Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Joy Riding on an Empty Tank

I have to admit I was a little irritated. Sure, the children were squealing with joy, the adults were laughing, and the driver's smile filled half his face. And, of course, I couldn't help finding it very sweet. Yet inside, I was feeling some frustration and fear. Why was our driver giving a dozen kids a joy ride through the village, when our gas tank was running on fumes?

We were two hours from a filling station and the gas light was on. In fact, as we approached the village, we realized that we wouldn't make it much further. The driver stopped, and thus began a short trip through another village, wondering if anyone had a little jug of diesel anywhere. After the third home, we found someone with a small container and a funnel. It wasn't much gas, but hopefully it was enough to get us to the little church and then back to the town with gas pumps.

And so, there we were in the village, almost ready to depart, and our driver was zipping along the dirt paths, red dust flying in the air, as children squealed in delight. They had piled into the cab, so many kids that they couldn't shut the door at first. The children squeezed in tight, the driver cranked up the music, and they flew into the distance.

As I waited, I spoke with colleagues and laughed with friends, and finally, when the truck returned with a load of happy children, I found that my irritation had disappeared. One way or another, we would make it back to our hotel. I would sleep in a bed tonight, and ride in the truck tomorrow, and make it to another church, in another village, for another presentation the next day. All will be well.

Sometimes, it is not always best to be practical. I have learned that from my friends here, who value relationship over functionality, friendship over efficiency, and laughter over self-importance. The kids in that village didn't have much opportunity to ride in a vehicle. Their families don't have cars or trucks. The wealthy ones might own one bicycle. But the opportunity to fly around their village in a big red pickup was not to be missed. It was joy, it was fun, it was laughter.

I think life would probably be pretty amazing if we decided to joy ride on an empty tank a little more often. We can take some risks, just for the sake of laugher and friendship, just for the sake of loving life. We can offer what we have, even when it is risky, to bring joy to another person and to ourselves. Our driver offered that precious fuel, in order to delight some children. What can we offer, just for the sake of bringing someone else joy?

We did make it all the way to the filling station, despite the gas light that beamed from the dashboard. And tomorrow we will drive to another village, and the next day, we will continue to drive. As I sit in that backseat, for hours and hours on end, I hope I will remember that one afternoon, when it was filled beyond capacity with beaming, laughing children. Because the tank wasn't really empty. It was enough. We have enough. So let's go for a ride and let our lives rise up in laughter and friendship and joy.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Just Below the Ground

There was once a little girl who lived in a very big city, in a place surrounded by concrete and buildings. She had never been to a farm, and had been in that very big city her whole life. Well, one day, her grandfather came to visit her, and he told her that he had brought a very special present. But when he handed the present to her, it was a cup, filled with dirt. The little girl was disappointed. She didn’t want dirt! Why would that be a special present?

But the grandfather said to her that she should put water in that cup, every single day, and something wonderful would happen. She was very confused about that, but she loved her grandfather very much, and so she agreed to put water in that cup, every single day.

At first, it was easy to do. She wanted to see what would happen! But days went by, and the dirt did not change, and even as she kept putting in the water, she grew more and more disappointed. She tried to keep her promise to her grandfather, but it became harder and harder. Sometimes, she would forget, and then she would have to get out of bed, get some water, and water the dirt. It was hard to remember, and she got very sick of doing it, but she had made a promise to her grandfather, and so she kept on putting water in the cup.

And then, one morning, she woke up, and there were bright green leaves sprouting from the dirt. She was astonished! Each day, they continued to grow and grow. She could not wait to tell her grandfather! 

When he visited next, she ran to get the cup and brought it out to show her grandfather. “Look what happened, grandfather!” she said. Her grandfather explained to her that life is everywhere, potential is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. The girl was delighted. “And all it needs is water, grandfather?” she asked him. “No, my dear child,” he responded. “All it needs is your faithfulness.”

The girl watered that dirt, even when it seemed that nothing was happening. She was faithful and committed to that work. And even though she could not see it, something was happening beneath that soil. A plant was growing, a seed was sprouting, and finally, it emerged from the mud.

This is not my story; it comes from My Grandfather’s Blessings, by Rachel Naomi Remen. But I told this story in one of my first sermons, here in Zambia, when I was blessed to preach at the graduation ceremony for a group of new pastors, graduating from Chasefu Theological College. That was almost two years ago, and just yesterday, one of the pastors reminded me of my sermon.

Sitting in my living room, drinking sparkling juice and sharing stories, he asked me, “Do you remember that sermon you gave at Chasefu? At the graduation? Well, I remember it. I was just talking to one of the other reverends about that sermon. That really helped us. That really encouraged us a lot.” I thanked him for the kind words about a sermon I preached almost two years ago. A sermon about planting seeds, and not knowing if there is something growing underneath the dirt. And I wondered why he would bring it up on that day, when I spoke of my frustrations and challenges. Was he preaching it back to me? I think he was, in his gentle, affirming way.

Sometimes, all we can see is dirt. We plant some seeds, and we want to see something amazing happen. But instead, there is just a cup of mud. We see budget challenges and miscommunications. We see bureaucratic red tape and tricky power dynamics. We see a flawed, imperfect system and we wonder if anything will ever grow. We get tired, we get discouraged, we get overwhelmed. That is true in any type of ministry. That is true any time we seek to follow Jesus. That is true over and over again in our lives. We get excited about the seeds we plant, but after a little while, we can get discouraged when all we see is dirt.

And so my colleague was preaching my sermon back at me. The seeds you planted two years ago, he said, are growing right here, in your living room. Because I am a pastor and I am ready to remind you: just be faithful. Just keep watering the dirt. Something is growing, even if you cannot see it.

I am in the midst of many, many travels. From May through August, I am traveling to thirteen different presbytery meetings, all over the country. I will be gone for a week, home for a couple weeks, then gone for a couple weeks, home for a week, then gone again. Just this month, I will be traveling fifteen out of thirty-one days, and next month, I will be gone thirteen out of thirty-one. And I am a bit tired; I just want to skip out on the next few trips. I want to stay in bed and refuse to get out, and put any water in the cup.

But I know that in each and every meeting, I am blessed to see the fruits of someone else’s faithfulness. As I go into these rural congregations, all over the country, I am blessed to see vibrant, life-giving, beautiful churches. I am blessed to learn about the ministries in the communities I visit: home-based care programs for people living with HIV/AIDS, agricultural education, exuberant worship, phenomenal music...ministries of compassion and grace and praise abound. These ministries exist because of the faithfulness of those who just keep at it, who refuse to give up, who pour water into the cup every single day.

I am excited that I get to be a part of this. I am amazed that I am offered the opportunity to walk with my faithful colleagues here in Zambia. And I am overwhelmed by the incredible work that is being done. So, I will keep up my small part, a little bit of water in a tiny little cup, every single day, as best as I am able. Because the faithfulness of my friends here reminds me that there are miracles all over the place, growing just below the ground. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Surpassing Beauty

I had some pretty good rationalizations. And I will share them with you, as I hope you will agree that they are quite acceptable. First of all, the organization employs over 70 rural Zambians. Secondly, it gave us the opportunity to experience the wondrous awe of God’s creation. Third, we chose the cheapest package. Fourth, it is a remarkably unique opportunity. Now, don’t those seem like good rationalizations? I do think so myself. And so, we decided to spend three nights at a safari camp in South Luwangwa National Park. It was not inexpensive, but based on the above rationalizations, we made our reservations.
It was breath-taking; in the midst of a work trip through the rural Eastern Province, we took a detour to one of the most amazing national parks in the world. We watched baby puku nurse from their mothers, giant storks fish in green bays, young impala practice fighting, horns locked against each other. We saw herds of zebra rolling in the dirt, removing ticks from their bodies. We witnessed trios of giraffes walk towards us, as curious about our family as we were about theirs. We stood over a river, keeping a good distance from the crocodiles sunning on the shore, as hippos bathed nearby. 
We were frequently interrupted by elephants, including the ones who stood outside our tent, chewing and chomping our shade tree. 


One early morning, we watched a leopard up in the branches eating a baby impala. Below the tree, two hyenas waited for the legs of the impala to fall to the ground. Behind us, an owl was hunting, and a herd of guinea fowl squawked in terror. We sat and watched the leopard eat her meal, as the hyena chomped on bones, and the owl swooped towards his prey. In the distance, the phenomenal colors of the sunrise created the atmosphere of a dream. Too much beauty, too much pain, too much awe to absorb.

After three days of such wonder, we departed to continue our work, journeying towards the Malawian border. There we encountered different beauty, different pain, different awe.....   

“Where are your boys?” As we ducked under the thatched roof and emerged into the brilliant sunlight, we scanned the village for Frankie and Johnny. “Hmmm. I don’t know.” Joel and I laughed, as this was pretty much our normal pattern these past two weeks. Spending hours inside a rural church, with walls made of mud bricks, a roof of branches, on rough wooden pews. Speaking and teaching, listening and learning, singing and dancing, praising and praying. Discussing condoms and circumcision, home based care and stigma, church growth and discipleship, grace, love and unity. Meanwhile, our boys explore the village, and we trust them into the care of the community. 

And so, this particular afternoon, as we walked from the dark sanctuary into the sparkling blue sky, we had no concerns about their location. It was time for lunch, cooked over an open fire in a small thatched hut near the pastor’s home. These are the rural kitchens. In the distance, we saw a large group of women, gathered around a fire. Their bright chitenges contrasted the brown earth, and pretty soon, I saw my two boys, covered in dirt and dust, emerge from among the women.

I hadn’t seen them for hours, so as we waited for the meal, I asked my kids about their morning adventures. They had met a boy named Sam; he showed them his house and led them around the village. When they came to a group of women in the distance, they were offered tea and bread. The boys sat and drank; the tea was sweet and delicious, full of warm milk. And then, the women introduced them to Daniel. Daniel was laying on a mealie-meal bag, close to the fire, trying to get warm. He was around Frankie’s age, an eight year old boy, shivering with illness. “Hello, Daniel,” Johnny said in his squeaky, seven year old voice. 

“Will you pray for him?” one of the women asked. Frankie, who can be painfully shy, nodded. With the women, and the children, and Johnny and Sam, Frankie lifted up a prayer for Daniel, praying for health for this boy, a child his own age, living in such a different world.

While all this was happening, Joel and I were in the church, oblivious to our children’s whereabouts, and unaware that they were sipping tea with new friends and offering up their own prayers. 

We went into the pastor’s home, a small structure with a pit latrine in the yard, one room for sitting, one room for sleeping, and an outdoor kitchen, consisting of a fire and a pot. The food was served: goat and greens and nshima. We were offered a traditional Zambian drink: sweetened, boiled, watery corn meal, consumed cold. It is surprisingly good, despite its grittiness. We ate and drank and talked, until it was time for us to go.

As we stood up to leave, our hosts motioned for us to sit again. “We must pray for your journey!” they insisted. We nodded and bowed our heads, and Rev. Mithi lifted up a prayer of remarkable kindness and love, thanking God for our visit, and entrusting our travels into God’s care. We thanked them, numerous times, and set off.

It is a powerful thing to pray for one another, to pray for strangers in such a way that they become a part of your heart. It is a powerful thing to eat together, to share nshima or tea or bread, to share stories, to share lives. It is a powerful thing to remember that all of us have a role to play in the coming of God’s kingdom: children like Frankie and Johnny can sip tea and offer prayers, children like Sam can invite strangers into their homes, children like Daniel can remind us all of our responsibility to create a healthier, more just world. And adults like you and me and Rev. Mithi can live up to that responsibility. A different beauty, a different pain, a different awe....

And now, back to the rationalizations. I do not regret our investment in the safari; it was an amazing experience of renewal, wonder, and joy. But I also hope that I will invest as much in children like Daniel and Sam. I also hope that I will invest as much in rural Zambian communities, who are working against HIV/AIDS, struggling with food insecurity, and still offering hope and joy. I hope that I will invest my time and money in creating God’s kingdom, not just in enjoying God’s creation.

We all have a role to play. And I think it is important that we do not rationalize our spending, or our lives, in such a way that we resist our responsibility, while embracing our privilege. Certainly this is a temptation I face every single day. Appreciating God’s creation, experiencing God’s beauty, these are good, faithful things to do. But we also have a role to play in the building of God’s kingdom, in bringing peace and justice, in feeding one another. I am so grateful for the people in Eastern Province who fed me, and reminded me that the beauty I found in the Luwangwa Valley is only surpassed by the beauty of an outstretched hand, offering my children, perfect strangers, a cup of tea.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Kid Update

It has been a very fun month with the kids! After months and months of rehearsal, Frankie performed as an Oompa-Loompa in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Johnny celebrated his seventh birthday and received three academic awards and a medal at school. The kids are also really enjoying watching the World Cup, and are very excited about their term break. 

Needless to say, we all had the "Oompa-Loompa Dupity-Doo" song in our head for an entire month.

Frankie was the one to carry in the giant chocolate bar.

He had a lot of fun!

Johnny's birthday: There was no power and no water, but he did have a birthday apple crisp topped with seven tea-light candles.

The principal and vice-principal awarding Johnny with his academic medal.

The awards were in literacy, math, and science.

Johnny's birthday party

Six happy children; much easier than the 30+ at last year's party :)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Dandelion Has It

In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh writes a meditation about smiling. He closes with this paragraph, "Our smile will bring happiness to us and to those around us. Even if we spend a lot of money on gifts for everyone in our family, nothing we buy could give them as much happiness as the gift of our awareness, our smile. And this precious gift costs nothing. At the end of a retreat in California, a friend wrote this poem: 'I have lost my smile, but don't worry. The dandelion has it.'"

Awhile ago, I wrote that I had lost my joy, that sadness seemed to rob me of my smile. In truth, this rough patch had lasted a few months, and I was really ready for the dandelion to give me my smile back! But that image of God coming out to find me, lifting me on sturdy, steady shoulders, placing my feet on solid ground, kept assuring me that I would find lush pastures again. And looking around today, I find that I am in such a field, and that I am surrounded by dandelions. So many smiles, such abundant joy, that I can pick any dandelion I choose and offer up my bubbling thanks to God.

On Friday, a lovely family came to our home for dinner. We spent hours talking and sharing, their son playing with ours. After eating together, the boys set up a tent in the backyard and had a sleepover. We could hear them giggling with their friend throughout the night. A dandelion. 

On Saturday, we had dinner at the home of good friends, who prepared a feast of vegetarian Zambian food for us. Our family has been vegetarian for 15 years, but when they came to eat at our home, we had served them chicken, knowing that in Zambia, special guests are always offered meat. But when we arrived at their house over the weekend, they had prepared seven different dishes, all of them meat-free. After the meal, they read a letter, a beautiful testament of love and friendship, and we spent time talking about culture, sharing stories, and laughing together. Another dandelion.

On Sunday, we celebrated Father's Day with worship and communion, followed by a meal and a rare opportunity to watch a polo match at the Italian Club. We spent the afternoon playing soccer in our yard, which was full of laughter and about a million penalty shots. Dandelions all over the place.

Over the week, we had a very productive meeting of the HIV/AIDS department, I was able to complete a twenty page grant report, and finish up some lessons. Dandelions bloomed as I worked with colleagues; even writing the grant report was a joy, a reminder of what has already been accomplished in our synod. More and more dandelions.

And tonight, we will have a good-bye dinner with friends we love, and it will be hard, but also lovely. Also a reminder that we are so, so blessed to have these friends, so, so blessed by the wonderful, inspirational people in our lives. 

And tomorrow, we will go to another friend's home, and Saturday, to yet another friend's home...Dandelions, dandelions, and more dandelions....

It is not the case that we have five dinner engagements in nine days on a regular basis. But, being the extreme extrovert that I am, perhaps this is God's way of reminding me of all the love that is in my life, all the joy that surrounds me, all the human beings who act as dandelions for me, holding my smile and mirroring it back to me. And I begin to remember who I am, and whose I am, and where I am. And how blessed I am. 

It is nice to have my smile back. Thanks, dandelions. Thanks, friends.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Party for a Prisoner

They were speaking rapid Nyanja, and while I could pick out a few words, I was completely unable to keep up with the discussion. I could tell that they were speaking about a man in prison, a man who would soon be released. And as the church vestry continued its heated discussion, I filled in the blanks. 

Of course there would be nervous debate about a prisoner soon to be released into the community. I guessed that they were figuring out if they could let him back into the congregation. Would they be safe? Would the community be safe? I remembered similar conversations about ex-offenders in my previous congregations. What to do when a person gets released from prison? How does a church behave?

I watched them continue to speak, and was surprised by the smiles on their faces, the lightness with which the conversation continued. I had completely stopped listening as I imagined the content of their discussion, and finally, my colleague turned to me. “Were you following?” she asked. I admitted that I had not understood the majority of the discussion and she was happy to explain.

“Very soon one of our members will be released from prison. He is getting an early release and we are very happy. So, we are planning on throwing him a party. We are figuring out how to throw this party.” She returned to the conversation and I nodded as if that was exactly what I had expected. Of course. They weren’t debating whether or not this man could return to their community. They were discussing the details of the party they would throw for him, and how they would raise the funds.

I spent that morning with the congregation, and by early afternoon it was time to begin the long drive back to Lusaka. As we were ready to depart, the minister asked us to wait outside for just a few minutes. We complied, and I wondered what they needed to discuss without us present. It took longer than a few minutes, and I began to feel a bit impatient. I don’t like driving in the dark and I really wanted to leave, in order to get home before nightfall.

Finally, the minister came out of the church building and said farewell. As we were getting into the car, she shoved a wad of money in my hand. “Please, use it to buy food and soft drinks on your drive home,” she said. I began to protest, but she stopped me immediately. “Please. You must. This is for you.” I accepted the gift, realizing that they had been taking a special offering to collect this money. 

We did not need soft drinks, and we had traveled with a bag of food and water in the car. That money could have gone to feed someone else - someone who was hungry, someone who did not have a couple of chocolate chip cookies hidden in the glove compartment. But we had to accept this extravagant generosity - from this church full of rural Zambians who throw parties for prisoners and collect money to feed Americans.

There was a woman - an unnamed woman - in the gospels, who poured out expensive perfume, all over Jesus. She came to him and spilled the whole bottle on his skin, she wiped it with her hair. And when the disciples protested, “What a waste! This could have been sold and the money given to the poor!” Jesus said, “Why do you trouble her? She has done this beautiful thing to show her love. What she has done will be told again and again, in memory of her.”

This little church, in this little town, in south central Zambia, is pouring out perfume. They are throwing parties for prisoners, they are collecting money to buy soft drinks. They are singing and dancing and wiping in ointment with their hair. They are showing love - joyous, crazy, grateful, faithful love. And I can see Jesus smiling and laughing with them, saying, “Let their story be told over and over again, in memory of them.”

There is no doubt that this congregation is caring for its neighbors. It already runs a small community school, where kids can come and learn for free. They are beginning plans for a Home Based Care program, to provide assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS. They provide clothes and sustenance for those who are struggling. But they also throw parties for prisoners, they also shove cash into my full hands, they also dance and celebrate and trust in God.

I believe that extravagant generosity is closely aligned with unwavering faith. People who truly trust that God will provide are better able to give sacrificially. People who truly believe that God loves everyone are better able to love their neighbors. People who truly believe that God has a plan for us are better able to release their plans, their resources, their intentions, and practice the radical hospitality of God. People who truly believe that God is like a prodigal parent are able to throw better parties.

I deeply want to trust God like that - to have a faith that allows me to engage in such extravagant generosity, such reckless hospitality. Because even though I did not need the money for soft drinks, I certainly needed the lesson. Thanks, friends. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

You Have to Receive It

It should have taken two hours, maybe three. But, the detours through the bush, the potholes, and the road blocks added at least an hour. By the time we arrived at the meeting, we were very late. My colleagues welcomed us with hugs and warmth. They hurried to offer us seats and greeted us with clapping hands and wide smiles. Cookies and soft drinks were immediately provided, and after some refreshment, the moderator turned to me. "We are ready for you now."

I began to arrange my big bag of stuff. The handouts, the sample books, the folders, all jammed into an overstuffed pack. As I placed it on a heavy wooden bench, I noticed that it was not all that stable. Unfortunately, I noticed a bit too late. With a loud crash, the bench fell onto my foot. I tried not to cry out, but it was impossible to hide the pain. I could feel the swelling begin and the pain throbbed. My colleagues rushed towards me, apologizing as if my clumsiness was their fault, and I assured them that I was okay. I limped forward, to the front of the cinder block building, and began to speak.

I had rehearsed many times and I was delighted by the responsiveness of the men and women, the great questions, the enthusiastic engagement. When it ended, they clapped and thanked me. The moderator suggested that not only do they applaud my presentation, they also give me the gift of the spirit. I was confused, but watched, as they all rubbed their hands together, quickly and repeatedly, as the moderator spoke of his gratitude for my work and excitement at the new resources. And then, he said, "One, two, three..." All the people gathered stopped rubbing their hands and clapped three times, in unison. Then, they held their arms, palms out, towards me. "The spirit of gratitude," declared the moderator.

I smiled, unsure how to respond to this incredible kindness. The moderator looked at me gently. "You are supposed to receive it." And so I held out my hands, palms up, and brought them to my heart. "I receive it," I said. "Thank you." And having received the spirt, the love, the gratitude, I limped back to my seat.

As the hours passed, my foot continued to swell. By lunchtime, my limp was obvious. Rev. Naomi Daka, a good friend, came over to me. "We have decided," she smiled. "We will heal you in the African way. The water is already boiling. Follow me."

Outside, there was a fire and a pot over the open flame. The water was, indeed, boiling. She looked at me, with laughter in her eyes, "You will not cry?" She teased. I laughed. "Um, that looks hot." She had mercy and poured in some cooler water from a bucket. "Sit down."

I sat, feet hanging from my car, and she knelt in the dirt, in her clergy collar and long black skirt. She took a basin and a ripped cloth, dipping it in the steaming water. "It won't hurt," she promised.

She removed my foot from my shoe and held it gently for a moment. And then came the rubbing and pulling and kneading and stretching and squeezing. I bit my lip. She continued to massage and wash and immerse my foot in warm, healing water. "How is it?" she asked. As I stood, I felt the muscles stretched out again, the throbbing decreased. "It is much better," I replied.

She rose from her knees and brushed off the dirt, ringing the cloth in the basin of water. I thought of Jesus and the disciples and dirty feet, of Peter's resistance...No! I am not worthy. You will never wash my feet. You have to receive it, I thought. You have to receive the blessing.

I have been spending time lately, far too much time, focusing on the image in the mirror. The person who is full of imperfection - the Peter who denies and hides and messes up over and over again. But God is asking me to open my hands to the spirit, to place it on my heart, to feel it in my feet, to lower my injury into the basin, to let the servant of Jesus wash me clean, to remind me. I am blessed. I am loved. I am worthy. I just have to receive it.

It may be the hardest thing, to receive the blessing, to find ourselves worthy of love. But with open hands and wounded feet, with a limp and a broken heart, we can find that this is exactly when we need to receive it. Exactly when we sit and place our feet in the warm, healing waters. And we know. Jesus is there, with a towel and a smile, ready to immerse us in undeserved grace. Ready to remind us, again and again - all we have to do is receive it.