Tag Archives: church calendar

Advent

This morning when George, the ELCSL guard,  came to the porch for our morning chat, he was wearing a denim jacket and winter gloves.  We agreed that it was cool this morning, and that the harmattan season has arrived.  This time of year is marked by noticeably lower temperatures in the morning and dust everywhere.

Musa and one of her twin sons, age one month.

Earlier this week I was visited by the young woman who formerly helped around my house cleaning and doing laundry.  She gave birth to twins a month ago, and brought one of her sons for a visit.   The twins received their names last week:  Alusine and Alasene, which I am told are the typical names given to twins in various traditions.  This week in Advent, as we remember Mary’s story, and rejoice “for the Lord is near,”  it  was good  to rejoice with this new mother.

The season of Advent seems to get lost amidst other issues and events in the worship life of many of the Lutheran churches I visit.  The tradition of holding thanksgiving services dominates this time of year and overshadows liturgical themes.    In late 2009 (my first year in Sierra Leone), I preached with reference to the church calendar at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Kenema, and made note that Advent is the start of a new year for Christians.   On the first Sunday of Advent ever since 2009, I have received a phone call from one of the members of Incarnation, wishing me a happy new year and a blessed Advent.  Every year I rejoice and give thanks for the grace of  relationships developed and sustained in surprising times and places.

Market women waiting for customers at Moyamba Junction

Near the end of my first year in west Africa,  I wrote an advent reflection which continues to speak to my experience here.  These were my thoughts, originally sent to various church newsletters  in 2009:

“This Advent season, I have been thinking a lot about waiting.  The truth is I seem to spend a lot of my time in Africa waiting.   I often find myself waiting for meetings to begin, for events to take place, and for the right people to arrive…. Looking at the bigger picture of life in Freetown, I see young people waiting for employment, teachers waiting for their salaries, and the hungry waiting for food.  Entire communities are waiting for political promises to be fulfilled and for change to come.

There really is a sense of “African time” in all of this – a certain fluidity to the flow of hours, days, weeks and years in which we never really know what will happen, or when.  After all this time in Sierra Leone, I feel that I’m still learning how to live in African time. And some days I’m better at waiting than other days.

This woman sells rice and sauce across the street from the ELCSL compound. She always calls out "hi, neighbor!" when she sees me.

There is a certain irony in all of this when I consider the ELCA approach to mission described as “accompaniment.”    Accompaniment implies movement but quite often I don’t feel like we’re going anywhere.  It’s somewhat difficult to feel like I am accompanying anyone when I spend so much time waiting.  I share this experience with most Americans and Europeans who have crossed cultures and entered the African context.  What often ends up happening is that we grow impatient or frustrated, and end up charging ahead and proposing our own solutions to African problems.  But in this context, “waiting with” our African brothers and sisters is essential.  Only by accompanying our partners and waiting with them will African ideas and solutions emerge in African time.

African Nativity

These lessons I am learning of African time seem right for the season of Advent.    We prefer to be in control and to shape the future according to our own terms.  In Advent, however, we are called to step back, and to wait with expectant hope.  In Advent this year, I give thanks that I don’t need to be in control because God is.  I give thanks for the African community of faith teaching me daily to wait with tenacious faith for the working out of God’s gracious purposes….  God is indeed at work:  wait and see!”

Notes on context for an African Easter

This is a typical fish net style hammock, claimed here by Pastor Kobba during our visit to Sanhan village.

While sitting on my porch this morning, chatting with ELCSL colleagues, reference was made to my hammock hanging there, and this led to a discussion about the tradition of carrying paramount chiefs to special meetings in hammocks.  The hammock used for this purpose was specially made with a traditional woven fabric (country cloth), and it was designed to allow the chief to sit upright while being  carried by four  men.  This tradition seems, however, to have disappeared since the rebel war;  today chiefs and other “big men” arrive by car.

Earlier in Lent I had speculated with other colleagues and friends what means of transport Jesus would use to enter Freetown, if  the events of Palm Sunday were to take place here today.  (Donkeys are not known in Sierra Leone.)  The consensus idea for a Sierra Leonean equivalent to  a donkey was an “omalankee” cart typically used to haul heavy items throughout the city.   Omalenkees are humble and common, although not  normally used to transport people.  This morning, however, we decided that if Jesus were to seek a triumphant entry into Freetown in the traditions of Sierra Leone, he might enter the city in a hammock, carried and proclaimed as “chief.”

Omalankees can be hired to haul just about anything through the streets of Freetown.

On Maundy Thursday last week I celebrated with the Lutheran community of St. Paul in the eastern part of Freetown, and in my sermon we had further discussions about the role of chiefs.   St. Paul’s had not previously worshiped on Maundy Thursday, and members had never before participated in a foot washing service according to the traditions of the day.  So we talked about the scripture reading from John 13 describing Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.   Sierra Leonean society is organized, to a great extent, along strict hierarchical lines, and there are unwritten rules governing behavior and interaction between those of high status and ordinary men and women.   Chiefs, for example, would never carry water or engage in menial labor.  Chiefs would never stoop to do the work of a servant or wash the feet of others.  For Jesus — master and “chief”  to do such a thing is well understood as a great and unusual act of love and service.

For our Maundy Thursday worship, St. Paul’s evangelist –Tennyson Bindi —  and I proceeded then to wash the feet of all the members of the church.  All participated, from the youngest to the oldest.   When we finished, the water in the basin was quite muddy, as the feet we washed were dirty from all the steps taken in the heat and dust of the day.  It strikes me  that in the US, our practice of ancient Christian traditions is a bit sanitized.  Here, the washing of feet really was a practical service of grace ,and a reflection of our ongoing need for cleansing waters both physically and spiritually.  And in a culture that upholds the primacy of “big men,” Jesus’ actions are a startling challenge to the established order.    He says:   “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you….  By this they will know that you are my disciples , if you have love for one another.”

Members and friends of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Kissy (eastern Freetown). This photo was taken late in Febuary when we visited to see the work being done to prepare mud bricks for building new walls.

Against this  backdrop of holy week discussions and devotions,  and in a city crowded to overflowing with holiday pilgrims,  my own celebration of Easter began in the dark  at Lumley Beach on the Atlantic Ocean.  Dawn began breaking into the darkness about 6 am on Sunday morning and although the sun was  hidden behind Freetown’s dusty haze, a sunrise service at the beach was an ideal way to begin the day.  Those who gathered on the beach shared a breakfast of bread and fish.

"Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus." (John 21:4)

Later in the morning I participated in worship at St. Mark’s in Calaba Town, and in the evening I hosted a potluck picnic complete with campfire and marshmallows.   All day long, we celebrated the  Easter truth:   Christ is risen, and he is known to us in the breaking of the bread.

Easter Eucharist at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Bishop Barnett presiding. 14 candidates were baptized on Easter morning.

Ash Wednesday

In preparation for Ash Wednesday this year, I was invited by a British friend to a pancake supper on Tuesday night and it was a good occasion not only for feasting but also for conversation about the season of Lent in Sierra Leone.     The Lutheran churches here are marking Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent with worship services tonight.   The traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer and fasting are taken quite seriously among many of my Lutheran colleagues and friends:  beginning today and continuing for the 40 days of the Lenten season, many are abstaining from food and drink from midnight to 6 pm.

Today we are also entering week #3 without electricity from the National Power Authority in Freetown.   That means the ELCSL offices and my house are dependent on a diesel generator for a few hours of power each day.  The generator is essential for powering computers and recharging cell phones, but otherwise it has been possible to make do without electricity.  I  do have new appreciation for my battery powered LED head lamp, which makes it possible to read with ease at night these days.

I often joke about being powerless in Freetown when the electricity is off, and on this Ash Wednesday it seems an apt metaphor for the human condition.  Today we remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return.  We are powerless in a world of sin and death, and so dependent on “Christ the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).  Living without electricity for the past two weeks, — being powerless and often in the dark — has challenged me to live more simply, and to be thankful for things I often take for granted.  All the while,  I am conscious  that I am still living with abundant privileges and far above the standards of most Sierra Leoneans.   I will be glad when the broken transformer is repaired and the lights come on again, but in the meantime,  I am grateful, as poet Denise Levertov writes, to be living in the mercy of God.

To Live in the Mercy of God ( Denise Levertov)

To lie back under the tallest oldest trees.

How far the stems

rise, rise before ribs of shelter

open!

To live in the mercy of God.

The complete sentence too adequate,

has no give.

Awe, not comfort.  Stone, elbows of

stony wood beneath lenient

moss bed.

And awe suddenly

passing beyond itself.  Becomes

a form of comfort.

Becomes the steady air

you glide on, arms

stretched like

the wings of flying foxes.

To hear the multiple

silence of trees, the rainy

forest depths of their listening.

To float, upheld,

as salt water

would hold you,

once you dared.

To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured

waterfall flinging itself

unabating down and down

to clenched fists of rock.

Swiftness of plunge,

hour after year after century,

O or Ah uninterrupted, voice many-stranded.

To breathe spray.  The smoke of it.

Arcs of steelwhite foam, glissades

of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion –

rage or joy?

Thus, not mild, not temperate,

God’s love for the world.  Vast

flood of mercy

flung on resistance.

Easter Life

I celebrated Easter in Sierra Leone in 2 ways over 2 days.  On Easter morning, I worshipped with the community of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in eastern Freetown.    Pastor Juliet Roger Pearce graciously invited me to join her as a pastor to the community for their Easter celebrations, and I was priveledged both to preside at holy communion and to help baptize 20 young people between the ages of 2 and 24 years old.   I’ve never before  had the chance to baptize so many at one time, so that opportunity made for a memorable Easter experience.  The candidates were dressed in white, and were solemnly  reverent as they were splashed with water at the font and anointed with oil.  But they came alive with a vibrant spirit, with clapping hands and dancing feet when the singing and drumming  for Easter worship began.   Watching those newly baptized childen of God come alive in song and dance was the best witness of the day to the spirit of resurrection joy and life.
Easter dancing

Easter dancing. Young and old alike celebrate togther in worship and praise.

The Easter baptismal party

The Easter baptismal party

For many years, St. Paul met for worship in a school building and they are now  struggling to obtain land for their church.  The current worship space is a simple, wood framed structure.  The roof is zinc (which is typical) and the  walls  are created from  pieces of sacking stitched together (see the UNHCR logo on the walls).

 

Easter celebrations continued on Monday, a public holiday in Sierra Leone.   I joined the youth of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church at their annual outing to Kent Beach on the Freetown peninsula.  Actually, we joined thousands of beach goers on Easter Monday for sun and surf and sand.  Kent beach is a beautiful, wide, white sand beach about 40 miles from the city.  The entire beach  was packed with people feasting, dancing and swimming.    I found myself mobbed by children every time I went near the water.  I was obviously a guest and a living object of curiosity for the little ones, and that meant a lot of new friends smiling and laughing together.  Sierra Leoneon hospitality also meant that I was warmly welcome at every turn, not to mention well-fed with fish, chicken, yams, plantains, rice and more.   The spirit of Easter seemed to overflow from Sunday into Monday through this water-side celebration, and it felt certain that Jesus was present “in the breaking of the bread” of the feasts and fellowship.

For readers who have worked with the NTNL Companion Synod Program or visited SL, some of the people who celebrated Easter at the beach might be familiar to you.

Youth of St. Mark Lutheran Church

Youth of St. Mark Lutheran Church. "Youth" are generally young adults in their early 20's and are very active in the life of the church.

 Halima, director of the women's center and Doris, secretary of the ELCSL

Halima, director of the women's center and Doris, secretary of the ELCSL

 

Pastor Moses of St. Mark's and friends
Pastor Moses of St. Mark’s and friends

In these pictures you can see the palm frond roofs of the beach shelters.  These huts provided  some needed shade.  The beach was lined with multitudes of these structures.

Palm Sunday

It happens on a regular basis.  In the midst of an ordinary conversation, a comment or a question prompts the sharing of stories that break the heart and cast down the soul.   It happened again on Saturday.   I was talking to a young man originally from a village in the eastern part of Sierra Leone.  We were simply chatting and passing the time.  We were talking about fishing and football and families, and then he paused, staring ahead without really seeing.  He told me that he had watched as his grandfather  was shot by rebels in his village, and had watched as the rebels shot eight other men.  He told how he had fled from his village in fear and horror and ran into the bush that day with his younger brother.  Terror stricken, separated from family, lost in the forest, this young man said he saw his grandfather’s ghost twice while running, and who am I to doubt what might be seen at such times?    As he continued his story, what I heard is that this young man saw so much more:   the worst that  humans do to other humans in times of war.   “We were always afraid” he said, “every day we were afraid.”palm-sunday-11

This conversation was on my mind and in my heart  on Palm Sunday when I went to worship at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Calaba Town.    I had been looking forward to joining the congregation in a processional through the streets of that neighborhood, and I had been looking forwared to seeing the congregation come together with their own, freshly picked palm branches and freshly made palm crosses.   I had earlier explained to some of the women from St. Mark’s that American churches have to buy palms for Palm Sunday while they told me about cutting the palms from trees in their yards and neighborhoods.

The central symbol in worship on Palm Sunday at St. Mark’s was a palm-decorated cross.   Our worship began down the hill and around the corner from the church sanctuary.  The congregation followed the cross in procession, singing and giving a witness of faith all the way, past neighbors and shop owners and others going about their business.   By the time we arrived at the church I was  dripping with sweat, but the congregation was energized to worship with joy and thanksgiving — and drums once again  — after the subdued tones of Lent.

100_07531

This Holy Week, I will be thinking about the cross.  I will be thinking about what it means that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried; what it means that God in Christ came down to earth and knows the worst that humans do to other humans.   I will be thinking about the Good Friday horror story of suffering and death.  I will be thinking of Jesus’s words from the cross:  “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Did the rebels, the conscripted child soldiers,  and all those who committed crimes of war in Sierra Leone know what they were doing?)   I will be thinking of these things and holding fast to the promise of our faith that suffering and death are not the end of the story.  I will be thinking of these things and the stories I have heard, grateful for the deep and mysterious truth:  that the cross points beyond itself to reveal a holy love and power for life greater than we can imagine.