Monday, January 27, 2014

My Boys

The man showed me his grocery basket; a little meat, a few vegetables, some bread. “Can you help me?” he asked. “I just need twenty kwatcha.” I looked at the food, looked at the man, and pulled out my wallet. It was about four dollars. I handed the money over and continued to pick out groceries for our family. 

Frankie was standing next to me. “Mom, what did that man want?” 

“Just some money for food,” I responded.

“Oh, can I give it to him?” 

“I already did, sweetie.”

“But, I mean, can it come from my money?”

“How much money do you have?”

“Twenty kwatcha.”

“Well, sure, but then you will have no money at all. That is what I gave the man.”

“Okay, that’s fine.”

“Are you sure? Because if the money comes from you, you can’t just have it back.”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay, sweetheart. Then I will take the twenty kwatcha from your allowance.”

Two days later, we were at the boys’ school, where there is a snack shop. Johnny asked me for ten kwatcha of his own money, so that he could buy some chips. I handed it over. After Johnny walked away, I saw a bit of sadness on Frankie’s face. “I wish I had money. I want to buy a snack.”

“Sorry, honey. You know, you could ask your brother. He would probably buy you something.”

“No, that’s okay.”

We waited a few minutes, and Johnny came back carrying two bags of chips, one of them Frankie’s favorite. “Here,” he said, as he handed the bag to Frankie. “I bought these for you.”

Frankie hadn’t even asked, but Johnny decided to spend his own money to feed Frankie, just as Frankie decided to spend all of his money to feed a stranger. 

It happens with enormous frequency that I stand in awe of my children. I could easily give 20 kwatcha to that man. Four dollars is nothing to me. But for Frankie, it was everything. All his money. And somehow, Johnny just knew that his brother would love a bag of chips. And he fed him, without even being asked.

Even though I have lived here for a year and a half, I still haven’t really figured out the best approach to those who ask me for money on the street, in the store, at a restaurant. But, I guess, I just err on the side of offering something. Because I can, and because I want to be more like Frankie and Johnny. And maybe, a bit more like Jesus, too.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Yesterday's Burial

Rev. Mphepo had been sick for awhile. In his mid-fifties, the father of eight children, pastor, presbytery leader, brother, uncle, husband. He came to serve our sister congregation, just two months ago. And yesterday, with hundreds of mourners, and forty of my colleagues, we buried him in one of the compounds.

The burial was a first for me; despite many funeral visitations, I had not yet participated in the very dirty, very real, almost brutal procedure for putting someone’s body in the ground. Here, in Zambia, it is so very different than in the US. Having served as a parish minister for over a decade, I presided over countless graveside ceremonies. A lovely tent, folding chairs, green grass, and a beautiful coffin, lowered into the earth with a crank and pulley. Green astroturf to cover the hole where the body rests. And after all the mourners leave, after we return for a luncheon, that is when strangers will come to cover the coffin with dirt.

But here, the pastors get their hands dirty. Here, the mourners feel the earth. Here, the funeral clothes are clotted with mud. Here, the shoes bear witness to the red clay ground, to the reality that someone, a loved one, is being covered with soil.

The church service is not all that different: hymns and speakers, scripture and comfort. But at the end, everyone processes past the body, and the sounds are jarring and painful. The women wail, the men wail, some people fall to the ground, as their bodies shake in sobs. And through all of this, a choir sings and dances, waving their hands in the air as their melodies proclaim the promise and hope of resurrection. Loud wailing, joyous singing, human beings, falling to the floor in agony. And, then, we leave for the cemetery.

The simple coffin is loaded into the back of a truck, and once we arrive, we see dirt stretching on and on, interrupted by simple grave markers. I read the names, the dates, so many young lives, so many funerals. We walk to the large hole that family and friends dug into this earth early in the morning. It is ready and waiting for us.

Some of the pastors lower the body of Rev. Mphepo into the ground. And then we gather in a circle, forty pastors, surrounded by mourners. We grab handfuls of dirt and we throw it onto the coffin. In the name of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit. But what happens next is what throws me the most. Shovels and picks appear and the pastors get to work. They shovel and pick, and sweat like crazy. They are burying their friend.

It takes a long time. The hole is deep and the work is hard. It is hot. Very, very hot. Most of the pastors are in robes, in their nicest suits, in their collars. And they are getting covered in mud and sweat. Hands dirty, robes dirty, shoes dirty. They keep on working. The hole is covered, and yet they still keep working. They create a mound of dirt, and then, with their hands, they pat the mound down, creating solid earth over their friend. I watch them, sweat pouring down my face, as they wipe away some of their sweat, some of the dirt, and stand back. It is done.

But the service continues with flowers. Every single person there is called up, to take a rose and push it into the earth, into the mound that was just created. As the children come forward, they fall to their knees. One of the daughters needs help getting up. Again, the women are wailing, the men are wailing, and the choir is still there, singing and dancing songs of resurrection hope.

More and more flowers cover the dirt, and the sounds continue. The sweat, the earth, the wailing, the flowers, the praise, the dancing. It begins to swim in front of my eyes, the pain and love, the hope and faith, the courage and strength I see.

At night, the choirs and the pastors and the pastors’ spouses and the family and the friends all sleep at the home of the deceased. They sleep on chitenges in the yard, some sleep in the house, they will sing and pray and keep watch. The next day, some will leave, and some will stay. The family will not be left alone for a couple of weeks. They will be cared for, checked on, fed, allowed to weep and wail. And then the widow, the mother of eight, will figure out what is next. She will figure out how to feed her family, where to live, how to survive.

This is a place where people get their hands dirty, where death is real, where the earth swallows up a person that you love, and you don’t get the benefit of astro-turf and a sparkling coffin. But, perhaps, that is not a benefit after all. The reality of death, the horrible gut-wrenching agony of that loss, cannot be denied in a place where pastors bury two or three people in a week. They get dirty, they shovel the earth, they allow mud on their most special clothing. And then they sing, and then they dance, and then they trust. There is something more, something more powerful than death. This they believe. Because they must, because it is so very real. Because God’s promises are breath and life to them.

As a pastor, I performed many, many funerals. Some of them were so painful that I had to struggle to lead the liturgy and keep my own tears in check. Some of the people I have buried remain with me still, as inspirations, as memories of love and strength and faithfulness. But never in my life have I experienced a funeral so real. The wailing, the dirt, the pain. I wonder what it would be like if we let ourselves do this: mourn with everything we have, and also trust with everything we have.

It seems to go hand in hand. The songs of praise and the sounds of wailing. The promise of heaven and the thudding of shovels. The power of love and the dirty shoes. The mud and the mystery. 

Death is very real here. It is expected that we will get dirty and covered in mud. It is expected that we will wail and mourn and fall down. It is expected that we will pick up shovels and get to work, the real work, of saying good-bye. But hope is very real here, too. Love is very real here, too. Mostly, things are just very real here. 

Maybe we all need to be a little more real, get a little more dirty. Can we let ourselves live in the depth of love and loss and pain and faith? Can we, too, mourn with everything we have, and love with everything we have, and trust with everything we have? Mud-stained shoes and faith-filled hearts. May it be so.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

To Be Here Learning

“I am thankful to be here learning.” Her tiny voice traveled up to my ears, and I repeated her words in a booming tone, to a hundred children, gathered in a huge outdoor circle. “She is thankful to be here learning,” I proclaimed. “We thank God!” One hundred voices responded in unison.

After six months of writing, meeting with colleagues, researching, creating, editing, and using my children and neighbors as guinea pigs, I was there for the first curriculum trial. A ten hour drive from Lusaka, I brought along my curriculum draft, a children’s Bible, and nothing else. The curriculum is meant to be accessible in resource poor settings. So, I would not be using crayons and paper, puppets or play things. I would just use the curriculum we are creating, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s children’s bible, which will accompany all the lesson copies when they are distributed.

I expected 30-50 children; our congregation in Lusaka is one of the larger churches, and we generally have less than 40 kids on any given Sunday. And so I got ready, chose a lesson, prepared to teach it, and waited for Sunday to arrive. 

I walked into the building, reminding myself that this is a trial. It is meant to expose the weaknesses, so that we can improve the document, before it is approved, finalized, translated, printed, and distributed. Therefore, this should not be smooth, I reminded myself. I breathed deeply as I went through the door. There were over one hundred children gathered, ranging in age from 4-15. Not exactly what I had expected. 

A big part of my job lately has been the development of a holistic Christian Education Curriculum, to be used for children, youth, and adults. I am writing three different curricula, one for Sunday School, ages 4-9, one for Hearers, ages 10-12, one for Catechumen, ages 13-15. The ones for Hearers and Catechumen also have modifications, so they can be used for adults, as well. 

The curriculum is meant to be used in resource-poor settings, using only items that can be easily procured. All of the lessons include an application that is specifically African, lifting up people, practices, organizations, or cultural issues that relate to the Biblical theme. Finally, the lessons address challenges that students in Zambia face, from poverty to domestic violence to HIV/AIDS to hunger to gender issues. In all of these lessons, a Biblical theme is proclaimed and a holistic, relevant message offered. The curriculum will have fifty-two lessons for each of the three age groups. 

Back to the trial: the lesson on Jesus healing ten lepers, on showing gratitude. The little girl, thankful to be there, learning. One hundred kids, listening, responding, laughing, acting out the story. And towards the end, as I told them the Zambian application story, all of the children created a tight crowd, quiet, listening. It was the most attentive they were during that hour. Hearing a story of their people, and their relationship to God.

It was not all smooth, that is for sure. It was loud and chaotic and hilarious and crazy. It did involve at least one little girl in tears, and it ended with me having a very hoarse throat. But after the lesson, the teacher told me how much he wanted a curriculum, a simple children’s Bible, a bit more training. He loves to teach, he told me. But he needs a little help, he needs something to work with.

The lesson would have been a complete failure, without the teacher and his assistants. They were remarkable teachers, and the students were full of energy, because these adults emanated joy and love. They already have the church, already have the students, already have the faithfulness, already have the gifts. They just want a few resources, to help them do the work that God has called them to do. And I have the blessing and privilege of working with them to create and provide these resources. A curriculum, a children’s Bible, a training.

The children’s Bible, which will accompany all the curricula, comes from the Presbyterian Church of Okemos, in Michigan. That church decided that they wanted to help with the curriculum, and when one of my Zambian supervisors mentioned that he wanted something beautiful, illustrated, to go with the curriculum, the church stepped up. They offered to provide Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Children of God Storybook Bible, full of beautiful illustrations from all around the world, full of the stories of God. That congregation raised money, through their Sunday School, to buy enough children’s Bibles for every congregation in CCAP Zambia.

It is such an exciting partnership! The Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Zambia, identified Christian Education materials as a priority in its holistic ministry. I was asked to create materials, with help from my Zambian colleagues. And our partner church in the United States offered to walk with us, sending along beautiful Bibles. 

“I am thankful to be here learning,” said the little girl. And I was thankful, so thankful, to be there learning, too. As we walk together, love together, learn together.