I went to the synod offices mindful that my words being a help to Rev. Hara were a long shot and the likelihood that I might offend was more of sure bet ( I would’ve put the odds of the later at 2-1). Fortunately the three men who greeted me (Rev. Nkhoma, Rev. Nyrendo, and Rev. Munthali) know how to handle the less than tactful.
The conversation began with official business. The council of the Presbytery of Northern New York asked me to inquire as to the renewal of our partnership next year. Having been here for two months and watching groups come and go and seeing the way individual churches interact with the synod of Livingstonia versus presbyteries I am convinced that the renewal of our partnership should articulate both directions. Congregations have far more latitude to act while presbyteries carry the gravitas of the “larger church.” Both are good I said.
We also discussed the widows fund and how challenging it is to wed a grassroots effort with the structure of the synod. There were nods around the room. Care needs to be given that this venture doesn’t create confusion in the synod or jeopardize the larger partnership as it grows. Rev. Nyrendo said, “I am glad we are saying this now.” Rev. Nkhoma said, “this has happened before and perhaps by taking care in the beginning we won’t be forced to deal with problems later.”
But the real conversation was when we turned to Rev. Hara. Rev. Nyrendo smiled as I described my concerns. “I am not here to criticize, but to suggest a delay of his transfer so projects can be completed and the widows fund can mature a bit more.” “Yes, I have heard of your concerns,” he said. Two different elders called to complain about your sermon on Sunday.”
After my third apology he smiled again. “There are some people there who love Rev. Hara and some who hate him. If you spoke in favor of him you will necessarily make some people angry.” We all smiled at this and nodded from the collective experience of being pastors.
As we spoke of the decision it was clear from their words that it had been a real struggle, a great debate. What was unanimous was that they all had great respect for Norman. What divided us was that I felt the synod was acting prematurely and they felt they had actually let the situation go on too long. For this reason I don’t think my suggestions will prevail.
And then something was said that just dumbfounded me. “There is a sect in Mzuzu. All of these people who are complaining and threatening are part of sect. We know who they are and what they are doing. It is a complicated matter and needs great care.”
The shock was the coincidence that for the last six months I have been doing research on 1 John, a book that is built around the impact of sects upon the early church. Never in my wildest dreams would I think that my time in Malawi would have been shaped by the same force that shaped the book I was studying. It was the sort of thing that just baffles me. I know it’s the Holy Spirit, but sometimes I would like to have some sort of clue where my life is going before I get there.
For the last four days I have been making farewell speeches. Everyone is convinced here that I will return, but they have said again and again, you don’t realize how hard it is to say goodbye. We will cry they claim.
Part of being a pastor is not letting your emotions overwhelm you. I am not saying you need to be a stoic rock of indifference, but you do need to keep your composure in the midst of very emotional moments. I want to say that I have led hundreds of funerals. There have been many moments where the person being buried was a dear friend. To not have the opportunity to weep in the midst of worship, I believe, is part of the cost and gift you give to others. You create the place for them to feel free, while you yourself do not enter such a place. A pastor creates the opportunity, you hold the door open so to speak.
I didn’t stop being a pastor in Malawi, but I am not a pastor here so to speak. It’s true that I’ve preached almost every Sunday. And when I walk into a room I am very conscious of the expectations and definitions that apply to me. But I am not being a pastor here. My congregation is in Watertown, not Mchengawatua. I have grown very fond of many of the elders in Mchengawatua and was even compelled to attend church business meetings, but at no point did I say to Kathy, “I was going to my office.”
The freedom of being something in between an observer and a leader, a pastor and a guest, somewhere in the midst of this I was no longer the doorman. (On most occasions, though, I was the driver. This was a joke I offered to Rev. Nkhoma’s driver, Owen. “I was the associate minister, but I got a promotion. I am a driver now.” He liked the joke.)
Being somewhere in between was the great gift of the sabbatical. About a week ago it became clear as I felt ready to get back to work. It wasn’t anything pressing; it was renewal. It wasn’t dread or anxiety or a need to leave: it was a readiness to do what I am called to do. This is what the Lily Endowment calls renewal and I think I understand what they mean, or what they intended to offer when they sent me a truck load of money and said, “go to Africa this summer.”
With this renewal beginning to take shape and the freedom of just being in the midst of life having had effect, my farewell speeches became more and more emotional. (Last night Mary Taylor said, “was that a tear I saw?” I said no, but it was.)
Saying farewell, then, is mixed. I am saying goodbye to friends, but I am also saying farewell to a unique time, a gift of time whose value I have seen again and again as immense. In most of my speeches I talk about the difference between being in Malawi for two weeks and being here for two months. The difference is profound. It is the difference between living some place and visiting. While I know that I will visit Malawi again, I am very mindful that my next visit will be based upon having lived here. I look forward to what that will mean.
Mostly though as I say goodbye I am just mindful that a great gift has been given. A time of renewal was given and for that I can’t be thankful enough. As I have said this to my Malawian friends the emotions have been far more complex than I usually allow to linger. I am not sure if that is a normal part of a sabbatical, but I am glad it was a part of mine.