Our pre-field training warned us to mind the gap between expectations and reality. Not long after I arrived in Kenya I heard that there would be an ordination service this past weekend, and I wanted to go.
I’d envisioned sitting in the audience and enjoying the atmosphere, even if I wouldn’t be able to follow much of what was said. Instead, by the time the two-day event was complete I had joined the ordination council with my own assigned topic to test the candidate on. I had the honor of being asked to cut the ribbon for the church building’s dedication. I was asked to be the first one to pray over the candidate when we as a council laid hands on him. Then I was told to present the candidate one of the council’s gifts to him: a Bible. I became an accidental honored guest over the weekend without even trying.
The weekend’s events far exceeded my expectations in another way. I was overwhelmed by how closely the churches and their leaders worked together and supported each other. There were over a dozen local pastors who spent the entire weekend at their sister church. Sunday’s ordination service included five choir numbers from area churches and fellowships. The youth even performed a poem. A sister church provided all the kitchen help for the weekend, so the host church could enjoy the celebration without worrying about serving all the guests.
The climax of the weekend came halfway through Sunday’s service when the council presented the positive results of the previous day’s testing. Upon hearing the news, the people of the host church celebrated with a joy I’d not seen in a church building in my lifetime. They cheered. They yelled. They called. They danced. And then they repeated the cycle all over again. That outburst of joy was just a taste of what was to come. After the service was over there was a time for the church to congratulate and give gifts to their beloved pastor.
In America we often downplay gifts. We say, “it’s only a little something,” when we give it and when receiving it we often don’t open it in the presence of the giver. But in Kenya, a gift reveals how much you want to honor someone else, and you want everyone to see it, including the recipient. And so the church lined up to show their pastor, who was now officially ordained as their pastor, just how much they love and appreciate him. They sang. They danced. They waved their gifts back and forth over their heads. They showered blessings onto him and his wife. There was money, there were blankets, there were metal cups. There was a chicken, a sheep, and even a cow, which is a really big deal. That celebration alone lasted a good 25 minutes. And I had a prime seat as a member of the ordaining council. It was loud where I sat, which was by one of the electronic speakers. I could hardly hear anything over the celebration taking place right in front of me.
Halfway through the celebration I thought of the Prodigal Son’s older brother. The celebration at his father’s house was so loud that the brother heard the commotion all the way out in surrounding fields. And when he heard the party was in honor of his stupid younger brother returning home, he chose to miss out.
As American Christians we often limit our celebrations. We’re too concerned with our schedule and the time. We don’t want to look buffoonish or overly excited, unless we are at a sporting event. And I wonder how often we choose to miss out.
It’s every left-hander’s nightmare to be asked to use scissors in front of a crowd. I couldn’t even properly cut the ribbon. It eventually just ripped off. I also mistakenly stood in front of the dedication plaque after revealing it, blocking pictures. I also struggled to open the door to the church building. All that is to say I’ve learned yet another reason I’d make a lousy politician or land developer. Despite my shortcomings as a dedicator, I still had a great time over the weekend seeing one church come of age with a pastor who has proved himself by serving it faithfully for years, and, Lord willing, will continue serving for years to come.
When servants tell the father in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son that the man’s oldest son—the one who remained faithful to him—didn’t want to join the party, the father’s love for both of his sons shined through: “His father went out and pleaded with him [. . .]. ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Jesus never tells us if the father’s pleading worked on his son. We’re left as listeners to just sit there with the unknown, wondering what we’d do. The American in me is scared that I’d continue to wait things out. I already struggle celebrating obviously good things with my whole body like the Kenyans did over the weekend. I couldn’t imagine celebrating something that I’d likely find so frustrating. And yet the father in Jesus’ story says we have to celebrate and be glad.
But do we ever listen to his voice?
I’m poor at celebration, while my Kenyan brothers and sisters are rich. Will I learn from them too?
I do know this: there is nowhere else I’d rather be yesterday than witnessing the celebration in Kiminini, Kenya.
And that’s a start.