John Wilson in Malawi – Days 1 to 3

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DAY 1 – 26 August 2017

31 hrs transit seems as nothing when I land in one of my favourite places, after a 5-year absence – Chileka International Airport, Blantyre. Everything comes back quickly – the dust and soot in the air, the bad roads, and tragic sights of poverty and struggle all around. John and Sue (missionaries from Eltham Presbyterian) met me at 2.30pm, then took me straight to our Orbus school and orphan-centre to inspect the new buildings, see the initial steps of the water pump project, and the whole premises. Very impressive. We should be proud to support Orbus. Craig and Jayni Manners and their five boys met us on site as well.

Craig & Jayni Manners and family, John & Sue Steendam – ORBUS MINISTRIES, Blantyre

the place for a bore-hole, ORBUS – solar panel water supply: about to happen

After a quick drive through the city, we met Rev Colin M’Bawa at Grace Bandawe Conf Centre and then, at Synod headquarters we met and prayed with the recently elected Moderator of Blantyre Synod Rev Masauko Mbolebole – and shared reflections on what being moderator means. He has vision for the Synod (covering at least a million people) and has a particular desire to encourage ministers and elders of his church to engage in true spirituality and purity of life, and in teaching the truths of God’s Word faithfully.

Rev Colin M’Bawa at Grace Bandawe, Blantyre, with Rev John Wilson

Moderators together: CCAP Blantyre Synod (Rev Mbolebole) and PCA

familiar surroundings – Blantyre Synod headquarters

I was then interviewed by Blantyre Synod Radio – asked questions as to why I was there and what benefit the partnership relationship was between the two churches. It was a joy to be interviewed by Lloyd – a young man who was so helpful to Colin during the initial years of setting up the Theological Resource Centre years ago.

radio interview with Lloyd

at Blantyre Synod radio studio

Then, we prayed with John and Sue for their work … then off to beautiful Zomba (the former British capital city).

John & Sue Steendam (Eltham PC) with Colin M’Bawa

DAY 2 – 27 August 2017

A day to remember – a glimpse of heaven.

on the road between Blantyre and Lilongwe

Words will fail me … but let me try. 4.50am rise, drive to the River Shire (along which David Livingstone came), 6 hours in worship, lunch in the manse, 4 hr warm (hot) drive to Lilongwe … now, but only now: exhausted.

Words definitely fail to describe the exquisite experience of worshipping God alongside these beautiful, warm-hearted, faithful Malawian Christians at CCAP Mawira (on the Shire River at Liwonde). I was blessed ‘out of my skin’ by my Malawian brothers and sisters – they ministered to me in a powerful way.

CCAP Mawira congregation, Liwonde

First service (English) began at 7am. Every element of the service, from the sincere welcome speeches in the vestry with the elders, through the singing, Bible reading, prayer, announcements, preaching and the closure … even to the prayer, thank yous, handshakes and singing of amazing grace in the vestry post-service … everything is done attendant to purpose (to glorify God) and done with reverence and dignity. 250 powerful voices singing great hymns of the faith, familiar to me, was breathtaking and inspiring. ‘Glory be the God the Father’ sung like I’ve never heard it. Such passion to bring honour and glory to God. Six special choirs, each with their brilliant item of praise. One, in particular, I’ve recorded – outstanding.

It was a real blessing to share the ministry today with an old friend Abusa Rodney Bona (now 75 years of age, but still working full time) and my ‘identical twin brother’ Rev Colin M’Bawa. Three old men leading the service!

Rev Rodney Bona with wife and grand children, Mawira CCAP

After a huge week at work, then 31 hours in transit and little sleep, I shouldn’t have been alert, but I had such upholding through the prayers of MANY people back home in the PCA, and especially family and friends at Reservoir … I felt the most liberating empowerment to preach and to communicate with the whole congregation as I took them through the amazing encounter the Roman centurion had with Jesus. Words flowed, Scriptures opened, lives were coming under the inspired Word of the living God. After 2½ hrs, as the Session Clerk was summarising my message, I realised that the service was drawing towards a close – and I felt disappointed … I could have stayed. 2½ hrs of wonderful heavenly worship of the living and true God. We could have sung more, prayed more, heard the Word more. No one wanted to leave quickly.

I gave the congregation multiple printed copies of the message so as people could go over it again in their homes, but also because it left then with an example of how to open up Scripture and teach the Word to others.

One of the great blessings for me, was a sense of assurance of faith. I see the radiant faces, hear fervent voices and heartfelt confessions of faith in the Saviour … and then I think these folk weren’t raised like I was in the comforts of western life and surrounded by resources and books, recordings and conferences … but, while raised in deepest central Africa … the VERY SAME savior: Jesus Christ, has gripped their soul and has mine. Surely Paul got it right: “one faith, one Lord, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4). From a background utterly removed from mine, from within a life context that’s radically different to mine … their faith in a Triune God who saves through the crucifixion and resurrection of the beloved Son of God – is a POWERFUL witness that gives me assurance of faith. How could this have happened? Is this accidental? How is it that our worship and expressions of Christian faith are the same? Walking the dusty streets of Malawi, breathing the soot-filled air, dodging in and out of chaotic traffic – I feel absolutely like a fish OUT OF WATER, especially with my pale skin and English-only language barrier. BUT, I walk into this CCAP church and I feel these are my people, this is my faith, my Lord … and in all the important things … MY LIFE.

As an aside, it speaks of a time when the Church of Scotland was powerful in the Word of God and urgent in bringing the gospel of salvation to the nations of the world. Those early Scottish missionaries did such a faithful and enduring work in establishing Christian faith in these lands. I refer to the work of David Livingstone and Dr Laws and a host of others, some who died early in their days, some through attack by wild animals and others by the dreaded fever that mosquitoes bring. Of course, this is the work of an earlier version of the Church of Scotland – when it was devoted to bringing the message of the Word of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.

It brings my mind to a Wilson forebear I never met. But my Dad did, and he spoke highly of his Uncle George when back home on furlough. Rev George Wilson served for 25 years on Likomo Island (Nyassaland) heading up the Theological College there in the early 20th century.

Back to my day … after a short break for Coca Cola (yes, it’s found in every country in the world) the 2nd service was in Chichewa which, obviously, is harder for me, but I can tell what’s going on even if I’m not understanding their words which are so quickly spoken. I use my standard Chichewa greetings and sermon opening sentences … a method I try in order to make a relational connection. I was flagging by now, flagging in strength and the eyes were beginning to close over … but somehow, the Lord provided superhuman strength and attention, and I was able to preach again without feeling the weakness that I should have been feeling.

By 1 pm, we’d concluded and I went on my way to the manse rejoicing. Chambo fish (whole fish) and nsima for lunch. Not being very adept at extracting the flesh from the bones of chambo, I did feel ashamed at how much of it I had to leave for fear of choking on a fish bone.

A day to remember, and a reminder that we in the PCA have a wide-open door for opportunity to minister here in Malawi. We have a role to play in this partnership and that’s to understand where we best fit in – and that’s probably to spend time here in preaching and then training others to preach and teach. There is a recognition in CCAP that PCA can lend a hand in discipling leaders in becoming teachers of the Word of God. There’s plenty of English-speaking congregations in the major cities of Malawi. Recently retired ministers … can you give a year of your life in this way? Ministers of the PCA, what about spending your long-service leave here?

DAY 3 – 28 August 2017

Still processing the privileges I’ve had today with my ‘twin brother’ Rev Colin M’Bawa. I think it all comes under the category of building relationships for ministry on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

The serious and far-reaching Christian influence in the Malawian Defence Force has to be witnessed and experienced to be understood. So it was my privilege, at the invitation of the CCAP senior chaplain, Major Andrew Kamponda, to visit the central barracks of the Malawian Army.

with Chaplain Kamponda

A small country in geographical terms, Malawi is defended by an Army of 16,000 personnel which includes a minor naval presence on Lake Malawi and an airwing of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Out of that 16,000, it’s reckoned that about 1,000 of the army personnel are Presbyterian Christians and regularly attend church services when stationed at home. The CCAP connections within the Army (assisted by local congregations) have recently built a massive church structure for these purposes – a large enough auditorium to seat 500. The basic structure has been completed, but it’s completely bare and they’re up to fund raising to tile the floor.

After being proudly shown around the new building, I was asked to address the troops who had gathered to ‘recognise the important visitor’. I spoke of the Australian Defence Force (such that I knew) and especially the role of the PCA chaplains – explaining that though the Presbyterian Church in Australia was small, it had 12 full-time chaplains serving. I ended my moderatorial address with a short appeal for faith in Jesus based on the biblical account of the day that Jesus saw in the Roman centurion such faith that he’d never seen elsewhere (Luke 7). Well received. I gave them a copy of the address as well.

Malawian Defence Force visit

These men and women put their lives on the line for the noble cause of protecting their nation of Malawi. Some of them are deployed into dangerous places, such as on peace-keeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They see action, they see their mates killed, they face life and death and eternity questions all the time. Christian chaplains do a remarkable job because they are deployed alongside regular troops and speak a word in season, speak of the love, mercy and compassion of a sovereign God. They help make sense of the world to those in peril. And then, back home, they serve Christ by ministering to families of soldiers and attend to various emergent pastoral and counseling needs.

Leading this valuable work is a friend of mine, Chaplain Kamponda. I’ve worked alongside this man firstly when he was minister at Neno (and therefore chaplain for the Girls School), then as minister of the central St Michaels and All Angels Church in Blantyre. I’ve noticed a remarkable growth of maturity in him and I note how army life and army chaplaincy suits him. How I wish that I could persuade one of our ADF chaplains to be allowed to visit Malawi, spend time with the MDF and especially encourage and build up the under-resourced CCAP chaplains. It would be so helpful, and they’d be welcomed.

the impressive St Michaels and All Angels CCAP church, Blantyre

To top off a great morning, I was ushered into the office of the Commanding Officer of the entire base, and I presented him with a Bible on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The CO was happy to pose for an official photograph with this visitor from Australia (I think it helped having a title with the word ‘General’ in it).

with CO Malawian Defence Force

Following lunch (with Colin and Shirley)…

The serious and far-reaching Christian influence in the Malawian Police Force has to be witnessed and experienced to be understood. So it was my privilege, at the invitation of the CCAP senior chaplain, Deputy Commissioner of Malawi Police, Rev C K Masambuka, to visit the central headquarters of the Malawian Police, also in Lilongwe.

Yes, such is the profound respect the Malawian Police has for the Christian church, they give the senior chaplain the rank of Deputy Commissioner and the 2nd in charge chaplain the rank of Inspector.

Rev Charles Masambuka is a faithful minister of the Gospel, a CCAP minister, but totally employed by, and dedicated to, Malawi Police. The force is 15,000 strong, employed to uphold law and order for the 17 million population of Malawi – a big job!

In his HQ office, Rev Masambuka introduced me to one of his assistant chaplains, Rev Mabvuto Chipeta – whose rank is Inspector. I asked them to describe what the pressures are for police (and therefore for chaplains of police). This was their story: their work as chaplains (apart from the obvious, Evangelists for the Christian gospel) is to head up the Department called ‘Spiritual Integrity and Counseling’. Malawi police are poorly paid, and yet long hours on the streets can be expected of them. So, they’re open to temptations of corruption and bribes, and often fall for those temptations. It’s not unknown among them to have problems associated with drugs, heavy drinking, violence and other unsocial behaviours. This results in personal stress, mental breakdowns, relationship breakdown, suicide – these are all consequential risks they face. There’s so much call for the services of police chaplains, and they are highly valued, and never short of work.

While talking about the daily work pressures faced by the men and women out on patrol, I think I became distracted – I noticed on the wall of the office, what appeared to be a Victoria Police cap. Upon inquiry, I learned that there is a partnership between Vic Police and Malawi Police and that Rev Mabvuto Chipeta had just returned from visiting our Deputy Commissioner and touring Melbourne and Bendigo. Then, I was told that a VicPol officer, a Christian from Horsham, is about to visit Malawi to assist in their programs over a number of months. The senior officers present were glad to hear of my visit, and now I have been asked to visit this VicPol officer in Melbourne before he travels to Malawi.

Malawian Police DC with Vic Police cap

We shared a wonderful time of prayer together in the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Malawian Police.

To cap off a great day, I spent time in the evening with two Malawian friends who had become well known and well loved at Reservoir Presbyterian Church while they were on Masters Scholarship at La Trobe and Melbourne Universities … up until January this year.

What a pleasure having coffee with a Malawian instructor of nursing, Esther; and then also with the strikingly intelligent senior ranking official in the Malawian Government Dept of Foreign Affairs, Dolipher Ndala. Dolipher spoke to me of her government’s plans to establish (at last) a Malawian Embassy in Canberra, AND the invitation to our Government to establish a much needed consulate in Malawi. Up until now, we’ve had a Malawian Consulate Office in Melbourne, but nothing more than that, AND, would you believe it – the Malawian Embassy in Japan has to cover Australian inquiries as well. And then the nearest Australian Embassy to Malawi is situated (unhelpfully) in Harare.

Tomorrow, I have to find the small road border crossing into Zambia.

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