Ode to a Presbytery
One way of looking at my recent bout with the flu is to say it was an act of mercy. I have a friend in Jesus. And any friend of mine knows that I would rather have a fever and body aches than attend a presbytery meeting. My flu arrived a few hours after Rev. Hara called to tell me I was “most welcome” at the weeklong presbytery meeting that was just getting started.
I have to admit I blanched. Presbytery meetings in the U.S. are a day long event. There is a couple hours of driving, a somewhat misguided worship service, some hoo ha, two hours of mind numbing reports, lunch, two more hours of mind numbing reports with a little debate thrown in, and then the drive home. Never, except once, have I walked away and said, man I would like to do that again.
So when I thought about seven days of this, God who is merciful and just and a friend to the weak and heavyladen took pity on me a poor presbyter and said, abide with me. (I have had a whole new take on abiding once I considered that Jesus said, abide in me hours before he was to be beaten and crucified; in a way it’s like inviting someone into a hurricane: “come and be with me in the eye of the storm.”) With the flu I kind of had an excuse.
As it turned out it wasn’t as solid as I thought it would be. The newly elected moderator, with whom I shared lunch on Sunday, was less than effusive given my weeklong absence. The other pastors were not as upset. Perhaps there was some sange there.
What I showed up for was the closing worship service. Rev. Hara called to suggest this was the least I could do. He was right. I told our crew this would be a short service as it starts at eight. The only part I got right was that it started at 8. It finally limped across the finish line at 11:45.
This is part of Malawi and usually I don’t mind the hour upon hour of worship, but I did this time. It was a presbytery service. I kept saying over and over again to myself: impossible, impossible; it’s just impossible. The mind numbing power of the presbytery could even overcome the vibrancy and freedom of Malawian worship.
Gone was the fun and dancing. There were no jokes. There was a solid 30 minutes of announcements and an hour of introductions and posturing. And the sermon was without shouting or even a story. It all just went on and on and on. All I could think was: why is it that when you put a group of ministers together it just gets dull?
It shouldn’t be. I’ve met these fellows and there are some wild cards in the mix. This could have been a service of power and vivacity. Instead it just hung there like wet clothes out to dry.
I don’t know why but it is dull, presbytery that is. It’s dull and misguided and prone to suck the life out of even the most hearty of Christians. I am sure that not every moment with Jesus on shore of Galilee were wild and crazy, but I have to think they were a good deal more exciting than a presbytery meeting. Mostly I just can’t see Jesus saying, that is what I was looking for.
The good news is that its just not uptight, WASP America. Even the Malawians crash and burn on this one.
I’ve been taking my camera with me when Kathy goes shopping. When she heads into Tutlas or the Northern Trading Company I stay outside and get some “snaps.”
Our camera has a good zoom so I can stay in a rather innocuous place and take pictures without people knowing. Not that they mind. One group of four fellows spied me and started waving. Then they arranged themselves in a classic “group shot.” After taking their picture I walked across the street and showed them the picture. They pushed each other out of the way to look. These were men in their twenties.
The hardest part of taking these kind of photos is that the street never stops. Cars, bikes, people carrying things, people milling about it all just keeps flowing. In the U.S., I could look at a downtown street and maybe have a few minutes between people. Here its like someone put the street on rapid speed.
As I took more of these photos recently, I noticed the advertising strategies of most shops. Most shops painted on their walls that they have lots of stuff for cheap. High end, the best, executive, none of these made the walls. Unless it was high end executive stuff at the best prices.
Mostly though what I could see was the way a culture is much more verbal when its on foot. There were cars on the streets, but the pedestrians and bikes far out number them. What is more is that people stop as they walk and chat. There is a kind of fellowship to the street which is lost in the American culture of the car.
O God Bless our land of Malawi,
Keep it land of peace
Put down each and every enemy,
Hunger, disease, envy.
There are moments, Kierkegaard argued, where we are rendered “transparent.”
At the National Service of Worship Kathy and I attended on Saturday we were singing along with a number of traditional hymns such as “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” There were even two anthems that were performed where we knew the words. One small choir (read less than twenty which is more like an ensemble in Malawi) gave the Battle Hymn of the Republic a go. They sounded like there were 100 voices. One of the last choirs, again not large, did Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. It was shocking and received a standing ovation. Standing ovations in Malawi are silent. The crowd just simply stood and then quickly sat, but you could tell that this was huge.
Yet the song that was most inspiring to me was the national anthem, Malawi’s that is. There are three stanzas. The middle stanza is a bit weak in my opinion and the third reiterates much of the first, but all this is made up in the first line. “O God Bless our land of Malawi,/Keep it land of peace/ Put down each and every enemy.” And then the last part, the list of enemies: “hunger, disease, and envy.” Hunger and disease . . . okay. But envy? Asking God to keep them from envy is the opening line of their national anthem. That is a pretty transparent moment.
I was forewarned of this in a way as our missionary hosts and guides; both reiterated how big “sange” is here. Both Jim and Jodi McGill said, envy is a huge problem here. It wasn’t that they said, “and it’s even in the national anthem, but there it is. Try to imagine that after our rockets red glare and banner waving Francis Scott Key had suggested that the War of 1812 would hopefully free us from the enemy of “envy”.
It could be that America is such a land of opulence that envy doesn’t really have a great foothold. Perhaps we could put something in our national anthem about greed or corruption, but that doesn’t really strike true for me. Maybe something about the perils of indifference dashing the sacrifice of those who came before us- that wouldn’t be bad.
But envy? What do you do with a national anthem whose first line is a call to overcome envy? I don’t know, but this is the sort of question I hoped would come to me here. It’s not something you can pick up in a two-week visit. People gussy up too much for that. We’ve been here a month and I can begin to see the “sange,” the envy. Yet it is a puzzle for me.
One of goals here was to engage in ethnographic work. Ethnography is when you study people in their culture by being in it. It’s field work in a sense, but it’s not like I am walking around measuring things. Ethnography is where you try to jump from the outside in and see what you see. I believe it is done best when don’t come with a question. In other words, had I come to observe funeral rituals for the tacit theology which they embody I would have come with a serious amount of baggage and thus questions. I don’t bring those where envy is concerned.
Now that I have a question my hope is to ask it for a while. “Tell me what sange means.” There are more subtle ways of getting to the point, but the thing with ethnography is that you are supposed to let the question shape itself as you go. The second person I speak to may be approached with a different question, one that is less blunt. But maybe not if that is what worked.
I am, needless to say, intrigued. Envy in the national anthem. Man that is pretty out there.
For the last week Rev. Hara and I have been driving around Mchengatuba and paying impromtu visits on elders and church leaders. Two days ago we visisted the house of a master mason who is helping to supervise the work on the church. He wasn’t home but his wife took our arrival as a direction to make tea.
A neighbor, “Fumu”, stepped in for the missing husband and was flush with speeches and even a sermon. Fumu is an elder, a carpenter, and quite a talker. At one point in his sermon he was venturing into the entire history of the Exodus as an illustration.
As we sat Fumu was quick to describe his take on the whole choir scenario. He is now part of the tide praising and extolling Rev. Hara for beating back the greed of a few. Halfway through the conversation tea arrived and I took advantage of the silence to get in a question.
“I heard your national anthem on Saturday. It was quite lovely, but there was one line I really didn’t understand.” I recited the opening lines from memory which brought him great delight and then I said, “keep us from hunger, disease, and envy. What is this ‘envy?”
“Ah,” he said, “that is a big problem in our nation.”
“As big as hunger and disease?”
“Bigger. Hunger and disease they beat the body, but envy destroys the soul.”
I pretty much got out of the way for the next thirty minutes. “Sange” held the room. Fumu, Rev. Hara, and the matron of the house each took turns describing the wiles of Sange. At its apex was when Fumu launched into the Exodus sermon. At first I didn’t see the connection. Slaves in the desert grumbling about Moses relates to the Malawian culture and its struggles with envy how? I didn’t press him as Rev. Hara cut him off and patted his shoulder. This sermon though would come clearer the next day.
What was clear that day was that sange is not just wanting what someone has it is wishing them harm, delighting in their downfall, or rumoring that their fortune is somehow evil. Illustration after illustration showed how difficult it is to “get ahead” [their words] without someone wanting to drag you down [my words]. What was also clear was that with sange it won’t be hard to get some to talk.
As we left Fumu offered to ride along with us and show us the way out of “Area Four.” Halfway to the manse Fumu confessed. “This is my first time in Land Rover. I’ve only driven in Land Cruisers and I’ve always wanted to know what a Land Rover is like.”
“Don’t let your neighbors see you,” I said, “they may be jealous.”
I was late and I had a Malawian excuse. We took Dave to the local clinic for a check, as his cough doesn’t seem to want to leave and his ears were hurting.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “we went to the clinic and time has just gotten away.”
“Can you come?”
“Yes. Yes, I will come.”
It would seem the impromtu visits have given way to the Malawian “sit and chat.” A sit and chat is when the Mzungu comes to visit one person, but there are about twenty folks who generally have an agenda.
This sit and chat was a group of women from Area 9 and the agenda was chickens. They wanted 100,000 mkw to start a chicken and egg farm. The banks they said are too high with their interest and the duration of the loans are too short. (In the airport the advertised rate for a mortgate is 23%. I would guess that is to preferred lenders. Mchengatuba doesn’t have much that banks would prefer.)
For the next half hour, we roughed together a business plan. Who will buy these chickens? What will be your monthly income versus expenses? How much debt service can you handle? The conversation went round and round. At one point it turned into a kind of debt auction. Can you pay 1000 mkw a month for a loan . . . two thousand . . . three . . . four? That is when women started squinting their eyes trying to see if could go over four. No.
Then the food came out. They had prepared a meal for Rev. Hara and me. While we were washing our hands he asked them, “what is the national anthem?” They all strarted to sing the first stanza. After the clapping he said, “tell me, what does it mean?”
Most of the women focused on the notion of freedom from fear and then we got to enemies: hunger, disease, and envy. Rev. Hara was quick to get them to focus on sange. Why is that there, he queried.
The answer of one woman explained the sermon of Fumu yesterday. Freedom from sange was the only way to be a people and being one people was the only way to keep all enemies away. If people are free from sange then they will be willing to protect their neighbor- stand together. As she was speaking I was thinking of the people in the Exodus experience and how little they could find a common voice except to complain, how being a slave had reduced them to the lowest common denominator of humanity, and the idea of being something more was beyond them. Sounds a lot like Malawi.
From this esoteric level the conversation went down to the neighborhood experience. Each of the women were quick to describe how sange was a part of life. It was a force in their midst. “Are you afraid when something good happens to you that people will be envious?” I thought they would say yes, which is closer to the American culture of trying to refrain from ostentation. But there answer was something close to: how can you hide something good? Here everyone knows everything anyway.
A few weeks ago I preached on the story of Jacob at Bethel and how he was there as a fugitive who had stolen the blessing of his brother. Little did I know then this story could have been a kind of parable of the people. Now the story was starting to take on a different meaning. As the women were talking I couldn’t help but seeing in their words neighbors and extended family literally trying to steal the blessings. And then one women made it literal: people come and steal what is good.
Sange then comes in spiritual and not so spiritual forms.