Wednesday, August 13, 2008


We are leaving Mzuzu today, but we are not yet leaving Malawi. Leaving Mzuzu really marks the end of our time though.

With this in mind, I was hoping to know your thoughts about the blog. There will be a few more entries as we seek to describe the return home. But I would love to hear your impressions. If you don't want to post a comment on the blog send your remarks to Even though there is an away message, I will check it.

Hopefully the blog has created an opportunity to follow the events we have experienced this summer. In the next two weeks I wiill try to assess and reflect upon, "what in the world just happened?" Your voice in the midst would help me a great deal.
The Co-Inciding

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.

Farewell Speeches

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.

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.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Kathy writes

It’s been a good day in Mzuzu. We are in countdown mode. We have been here for eight weeks so far and this week will be our last full week here. This Sunday will be our last Sunday in Mchengatuba where Fred has been made Rev. Hara’s “associate minister.” Suddenly we have gone from gaping amounts of time to fill to only one week to wrap up loose ends and leave Mzuzu by next Thursday.

Fred shared with you about visiting the widow who had their houses roofed for them by Mark Purcell when he was here visiting the end of July. We had a great afternoon touring the different houses in the dambo last Thursday. At the 1st house we went to Laura asked if they had bednets (if you remember the dambo is the free low lying ground that is overrun with mosquitoes during the rainy season). At each of the six houses we found than none of them had bednets and at three of the houses the widows said they didn’t have a bed but would like a blanket. How do you even fathom such a thing? No bed, no blanket, but ever so grateful to now have a solid roof over their heads. They were so thankful to us and I wished so much that Mark could see the joy and hope he has brought them.

The next day Sam and Grace went to work finding the best deals on wooden beds and mattresses. By Saturday, the carpenters they had contracted with had completed three of the beds (three quarter size) and we picked them up. After loading all three on the top of Jodi’s van we headed into town to purchase mattresses. After getting them rolled up and stuffed into the car with the 9 of us (sans Fred who was on top of a mountain a couple hours away observing a synod election) we carefully drove to the dambo.

As we started out Sam said, “We will have to go the back way so we don’t get stopped for overloading.” I thought O.K. that sound about right. We arrived without incidence and were able to deliver the beds to the widows who had no idea we were going to get them for them. It was a very good day.

That was Saturday. Today, Monday, we did our shopping in the market, finally, found the phone company, purchased some more blankets, renewed Laura’s, Beka’s, and Zoe’s visa, found a warehouse to buy porridge for the dogs, and delivered the rest of the things for the widows to Sam and Grace. Almost as an afterthought Grace handed me a folded envelope. I asked her, “What’s this?”. It was Ruth’s passport and visa. Ahh! Finally. I didn’t think I was ever going to hold that in my hand! Then Grace tells me that they’ve stamped it for an unprecedented two year period. Unbelievable. We are awed and stunned . . . and very, very excited.

What will tomorrow bring?

The Synod Meeting
Being in Livingstonia always has the weight of history. It is a historical place as it was the site where Dr. Robert Laws developed a mission station that introduced not only Christianity to the Ngoni people but also modern medicine (as it was modern in the 1880s), building and architectural innovations that must have seemed like magic for people who were living in caves at the time.

I am seated in his church and it has the feeling of a cathedral. There is a stained glass window, tall windows and cut stone arch ways. It is impressive for Malawi today, I can’t imagine what it looked like 100 years ago. The reason for my visit would be just as hard to imagine for the people of Dr. Laws time. I am here as a visitor to the Synod of Livingstonia which is the northern region of the Presbyterian Church in Malawi. There are 600,000 adult members and the churches of the synod are community centers offering not only worship, but public health, primary education, and opportunity for development as well as justice.

You get a sense of what Jesus meant by the mustard seed. Laws cast some seeds that truly took hold. Yet the people who came after him, the Malawian pastors, elders, deacons (the churches) kept casting seeds.

My day here began with a worship service that was unique. In a sense it was just like any worship service that opens a denominational meeting, but at this one the sermon was powerful. It was a call to be salt and light, but why we should be such was so much more than the usual sermons I hear at Presbyterian meetings where the preacher tries to give a lecture on good manners and professional conduct with Christian overtones. This morning I was told to be salt and light because this is how we will bring salvation to the world.

From there though the meeting went down hill. At least in terms of an American perspective. There was formality after protocol after recognition. My thought was, this is too much of a cultural divide for me to span as I can barely handle a bit of this in the US. This went on for an hour.

And then something great happened: people stood up and said, this is going on too long. We have to get to business or we will never get out of here. This was the first two hours of a weeklong meeting. It may be that cell phones and text messaging have had an immediate impact upon the Malawian pastors, or it may just be people truly had business and didn’t want to see it cast adrift by a spirit of minutia.

Perhaps the real reason was the pastors were recognizing the significance of their meetings and what is at stake. It is clear in Malawi that pastors are beginning to see their role and what may happen in their country in the next year as tantamount to its future. There is a feeling in the air that decisions here are not just church matters, but Malawian matters; there is a sense of momentum that now is a time of great importance.

Its hard to tell if that is the impact of being in Livingstonia or just a lovely coincidence that a meeting of historical importance is happening here. Time will tell.

The Swan Song
Big meetings make me nervous. A few people around a table hashing things out is where my comfort level begins and ends. Get everybody together, you are likely to get a lot of foolishness and folks putting on airs.

The Synod of Livingstonia has 600,000 adult members, a bunch of presbyteries, and more churches than you shake a stick at. So the idea that you get together all the ministers and vote on things they consider significant . . . well, its fair to say there might be some dry parts.

I was there for two reasons. The first one was guilt. I was sick for the presbytery meeting and Rev. Hara was a bit embarrassed that his “associate pastor” was absent. So I told him I would be at the synod meeting for the big introduction day and I would drive. As none of the pastors have cars this was a big offer. I figured he would use this to his advantage and he did. There were six other passengers by the time we left Mzuzu and he was pleased as punch to be the one offering rides.

The other reason was Rev. Nkhoma. I have spent a fair amount of time with him and he never disappoints. Perhaps I am just an easy sell for a man who knows a lot of history (and lived it) but it’s fair to say that being with him these two months as he ends his career in ministry was a rare and unique privilege.

On the opening day of the Synod meeting (which lasts a week) Rev. Nkhoma was making his swan song, he was retiring officially and his replacement was to be voted in immediately. If that sounds a bit odd, the living out didn’t stray far from this mark.

I’ve already described the events that led up to his time of farewell but let me just give a brief recap: a lot of posturing, minutia and wrangling, a good sermon, tea, and lunch. When he was finally given the floor people were ready for something good. He delivered.

His speech was easily an hour long and was written out in single spaced pages that seemed to never end. (The moderator after it was over said, “that was a good speech, long, but good.”) It was long, but it needed to be to capture 20 years of being a leader of the synod. He literally started at the beginning and talked about the good the bad and the beneficial. There wasn’t a lot of ugly.

The theme of his speech was a passage from Genesis where Jacob meets Esau while returning home and says, I crossed this river with just a staff and now I am returning with two companies. Rev. Nkhoma tried to make clear that he felt as if his experience these last 20 years has left him like Jacob, amazed by the blessing he received.

His speech often felt like a catalogue of blessings. As he spoke I kept waiting for him to mention Chivumu and he never did. He started to wrap it up and I felt a little sad. This as “our” project and after listing all the rest this one was conspicuous for by its absence. And then he said, “now I can depart. I have a full primary school in my home village.” Last line . . . I got choked up.

But then he did something that got everyone a bit emotional: he rolled on the ground. He walked off the chancel, leaving the microphone behind, and said with a shaking voice, I want to express my gratitude to you in my culture. In the Tonga tradition the supreme act of thanks is roll at the feet of your benefactor. Before the hundreds of pastors and hundreds of elders, the media, the choirs, the students of the college, Rev. Nkhoma got down on the floor of the church and rolled back and forth. He said, “I want to thank you for what you have given me.”

This was one big meeting I am was glad not to miss.

Phase Three Joy

I’ve had four bottles of maple syrup sitting on our counter for a month. They were supposed to be for the ambassador, but we forgot them when we went to apply for Ruth’s visa. My intention was to say thanks for helping with the choir last year. It was a good intention that just didn’t seem to happen.

This morning, with the french toast, I let the kids open one as we were out of powdered sugar. Well, I thought, three is just as good as four, kind of.

Part of my willingness to share was that I had already made the decision of offering them with a letter explaining our intentions with Ruth to the consular instead of the ambassador. The consular, the assistant consular that is, dealt with her visa application and went out of his way to help, even staying later than the office is supposed to be open.

I’ve described my exchange with him and how happy we were at the outcome in an earlier blog. We asked for twenty four months knowing it was a kind of wish dream and were told that such a request was actually against the law, as the visa can only be a year. That we would be given a valid visa for Ruth to come to the US was more than enough no matter the length I told him.

Today Grace dropped off Ruth’s visa. Sam’s dad was in Lilongwe and we finally got the I-20 to the consulate so they could “seal” it. Part of the visa process is that there are no clear descriptions of the rules or requirements. It often feels like a hazing process and to some extent it is. So when Kathy said she had her visa in hand I kind of shrugged it off.

But then she said, “I knew it. Someone wrote 24 months on the I-20 and I wondered if that meant the visa would be for 24 months.” I looked at her visa and sure enough it was valid until July 22 of 2010. I just stared at it in unbelief.

I am still a bit in shock. A two-year visa. That changes so many things. First it saves almost $5,000 a year. Most important though we would rather bring Grace here to visit Ruth than fly Ruth out, and then struggle to get here back going through the whole visa process each year. With a two year visa we’ve been given a much different process. If by some chance we can renew this visa in the states then Ruth can visit Malawi in the next four years when it works best not when the paperwork needs to be filed.

I’ve pretty sure I will not let the kids open another bottle of maple syrup. The assistant consular who assured me he couldn’t give a two year visa and then provided one is worthy of a little thanks. I just hope he likes pancakes.