Yesterday, a member of the church told her faith story in church. Her name is Jill and she told of the struggles of her life. It is the October 28, 2012 message and is worth listening to online on the church website.
Jill talked of always feeling like she never measured up. Her learning disability caused her to struggle to do middle school math in her upper years of high school. Her brother and sister had great capabilities it led her to feel that she was not as good and therefore not as loved. What Jill said of her high-achieving siblings was, "I turned their praises into my pressures."
I talked with Jill as she prepared to tell her story and I knew the big pieces - the low self-esteem, the looking for love with guys that were abusive, the turning point in getting pregnant and deciding to "hold myself accountable" and do the right thing, and ultimately encountering Christ on a Saturday night service at St. Andrews. I had even read the line about turning "their praises into my pressures." But yesterday, when she spoke those words live, that line had impact. At least for me.
I listen to countless stories of people who do exactly that. They compare themselves to others, feel like they don't measure up, and put pressure on themselves to somehow make up ground they feel is lacking. As a result, the honest internal self-talk is self-deprecating and the external actions range from seeking to prove something to the world to unhealthy attachments to people to self-destructive or self-medicating behavior.
It took Jill getting lost in worship one night to have a new vision for her life. When God flooded her heart with his presence and she told God how sorry she was that she had been ignoring him, everything changed. When Jesus became real for her as forgiver of her sins and leader of her life, all of the burden of shame, and feeling less-than others melted away. She lived for years comparing herself to others and feeling like she didn't measure up to others. She internalized this with her siblings: "I turned their praises into my pressures." When she encountered God in worship, God led her to be able to reverse that pattern. She didn't say it this way, but what she now lives is a pattern in which God has turned her pressures into praise.
If you feel a lot like Jill, listen to her story. She allowed herself to be open to God, put herself in settings to encounter God, and God did the work in the heart. God turns pressures we put on ourselves that cripple us into praises for his deliverance of those very pressures. He did it for Jill. He can do it for you.
Monday, October 29, 2012
Friday, September 28, 2012
Friday, August 31, 2012
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
This was taken before the trip. Mayor Eggers came by to bring me some items to give to the people of Madagascar. As it turned out, we played this video for over a thousand people between all of the services and groups for whom we played it. Thanks, Mr. Mayor.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
We went to worship this morning with Pastor TinaJonoa (literally the name Tina and John put together) in the capital city. He started the church ten years ago and today the 800 members are about to celebrate the full opening of the church (pictured at left). The only section that wasn’t quite ready was the pulpit area. There was a makeshift pulpit area in place today. I preached on the need for solidarity in the midst of people who were against us or oppress us. I never mentioned it, but the thought of a hardline government was just below the surface. As I said before, all is politically calm at the moment, but there is a capacity for that to change in a moment around here. The service began at 9:00 am and ended at noon. Three hours! You St. Andrews folks, what do you think? Up for it?
Afterward, we went to Pastor Laurent’s for a great lunch and then went back to the seminary to print our boarding passes. I’m in the hotel room and waiting for Pastor Laurent to finish his worship service and pick us up.
It has been a good trip. I’ve thought about you often on the trip. For reasons that will still be revealed over time, God has Kelly and me on this trip. There will be a Mission Sunday on August 26 at St. Andrews. The Costa Rica, Honduras, and Madagascar teams will sponsor the event. We’ll probably have more thoughts about what God was up to then. I’ve missed being home, of course. I’m not sure how people who travel constantly do it. I miss my wife, family, friends, and church family when I’m gone.
Will post this, go to Pastor Laurent’s, and head for the airport about 11 pm. It’s wheels up at 2:00 am. Touchdown in Tampa Monday night at 8:30 pm. Looking forward to being back with you. Pray for our trip back. I prefer my travel uneventful and am praying for exactly that.
Thinking of you.
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Yesterday, Kelly and I finished our teaching. I spent the morning with the master’s students (that’s me and some of them in the photo). We started early so we could finish at noon. Most of them had a long bus ride back to their homes. One student would be on the bumpy and crowded bus for eight hours after spending four hours in class in the morning.
I took the first two hours of class letting them ask any question they wanted about subjects covered or anything else. It took two hours because working through a translator is slow moving. They asked about many things, the most interesting to me was the question of whether it was better to go to a church with modern facilities and worship capabilities or a simple rural church. I put the question to them: “Which do you think is better?” Maybe it was something with the way I put the question, but I was not expecting these pastors, most of whom were rural church pastors, to all answer that the modern churches were better. I suspect they feel their limitations as small church pastors. I suggested that whether we are in large or small churches that we not lose sight of the fact that our primary mission is to make followers of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t need a church building at all. In that sense, both can be equally effective.
The second two hours was spent talking about the need for church leaders to focus on making mature disciples of Jesus Christ. I talked through the relationship between the words “Christian” and “disciple.” I took them through an assessment of how they were doing in making disciples. I talked about some personal and corporate models of disciple making. And then, feeling very much the role of Dr. Fullerton the seminary professor, I gave them homework. The best part is that it is homework I won’t have to grade since I don’t speak or read the language.
Yesterday afternoon, Kelly and I had a few hours on our own. I caught up on some communications and worked on my sermon for Sunday. Kelly prepared for his evening class.
Last evening, Professor Kelly King taught at the university to a much larger group of masters students. I was truly impressed with the school here. They just received an award of excellence recognition from a coalition of schools from throughout southern Africa. This Institute for Political Studies, part of the Reformed University of Madagascar, has an ambitious leader and great plans for the future.
Pastor Laurent and I visited a family we were originally going to stay with while during this part of our trip. Their home was a bit too far away from where we were working, thus the hotel where we have stayed all week. This husband and wife were entrepreneurs with a successful clothing manufacturing company. We saw the wealthy of Madagascar tonight. The family was unlike any I have met so far. We’ve met plenty of strong, confident, and intelligent people, but this husband and wife were also unapologetically visionaries. Their vision for industry, parenting, politics, and the church was reasoned, achievable, rooted in care for people, and leveraged the strengths that already exist in this country. They were as concerned as all have been about the crippling economic issues, but they saw that a coordinated, grass roots effort could lead renewal. They saw the church as having a key role since between the Lutherans and Presbyterians nearly half of the country’s population is represented. I had already been thinking that the Christians here were a “sleeping giant” and if ever awakened could be a major force of renewal. I told them so tonight and they had been thinking the same thing. The night was spent talking, eating, and, for me, enjoying being around a room full of English-speaking people. I wish Kelly could have been part of it.
I was tired and sleep came easy last night.
Today was listed in the schedule as a full day off. I can’t remember the last one I’ve had. It’s been several months. Our big plans were to do a little shopping. About 45 minutes before we were to go shopping, Pastor Laurent called and told us to put on a suit and tie. We had plans. We were going to a wedding and a fundraiser. Kelly King said he hasn’t worn a suit this often in 20 years. We went to the wedding and I was interested in the traditions here, even though we felt like wedding crashers. Kelly said he was Vince Vaughan and I was Owen Wilson (actors in a movie called Wedding Crashers). The weddings were similar to ours, except there was no bridal party standing with the couple. I had no idea what the fundraiser was for until we got there. It was to raise money for a project commemorating the martyrs of the church. The early church martyrs are heroes and, rightly so, they want to honor them. In America, we don’t often think about the martyrs. People still pay the ultimate price for their Christian faith. Today was a good reminder what a privilege it is to be able to worship freely and not worry about harassment or persecution or death because of it.
We got in a little shopping, made plans for the next day, and were dropped off at the hotel about 6 pm. Kelly and I then went to one of the more enjoyable parts of our trip. We went to a little restaurant around the corner from the hotel, had a light meal, enjoyed a glass of wine, and talked at length about this trip to Madagascar. We will both reflect more later on the question of what God was doing with us being here, but, for tonight, we both agreed that we were here to encourage and honor the people for what they have been through and where their hopes are for the future. We see the differences between our cultures and have no desire to impose changes. We want to share what we know and trust they are bright enough to know if and how to use what is appropriate in business (Kelly) or theology (me). We agree that the great hope for the future is as I wrote about yesterday – it is in the rising generation that catches a vision of economic and spiritual renewal. We hope we have helped nudge things in that direction in these past weeks. I hope it is something we bring back with us. America needs an economic and spiritual renewal and it too will happen as people catch that vision and work with optimism toward that vision.
Off to look over sermon and get some rest.
Thinking of you.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Yesterday was rather calm. No lemurs jumping on me, no bumpy roads, no long travel day, no night fevers. We went to seminars, we ate dinner, and then went home.
At the seminary, another American who is a missionary in Kenya taught and I was a resource person. His name is Dr. Mark Olander. He is originally from Wisconsin, but spends most of the year in Columbia, South Carolina. He was there because a Malagasy student at the University of South Carolina, Nirandra Randria, met him and invited him. Nirandra is a Fulbright Scholar studying hospitality and tourism and wants to strengthen Madagascar’s eco-tourism when he graduates. He also loves American college football. Even though he is a USC Gamecock fan it was fun to have another SEC fan around and talk football with him. Dr. Olander taught on how to teach. These masters students said they needed the training. Nirandra said the Malagasy church leaders only know and use the lecture method of teaching. Dr. Olander taught that plus many other styles that got students involved in conversations, role playing, debates, and others. Very useful.
Kelly taught at the university this afternoon on risk management and when he was done he and I went to dinner with Pastor Kim to the same Korean restaurant previously attended. Again, the food was great. Pastor Kim had an interesting perspective on the present situation in Madagascar. This country is in crisis. Their economic crisis makes ours look non-existent. It is tough in personal and business finances. Pastor Kim said Korea was just like this 60 years ago and now many consider them a first-world powerhouse. He believes it can happen here. The important part is he is a missionary here and can tell his own country’s story to them directly. There is hope for the future. It occurred to me that the bright, young, and eager faces Kelly and I have seen before us in class are the agents of that hope. Their passion, their ethics, their teaching, and their vision for a better future in every way will reach thousands of people they are and will lead as pastors and teachers. There is hope.
Today, I team taught with one of board members of the new Reformed University of Madagascar, of which Pastor Laurent is the Chairman of the Board. I’m telling you Pastor Laurent is a rock star here…such profound respect. The subject was marketing and the church. Pastor/professor Zaka taught marketing concepts with the “product” to be marketed being the message of Jesus Christ we Christians bear through the church (Pastors Zaka, Laurent, and me are having a panel discussion with students in photo above). I taught the practical ways to apply the marketing approach to church life. Pastor Laurent said of me to the students, “This guy is marketing incarnate.” Between the formal questions in class and the ones asked afterward the subject of the day seemed to be effective and useful.
After the seminar, we had a reception with the leaders of the venue, the Institute for Political Studies of Madagascar. This institute is one of about ten institutes formed by the denomination to build the Reformed University. This is where Kelly has been teaching on business skills all week. I asked Pastor Laurent why he and others wanted to establish this university when there were already others in the country. He said there were four motivations. First, the demand is high. There are more students who want to get an education that spots available for them. Second, it will be a Christian university. This is important because there is such corruption in society that he wants to be able to teach students to be leaders with integrity. Courses on ethics will be required every year. Third, this will be an English-based university. Madagascar is a Francophone country since they were a French colony for 60 years. Many want to lessen the ties to France and strengthen the ties to the English-speaking world. Fourth, this university will be accessible throughout the country. Travel here is difficult and expensive. The approach of the university up front will be to develop multiple campuses throughout the country. This university is also part of the hope for the future here.
Dinner was with Pastor Zaka, his wife, and Pastor Laurent.
Finished prepping for my last seminar tomorrow and heading for bed.
Thinking of you.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
I woke up thinking about two things. First, the smells of Madagascar, especially the city smells. I do not have a highly developed sense of smell, but I can tell you that the cities here smell similar – good and bad - to large cities everywhere with a couple of exceptions. There is significant litter strewn throughout town and in certain places it has your basic trash pile smell. Most notably, however, is the smell of smoke. There are small fires constantly burning somewhere, either for people cooking over the fires or, since it is late winter here, warming themselves. That smell hangs over almost everywhere we go in town. It is not unpleasant, but it is pervasive.
The second thought I woke up with was a note that Tina Smothers sent me about her young son, Jojo. Tina told Jojo that I am here in Madagascar. He has been watching the cartoon movie Madagascar and keeps looking for me in it. I woke up grinning at the thought of that. I’ll have to ask him if he saw me in the movie.
In the morning we went to the seminary at which Pastor Laurent is dean of students. In the morning, we met with a group of graduate students. Most were studying for a Masters degree and a couple were doctoral students. Each introduced themselves by name, city, and focus of their studies. Also joining us was Pastor Cheong Kim. Here is a bit of “it’s a small world after all…” Pastor Kim knows Pastor June-Gyoung Kim, the pastor who replaced Pastor Wan Tae Cho who was at the Korean Church in Pinellas Park when our sister church relationship began. Both Pastor Kims came to our Saturday night service a few months ago, and here’s the twist: Pastor Laurent was with them. Pastor Cheong Kim knows Pastor Laurent because Pastor Cheong Kim is a missionary in none other than Madagascar. What a connection! I sat next to Pastor Cheong Kim today and then he took a group of us to a Korean restaurant for lunch (I had Bulgolgi…love that dish!).
In the afternoon, I led an informal discussion about life in the local church in America. As I was describing life at St. Andrews, they stopped me when I discussed Life Groups. I explained that the concept of Life Groups attempts to solve the problem of superficial Christianity. This is when you have Christians who are “3,000 miles wide and an inch deep.” In Life Groups, Christians come together in groups and grow deep with one another, deep in their knowledge of the Word, and deep in their commitment to Jesus Christ. This struck a nerve with them. Apparently this is a global issue. The denomination here planted 500 churches last year. However, many of them are so young spiritually that it is easy to fall back into patterns that include their previous spiritual beliefs, an issue that the apostle Paul dealt with in planting the first Christian churches.
I got a nice little gift after the teaching time – my sinus infection escalated into flu-like symptoms. Achy, shivering, and feverish. They took me to the hotel where will spend the rest of the week and I climbed under every blanket I could find fully clothed. Somewhere in the night, the fever broke and I am much better today. I did not journal last night, thus two days notes in one post.
There was one fun outcome of my night of shivers. Yesterday was Cile and my 29th wedding anniversary. This is definitively the furthest we’ve been apart for our anniversary. She was working until 8 pm so I decided to call her at 9 pm after she got off of work. That meant setting my alarm here for 4 am. I forgot that Kelly King had used the phone Pastor Laurent gave me to call his wife, Michelle. So sleepy and delirious from a night of fever, I hit the last number dialed, hear a voice answer, and jump right in: “Happy anniversary.” “Why thank you, John, but today is not my anniversary.” It was Michelle King. So just for the record, whenever it IS their anniversary, I called them from Madagascar to let them know I was happy for them. Cile appreciated the second phone call I made at 4 am when I spoke with her. It was good to hear my bride’s voice.
Today – Tuesday – was the first formal day of teaching. We went to a large church in town. That is the church as students were coming in this morning in the photo above. I’m guessing about 100 people, mostly graduate students who are also pastors, were in attendance. Every event begins with worship – singing, Scriptures, message, prayers – and this was no exception. The seminary sponsors this weeklong event and the Institute for Music, Liturgy, and Multimedia led today’s session. There were a number of speakers for the day and I was the second of the morning. Pastor Laurent asked me to speak about “holy and liberating worship” and how our own worship at St. Andrews is exactly that. For him, that is what stands out about our worship. He asked me to talk about the various methods we use to make such worship a reality, including the Internet and audio and visual media. I had an hour-long presentation including translation and another hour of questions and answers. I was told that it gave many of them practical ideas for worship that were rooted in strong theology. Their many questions confirmed it for me.
The afternoon session I was up front as a “resource person,” meaning if something came up, I could speak to the question or issue. The subject of the afternoon was about helping pastors with church music. They covered issues like a new digital resource that will play the tunes of all of the hymns in their hymnal so pastors will know it before they select it for worship. Also, they talked about the influence of the unique “Malagasy style” of music and lyrics that were influenced by the revival movement we went to last week. The best part was they brought in a collection of musicians who helped demo what they were talking about, including the Tana Gospel Choir we saw last week. They are not only good performers, but, I found out today, they are also all trained musicians. They can all read, write, and play music. They all know music theory. Now I’m even more impressed.
They took up an offering this afternoon. The pastor of the church called for it and he said that anytime we give to God there should be joy in our heart when we do so. We are giving to God! We are giving for the best cause in the world! Let it show! He said music can help with that. And then we had one of the most enjoyable offerings I’ve ever experienced. The pastor invited people to come to the front with their offering (standard practice for the churches here), the band and choir to start singing, and the people to dance their way forward. I have no idea what the lyrics were, but imagine coming forward with your offering while a song plays like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or Dexter Poindexter’s “Hot, Hot, Hot” or any conga line at a wedding reception and you’ll get close to the feel of the room. People were dancing and smiling and raising their hands. I looked up and the pastor was behind the communion table on the platform doing a little cha-cha an smiling from ear-to-ear. I told Pastor Laurent that since this is a Malagasy thing, when he gets back I want him to dance while people dance their offerings to the front.
We went back to Pastor Laurent and Diamondra’s for dinner. This was a special meal. Diamondra is flying back to the U.S. tonight. The two of them would be apart from each other for another few weeks. Plus, with the political situation here one never knows what could change. It has been three years since Diamondra saw her family. While the environment now is relatively peaceful, one political act could change things and she may not see her family for years again. That hung in the air tonight as we ate.
I’m feeling much better now. Thanks to Carol White who loaded me with cold medicine before we left, I am treating symptoms for a cold and that’s it. Time for rest.
Thinking of you.
Sunday, August 5, 2012
We worshiped in two churches this morning. We were only in each church for part of the service and were there for two hours per church. The first church is one in which I preached. That's me with the pastor in the photo. As with last Sunday, I preached and Pastor Laurent translated. I’ve learned that full manuscripts are best when working with translators. I wrote a full manuscript and transferred it to my iPad for preaching. Pastor Laurent took my laptop to the microphone with him and translated my sermon from there. His translation as not word-for-word. It was thought-for-thought. Some ways of saying things would just not work here.
We drove the borrowed four-wheel drive around this week. Potholes are a popular feature on Malagasy roads, especially here in the capital. Even with beefed up suspension on the vehicle we drove, sitting in the backseat was a painful experience on certain potholes. I think my kidneys went up to my brainstem and back several times and I will return an inch shorter. Kelly and I learned to sit in an Olympic skier crouched over position on the ride. More shock absorption for the ride.
The second church we entered after worship had been going for an hour. I’m not sure what all they did in the first hour, but in the second and third hours, they had 12 students presented for confirmation, four offerings in which the congregation comes forward each time to bring their offering, the Lord’s Supper (we had it at both churches and St. Andrews was having it today also – loved that!), and a celebration of the pastor’s wife being commissioned as a pastor. She was one of the 83 commissioned at the service we attended last Sunday. It was 1:00 pm when service was over. We didn’t stay for the lunch. Pastor Laurent was hungry and he was the driver, so we went right away to the closest restaurant.
After that it was back to Pastor Laurent and Diamondra’s house. This afternoon was the first real block of rest we’ve had in 12 days. It was nice. I caught up this blog and prepared for my lectures this week. Kelly went over his lectures as well. Diamondra and her sister went out doing “girl stuff” and brought her sister’s two small boys with them. Pastor Laurent slept. While you were in worship there, we were resting here.
Tonight we had dinner with the widow of Pastor Laurent’s best friend. His best friend died about a month ago and this was a chance to enjoy the long friendship between the families. The woman was a bit of a gourmet cook. I told her I would not tell anyone back home about this meal. “I want them to think we suffered with only rice the whole time.”
I think I’m getting a sinus infection just in time for this week’s activities. Still, we are well otherwise and we are safe. Many were concerned about our safety in coming to a country that has experienced a military coup. Here, history has shown that they are capable of violence for political purposes. However, as with Honduras, once you are out of the city few people are directly affected by political divisions. There are no riots for political gain when subsistence living is the norm. So far, we have spent most of our time in the rural areas. In the capital city where we are now, all is calm. We talk often of the situation with the government and there is not even a hint of hostilities forthcoming. Even if there were, this is an internal national issue and outsiders are not targets for political statements.
Time for bed.
Thinking of you.
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Wow. This hotel was busy last night. The hotel is right on main street and main street was happening last night. Somewhere around midnight there was this lovely family feud just below us. Yelling and screaming in Malagasy. Then the trucks would drive through town. Not many of them at night, but still there were some. And the protocol here is to tap the horn at walkers to let them know you are there. Those horn taps were heard all night. On top of that, my room was adjacent to a hallway with a light that you switched on and off as you used it. Someone turned the light on around 3 am and I woke up thinking it was morning. Not a restful night, but all was well. A good warm shower, a clean set of clothes, and I was back on the road to Antananarivo, the capital city.
There is an interesting expression we use about someone moving at high speeds. We say they are moving like a bat out of hell. When you think about what a bat who has been to hell might have experienced there and, given the opportunity to leave, how that bat might fly out, it is a vivid illustration. That was Reja our driver today (pictured above next to Kelly). He was driving fast. Safe, but fast. We didn’t mind. We were ready to get back ourselves.
In one town, we stopped to pick up a few items to bring home. There was a series of shops we visited. Whenever I meet someone here they always assume I’m French and greet me with “bonjour.” Most vazaha (“white guy”) are French. They are a bit surprised when I say back to them, “Manoa aonoa,” Malagasy for “hello.”
I’m finding out that Diamondra is quite the little negotiator. I had a few items I wanted and was beginning to try to understand the price. Diamondra came in and by the time she was done the price was dropped from about $15 each to about $8 each. I’ve always enjoyed haggling in these settings but Diamondra is a skilled professional!
I did something unusual for lunch today. I didn’t have rice. I had French Fries. I found myself wondering with all the meat they eat and now the addition of French Fries how much high cholesterol and heart disease are prevalent in Malagasy society. It was a nice change of palate.
We got back into the capital city and went immediately to Pastor Laurent’s office at the seminary. He has something important for what I’m doing with these blog posts – high speed internet. Also, I’m finishing up for my sermon tomorrow. I’m preaching from 1 Corinthians 1 where Paul is dealing with the divisions in the Corinthian church. Some followed Paul, others followed Apollos, still others followed Peter, and still others felt they had a special connection with Christ. My call will be for unity in the church. What’s nice is bringing this message from another culture allows me to drive home the unity we have in Christ. Kelly and I are inextricably bound to the Christians here as are you. It is our shared faith in Jesus Christ that makes it so. My message will be along those lines.
We had dinner with doctoral student named Alfred studying at Manchester University in England. We were all still road weary from the trip and headed for bed early.
Tonight we will stay at Pastor Laurent and Diamondra’s home. They live in a walled in compound on about a third of an acre. Pastor Laurent explained that most Malagasy never buy a home. They buy a piece of land and build a house. Pastor Laurent and Diamondra bought this piece of property from a student and began building a small home. It took several years to complete. Not long afterward, Diamondra’s sister, Ando, and her husband began building on this same property. They live in the house next door within the compound. While they have been away in America, Ando and her husband have been caring for the property and overseeing another project: the building of a guest house. This guest house has been 12 years in the making. You just build as you have money. Lately, with the coup and flight out of the country, money has been limited. Still, they have been slowly able to make it near move-in ready. “On your next visit here, you will stay in our guest house,” Pastor Laurent said. It is still a humble home, but it is nice.
I’m tired, it’s 11:30 pm, and I’m up at 6:00 am and have a big day of worship ahead.
Thinking of you.
Friday, August 3, 2012
We slept well last night. It was refreshing. I got up and managed to get in about a 20 minutes workout in the room. Then it was time for a shower. After all the dirt we had on us yesterday, I wanted to get double clean. I even did the “lather, rinse, repeat” thing written on the shampoo bottles. I then put on clean clothes from head-to-toe. I felt like a new man. As we drove down the road after breakfast, Kelly King sneezed and then said, “I think I’m allergic to being clean.” It was well-timed comedy and the whole Range Rover laughed.
Once again, we noticed that the streets between towns were lined with people walking, biking, or pushing carts to and from the towns. I said I was embarrassed to run here because it seemed to be saying, “I have to run to stay in shape.” Here, they stay in shape by just living their lives. “Who needs exercise? Just live here,” was the comment in the car. Again, a statement that was funny, a description of reality, and a statement of contrasts between American culture and much of the world who live like this.
We drove to the second largest city in the country, Fianarantsoa, and had an impromptu training with Presbyterian pastors. Pastor Laurent wanted them to get a perspective on life in the local church from my perspective in order to inform them on theirs. I pulled up a couple of presentations I had given in the past and made it to about three slides before their questions began flowing. We spent the rest of the time sharing ministry problems and solutions. They were interested in the decision-making process in our church, what Life Groups were like, and how our budgeting process worked. They were shocked by the amount of money we raised each year for our budget. The income from three churches our size would support the annual budget of the entire national denomination here. We tried to explain that giving is higher in America, but so are expenses. Significantly higher.
We had tea with them before having lunch at a restaurant. When Pastor Laurent and Diamondra first arrived and lived with Cile and me, we asked them, “What is a typical meal for you in Madagascar?” Their answer: “Rice and anything else.” He was right. Lunch was rice and the meat of your choice. Almost every meal here is rice and the meat of your choice.
After lunch, we drove to the Lutheran Seminary in town (pictured above). In addition to being the vice president of the entire denomination, Pastor Laurent is the dean of the seminary in the capital city and he was making a social call on this seminary. The question of the moment was whether it would work for the Lutherans and Presbyterians to share resources, like professors and libraries, for the good of the students. Both parties were willing, but the question was whether their larger bodies, that is, the Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations would go along. We had a worship service with their key leaders and a collection of students. Then the speeches began. Pastor Laurent explained that the impact of this discussion this afternoon was that about six million Christians would be affected if this union were to take place. This was historic. This was about producing stronger and better prepared pastors to go throughout the country and proclaim the gospel.
Once again, I was reminded that this trip that I am now on is of a different magnitude than previous mission joureys. We are operating at a higher level than just St. Andrews working with one or two churches in another place. We are working with denominational leaders and millions of Christians will be affected by the discussion today and the teaching this morning and in the week to come. We are training those who are the preachers and teachers of this nation. Pastor Laurent told me not long after I earned my doctorate, “You did not get your doctorate only for the sake of St. Andrews. You are now a doctor of the Church of Jesus Christ.” In settings like this, I’m feeling the weight of those words.
Our last stop of the day was to the Presbyterian Seminary in town. It was on a high hill overlooking the town. The students were on break, so there was not much to do but see the buildings. Again, after attending Princeton Seminary, this was stark in comparison physically, but the purpose is the same. This seminary is one of four in the country. Between the four, all of the pastors we saw commissioned last Sunday have been trained.
We toured around town a bit, had a quick bite to eat, and then headed back to the hotel. We are in a downtown hotel. The hotel features open breezeways, jalousie windows, big wooden doors, and skeleton key locks. As with all homes so far, there is no heat and air conditioning. Fortunately, the blankets are warm. Off to bed.
Thinking of you.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
We participated in a five-hour worship service today. We got there at 7:30 am and left at 12:30 pm. So no complaining about the length of our services! Kelly King said he prayed for something he’s never prayed for today: he prayed that his butt would make it. If I could have heard that prayer I would have given a strong “Amen!” Our backsides have endured much lately. Between 30 hours of traveling to get here, the long road trips for this travel to the south, and worship services that the shortest one was over two hours long. Today, sitting was bone on board. The pews are simple wooden benches. After a few hours, like Kelly, one prays for relief. I prayed the leaders would have mercy and allow us to stand up. No such luck.
What an experience to worship with the Malagasys again! The service was one in which 450 shepherds were ordained with the laying on of hands. The worship service began with a processional of all of the shepherds who were all dressed in white robes. The processional began in the village and eventually made its way into the sanctuary. Dozens of pastors and lay leaders participated along with the rest of the 2,000 people in the room. Lutherans and Presbyterians led the worship together. There were two sermons, about six Scriptures read, multiple prayer sessions, a choir, at least seven hymns, and then the ordination of the shepherds. Our translator, Elizabeth (pictured between Kelly and me above), who is a university professor of botany, translated every one of those five hours. I couldn’t help but think how important this day was for the good of the Church in Madagascar. These 450 people were trained, ordained, and eager to be put to work. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if everyone in every church throughout Christendom was that committed to Christ’s Church that they would undergo something similar. This world would not be the same.
After worship, we went to lunch with the dignitaries of the event. A politician from the Malagasy government, missionaries from Madagascar to China and France, faculty members from seminaries, leaders of the Malagasy Revival Movement, and all of the pastors and their spouses. The master of ceremonies let us know how meaningful it was that we would travel so far to get there. He then asked Kelly and me to sing everyone a song. It took me a minute. Did he really just ask the two of us to sing? Did he ask these two guys to sing who have been listening to some of the most talented musicians on the planet for days now, people who actually know how to sing well? Yep. So I stood up and started, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” Kelly and our interpreter, Elizabeth, joined me. We belted it out. They loved it and applauded loudly. They then asked each of us to give speeches, which we did. The master of ceremonies then went to others one-by-one. We had to leave to get on the road.
We made our way back to the lodge where we stayed a few days ago. On the way, there was a village that the road went through that was on the Indian Ocean. We went to a beach access road, got out, and I got my wish to put my feet in the Indian Ocean. There were breakers not far off shore and still there were waves on shore. It looked like a strong current, so even if I wanted to jump in, I would not have. Plus, it was cold. After that and also on the way, we all watched the sunset over the mountains of Madagascar. It was one of the orange, yellow, and grey sunsets that you just couldn’t help but marvel at the majesty of the world God created.
When we got to the lodge we were all tired. We had a quick meal and went to bed. When I washed my hair tonight, I realized just how much dirt we had on us. Between the dirt in Ankaramalaza and the dust on the road today, I could scratch my head and have dirt under my fingernails. The rinse in the shower was dirt-filled water. Time for bed. Exhausted.
Thinking of you.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Last night I was up every two hours. The animals around here are close to the bungalows and had moments all night where they just had something to say to each other. Plus, the light on my porch wouldn’t turn off and it felt like morning all night long. At 2 am, I got up and was ready to shower for the day.
We drove to the medical clinic where Pastor Laurent’s brother works, had breakfast there, exchanged gifts with several people, including Pastor Jonah. We then headed out for another long trip. Our destination was a village called Ankaramalaza.
Ankaramalaza is in a remote area of Madagascar. Kelly said it was the most remote spot he had ever been. I kept thinking of the saying I heard as a kid, “deep in the jungles of Africa.” That’s what it felt like minus the literal jungle. Pastor Laurent wanted us to come here because this is one of the centers of the Christian revival movement in Madagascar. And the Presbyterians and Lutherans are the leaders of this movement. Just so you know, Presbyterians are to Madagascar what Southern Baptists are for the South – the big dog denomination (50 percent of the churched people in Tennessee are Southern Baptist). The Presbyterians are the pioneers, most attended, most respected.
The annual event here is a 10-day equivalent of a Cursillo weekend and Stephen Ministry training. Cursillo for us is known as Via de Cristo and it is a four-day short-course on what it means to be a Christian intended to mobilize people to be trained and motivated to serve in the local church. The difference is this training here includes dealing with powers and principalities. The event had over 25,000 people in the village. Kelly and I were to only two vazahas (“white people”). Everyone assumed we were French and said “bonjour” to us. Some of the children said, “Bonjour, vazahas,” or “hello, white guys.”
The people who “go through” this 10-day event are in training to become a “shepherd.” In both the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches here this is a recognized and ordained position in the church. The 10-days is a culmination of two years of training. During the year, this village is a place that people care for the marginalized of society. The shepherds care for those whose family members can’t handle them including mentally ill and those with great physical needs. They also are trained to deal with casting out demons. Apparently, the influence of the traditional religion is significant and they don’t back down from real issues with real people as they understand and experience them. While were here, the shepherds walked through the village into each home shouting out to the spirits, “Get out of this home” or “Go!” In the middle of one night, Kelly awoke to shrieking which was either someone with a demon or someone calling that demon to leave in the name of Jesus. While Kelly and I both felt like we were “no longer in Kansas,” we both understood that these shepherds do so much for the church here. They are people of great compassion who undergo years of training to preach, assist in church, counsel people, and other duties in the church.
To get into the village, we parked on the side of a river, hired some of the locals to carry our bags, went down to a riverside, and all crossed over by a pole-driven boat. The village was on the other side of the river, up a steep hill. The river was shallow, but active. There had to have been 30 boats coming and going. Upriver to the right was a beach area where people were swimming. Having gone to the crocodile reserve a few days earlier, I’m not sure I would have been eagerly swimming there. Most of the boats were dugout canoes. As in, trees. Talk about old school technology. It was a beautiful day and the color of the boats, river, people, trees, sky was spectacular. I had a moment on the riverside. There was something right about it. Divine.
The people in the village were mostly poor. Not entirely though. This is a nationally recognized annual event and top level government officials who are Christians attend. Whatever comforts they are used to in their homes is gone here. This is primitive. No flushing toilets or indoor water. Definitely no heat or air in the small houses of the villages. One of the announcements was gratitude that the fleas weren't as bad this year. I’m impressed that civic leaders will submit to this level of humble living. If fact, submitting to this way of living is part of the point of these ten days. Most of the houses are falafa – literally a house made with all natural materials. Falafa here are the classic all wood homes with thatch roofs as those are the natural materials around. In other places they are mud or mud brick homes. Not impressive by our standards.
A side note on the toilets. First, what we call the bathroom or restroom, they call the toilet. I keep hearing “Where is the toilet?” and I want to walk someone into the bathroom and point to the toilet. Second, I learned about what the Malagasy call a 101. The “toilet” (bathroom) at the medical clinic in yesterday’s village was an outhouse that had a 101. The outhouse had a hole in the flood with two 4” x 10” x 2” concrete pads, one on each side of the hole. It is a 101 because one foot goes on one (“1”) side, the hole in the ground is the “0” and your other foot (“1”) goes on the other side. Diamondra told me about it giggling the whole time.
Though the occasional government leader or other leader shows up, most of the people here are poor. Besides primitive, dirty, and dusty living conditions, what is shared by everyone is a shared faith in Jesus Christ. Young and old, poor and poorer, poorly dressed and better dressed, healthy or sick, mentally ill or well, blind or sighted – all follow Jesus as Lord of life and Savior of the world.
We got to see that shared faith in action tonight. We were ushered into the 2,000-seat sanctuary (loud speakers were set up in three remote locations in the village so all 25,000 could hear the service). We were told to sit on the front row. They were happy that we had travelled what was by then 47 hours to get to this place from America. Kelly and I were asked to stand and introduced to the thousands gathered. The singing was once again beautiful. The village runs on generator power. The generators kept kicking off causing it to go dark in the sanctuary. It didn’t faze the crowd one bit. They spontaneously began to sing in a style I find moving. Pastor Laurent is a rock star here too. He was introduced with deep respect and then he preached the message with passion in his voice.
After worship, we headed for bed. We had a last minute change of plans. Kelly and I ended up in a falafa close to Laurent and Diamondra’s block home. I don’t mind. A mattress on the floor with bedding on it works for me. Even the lack of a pillow doesn’t matter. I am in a good place. God is in this place.
Thinking of you.
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
We saw the Indian Ocean today. We are near it tonight as I write in a town on the southeastern coast of the island. We didn’t get to put our feet in the ocean, but I have put in my request to do so.
Today I saw more white people than I have the entire trip. About ten of them, not counting the two of us. We stayed at a lodge in another rain forest last night. The lodge belongs to a member of one of the Presbyterian churches nearby. Think: deal. The pastor of that church joined us from dinner. We saw a few white people in the restaurant. They were eco-tourists visiting the rain forest. A few more were in the restaurant this morning and a few more were on bicycles touring and perhaps one or two living there. We’ve heard of Peace Corps workers, missionaries, and tourists.
The trip to the south started out like an extreme sport of racing through curves. Oddly enough, the locals got nauseous. Kelly and I were fine. I passed out Pepto-Bismal tablets and we got back on the road, albeit a little slower around curves for a while.
The trip was long. Again. More sitting.
About 4 pm, we pulled into our destination of a town called Vangaindrano. The pastor of this town is a fairly recent seminary graduate and is serving as required in a remote area. This pastor, Pastor Jonah, however, is inspired and organized. He has planted five new churches and has 14 total worshipping communities meeting in homes in villages throughout the area. Unlike Dunedin and much of America where there is a church on every corner, this is like the pioneer days of America: church planting means putting a church where none exists for miles. This pastor will go into a village, talk with the senior political leaders, explain his desire to make Jesus known through a community of people in that village, and leader after leader in village after village immediately offers land to build the church for free. And so Pastor Jonah and the church here plant churches. All of that church planting has caught the attention of the dean of students and professor of mission of the seminary, Dr. Laurent Ramambason. So here we are, encouraging this church.
When we arrived, a group of about 30 people from the church met us in the church. We had a worship service that included the pastor, me, and Kelly King speaking. That is Pastor Jonah speaking in the photo above. During that visit, I explained that we were bringing a word of encouragement for the good work they were doing in Christ’s name. We were also bringing a portion of the global mission funds that were raised during the Walk-a-Thon earlier this year. They were, in fact, encouraged that someone would sacrifice what was by then 45 hours of traveling on three airplanes, and one long Land Rover ride to encourage them in an area even the average Malagasy considers out in the sticks.
One of the members has a few bungalows where Kelly and I are staying tonight. We had about 45 minutes to take a break and then it was dinnertime with the church leaders. Dinner was Chinese noodle soup, rice, chicken, and fish. The pastor stood and gave a welcome speech and introduced his leaders. At the end, I stood and expressed our gratitude for their generosity. A meal like the one they prepared was a feast and in a region where many go hungry we were indeed grateful for their sacrifice of love for us.
The highlight of this southern trip and the whole trip thus far came after dinner. It was an inspired speech by one of the leaders. The church has deacons doing what we call the work of elders at St. Andrews. Their work is actually a cross between our elders and deacons. Once a deacon retires from work at retirement age, only then do they become an “elder.” One of the elders gave the speech. He wanted to tell us the history of Christianity in Madagascar. He told us that missionaries brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the island 200 years ago. At the time, it was dangerous to convert to Christianity. The traditional religion leaders would kill those who converted. He reminded me that much of what we take for granted – the freedom to worship Jesus openly – was bought with the blood of the martyrs who went before us. With arms flailing and strong voice, he told the stories of the first martyrs for Christ in Madagascar. He was the senior statesman in the church in Vangaindrano. It was his privilege to share the legacy that came before them. The first person who converted to Christianity was a woman. She was stabbed to death because of it. Others, he said, were stoned. Still others were thrown off of cliffs. One woman converted to Christianity while she was late in pregnancy. They burned her on a stake and while she was burning she gave birth to the child who also burned to death in the fire. With rising passion, he thundered his message for us, “Tell the people back in America that there are Christians on this island! It cost people everything to bring Christ here. Tell them that there are brothers and sisters who love Jesus here!”
I can’t think of anything I’d rather tell you. Jesus Christ is worshipped and loved here. In the middle of great poverty, pre-modern living conditions, and the devastating financial after effects of a coup government, their faith is strong. Take heart! You may be facing difficulties in your life as you read this, but God is not absent from this world or your difficulties. He shows up in the middle of difficulties and has elder statesmen on the other side of the planet remind us that worshipping Jesus is the shared and great privilege of our lives. Enjoy it. Be encouraged in your life. And see hope in the future.
It’s late and once again, the wake up call will leave us with inadequate amount of sleep. At least for me who wants to journal thoughts of the day. The guests of the bungalows are quieting down all around me, although the geese that are somewhere close are chatting eagerly to each other.
The weather here on the coast is comfortable. Some would say hot, but I still had on long sleeves and didn’t regret it. You know me.
All is well.
I am thinking of you.
Monday, July 30, 2012
Today was a travel day. We are heading to the south of the island. After breakfast, we ran some errands to gather things like bottled water and toilet paper. Apparently where we are headed is remote and basics are limited. I’d put those two items on the “important” list.
Not much to report on activities. Our big thing today was sitting and watching the landscape go by. The hours of staring out of the windows got me thinking. I was asking God in prayer what he wanted from us. It was a variation on the question, “Why are we here?” I know we are here to teach, learn, see, meet, and bring encouragement. I was asking God for particulars. I sat with that prayer for a little while, but the answer that kept coming back was, “I will reveal it in time.” It may mean to expand the vision of St. Andrews of what it means to be the church and nothing more. No new ministries, no further journeys. On the other hand, it may mean beginning some form of mutual ministry with the Christians here. All to be revealed in God’s good and perfect time.
The area of the country we passed through was much like the rolling hills of Texas only the soil was like the red clay of Georgia red clay. They call Madagascar the Red Island because when you see it from space all of the red clay soil shows up. As we passed through the countryside and villages, I commented that it reminds me of rural Honduras. People work hard on basic living – eating, getting shelter, staying healthy. People walk everywhere and for long distances without thinking twice about it. One pastor spoke of walking miles to get to his next church. Everyone does it to get to their workplaces. People carry large bundles on their heads. Children with bare feet push heavy carts filled with water or other supplies along the road. The joke has become, "Why exercise? Just live here." No one is overweight here. The well-off get to drive places. Driving on the roads is an experience as well. Picture a New York taxi driver flying through developing world villages with streets lined with people walking, carts, and no road rules, and you get the idea. It is harrowing at times.
We arrived at a resort at 8:30 pm. We are in some kind of lodge (photo above). Tired, but safe and well. After a nice meal, Kelly and I headed to our room. Lights out soon and once again an early wakeup call. Pastor Laurent is showing no mercy. We are on a 15-hour trip south. Part two of the trip begins in the morning.
Thinking of you.
Sunday, July 29, 2012
The place was packed with what looked like 500 people in church. The service started at 9:00 am. You know how most American church-goers pull in to church at the last minute? I was sitting in Pastor Filbert’s house right next to the church and heard singing at about 8:30 am. The place was already getting crowded. When we walked in at 9 am, we had to set up the video projector I brought because Pastor Laurent wanted me to show the video of Mayor Eggers greeting the people of Madagascar (good job, Mr. Mayor). They already full house sat and watched in relative quiet.
The church service was 2 hours and 15 minutes long. And the crowd was sitting on plain wooden benches. Children were there and were mostly quiet. When they started crying no one gave the disgusted look I’m afraid I’ve seen in too many American churches. The children were in worship. And so were the husbands and wives. And so were the youth. About 40 percent of the church was 18 and under. They were there because they wanted to be there.
The worship service consisted of two baptisms, commissioning two leaders in the church (which involved those leaders singing a song, reciting Scripture, and answering a series of commitment questions), two anthems, 15 minutes of announcements, about four songs, an offering song, three Scripture readings, and a sermon. I preached the sermon and Pastor Laurent translated. I stopped after every thought to allow Pastor Laurent to translate. As in the past with doing this in Honduras, I think the translator preached a better sermon than I preached judging by the crowd reaction.
Two things stood out. First, the singing. I thought it yesterday at the 25th celebration of Pastor Laurent’s ministry and again this morning in worship. We could learn a lot from the Malagasy Christians. They sing! Loud. With vigor. Even the vice president of the church, a dignitary who works with the American ambassador in the capital city, was singing away with mouth wide open. The church choir sang a piece I will just have to play for you. Beautiful and inspiring. I played it for Pastor Laurent later and he translated it for me. It was a discipleship message: “follow me.”
The second thing that stood out was the attentiveness and involvement of the congregation. I sat up front and could see the congregation during the whole service. There was not one part of the service I saw people’s eye’s glaze over and them check out mentally. Their passion for the Lord was evident. Their faith shaped their lives, inspired their hearts, and was evident in their worship.
After lunch, we headed out for our afternoon activity. It was a commissioning service for new pastors. Pastor Laurent is the vice president of the denomination, which means he is involved in significant events like this commissioning of 83 pastors and 50 church school teachers. The event was held in an amphitheater that held 4,000 people. It was filled to capacity. Kelly King and I sat next to Pastor Laurent and his wife, Diamondra, on the second row of the platform. That is Pastor Laurent and me in the photo above before the commissioning. We sat next to all of the dignitaries of the national church. As far as we could tell, we were also the only two white people in the crowd. It was far from uncomfortable. While we were the minority race, it felt we were among family. Race was a non-category. These were my sisters and brothers in Christ. It was a beautiful moment.
The commissioning lasted three hours. Again, more sitting. The names were read, speeches given, hands shook, and the deed was done. The church here desperately needs the graduates. Many churches are without pastors. These new pastors are required to service a remote church for five years before seeking a transfer. They have to thrive in the poorest of environments as a proving ground for ministry here. If they can’t make it there, they are not allowed to make it elsewhere. It still amazes Pastor Laurent that we have three pastors in one church when there each pastor has three churches to serve.
During the commissioning, I loved one moment in particular. What is implicit here in the American church was explicit there. The new pastors took a vow, had a verbal agreement to not tell a living soul what gets said in confidence. What a great moment for the 4,000 people to hear. It reminds me to say to you that there are things that have been told to me that I will take to my grave. If you ever need to talk, unload sin, confess…
After the commissioning, we had an unplanned visit. One of the church members who was heavily involved in evangelism work died suddenly two days ago. He was 49 years old. One of the professors we sat with during the commissioning told us about the death. The man who died was a family member of that professor. We got to see how the Malagasy deal with death.
In America, when a person dies, a funeral director is called in, the body is removed, an embalming or cremation takes places, and funeral plans are made. Here in Madagascar, the practices at death are similar to how they were long ago in America. First, a solution is applied to the body to slow decay. No embalming takes place. The body is washed, dressed, and placed on a table in a room in the home. In the south, we used to call it “sitting up with the dead.” Here, the family sets up chairs in the room and sits with the dead while visitors come by to pay their respects. Kelly, Pastor Laurent, Diamondra, and I were shown into the darkened room. Pastor Laurent expressed condolences to the dozen family members gathered. I prayed a pastoral prayer for the family. A family member exchanged thoughts with us, which we were told later were words of gratitude. Diamondra gave an envelope to the wife who had a stack of envelopes in her hand. Each had money in it to help cover the expenses. Death is not abstract and distant. They are involved in all stages of death. Somehow I think that gritty reality helps the grieving.
When we left the house, we walked outside and found a crowd of people waiting to go in to visit the family. They would soon do what we just did. One of the people in the crowd was the former prime minister of the country. We had a brief conversation with him and he was interested to know how Kelly and I like Madagascar. We assured him it was an honor to be here. Just like that, we met top political leader of the country.
That night, we found out that Pastor Filbert, in whose home we were staying, fled into exile during the government coup in 2009. Pastor Laurent told us, “Don’t let this quiet man fool you, he is a strong man of principle. He has been a rock during this national crisis.” For three months, his family went into hiding until international amnesty groups put enough pressure on the government to stop arresting and persecuting outspoken leaders. The Christians stood on the side of those who were being abused and oppressed. Pastor Filbert and others spoke out and still do. The people here continue to amaze me in their resilience and optimism in spite of their conditions. This is their homeland and they love their home. It is a shared experience everywhere I have travelled, but it is good to see it here.
Sleep. Welcome sleep. Again, thinking of you.