Liwonde, Malawi Baptist College Class with teacher James Statham
Sweating profusely after the hot midday hike along a winding road, I carefully eased myself into the crowded and dilapidated Toyota minivan. The minibus was made for eight and had seen its better years in Southeast Asia as a taxi, but, like Abraham and Sarah, new life was being wrung out of it. Two nursing mothers and several preoccupied Muslims were my nearby companions. For the next hour, 18-20 of us lurched along the potholed highway, occasionally stopping at tattered villages to disgorge and then to swallow up eager new riders and often huge bags of maize.
It wasn't Canada. It was Africa, and I was way out of my comfort zone. It was Malawi, September 2014. I was neither safe nor comfortable, even though we passed nonchalantly through several police checks. Everybody knows that minibus capacity is "just one more". But I felt secure, for I knew Who had put me there.
Why was I in that land called "the warm heart of Africa" nestled next to Mozambique and Zambia where we Presbyterians have a lengthy history going back to David Livingstone? Presbyterians Sharing, for the last four years has been supporting my son, Todd, and his family, to teach Systematic Theology and Church History at the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Seminary in Zomba. An hour's drive away in Liwonde is a Baptist College that also trains men for the ministry. "Would you be able to come and teach New Testament?" Todd was asked. His answer? "No, I can't, but I'll ask my Dad."
I retired from congregational leadership two years ago into a time of significant and unexpected spiritual renewal. I considered this request as a call from the Lord to step into the unknown. We had been to Malawi two years previously to visit family, but God had more for me to learn than what I was going to teach.
After the Baptist bishop (!) approved my coming, I was asked if I would also teach Homiletics. This College operates on ten-week semesters twice a year for two years and had been functioning for eight years. Out of deference to my being away from home too long, the Academic Dean compressed 36 hours of teaching Matthew to Acts into four weeks, necessitating three-and-a-half-hour seminars, less a fifteen-minute break. In addition, there were four seminars of preaching instruction. The twelve men in the class were mostly in their forties and fifties, and, as Malawi has a subsistence economy, being one of the poorest countries in the world, they were of necessity farmers as well. (Everyone grows their staple food, maize, and everyone knows what hunger feels like. Fifty percent of the population is under fifteen years of age. The national HIV rate is 18%.) What I discovered was that the students had been preaching, pastoring, and evangelizing for many years, but with little formal training. One man had been preaching and pastoring among several village churches for 17 years. To my surprise, only two men spoke sufficient English, so I made good use of an interpreter and a blackboard. I lived nearby in a typical African village with a most gracious family of seven.
Church women meeting on mats in the yard of my host family
Little in Liwonde was familiar to me except the passion that these men had for Jesus. The church in Africa is growing exponentially. I had been told that the church in Africa is "a mile wide and an inch deep". It's true. They are not a book culture and few Bibles abound. John 3:16 is the constant core of preaching. The African church is close to being a New Testament church. Should I be teaching homiletics to men who are doing a better job than me at bringing people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? My goal was to get them into the wonders of God's grace and love in Scripture, but not away from John 3:16. If we have grasped the gospel at all, the essential question will always be, "was Jesus necessary?" So when the goal of our preaching is no longer lives changed for Christ, we have stopped preaching. Jesus' message to Nicodemus was simple and unequivocal. Michael Horton, in his new book, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, writes, "The high minded of our age are offended by the simplicity of God's speech to us, which addresses the learned and the unlearned alike." Nicodemus was a changed man because "It's not the church that creates the Word, but the Word that creates the church" (p.59).
The church that I saw in Africa is rich with a passion for Christ, but lacks education. The church in Canada is rich in educational opportunities, but lacks passion. These twelve meagrely-educated men are passionate about the necessity of being born again/from above for themselves and for others. And they are now concerned about, as one said, "the looming Goliath of Islam in the villages". Thirty percent of Malawi's 14 million population is Muslim. Churches near Liwonde were torched last year. These men are front-line troops.
Spiritual battle is not comfortable, but if we seek only the comfortable, we will never find the Lord who meets us where He is – in strange places – often well out of our comfort zone. I had the privilege recently of listening to Bob Kuhn, the President of Trinity Western University, a college often found fighting for us on our front lines. We are not impacted by militant Islam here in Canada. Our "Goliath" is militant secularism and the narcissism born of excessive affluence. He said, "Christians in Canada fear standing up and standing out. We would rather head for the closets recently vacated by others."
I was ashamed of myself in Malawi. I met again a part of myself that I do not like. Too often, I counted the days until leaving. Too often, I summoned dogged perseverance. The long flights, the intense heat, the squalor, and the boredom stretched me emotionally and physically. I lost ten pounds. I suppose I'll get that back, but I don't want to lose what my students taught me.