Monday, August 11, 2008

From the Thrill of Victory . . .

At the end of synod meetings in Malawi there is a palpable tension. The synod meeting is comparable to the national assemblies the Presbyterians have the US. This is the decision making body for the larger church. Yet, in the US the decisions are truly about the larger church. Their decisions and actions may annoy or even dismay the local church, but they don’t have a direction impact.

In Malawi, the synod has a huge reach into the life of a local congregation as they work on an appointment system. Pastors are appointed to churches not called by congregations. Every two years pastors are told if they are staying or going by the “business” committee of the synod. This announcement is literally the last action of a weeklong meeting. After the list of changes are read, there is a hymn, a prayer and some handshaking, but no discussion. If you are moving or staying you find it out at the eleventh hour in the midst of your peers. No warning is given.

Needless to say all the pastors stay to the end. When I have gone to the General Assembly in the US I have never stayed to the end, just can’t do it. And I wouldn’t have been at the end of this one until I knew what was going to be said.

The first name I heard to receive a change was Rev. Gondwe of Bandawe. Gondwe has finished an amazing church, headed up scads of other building projects, and been helpful in our work at Chivumu. But after seven years I had my suspicion that he might be “appointed” somewhere else. Gondwe is heading for Embangweni. This is a kind of lateral move for him in that he will be the “head of station” again as Embangweni is like Bandawe and Ekwendeni. I have never been to Embangweni, but thought, well, now I will.

But then came a name I truly hoped I wouldn’t hear. Rev. Hara. I asked the man behind me what this meant after all the singing was done and he said he has been moved to Karonga. Now being moved from Mzuzu to Karonga is not a “lateral” move. It’s moving from the benefits and comforts of the north’s one city to a border town at the top of the country. When people say Karonga there is a roll of the eyes.

It has taken me most of the last few days, much discussion, and a sermon to get my head around this news. The rumor is that someone called the synod meeting and told the “business” committee they will kill Rev. Hara is he wasn’t relocated. Which, if true, is part of the confusion. Why would church leaders capitulate to such foolishness?

In the next two days I will meet with the synod officials and ask them that question. The new General Secretary and Synod moderator were supposedly opposed to this move. How can they be outdone when they are in charge?

I will know more soon, but for now it is just quite confusing.

The following is the conclusion to the sermon I preached at Mchengatuba on Sunday. It was a bit surreal as I was preaching on the Sunday after the church had heard the news that their pastor was being relocated. It was a kind of farewell on many levels. I began the sermon talking about my experience with conflict in a congregation and how I dealt with it. Essentially I told them that being right, and standing with the truth and friendship are powerful tools in the midst of congregations in conflict. The texts for the sermon were 1Corinthians 13: 4-6 and IJohn 5:1-5.
Being here in Mchengatuba these last two months has been very reminiscent of my second congregation. The factions, the lies, the reluctance to stand and fight, the influence of a few over what they believe is the church: I have seen all these before.
When I encountered them in my second church I made a second mistake that I didn’t fully understand until I was here with you. After four years I left my second church believing that the conflict would never truly end as long as I was there, that I needed to leave for them to have a fresh start, to try again to be a church without taking sides over me. I believed that as long as I was there the conflicts would persist no matter how much I was loved.
Walking with Rev. Hara, your pastor, these last two months I can now see how little I understood the power of love. I must say before you, Norman, and all the congregation, that I am a better pastor and better person watching you live out your faith. Too often I look for answers in books, but I am thankful that for these last two months you have let me see your heart and watch the way you love a church.
The great lesson I have learned, that I failed to see in my second church, is that love will conquer, love will be victorious. But it must persist. When there were lies told about your pastor, when twice a mob surrounded his house, and when some idiot and evil doer called the synod and said they would kill him unless he was removed, transferred, he didn’t give in. He stood firm. He didn’t waver: he kept loving you.
You need to know that. He loves this church as a pastor should: he believes love will conquer. There have been times as I have watched him that I thought I would have done things differently. I would have chastised more openly; I would have given ultimatums to the session; I would have sought more loyalty from elders. Yet as I have watched him what I have come to understand is that love is not chastising; love is not given as an ultimatum; and love doesn’t demand its own way. These were the words of the apostle Paul; for the last two months I have watched them lived out, written upon the heart of your pastor.
The synod has decided to make the same error I made six years ago. They have decided to let a new pastor deal with your conflict. I have heard that he is far more like me than Rev. Hara. He is someone who will push you, confront you, be ready to fight with you. If you had asked me two months ago if this would be the right step for all I would have said yes. But now I know the difference, now I have learned that love is what will create the victory in Mchengatuba. I am humbled to say that I have walked with your pastor and learned this lesson.
We don’t have all the answers. None of us knows what is right for all, the proper definition of the truth that will be satisfy all hearts; no one has the voice that speaks for all with a power transforming all opposition into support. Yet, none of us is incapable of letting love empower us to what is right and true. Love is not a personality or even a purpose: it is the presence of God saving our souls from death unto life.
That your pastor wanted to say that and the lesson was not heard is the tragedy of this day. As I leave I have not lost my faith in you like your pastor has not. He still wants to bring you the victory of love conquering sin and death. For this he is to be commended. But in his commendation you are not to be scolded or shamed. Love is hard to learn, to live. We want to live by what we believe, by power, by strength, by skill. These are the easy paths compared to that of love.
It is fair to say that when his house was mobbed or when elders let lies persist or when even now they wavered at restoring his reputation because of the stupid greed, the sange, of some of you, that you didn’t love him. I am not sure he believes this. It’s hard to be a church; it is a miracle for a church to be a place of love, a house where love brings the victory. It is much easier for the strong to get their way, for the pushy to make their demands, for the greedy to get what they want (much more than what is fair or right). It is hard to even imagine what a church would be that is defined by love. To be a church where love is the victory: that is the intent of your pastor; that is what is being taken from you.
I was sent on a sabbatical to learn how to abide. It was quickly apparent to me that abiding was not what I thought it was. I thought abiding was about being free from concern; abiding was about being in a kind of immovable peace, settled in joy. Abiding I was quick to learn was not about the absence of conflict; it was about finding peace in midst of it. Abiding was not about staying put, but being willing to venture, to risk, to be cast out, even set adrift in life. Living for 9 weeks in Malawi I have learned what it means to truly give up my life, to put aside my comfort and security. I must say some of it I enjoyed, and some of it I fought and resisted.
But the greatest lesson of abiding has come from watching your pastor. To abide in love is what I found in him. To abide in love means you resist the easy victory of truth; you are patient when justice would have been more to the point; you abide in the chaos so that love has time to overcome. This is what Jesus meant when he said abide in me. Abide in love. Let love be victorious. It would seem that the synod is not as patient, not as ready to risk as Jesus calls us to be. I know I wasn’t, but thanks to Rev. Hara, I now am. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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