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.

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

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.

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.

Preaching in Malawi: Five Lessons I’ve Learned

1. Part of my sermon WILL be lost in translation—even if I’m preaching to an English-speaking congregation. I’ve been forced to thoroughly think through every single word I say, which can be a good exercise. But it’s also very tiring.

2. DO NOT DRINK TOO MUCH WATER BEFORE CHURCH—My poor bladder doesn’t need the fluid for the forever-long services. My morning diuretic provokes the pee-dance on its own (thanks Meniere’s). Any extra encouragement may force me to ask for an intermission in the middle of the morning’s liturgy. A friend told me that eating two hard-boiled eggs would resolve the problem. But then I’d surprise the congregation with something else, even more unpleasant.

3. Congregation involvement is a GOOD thing—Growing up I always thought “Amens” from the congregation did nothing but inflated the preacher’s ego and brought little glory to the Word. And in some ways, I still question those who fish for encouragement from those listening. At the same time, something beautiful happens when you ask the congregation, in the middle of a sermon, to turn to their neighbor and wrestle with an issue for a bit. Sometimes, it is a good thing not to be stuck in the stagnant hour-long formula that many American churches follow.

4. I am not a Rock Star—The women taking their tops off during the sermon aren’t trying to get my attention…their children are just hungry. At first I thought that the hooter hider needed to make its way to Africa and then I remembered a conversation I had with a very wise friend a few years back. On my first trip to Africa she told me that visiting Africa will remind one of what the proper view of a woman’s breast should be. I think she is correct. BUT—if underwear starts being thrown at the pulpit, I might change my mind…

5. God can use whomever God wants…even a crazy Mzungu like me—I often wrestle with how to convey a particular message. I spend time agonizing over how culturally appropriate an illustration will be, or if I will even be understood. The truth is, it is often the times when I think I have given my worst sermon that God opens someone’s ears to what Scripture might be saying. And I guess that is the whole point; I just need to continue to pray that I get out of the way.

Kauma

Today was a good day. I had known for a while that I would be preaching at Kauma Prayer House, one of the three church plants of Lingadzi C.C.A.P. But I didn’t know until earlier this week that the service was going to be such a large celebration.

Kauma is trying to charter itself as its own church, but needs to have a building and be able to support its own pastor before the Synod will recognize it as one. The prayer house system here is a phenomenal model for church growth and someday I plan on blogging about it—But today is about Kauma.

This morning’s service started at 9:30 and didn’t finish till 1:00. There was singing and dancing, and then I preached. Usually I’m not a fan of the bilingual service, because of how long it can get. Back and forth, English and Chichewa (or, Chichinglish) all morning long. Those that understand both languages hear the sermon twice (which may be a good thing—double the chance something sticks right?). It is draining.

For some reason today was different. When you preach in Malawi, you are not onlyresponsible for the message but also the entire liturgy (as if learning a language hasn’t been difficult enough). I had a translator, but still tried my best with certain Chichewa phrases. Within my first few words the congregation was rolling in laughter—I knew it was going to be a good day.

I preached on John the Baptist, about his call for fruit bearing repentance. I mentioned that, in the same way he was tasked to prepare the way for Jesus’ earthly ministry we are called to prepare the world for the celebration of the birth of Christ.

The first offering was taken (regular tithe collection), and it was followed by a special offering to support the building project. Again I was astonished by the eagerness of these people to give. Singing, dancing, laughing and celebrating all the way up to the offering plate.

I couldn’t help to sit, listen and watch all the smiles. The building, as incomplete as it is, was overflowing with joy. It was contagious. Church had rejuvenated me. The people of Kauma know how to celebrate. I can’t wait to go back.

Kauma Prayer House 12/6/2010 from David Rohde on Vimeo.

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%.

One Week: Six Sermons, Two Funerals, One Wedding and A Humbling Visit

early morning sermon prep

Before we left for Malawi, on separate occasions, I was warned that I probably wouldn’t be allowed into some of the real aspects of Malawian life. I expected that there would be certain situations that would be inappropriate for a Mzungu (white person). When I first met with Rev. Zembeni, the resident minister at Lingadzi, he assured me that my friend’s warnings would be true. I would only go with him on visitations when it was proper for me to be present. In some ways I was appreciative of the way in which I was to be sheltered. I was thankful for the warnings from those back home and for the protection of Rev. Zembeni. But I was also anxious to see what Malawians were really like—To eat their food, cry their tears and celebrate their smiles. I wanted to shatter the we/they paradigm that we impose on ourselves because we are different and, after two months, I still do. But by the end of this last week I found myself wanting to crawl back into the sanctuary of ignorance. I am exhausted.

I found out Saturday that I would be preaching for a week straight the following week. The church holds, what they call, morning prayer services every day. The service is an hour long and the liturgy is much looser than what happens on Sunday. We would call it a contemporary service. Oh, and did I mention it starts at 5 a.m.?  Thirty to Fifty people gather EVERY morning to worship, pray and hear a twenty-minute sermon before work. And, though the sight of black and dark blues broken by vibrant yellows and reds is breath taking, I would have been more than happy to avoid assimilating into this part of Malawian life. This week I learned that the streets are often busier at 4:50 in the morning then they are at 3:00 in the afternoon and that, even though it can be pushing triple digits before noon, it is quite cold before seven. Each day as I walked, shouts of “Madzuka Bwanji” and “good morning pastor” from faint figures in the dark shook my groggy soul and jump-started my sleeping mind.

At the prayer service on Monday I was informed that a family member of one of our elders had passed away and that the funeral was that day. In a few hours we would be leaving on the church bus. The bus seats maybe thirty people, but most of the time Hailey and I ride around in it on our own…as if we needed something else to draw attention to us. However this time, the bus was full.  I was quickly reminded of why I used to enjoy youth group bus trips; nothing brings people together like hours packed tightly together on a bus. I got to know people, had them point out different areas and villages and we joked about the sweltering heat. At least, on this bus, I didn’t have to pace the aisles late at night looking for hormone filled kids seeking to spark the flame of a weeklong romance.

Malawians are a people who know how to mourn.  Funerals are usually held at the house of the deceased (unless there is a request to be at the church) with the service taking place in the yard. Residents of a bereaved house set branches in the road to alert all who pass. Sometimes there is a plate in the driveway where those that come by can drop a few kwacha to support the hurting family. The casket sits open in the living room for a few hours and different groups take turns paying respect by walking in, praying and singing a song or two. Family and close friends (usually just women and children) stay inside and sit on the floor with the casket during the entire process (Hailey had the joy of being one of these women at the funeral we went to on Thursday—sitting inches from the casket the entire time). The service itself is not too different from what I am used to. Stories are told, hymns are sung and a sermon is preached. I was most fascinated by what happened after the service; the entire congregation made a procession to the burial grounds, where another service was held. I found out this is the norm. Some people walk and others drive slowly in cars with their emergency lights on. More weeping and crying. The casket is laid in a pre-dug hole and cement is poured on top. While it is being poured another sermon is preached. Then, after it hardens a bit, all of the men take turns filling the hole with dirt. Red dust fills the air and more songs are sung. Family members again pay respect by placing flowers on the mound covering the body of the deceased. I was reminded of the closure I felt when I placed my grandfather’s ashes into the wall; only here it seemed like everyone got to participate in placing the person in their final resting place. The entire process; from the mourning in the living room, to the grieving in the service, walking the body down the road and watching it covered in cement and dirt helped to acknowledge that this person is really gone. It really was extremely sad, but beautiful at the same time.

The emotional rollercoaster continued on Wednesday. We were taken to the Malungundi Youth Camp, a property owned by the Nkhoma Synod, to join in on a morning session of a weeklong conference about goal setting and decision making. We toured the facilities, had lunch (Nsima!) and then drove a mile or two to visit the Malungundi School for the Blind. I plan to return. These children were remarkable. Often cast out by their families and villages because of their disability, society gives them little chance to succeed. Yet this place gives them hope, integrates them into a ‘regular’ school for part of the day and prepares them for a future life. It has graduates in university, no small feat considering there are only 3,000 spots a year for college students in the entire country (14 million people). The 28 students live near campus in dorms built in 1972 that are in dire need of renovation.  And because the government only gives them 400 dollars a month for supplies and teacher’s salaries, they eat and wear whatever is given to them by local churches. (Check out a video of Christopher on his braille type writer below)

On Saturday we participated in what the Malawians call a “Moki Wedding.” We had been to weddings here before, but this one was different. It was a renewal of vows with a twist. Often families will celebrate an anniversary with a fundraising dinner. This family, the Kajawas, was celebrating 25 years of marriage. Rather than going on a trip (some do that as well), they threw a huge party to raise funds for the Scripture Union—an organization that focuses on Bible study and fellowship.  Throughout the night I was reminded of how cheerful Malawians are when they give. People danced forward and gave. I leaned over to Hailey and joked about how the locals were ‘making it rain.’ There were many styles. Some would pull one bill from their purse at a time and others would throw out a pile all at once. I was a fan of the guy who held his stack in one hand and, with his other, shuffled bills off one by one.  People would change out larger bills to get smaller ones just to have a chance to dance again and throw money on the floor. We were tired by 10:15, so we were given a ride home. I’m not even sure when the party ended.

When we got home Saturday night I plopped down and tried to reflect on all that had happened during the week. I couldn’t, it was too much. I stood in the shower, let the water cleanse my tired body and smiled. This is life in Malawi.

Christopher from David Rohde on Vimeo.

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).

Humps, Boots, Bits and Zebra Crossings

Dinner with Jondou and Becca!
Tea with the Harrisons!

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

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

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

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

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

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