Doing What I Love!

IMG_6133My heart was broken open by pastors of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda. This happened as they responded to the brief three hour teaching that I did with them on Lutheran Theology and Preaching Law and Gospel. Rev. Kate Warn, YAGM Coordinator in Rwanda, and I traveled to Rukira, up a steep unpaved mountain road to be with this group. It was a request from Bishop Mugabo of LCR thIMG_6157at brought us there.

The teaching began as I answered the question that Bp. Mugabo had posed to me “Why Lutheran?” He wanted me to discuss with his pastors what difference it made to be Lutheran. I started my teaching that needed to be translated from English to Kinyarwanda. Right in the middle of my presentation the heavens opened up and there was a down pour. So, I stopped talking and the pastors began to sing. Not only did this mostly male group sing, they also danced. They stretched out their arms like cow horns and seemingly began to glide graceful around the room. It was amazing hearing songs of praise to God and seeing dance to accompany it. As the rain poured so did my eyes.

When the rain cleared the teaching continued. It was obvious that they were eager to learn; they were attentive and asked excellent questions. One of those questions was from one of the women in the room. She asked, “if God’s grace is free and there is nothing that we can do to earn it, why bother going to church?” All my seventeen years as a pastor, I had never been asked this question. This young Rwandan woman who was on the path to ordination astonished me. Fortunately, there is an answer and it was right on the tip of my tongue. I turned to my colleague Rev. Kate Warn and I said “the means of grace; right?”

I then began to explain that we go to church to be strengthened by the hearing of the word, to receive Christ himself through bread and wine, body and blood and to be held up by the mutual consolation of the faithful.  I am grateful that this seemed to be a satisfactory answer for this wonderfully inquisitive soon to be pastor. I am also grateful that the answer was in my heart and on my lips.

The day continued with sharing, conversation and listening to the teaching of Rev. Prince, general secretary of the church, and others. Liturgy and the Augsburg Confession were also being taught. For some, this was the first time they had heard about these major tenets of the Lutheran faith.

The next day they thanked Pr. Kate and I for making the trip up the mountain to be with them. They had a brief presentation and sang a song for us that included the beautiful, graceful dance that is part of Rwandan culture. They also prayed for the two of us. They asked God to provide us with health, strength and traveling mercies. They especially prayed for our safe passage down the mountain. They knew that we Americans would be frightened driving down a wet, slippery, muddy road.

We were blessed. I am not sure what the pastors got from our time together. What I received was a strengthened love for Jesus; a renewed passion for the proclamation of the gospel and a heart for the people of Rwanda. From this visit I felt a wonderful sense of being and doing exactly what God would have me do! And doing what I love. I thank the bishop for the invitation and the pastors simply for being.

As always, I am continually Madagascar, West and Central Africa bound.

*(excuse the upside down video, I just wanted to share)

Give them Grace

Sermon preached for MWCA4MWCA Preaching Workshop in Totota, Liberia

Ephesians 4:25 -5:2

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”img_5256

Pray with me:

Sometimes we don’t feel like preaching. Sometimes the news is anything but good. Sometimes nothing but corrupting talk wants to spill out of my mouth. Yet as a preacher, I preach and my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light-of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ. That anything I say, as the writer of Ephesians says “may give grace to those who hear.”

But today I’m not feeling it!

If I had to preach in a congregation in the United States this morning, I would be preaching with a heavy heart, with anger and sadness. By now everyone in the world has seen the election of a man that has:

bashed immigrants,

disrespected women,

threatened to build a wall

and bragged about what he can do to women.

The US has elected a man who has fed into many Americans worst fears: fear of having a black man in the “white house,” fear of increased diversity in the US, fear of an America that is different than it was 50 years ago. He has said, that he will make “America Great Again.”

And that makes me angry!

For those of us who have ancestors stolen from the shores of Africa, enslaved and treated in justly from the founding of the United States, I wonder just who America has been great for. Yes, I am proud to be an American when America is at its best, but now?

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As an American descendent from Africans this election makes me sad and worried. I am not worried about myself, I can in my travels get away from all the prejudice that has risen -up in the US. I worry for my dark brown son and all the little brown boys like my grandson. I worry because they may be in places in their own country and still be treated as though they don’t belong. I worry about women and little girls.

I also worry about all those who I encounter around the world who voiced their fear as soon as the newly elected person came on the scene. They thought that his throwing his hat in the ring to be president was a joke.

Now the joke is on all of us!

As a preacher, I preach and my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light-of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ. That anything I say, as the writer of Ephesians says “may give grace to those who hear.”

But this stinks.

I cry out is there a word from the Lord? While I wonder, how this will affect those who travel as US citizens? Will other countries close their doors? What does this mean for all the people I have come to love on this amazing continent of Africa? Will this election make it even harder for black and brown people to travel to the U.S.? What does this mean for you my friends?

I ask because we all know that what happens in the United States affects the world. How I wish it weren’t so, but it is!

Even so, as a preacher, I preach and my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light- of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ.  That anything I say may give grace to those who hear.

I am not doing so good this morning. The law is holding sway at this moment, because to me this situation really – leaves a bad taste in our mouths and a foul smell in the air. In the African American community, we have become used to foul smells. The smell of gunfire on the streets as a black or brown male child lays dying.

The smell of decay as communities suffer from the greed of corporations, the prejudices of people, corruption and malice just because we are the countries darker citizens, and our lives don’t matter to some. I know the smell of flowing tears as parents and grandparents suffered injustices at the hands of others, for just wanting to do better.

And I have even experienced the smell of death as a child because the neighbors didn’t like the brown people moved in next door and killed our pet. I am afraid that recent events and especially this election may have set the U.S. back to such a time. A time when hurt anger and fear were always right at the surface – back over 50 years.

This makes my heart heavy and has me feeling ill and I hear the words of the writer of Ephesians that tell me despite how we feel and what we are going through

We are to be kind to one another, to forgive, to be like God, to walk in love. Because perfect love casts out fear . . .

I know the writer of Ephesians isn’t necessarily talking about the preaching task; he is talking about the new life that we live in Christ; he is taking about words that come from our months; he is talking about our better nature made possible through Jesus the Christ.

With the recent events in my country I don’t want to preach, what wants to come from my mouth is a loud scream.

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Then I remember, I am descendent from a people who despite the hurt, anger and fear they experience time after time in the history of the United States have devised a mechanism to cope. Through it all Black American preachers developed a style and a way of preaching that sustains the weary with the Word. Preachers like my grandfather knew how to encourage a congregation after they had been beaten, treated badly and attacked as they protested for equal rights. He used poetry, rhetoric and song,

But I am not my grandfather and it’s hard right now. So, I am looking for a word… a word that isn’t dependent on my actions, a word that doesn’t expect me to get it right when I can’t – a word that isn’t dependent on how I feel – good or bad.

I know, as a preacher, I preach and my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light-of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ. That anything I say may give grace to those who hear.

Yet I don’t know if I can. I suppose this may have been the way you felt in the middle of the Ebola crisis, afraid, cautious, angry at the injustice of it all. I can imagine that your pain was ten thousand times worse than how I feel right now.

I can imagine you wondering when it would be over and what would happen afterwards . . . And yet Sunday after Sunday you were called to stand and preach, a word – a word of grace, a word of hope, a word of love. I can only imagine what strength, what dedication, what love that took. And yet you did!

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When there are trials, and hardships, sickness and death we – who are called to preach have a task: that is to set whatever is wrong in our time, whatever is wrong in our place, whatever is wrong in our situation-in-light-of the faith that we have in Jesus Christ. “That what we say may give grace to those who hear.”

And preachers, the only way I know how to do that is through the word. Not through what I think, but through the word made flesh, through the words that point to hope and love, through the words of scripture.

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And reading to the end of the lectionary text for today I found that word. The word that is beginning to lift me from the depths of my despair at what has happened in my country-a word that calms my doubts and soothes my fears. I found that word that encourages me and keeps me going. Preachers I found that word that helps me remember that God can make a way out of no way; I found that word bishop that gives me joy deep down in my soul; I found that word that has the power to pick me up turn me around and place my fight on solid ground.

I found that word right in the fifth chapter of Ephesians

That word is: “. . . Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Did you hear that Jesus is described as a fragrant offering?

A sweet-smelling gift like perfume

a fragrance that is pleasant to the senses

Jesus — a fragrance so sweet that the stench of disease cannot overcome it

Jesus — a fragrance so powerful that principalities and powers

Election results and uncertainty cannot whisk it away

Jesus a fragrance so lovely that it gets in our nostrils and gives us the ability to keep on keeping on

Jesus, a fragrance my brothers and sisters that covered up the stink of death

Jesus, a fragrance that permeates the air even after three days as he rose from the grave

Jesus is a fragrant offering that stays with us, in and out of season

Jesus is a fragrance that floats in the air as love!

Yes, people of God, I am hurt, angry and disappointed because of all that I have heard in the news about the elections in my country this last week, I don’t know what is going to happen! Yet, I am a preacher, and as I preach my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light- of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ.“That it may give grace to those who hear.” And I need God to help me!

So, whenever I stand to preach, whenever you stand and preach whether the situation is pleasant or brings out feelings of anger, hurt or despair, take a deep breath and pray that you may draw in a whiff of that sweet, sweet fragrance – Jesus the Christ and give them grace!

Amen

 

Changing the World One Song at a time

This week, I was able to step out of my normally scheduled program to be the chaplain for the ELCA/Global Mission Annual Musician Training. This is a once a year event where musician educators come together, to share, to learn and to be feed. It is one of the most diverse and ecumenical spaces that I have had the privilege to occupy. The gathering includes musicians that represent in their ethnicity most of the world: African, Asian, European, Indian, and Latin American. It also includes people from denominations and faith traditions other than Lutheran.

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For me this is a group that represents what the kingdom of God looks like. It was an amazing five days. The keynote speaker for the event was Daniel Onyango, a community activist from Kenya. He works and lives in one of the major slums in Nairobi Kenya. He brought with him his love for his people, his passion for justice and his skills as a musician. The gathering was blessed beyond words by his presence.

Some of the people in the room were not church musicians; they were people who hold justice and love in their hearts and were there to sing, listen, pray and join in the spirit filled way that this event comes together. They were there to take back what they saw and heard so that they might be able to live out and be about the love of God that was evidenced in that place.                                                                               img_5608

All of this is possible because of the love and commitment of Rev. Sunitha Mortha who works in Global Mission as an educator for mission. She heads the Mission Formation team and is tasked with teaching the principle of accompaniment during events of the ELCA and spaces she is invited into. This group of glocal musician educators assist her in this task. This beautiful woman is all about mutuality, inclusivity, vulnerability, empowerment and sustainability. She walks it, talks it and lives it. This space is a space of accompaniment, justice and love.

I was also privileged to preach at the pre-event with a group of musicians called “the core.” These are the musicians who lead and teach the rest of the participants. Below is the sermon I preached.

what-is-pleasing

I will not forget what I have seen and heard and how I have been strengthened in my work and witness by these amazing people and this event.

 

Finally A Trip to the Central African Republic

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One of my very first blog post in my role as a new Area Director  for ELCA Global Mission was about the Central African Republic. I was bemoaning the fact that rarely if ever was anything that happened in this poor country in the news. I was telling all who would read, that one of my first acts in my role in December of 2012 was evacuating missionaries from this African country. That was three and a half years ago.

I have been waiting for three and a half years to make this trip. I have been waiting to spend time with people, in their own country, that I have come to know in the Central African Republic. You see, up until just about a month or so ago the situation in the country was too unstable to travel into the country. We have been meeting with members of the church across the border in Cameroon for the last three years. Now after a presidential election and relative stability in parts of the country, on April 4, I finally got to go.

We crossed the border by land and had to sit and wait for the custom agents to stamp our passports on the Cameroon side and then on the Central African Republic side before we could enter the country. We then, on the Central African Republic side had to wait for a convoy led by United Nations Peacekeeping Troops to escort us into the country and on to Bouar where we would be staying.

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The first thing that struck me about the  Central African Republic is the beauty of the country. We drove through rolling hills with deep valleys; in April it is lush and green. The part of the country we were in seemed sparsely populated to me. There aren’t many people on the road or people moving around along long stretches of highway as there are in other places in Africa I have visited. I suppose people are still anxious about their “relative peace.”

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What you may not know, because there is usually not much in the news about this country is that the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. The land is rich in diamonds, gold, oil and uranium, yet the people live in poverty. The country has poor infrastructure, scarce electricity, rare access to water.

As a matter of fact there are places with no running water or no water at all. Electricity is a luxury and even in the Catholic Guest House where we stayed there was only electricity three hours a day by way of a generator. These are the conditions that many in our companion church the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Central African Republic live. That and the continuing reality of civil strife.

Yet although I saw evidence of the living conditions, the recent civil unrest and so much poverty in this place, I also witnessed so much beauty in the people I met. Faces with smiles that symbolized hope. Faces of determination that say that poverty, violence, and lack will not define them. Young women worked to learn how to sew so that they are able to make a living. Their sisters and mothers gather in cooperative to figure out how to improve their livelihoods. Life despite all that I describe is going on. I give thanks to God for the resilience of the people of the Central African Republic. IMG_20160406_131904

Besides this resilience, I was taken aback by the openness, the hospitality, the generosity that we experienced and I hope to visit again and again. We received gifts of honey, peanuts, and melon seeds. Why I wonder are those with the least often the most generous? Why I wonder does there have to be such a stark difference between those who have abundance and those who don’t? Why has the land and resources of this country been used by the world while its people have been neglected?

DSCN0534 [10085]I don’t have any of the answers, so, dear friends and readers of this blog, I am asking that you continue to pray for the people of the Central African Republic. Please pray for peace, pray for improvement in infrastructure, livelihoods and medical care. Please pray that those who work and do business in the country might do so in a fair and just way. And add a prayer for me as I continue to travel . . . as I am Madagascar, West and Central Africa bound!

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What I Did on My Vacation, Try To Learn French

I was in Quebec in August; I thought I would take vacation and take three weeks of French Language Study. Some of you know I have been trying to learn French since I started this job and to my surprise it is much more difficult than I thought.

Conjugating verbs has gotten harder as I’ve gotten older….
and I use to be so good with language. I learned Spanish over 15 years ago and surprisingly every time I try to think of a French word, a Spanish word pops into my head. It doesn’t help that many of the students studying in the language school were from Latin America and when they didn’t understand what was happening in French they would break off into Spanish….I was so confused.Yet, I progressed.               11863357_10207669569646685_3927787318104798669_n

I took my vacation to do this. I had to admit: “je suis un peu fou.” I could have been laying on a beach somewhere. Yet it was a great experience. Quebec is beautiful. The weather when I was there was tres bon. There were a few days of rain, but only a few.

I was about a twenty minute walk from the school and a twenty minute bus ride from the old historic city of Quebec. During the week I went to class until 1:00 p.m., answered work e-mail and stuff (Global Mission staff really don’t vacation. There is always some crisis going on in the world). If I was not doing that I would visit rue Cartier and its many shops, and this wonderful place apelle Chocolat Favoris, go to the movies, or visit a museum.                                                                      11855812_10207628464219075_7568113856936811608_n

On the weekends I was able to visit the old city and sit by the port, enjoying a leisurely meal and soaking up the sun. So the trip had some aspects of vacation. I found an Anglican Church to visit on Sundays. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. The priest there was a Lutheran from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bavaria….How cool is that? I went to the English service because the French service was at 9:30 and since I get up at six every week day morning I thought  since I was “on vacation” it might be nice to sleep in. The service did have some prayers and readings in French. That was nice.

I managed to learn a little French too. I left at the point that I could understand almost everything said. That seems to be where I am stuck. I can understand but not answer back. I can read, but not talk. So I am still struggling trying to learn French. Wish me luck!

Learning French helps in my work because as always, I am westafricabound.11898780_10207716036328323_3512698265057364125_n

Liberia is Ebola Free

I arrived in Liberia on May 5. As we got off the shuttle bus to go into the airport terminal, there were buckets set up and everyone was directed to wash their hands. You could smell the stench of chlorine in the water. From this I knew for myself that Liberia, the entire nation and all of its citizens were taking the fight against Ebola very seriously.

 Everywhere I went, whether a guesthouse, hotel restaurant or church, there were containers of bleached tinged water. At the meeting of the Lutheran Church in Liberia I washed my hands and had my temperature taken before entering the room. This seems to be standard operating procedure in most gatherings.

This way of being helped Liberia achieve the Ebola free status, the diligence, the tenacity and determination to put an end to this dreaded disease was evident everywhere. Leaving Liberia I heard a radio announcer remind the people that even though they had gained an Ebola free status they must not become lacks. He knows as he told the people listening that Sierra Leone and Guinea have not been declared free of Ebola and the borders are porous.

So, we all continue to pray as we walk toward an Ebola free West Africa. I am Madagascar, Central Africa and westafricabound.
 

Love One Another

Sign says "Never Forget"

Sign says “Never Forget”

Jesus says, I give you a new commandment….that you love one another….begins the Maundy Thursday sermon at the Kigali English speaking service. These words were spoken by Pastor Kate Warn as she told the congregation about the love God came to show us. I wonder what the members of the parish thought as we stood there five days away from the commeration of the genocide in Rwanda.

Many of us only know the history of Rwanda through the movie Hotel Rwanda and Don Cheadle’s performance of the manager of the Mile Collines Hotel and how he struggled to keep those being targeted safe.

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The Rwanda of 2015 is very different from the Rwanda of 1994. Rwandans are no longer divided by ethnicity or identy papers that marked their difference; there is one Rwanda and all its citizens are Rwandan.

I am learning this history and this move to love our neighbors as ourselves through the Lutheran Church of Rwanda founded out of the crisis of genocide. The church was built from the families of refugees who had left Rwanda for political reasons in the 1950’s. Now many of the children have returned from exile to help make a stronger Rwanda

When I hear the words “love one another’ in this context, I realize just how much these words of Jesus mean. They seem very simple Pastor Kate told us in her sermon, yet she reminded us of how difficult they are to follow… to live out…to keep. In Rwanda it was within a Christian context that horrific violence against neighbors took place.

Before we think how awful let me say that this reminds me of how violence happens in explicit awful ways and also how we do violence to one another in more subtle ways. In the U.S. no one is brandishing machetes but they are brandishing pens to make laws about who is in and who is out, who can be served and who cannot–deciding, how identity can be used to set apart and divide. The blanket on which these laws lie are religious freedom. So though good Christians believe that they have the right to make these decisions, all Christians are not in agreement. So there is division in the body of Christ even in the U.S.

I understand that the writing of laws and the brandishing of machetes are not the same. Yet, these are both examples—as we do harm to the love that Jesus has so freely given to us. That love that would always err on the side of loving the other, not harming them–including the other, not excluding them.

Jesus tells us “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

Let us remember no matter where we live and what our circumstances that God poured out his love for us on a cross, so that just maybe, as we deal with one another, we might consider Christ example of love.

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