Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Madagascar - An Inspired Speech (Day 7)

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

Madagascar - Thoughts on the Country (Day 6)

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

Madagascar - Worship Malagasy Style (Day 5)

I preached at Pastor Filbert’s church this morning.  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. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Madagascar – A Dedication and a Celebration (Day 4)

Sleep came easy last night.  We were exhausted.  In the morning, I got cleaned up in the sink.  It was too cold to get into the shower.  Kelly said he did, but you know me. Granny Fullerton doesn’t do well in cold and there was no heater in the room.  

We put on a suit and tie, had breakfast with Pastor John, toured the new dorms at his school (funded by the PCUSA, our denomination in America), and then left to attend the first part of the celebration at Pastor Jean-Louis’ church. 

What a transformation.  The workers who stayed all night were finished.  The church was open, decorations were beautiful, music was playing, and people were showing up in their “Sunday best” even thought it was Saturday. 

We only stayed for 30 minutes of the ceremony.  I was asked to speak with Ony as my translator.  I began by saying hello in Malagasy.  The word is manao ahoana (ma–now–a–own–a).  When I said it, everyone burst into applause and were beaming with smiles.  It was the best part of my speech.  I greeted them on behalf of St. Andrews, the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). I told them I was impressed with their effort to build the church and encouraged them in that effort.  I told them I was even more impressed by what God was doing.  They had told us stories of changed lives, blessings of families, and miraculous healings.  As I said at the end, “I will never forget these stories of God, you, and this place.”  And then we were escorted out a back door, got in the car, and began the three-hour drive back to Antananarivo, the capital city. 

Our driver, Rivo, and his wife welcomed us to one of their businesses where we had lunch. On the drives, we had spoken with Rivo about his life.  He is a professor of marketing at a university and he has several businesses.  He owns a clothing importing business and he told us about a place he owned that was used in Antananarivo by many as a place for special events like wedding reheasals.  The place was called Batou Beach.   Batou is French for boat.  As we approached Batou Beach, we drove through former rice fields that were now brick-making businesses.  Open fields filled with stacks of bricks were everywhere on the slight hills that filled the area. 

When we pulled into Batou Beach I was not expecting what I saw.  This was a resort in the middle of an industrial brick-making area.  It was modern, beautiful, and even elegant in places.  The main feature was a dining hall that the whole building was shaped like a cruise ship.  In front of the cruise ship dining hall was a large wave pool similar to the ones you may find at Wet N’ Wild in Orlando.  Another large reception hall that seated 400 people was on the property.  Bungalows to stay in were there.  Sports fields for basketball, volleyball, and another game like bocce ball were there.  Snack bars and pizza restaurants were there.  As if that were not surprising enough, we sat down to eat and had a four-course gourmet French meal.  Madagascar was once a French colony and that influence was apparent in the meal.  We were both full before the meal, but ate anyway. 

Pastor Laurent’s brother, Sebastian, joined us for lunch, as did Rivo’s wife who was clearly the one in charge of Batou Beach.  I saw her giving orders energetically to the staff.  It seemed fitting in a place shaped like a cruise ship to think that she ran a tight ship. 

After lunch, we drove to Pastor Laurent’s church in Antananarivo.  The rest of the afternoon was spent at a celebration of 25 years of pastoral ministry.  The pastor being honored was none other than Pastor Laurent himself. 

Maybe you’ve seen t-shirts in America that have a saying written on them: “I’m kind of a big deal.”  The person wearing it usually isn’t but would like to think so.  Pastor Laurent could wear that shirt and people would agree.  He is a big deal here.  He is at rock star level within the largest denomination in the country. You may know him as a quiet, gentle, compassionate man in our church.  Here, he is animated, outspoken, and filled with laughter.  So far, everyone we have met here speaks of Pastor Laurent almost with hushed tones.  He is revered in this country. They thought this about him three hours away from the capital in the small villages to the east.  They thought this in the capital city as well, judging from the major production and crowded church for the 25-year ministry celebration this afternoon.

Having said that, this celebration was not focused on Pastor Laurent. He would not have it that way.  It was an opportunity to worship God through music and message. Four hours of music and message.  Yes, a four-hour worship service.  Our backsides may have been tired of sitting, but our souls were crackling with energy. 

We heard three choirs sing.  One from the church, one from the seminary where Pastor Laurent is dean of students, and one from an independent gospel group.  All three were amazing.  We Americans could learn something about robust, full-throated singing.  The church choir sang classical choir pieces, but definitely with a Malagasy and African feel.  The seminary choir sang original pieces written by students and sung with four-part voices.  The gospel choir was called Tana Gospel Choir (pictured above).  Their performance reminded me that American black gospel music has its roots in this region of the world.  The Tana Gospel Choir was amazing. They were passionate, exhuberant, talented, and had a great stage presence.   I’ll try to show you each of these groups on a future video.  The only weak spot in the music was when I got up to lead with Pastor Laurent in two songs I had never played on guitar.  I had to guess at the chords and we had a poor copy of the words to read.  

After the celebration, we went to dinner at Pastor Filbert’s.  His wife, Suzanne, was back from a trip out of town.  We had a nice visit though we still feel like we are functioning at about 80 percent.  Jet lag, sleep deprivation.  Something. 

Off to bed.  Thinking of you.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Madagascar - Visiting Churches in the Rain Forest (Day 3)

We got in last night at 11 pm local time and didn’t get to bed until 1:00 am.  We could not go to sleep right away.  Our bodies were telling us it was only 6 pm, which in fact it was in Dunedin.  The four hours of sleep was much needed, but, as it turned out, brief.

We got on the road early today.  After a 6:30 am wakeup, we had breakfast, a brief planning session, and then got in a car with Rivo (ree – voe) and Ony (oo – nay) Randrianarahy (good luck with that one).  Father and daughter.  Rivo has had his children in a private American school, so Ony’s English was excellent.  Ony was our official translator, although Rivo and most others speak English well enough that they could have done the job.

We travelled to the east of the capital city of Madagascar where we stayed the first night.  Our first stop was the city of Moramanga.   There we met with the equivalent of our presbytery executive in Tampa Bay (main leader of the region of Presbyterian churches).   His is an energetic pastor with a gregarious personality.  I liked him right away.  His name is Pastor John Rakotonindrainy and that is him in the picture with the lemur on his shoulder.  Another Pastor John. 

After tea with Pastor John and his wife, Hoby (oo –bay), we went to a Malagasy park.  It was a chance to do a bit of eco-touring.  At the park, they put us on a canoe, crossed a small creek, and there we were met by some eager lemurs.  I was the last one across the creek and by the time I joined the others, I looked up just in time to see a lemur jump from a tree onto Kelly’s shoulder.  Welcome to Madagascar.  We travelled down a trail among the Eucalyptus trees with three species of lemurs following us the whole way. 

Our next stop was a crocodile farm.  Having spent my life in Florida, this was not quite the experience others might have had, except for one interesting detail.   There were 24 large crocs in the park.   A wooded trail went around the pond that was home to those crocs.  You know how our zoos and animal theme parks make it impossible for the dangerous animals to come in contact with visitors?  Apparently that particular safety code is not a Malagasy tradition.  There were multiple places where, if wanted, the crocs could make it up the bank to the trail and even one place where all that separated us from their domain was a gate with a single bar three feet off the ground that said, “No crocs.”  

We went to a hotel afterward down the main street of town from the church and school where Pastor John and Hoby lived.  It was nap time.  Again, much needed sleep.  We then returned to Pastor John’s home and met with Pastors Jean-Luis Zarazaka and Hanta Vololana Christianne.  These three rural church pastors spent the evening telling us about the church in Madagascar and allowing us to ask them questions. 

The three pastors told us about the influence of “traditional religion,” which included medicine men, idol worship, and praying to ancestors.  They told us about miraculous healings that came through prayers of the Christians, including a couple of people healed of leprosy with no medical intervention.  Only prayer.  They told us how the typical Malagasy church worked and the practical challenges they face in doing ministry.  Transportation to remote churches and materials such as books for pastors were on the top of their list.

We took a break to visit Pastor Jean-Luis’ church.  Tomorrow will be a dedication of the church and tonight we saw the full-out production to get ready.  One team was still staining the wood floors under the pulpit. Another team was decorating the inside of the church.  Another team was putting a covering over the new outdoor seating area for the meal.  Still another team of women were around back slaughtering, plucking, and preparing a flock of chickens for the meal the next day.  It was old school food preparation.  Kill the bird, gut it, and pluck it as a social gathering. A lot of laughing around fires for warmth and others for cooking.  These groups would be there all night in order to get ready for the 9 am ceremony tomorrow.

I told Pastor Jean-Louis, whose church had spent 10 years building the church that held what looked to be about 600 people, how impressed I was.  I loved the expression he used in response.  He said it several times, “You encourage me.  Thank you.” He inspired me.

We went back to Pastor John’s and hate dinner of tilapia fish, roast beef, and rice.  Not that we were hungry.  We had not only eaten a full breakfast and lunch, but also “tea” (breads and teas) twice.  I was still full from all of the meals on the airplane.  Though it was late, though we were exhausted, we ate anyway.  Courtesy demanded it.

We exchanged gifts with the family, said goodnight, and headed to the hotel.  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Madagascar - Travel Days (1-2)

It took us 21 hours of flying on three airplanes to get to Madagascar.  Add to that travel to and from airports and layover time in Atlanta and Paris and we travelled over 30 hours.  About three hours out from Madagascar, I saw myself in the mirror on the airplane’s bathroom mirror.  My eyes were bloodshot.  Even with the decent seats on Air France, there was not much sleep.

I’m travelling with one of the elders of the church, Kelly King.  I love traveling with him. His humor, intellect, and faith and all strong.  On the flight from Tampa to Atlanta, Kelly and I were talking about how we would be spending so much time with each other over the next few weeks.  Pondering the implications of that much time together, Kelly said, “When I get back, I’m changing churches.”  I’m still chuckling. 

I am amazed at Kelly’s knowledge of many subject and especially his career subject.  He is an entrepreneur, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and businessman through and through.  Our pastor for congregational care, Pastor Laurent, who is from Madagascar and the reason we are on this trip, is excited to have someone of Kelly’s heart and skills to teach the people of Madagascar.

We had  a warm welcome in the cold of winter here.  So far, winter here is like winter in Florida.