A letter from Kari Nicewander in Zambia
They were speaking rapid Nyanja, and while I could pick out a few phrases, I was completely unable to keep up with the discussion. I could tell that they were speaking about a man in prison, a man who would soon be released. And as the church vestry continued its heated discussion, I filled in the blanks.
Of course there would be nervous debate about a prisoner soon to be released into the community. I guessed that they were figuring out if they could let him back into the congregation. Would they be safe? I remembered similar conversations about ex-offenders in my previous congregations. What to do when a person gets released from prison? How does a church behave?
I watched them continue to speak, and was surprised by the smiles on their faces, the lightness with which the conversation continued. I had completely stopped listening as I imagined the content of their discussion, and finally my colleague turned to me. “Were you following?” she asked. I admitted that I had not understood the majority of the discussion and she was happy to explain.
“Very soon one of our members will be released from prison. He is getting an early release and we are very happy. So, we are planning on throwing him a party. We are figuring out how to raise funds for this party.” She returned to the conversation and I nodded as if that was exactly what I had expected. Of course. They weren’t debating whether or not this man could return to their community. They were discussing the details of the party they would throw for him.
I spent that morning with the congregation, and by early afternoon it was time to begin the long drive back to Lusaka. As we were ready to depart, the minister asked us to wait outside for just a few minutes. We complied, and I wondered what they needed to discuss without us present. It took longer than a few minutes, and I began to feel a bit impatient. I don’t like driving in the dark and I really wanted to leave in order to get home before nightfall.
Finally the minister came out of the church building and said farewell. As we were getting into the car, she shoved a wad of money into my hand. “Please, use it to buy food and soft drinks on your drive home,” she said. I began to protest, but she stopped me immediately. “Please. You must. This is for you.” I accepted the gift, realizing that they had been taking a special offering to collect this money.
We did not need soft drinks, and we had traveled with a bag of food and water in the car. That money could have gone to feed someone else—someone who was hungry, someone who did not have a couple of chocolate chip cookies hidden in the glove compartment. But we had to accept this extravagant generosity—from a church full of faithful Zambians who throw parties for prisoners and collect money to feed Americans.
There was a woman—an unnamed woman—in the gospels who poured out expensive perfume all over Jesus. She came to him and spilled the whole bottle on his skin, she wiped it with her hair. And when the disciples protested, “What a waste! This could have been sold and the money given to the poor!” Jesus said, “Why do you trouble her? She has done this beautiful thing to show her love. What she has done will be told again and again, in memory of her.”
This little church, in this little town, in south central Zambia, is pouring out perfume. They are throwing parties for prisoners, they are collecting money to buy soft drinks. They are singing and dancing and wiping in ointment with their hair. They are showing love—joyous, crazy, grateful, faithful love. And I can see Jesus smiling and laughing with them, saying, “Let their story be told over and over again, in memory of them.”
There is no doubt that this congregation is caring for its neighbors. It already runs a small community school, where kids can come and learn for free. They are beginning plans for a Home Based Care program, to provide assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS. They provide clothes and sustenance for those who are struggling. But they also throw parties for prisoners, they also shove cash into my full hands, they also dance and celebrate and trust in God.
I believe that extravagant generosity is closely aligned with courageous faith. People who truly trust that God will provide are better able to give sacrificially. People who truly believe that God loves everyone are better able to love their neighbors. People who truly know that God has a plan for us are better able to release their own plans, their own resources, their own intentions, and share in the radical abundance of God.
I deeply want to trust God like that—to have a faith that allows me to engage in such extravagant generosity, such reckless hospitality. Because even though I did not need the money for soft drinks, I certainly needed the lesson.
As I am truly grateful to that church in Mazabuka, I am also full of thanksgiving for you. In financial donations, in encouraging messages, in faithful prayers, many of you offer your own resources to encourage and support our ministry. We are so very thankful. We do ask that you continue to practice extravagant generosity, that you continue to lift us up in prayer, that you continue to reach out with words of love and kindness.
Just as the people of Mazabuka bless and inspire us, our supporters in the U.S. also bless and inspire us. So, thank you for being a part of this joyous, generous, faithful partnership. Thank you for offering what you have; as we pour out our perfume, may all be blessed by the sweet smell of God’s love.
Joel, Kari, Frankie and Johnny
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