After 15 hours of flying and an 8-hour drive in a very small car our team finally arrived in beautiful Mulanje, Malawi late last night. The lodge in which our team is staying is adjacent to majestic Mount Mulanje, which is the third highest peak in all of Africa. After sleeping for precious few hours, I awoke looking forward to getting a hot shower and loosening up my joints and muscles. When I travel to Africa, one of the amenities I’ve learned to ask for in every hotel or lodge I stay in is hot water. I’ve done enough cold showers to last a lifetime. While I am happy to report that the lodge in which we are staying does indeed have hot water, water pressure is another issue. In fact, the shower is more like a trickle. So, after a hot trickle (there is no way to regulate the temperature, its either all hot or all cold) and some coffee we were ready to drive to our location and begin our first day of seminars with our pastors in Chiringa, Malawi.
However, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, especially when traveling in Africa. Today was no different. On the way to the venue, we ran out of gas. One of our host pastors is the driver and he hailed a taxi to go and get fuel leaving us with the car. Come to find out four white men sitting in a car alongside the road in Malawi draws quite a crowd. Soon we were surrounded by an ever-increasing number of children waving and staring at us. This was quite a day for many of them since they had probably never seen a white person before. Undeterred by our temporary setback, we filled the car with gas, and we were back on the road.
The drive from our lodge to Chiringa is stunning with Mount Mulanje’s imposing presence setting the backdrop for rolling green hills, lush vegetation, and a cool breeze that carries away all your worries. Even the cavernous potholes meeting us along the way could not jar loose a sense of wonder from my heart. Having finally reached our training location, we were soon greeted by many familiar and smiling faces that had attended our seminar last year. It was wonderful to be reunited with my brothers.
Indeed, it is a wonder and a testament to God’s grace that these pastors can smile after what they have experienced so far this year. In January a major cyclone came ashore in Mozambique and passed over Chiringa, which is only 30 miles from the Mozambique border. The cyclone unleashed a torrent of rain flooding the creeks and river surrounding Chiringa and flooding it. Villagers lost their homes, their crops, and some even lost their lives. The videos and pictures are heart-breaking as stunned villagers walk around in water waist deep.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the first weekend of March another cyclone came ashore in Mozambique and followed the same path of destruction once again submerging Chiringa in floods and destroying what was left from the first flood. It is the first time in recorded history that two cyclones have come ashore back-to-back in this part of the world.
However, one would never know anything of such magnitude happened today as these pastors who have faithfully shepherded their people through tragedy and had experienced their own loss arrived at our seminar with smiles on their faces, joy in their hearts, and learning on their minds.
ITEM’s method of training involves a three-year process that includes both instruction in two seminars and two years of guided mentoring in small groups. Today we began our second seminar with our group of pastors in Malawi, which we call the ITEM Conference on Ministry and Preaching (ICOMP). Our goal in this seminar is to help pastors to become equippers, examples, and expositors. During one of our sessions today we were talking about how God uses suffering to equip His people. As I looked out over the seventy pastors present, I realized these pastors were a living embodiment of this principle. Floods may sweep away buildings and crops and human life, but floods cannot sweep away the faith, hope, and love of God’s people. The apostle Paul reminds us that God works all things for the ultimate good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28). The Christian Gospel is unique among all the various religious worldviews in that suffering can be redeemed.
Someone has called suffering the gift that no one wants. In the American church there seems to be a phobic avoidance of suffering. In fact, technology and wealth has insulated us from suffering. But has this unfamiliarity with suffering matured the American church? Every indicator says it has not only not matured the American church, but it has instead greatly impoverished the American church. Perhaps what is best for the American church is for God to send a flood of suffering to sweep away our dependence upon wealth and smash our idols of success, comfort, and safety.
If you come to Africa, you will inevitably be enthralled with the beauty of the scenery and the people, angered by the corruption, and amazed by the resiliency of the African church. This resiliency is buoyed by the hope that is found in the gospel. The African church has suffered much. Nevertheless, their suffering has not been in vain. God is equipping His people to become mature in the faith and preparing His shepherds to lead the global church in the next generation. Right here in Chiringa, Malawi, an insignificant place according to the world’s standards, a significant work is taking place as God is encouraging and equipping His shepherds through the work of ITEM.