe and balanced life that we can control. Too bad that surrendering to Scripture guarantees none of those things and promises quite the opposite. It’s tough to swallow because it contradicts the glamorous life that we are often fed from the pulpits of pop-theology (when was the last time you heard a good sermon on Philippians 3:10?). Please don’t misunderstand me—we are promised that a life lived under the authority of Jesus is indeed one of abundance. But it’s an abundance that we do not deserve, cannot earn and costs us our very lives. When will we start listening?

This is my story, this is my song

Amos and I making some sweet music

I love music. It has been an important part of my life as long as I can remember. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but singing along to Broadway musicals with my family on long road trips is one of my fondest memories (yes, I do have most of Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera memorized). I played baritone horn in jr. high and most of high school. I even posed as a tuba player for a while in marching band (once they figured out I didn’t have the chops to actually march and produce enough air to play the instrument at the same time I was given the largest bass drum to carry instead—joy). I remember sitting in AP Music Theory my junior year. The class met 7th period, or just after the regular school day completed. It was here you could find the band geek mafia at its finest. I had one small problem. I also played football, which practiced after school as well. Transposing music and training one’s ear was never too comfortable while wearing football pants. The butt pad wasn’t exactly created for sitting in wooden chairs. My classmates couldn’t have enjoyed it either.  I would head to the class after already being on the field for an hour—my stench had to be wonderful.

As my brass instrument career came to an end, punk music became my musical vice.  Whenever my mom came to our performances she would comment that I looked angry when I sang. Well mom, I was angry, all of us were. There is nothing quite like the fury found in the depths of five boys full of pubescent angst and confusion. I sang lyrics like, “Will I be a CEO or welfare trash and will I be happy as either one?” and “The white house is a day care, the Kremlin just the same. Parliament and congress are just children playing games.” Sure, I had plenty of questions about the future, but had no idea about what it really meant to be on welfare or to have the responsibility of a CEO.  And it seemed perfectly normal to be angry with the government. I mean all the bands we looked up to were, so shouldn’t we be as well? Slamming the executive office of Russia only seemed natural.

When the punk days came to a close (although, my current playlist would lead one to believe the phase never completely ended), I purchased my first guitar. After setting down the baritone horn, I never anticipated playing another instrument.  Practicing instruments had always been tedious and something I didn’t enjoy.  Volunteering to start again seemed ludicrous. But there was something freeing about sitting alone with an acoustic guitar. It didn’t feel like work. Here in Malawi I have been blessed with beautiful surroundings and a good amount of time alone with my guitar. I have learned to cherish these times and have realized they supply the perfect opportunity to reflect and decompress.

It is indeed a gift to be able to enjoy music. One need not have perfect pitch or impeccable rhythm to find pleasure in a good song (in fact, it could be argued that the two aforementioned qualities could be a determent to finding joy in music).

Malawians are musical people. From the moment we arrived we have been surrounded by song and dance.  Much of the music is different but some is similar, providing a small glimpse of what we are used to back home. Just a week after being here, my new friend Amos showed up asking for some music books that a mutual friend said we would be bringing.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t fit them in our luggage (fear not, they will be here in a month!). Amos just had to move for a job, but for the last month or so we spent a lot of time playing music together. I will miss seeing him weekly, but plan on visiting him soon.

One of the more painful parts of being a pseudo-musician and being here is the Malawian tendency to play everything at ridiculously loud volumes.  When we walk to church we often hear the praise teams music from a few blocks away. I feel like I have become an old man, complaining about the garage band down the street. Because of this, feedback often interrupts church services. Yesterday the service was delayed about 20 minutes because the P.A. system had not yet been set up. While I was waiting to begin the liturgy, the choir director began a rehearsal of sorts—with the entire congregation. I sat up in my seat behind the lectern and couldn’t help to smile and sing along. Before long I was called down to sing with a choir. We sang Great is Thy Faithfulness and when we finished, the choir director said I was now an official member. Yes, at 29, I am now a member of The Senior Citizens Choir of Lingadzi C.C.A.P.

The Angry Boys of Unit all grown up...

Mr. Masina

Hailey found Masina under a tree & took this photo.

Mr. Masina is a simple man. He is out of bed by four and at morning prayer by five. When he returns he gingerly combs the grounds of Manse #2 for the next six hours. Though he is technically the ‘garden boy’ of the property, make no mistake, he is the master of this domain. His smile and laugh are infectious; no one enters the property un-noticed by him; the chickens and doves roam freely, but they return when he beckons; even the grass and the plants seem to listen to this man, only growing where he deems appropriate (He doesn’t drink beer, but if he did it would be dos equis—Jonathan Goldsmith has nothing on this guy).

Usually by noon Masina (as his friends affectionately call him) can be found under one of his trees, reading and enjoying the shade. By four he is back at it again, either finishing the watering he didn’t get to in the morning or scouring the trees for ripe fruit. Most nights he has a quick dinner of Nsima, greets the night watchman and then is off to the church for one meeting or another.

A few days ago, I was sitting inside our home, hiding from the blistering heat. I looked out the window and saw Hailey sitting with Masina, under a tree.  I walked out and found them reading Scripture to each other. He would read in English and then Hailey would read in Chichewa (she didn’t understand it of course). I joined in. For the next hour we read and laughed. Hailey and I struggled with Chichewa and, though he wouldn’t admit it, he had a fine command of the English language.

When we first met, Masina was quick to tell us that neither he nor his wife went to school, so they didn’t speak much English. And here he was reading very clearly. Two days after we moved in he brought me an old mission trip brochure with some Chichewa/English translations and said, “this is how you learn.” After sitting under the tree he handed me a Chichewa Bible and told me I could have it. He then pointed to my English Bible and said, “this is how I learned.” I always wondered what Masina read under the tree. Scripture—in both English and Chichewa.

It is clear that Masina has fought to earn all that he has. He is grateful and I have yet to hear him complain. This is a self-taught man. A man whose work ethic rivals anyone I have met and a father who wants nothing but the best for his family and church. In being faithful in the mundane he has learned to live the relatively stress-free life that many of us spend countless hours and dollars seeking. There are many people in Malawi I look forward to learning from, but my lessons under the trees with Masina will definitely be cherished.

Masina and me on the couch...

Gifts…

I don’t have too many childhood memories that I recollect with great detail, but for some reason this one and a few others stick. It is like I have a limited photographic memory of certain events (for example, I could tell you exactly what happened the night my dad stabbed me with a steak knife for having my elbow on the table or about the time I broke my friend’s parents window with my bare behind—neither of which are the brightest moments in my life…). I couldn’t tell you what I had this morning for breakfast, but for some reason I vividly remember opening a particular gift from my grandparents on Christmas morning when I was just a wee-bob.

I don’t recall exactly what the gift was (so much for that photographic memory huh?) but after I saw it I spewed the words, “It ain’t easy being cheesy.” Along with the drop of blood from my elbow and the broken window, their expressions have been etched into the small wall of memories in my huge noggin. They looked hurt and confused. I didn’t know why. I mean all I was doing was quoting my favorite cartoon commercial. Chester the Cheetah was all the rage in the mid-80’s and I loved Cheetos—probably because we never had the chemical filled treat in our house.  I didn’t know that cheesy was a synonym for cheap or inferior. Regardless, Chester, Grandma and Grandpa Parcell taught me a thing or two about receiving a gift.

More often than not, I am ecstatic about getting a present.  I know we always hear that the Lord loves a cheerful giver, but I have to believe God also enjoys appreciative recipients. Hailey and I are in Malawi because of cheerful givers, yet we sometimes wrestle with what it means to be smiling recipients. The generosity and participation of those that are supporting us is a huge affirmation of God’s call for us here in Malawi. Before we came, it made me confident that this was indeed God’s plan for this time in our lives and when the body of Christ comes together to affirm a call it is a beautiful thing. So why do I so often struggle with being a recipient?

We were inducted at the Lingadzi C.C.A.P last Sunday. It was a long but very good day. There were a bunch of speakers, a time where they asked me to affirm my commitment to the mission of the Church, a moment where pastors shared Scripture as words of encouragement and then I preached. I was prepared for these parts of the service. What I wasn’t prepared for was what came next. The praise team blared some Chichewa songs and Hailey and I sat in the front of the church next to a man holding a basket—A basket for gifts for the new pastor and his wife. The masses started flowing down the aisles, dancing the entire way. When the church emptied, those that were sitting outside during the service came in to greet us and celebrate. Some dropped money into the basket and others brought physical gifts. It went on for at least a half hour. Dancing, cheering, gift giving—The General Secretary of Presbytery grabbed a microphone, sang along and encouraged the worship team. We shook every person’s hand and hugged some. I’m fairly certain a good number of people passed through the reception line more than once. This was the most cheerful giving I have ever experienced. Yet, for some reason my former friend Chester sat on my left shoulder, with his stupid sunglasses and horrendous grin, whispering unappreciative cheesy lies in my ear. How could I accept all of these gifts? Fortunately, I didn’t just imagine a silly cheetah on my shoulder.

In many of the people walking up to greet us I also saw the poor widow, from the twelfth chapter of Mark, with her two copper coins. Jesus watched her, as she gave all that she had. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her, but I’m also certain she was grateful to be giving. When I picture her I don’t see an old woman hunched down, limping to the front of the treasury line complaining because she won’t eat later that night. No, I see a woman waving around her cane in jubilation, dancing and maybe even singing some songs in Chichewa.  POOF, Chester vanished.

In that same story we read of rich people giving out of their abundance.  I don’t know if those that gave us gifts on Sunday gave out of their abundance or not, but I am positive that I am one of the rich people, not knowing how to give everything I have. I am not like the woman. I have never learned to fully trust God with the financial part of my life—which is probably why I am so uncomfortable as a recipient of a gift when I know it is a sacrifice for someone else. I know people have sacrificed financially to have Hailey and me serve here and we are doing all that we can to be good stewards of what we have been given. Perhaps one of the reasons we are here is so that we can learn to cheerfully give with all that we are (and thus receive in the same vain).

A dear friend, who has taught me much about stewardship and gift giving, says it is all God’s anyway—I think he’s right. Maybe I just need to learn to trust God more fully and to be more obedient to what Scripture says about money. Another friend told me recently that her professor at seminary stated that if every American that claimed to be Christian actually tithed we would have enough to end world hunger…twice. I know that, by not always faithfully tithing, I have done my part to further starvation and poverty in the past.  And I am ashamed of it. We all should be. We have been robbed of the celebration that comes with trusting God with all of who we are and all of what we think we own (remember, it’s all God’s anyway).