A liturgy practicum

I have good memories of the liturgical practice we seminarians at Virginia Theological Seminary underwent many years ago now. I try to remember why those good memories, for I am preparing to lead a practicum with our ordinands at the St. Augustine Theological School.

A few weeks ago they baptize a doll, again and again, at a makeshift font in our classroom. This time we go to the Lady Chapel at Holy Cross Cathedral. It is getting dark, but light still shines from the round stained-glass window high above the altar, a window showing the seals of the four dioceses in relationship with one another: Botswana, North Carolina, Newcastle, and West Missouri.

A small group is just finishing Evening Prayer as I arrive, and I busy myself getting things from the sacristy before belatedly joining them.

The ordinands ask earlier if we will vest for the Eucharistic practicum, and I say yes, thinking they mean the celebrant. But they mean all of them, all the time, so as the Evening Prayer folk leave and our ordinands prepare, I go back to the vesting room, find a white cassock short enough to keep me from tripping over it, and I join them, eight of us surrounding the altar looking nicely priestly and reverent.

I have set the practicum up so that they do differing Eucharistic prayers for differing seasons of the year. That keeps them on their toes, sorting out the proper prefaces and staying attuned to the epiclesis and whatnot – all things a new priest (an old one too, for that matter) needs to be attentive to, even though congregations may give them little thought.

The celebrant puts on her stole and begins, and then another, and another. After each I ask the celebrant to comment on what they have done, then I critique it and others add their comments. At the end, I also consecrate the bread and wine, and we share in communion together.

I never am able to answer why I have such good memories of my own practicum at Virginia, maybe it is just that we were discovering what it is actually like to carry out the liturgical ministry to which we feel we have been called. Maybe that is what happens here in Gaborone tonight too. But what is clear is that our ordinands are taking this all very seriously, critical of themselves – ‘it is so different, when you are the one,’ they say apologetically – yet encouraging to others. I think they do well.

‘We need to do it again,’ one tells me the next day. And God willing, they will.

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Fr. Jacob Modisenyane Rest in Peace

Fr. Jacob Modisenyane is ‘late.’

Six weeks ago he is ordained to the priesthood.


Last week he dies. He collapses and is taken to the hospital in Francistown. Fr. Samuel Moraloki is with him. Jacob squeezes his hand. And Jacob dies.

Fr. Jacob is among our first group of ordinands at the St. Augustine Theological School. He travels down to Gaborone for intensive weeks of study, and sometimes we travel to Francistown for a few days of the same. He is a large man, and he suffers from diabetes. He is also an energetic man, deeply committed to the call to which he has responded. I picture him even now, at his chosen seat at the far end of our ‘seminar’ table, engaging in discussion, translating what is going on for a student who needs it, and yes, sometimes tiring and dozing off.

He is a delight to be with. As I say in my remarks at his funeral, he has a way of making me feel he is very happy that we are together. He has an engaging smile, and a wonderful laugh.

He invites me to preach and celebrate at Matsiloje, his home village east of Francistown, snug against the border with Zimbabwe, in 2014, and I do so. It is, again, a joy to be with him.

I travel with Susan Mogwera, Florence Bogopa, and others to his funeral last Friday. We pick up a wreath we have ordered at a florist in Francistown, change a flat tire to our spare, and drive eastward to Matsiloje for the Requiem Mass.

It is underway as we arrive, but we are ushered forward into the packed nave, and I am seated among fellow clergy inside the altar rail. Many of Jacob’s fellow ordinands are there, my dear students from years past. At the Peace it is clear Samuel is overwhelmed in grief. He and Jacob come from the same place - here – and serve together. Samuel is younger, and the loss of his elder ‘brother’ has touched him deeply. He clings to me during the Peace, and then sits down with his head in his hands. I go over and sit next to him and take his hand. The ministry of presence is all that I can offer.

Some of us spend the night at a home offered us back in Francistown. It is a comfortable dwelling, but it is hot and the bedroom is stuffy, and I struggle to sleep. I get up during the night and take two cold showers, and I suppose sleep eventually comes, but I am not so sure.

Funerals in Botswana are early morning events, and we are off, back to Matsiloje, shortly after 5:00 a.m. The viewing is to be between 5:00 and 6:00, at which point the program begins at the Modisenyane home, where large tents have been erected and many chairs placed. I am the tenth on the list of speakers, testimonials, speaking on behalf of the St. Augustine Theological School.

My remarks are brief, at least I think so. I speak of our journey with him at St. Augustine, and I bring to mind his ordination, this past December, at which time he is presented with a Bible. The Bible is a gift from the historic African American parishes in the Diocese of North Carolina, and I take the Bible he has been given. I say that now he will not be using it in his ministry here in Matsiloje and the northern archdeaconry, but I attach a book plate, declaring this gift, into his Bible – Samuel holds it for me – and then hand it to his widow, as a memorial to him and that special December moment in his life.

We follow vague paths from Jacob’s home to the cemetery. Those of us on foot await the arrival of the hearse – a vehicle with a small trailer – and then all enter into the cemetery. I – along with many others with the same goal – find a spot in the shade.

Amid many choruses, words are spoken, dirt is tossed upon the coffin by many clergy, and the coffin is lowered into the grave. There is a huge amount of dirt, from the digging of the pit, nearby, and two queues form. There are two shovels laid against the dirt, and one by one, men take the shovels and begin to fill the grave. I ask Fr. Bonny Bashe, standing nearby, if it is all right for me to do so as well, and he says yes, and I want to. There is something deeply spiritual about the act, and I shovel eight or ten times – the sun is oppressive, and I see no need to add to the dead – and relinquish my shovel to another. It is a touching moment for me.

There are more prayers and choruses, and wreaths are placed on top of the mound of dirt, and as is common here in Botswana, a canopy is placed above the grave. A snake appears among some Mothers Union women who have found a shaded spot on the ground, and they scatter, but we are ready to draw the burial to a close anyway. We await the departure of the family, and we walk back to their home. Family serves the crowd lunch – seswaa, my favorite local dish – and we head to Francistown to solve our tire problem, and drive on to Gaborone. My mind stays on Jacob. Such a loss. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

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A naturalized home

Coming ‘home’ takes all sorts of forms, let alone whether where we are coming to is technically home at all. Back in 2010 I came to Botswana, my first visit since 1989, to work with Fr. James Amanze in envisioning a House of Studies, now the St. Augustine Theological School. There was nothing about ‘home’ then – rather just a curiosity as to whether a ‘foreign land’ where I had been over 20 years earlier had changed much (it had). But when I returned in 2013 to teach at the new school, my first diary entry tried to convey the emotion I felt when Ben Motlhalamme, then the diocesan secretary, simply said ‘welcome home’ as we passed the peace on my first Sunday back. It felt like belonging. The following year my first diary entry only speaks of the intensity of it all – classes and the challenges of settling in and all that. It still felt like belonging, but the focus was on the busy-ness of it all.

Here I am again. 2016. It’s almost ordinary. Susan Mogwera, the Diocese’s executive administrator, meets me at the airport at noon and drives me to my flat, which looks much as I left it (well, no longer in the midst of a major construction site), and where she hands me the keys. We have a bit of lunch and she takes me to the School, where Florence Bogopa, who keeps all working smoothly there, greets me, hands me keys to the School and to my car, which is sitting outside, nicely clean and with a full tank. I sit down and we begin our class at 2:00. Two good sessions, but nothing out of the ordinary. Afterward I boot up my laptop and glide smoothly into the School’s wireless setup. I hear the printer start to whir, and it even remembers that I asked it to print out a couple of documents in 2014, and it spits them out now. Later Fr. James takes me to dinner, and I return to the flat, needing nothing but some groceries to ‘belong’ again.

The Diocese's flat for companion link folk, plus my car

It all seems so routine.

Finding ‘home’ is a great theme, in life as in literature. Sometimes it may touch us deeply, sometimes there’s an intensity to it, sometimes you feel as if you never left. It doesn’t matter. One of our great quests is to discover a place to feel at home, whether in or out of our own culture, whether geographically our ‘technical’ home or not. Sometimes, remarkably, it comes to us in unexpected ways, unexpected places. Sometimes even its ordinariness may be profound.

This morning, at the early (7:30) service at the Holy Cross Cathedral, Bishop Metlha offers me a word of welcome. ‘We will help you become naturalized when you are ready,’ he says with a smile. Some in the congregation follow with a laugh. I smile too, and I thank him. But I remember too that being ‘home’ is multi-directional. The extent to which I feel at home is directly related to the extent to which I am made to feel at home by others whose home this truly is. I remember those who have been in Botswana for decades – even secured citizenship – but are reminded daily that they are not truly ‘home’ here, and never will be. I recall that, despite having grown up in North Carolina, my absence for over 40 years means that I am not, in the eyes of some, as ‘North Carolinian’ as those who never left. I think of the viciousness with which people in leadership, both political and religious, have made it clear that children of God who are distinctive in their ‘otherness’ are not truly ‘home’ in the United States. I see daily – we all do – those caught up in war seeking a new ‘home,’ knowing that what used to be home cannot be again, and what may become home is a foreign land and a foreign tongue.

How do we discover home for ourselves, and affirm home for others who come among us?

This week’s return to Gaborone happens against a backdrop of a meeting of Anglican archbishops, where together in Canterbury they seek to find a way forward after years of contention over the Church and issues of human sexuality. Those issues are important, but for purposes here: Never mind those issues. The issues could have been quite different, but it wouldn’t matter. Behind it all is the question of ‘home.’ Do we belong together? Are we ‘at home’ together? Can we embrace difference – much as families try to do when they get together on holidays – and still belong together? Can we respect the dignity of every human being – which for me means, can we welcome others as being at ‘home’ with us?

Jesus has an answer to this. It’s his prayer that ‘they all may be one’ (John 17:21). We are one together when we find a home together, one which we can embrace despite all that distinguishes us from one another. That’s not easy, as the archbishops sadly demonstrate. But I like to think that in such a small but maybe not such a small way, my being welcomed into a ‘naturalized’ home in Botswana is a small gesture at our oneness, at our sense of home.

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‘My brothers,’ Bishop Metlhayotlhe Beleme asks, ‘do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a priest?’ Twelve, our first graduates from the St. Augustine Theological School, answer, ‘I believe I am so called.’ ‘Do you now in the presence of God and of his Church accept this trust and responsibility?’ Bishop Metlha continues. ‘I do,’ they answer.

Today, in Gaborone, at Holy Cross Cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Botswana, marks the culmination of the long process of discernment and study and formation for these men. It’s the largest ordination held in the Diocese’s history, and is a major expansion of the number of locally-trained Batswana priests.

I am not here.

Our – the Diocese of North Carolina’s – absence is just one of those things that happens. It really is a stewardship issue. I am returning to Botswana in January to teach another term, and despite my having taught these ordinands in two previous years, and despite how much I would love to be present, it is not a good use of our resources, and no other options present themselves. So our Diocese is not here.

Representatives from another of Botswana’s companion links, the Diocese of Newcastle in England, are, and visitors from the Diocese of Tennessee happen to be here on this occasion. Some South African Anglicans have travelled up.

We are not forgotten, however. Bishop Metlha acknowledges the ‘tremendous assistance’ it has received from North Carolina, and he singles out now Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. He also kindly mentions me.

And the Diocese of Botswana rightly recognizes that ‘the primary success of the school and ordination of these men was made possible by Canon Professor James Amanze, Principal of St Augustine and Canon Theologian.’ It is his vision that began St. Augustine Theological School in 2012, begun truly as an act of faith. Today would not be without him.

But the focus today is on these men. I can picture them, their families present, excited by the prospect, relieved that this moment has finally arrived. The evening classes, day after day for three years, is finished. The decision of the Bishop is final. The previous week’s retreat is over. And now, they are to be made priests.

Besides relief and excitement, however, I hope they feel humility. In our Sacramental theology class I ask them, two years ago, to read ‘the charge to the priests’ in the ordination liturgy. I remind them of the seriousness of the words they will one day embrace. Now, at last, they are doing so.

They are standing before the Bishop as he says

You are called to make disciples, bringing them to baptism and confirmation; to lead the people in prayer; faithfully to read the Scriptures and proclaim the word of God; and to preside at the Eucharist with reverence and wonder. Like Aaron, you will bear the names of your people on your breast in intercession before the Lord. You will teach and encourage them from the Scriptures, and bless them in the name of God. You will help God’s people to discover and use to his glory the gifts he has given them. Like Moses, you will gladly receive counsel and share the burden of leadership with others. In love and mercy, remembering your own frailty, you will rebuke sin, pronounce God’s forgiveness to the penitent and absolve them in the name of Christ. Following the Good Shepherd, you will care for the sick, bring back those who have strayed, guide his people through this life, and prepare them for death and for the life to come, that they may be saved through Christ forever.

This ministry will be your great joy and privilege.

That remains, for me, a remarkable charge. Back in 2013 I ask them to reflect upon the ordination liturgy throughout their formation, readying themselves for this day. Now they are hearing this recitation of their calling by their Bishop.

And after all of these words, and acknowledgment of joy and privilege, the charge concludes with great understatement:

It is also a weighty responsibility which none would dare to undertake except for the call of God.


Give them holiness of life, wisdom and gentleness in their ministry, and perseverance in prayer, we all say in the post-communion prayer.

I am not here, at Holy Cross Cathedral in Gaborone. But I am in spirit.



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Parting meanderings

Erik Free, a recent mission appointee from Global Ministries of the UCC/Disciples, takes me to the Beira airport. It’s a simple rather old-fashioned airport. I check in, then go upstairs, where there is a long porch overlooking the runway. Africa, in my view, makes some of the finest beers in the world, so I treat myself to a cold Manica, the local beer (happily ordering it just before the electricity goes out), and sit and watch the inactivity around me. There is a single-engine plane in the foreground, and its pilot comes out and looks at it from time to time, and at some point an anonymous larger plane lands, nothing on it but the numbers. That is all.

 The Catholic cathedral in Beira, with stones from Sofala

We take off to the east, out over the Indian Ocean, then bank southward. I watch the coastline, trying to guess where the ancient ‘city state’ of Sofala used to be. Located on the Buzi estuary, Sofala dates all the way back to around 700, and in the following centuries Arabs, Somalis, Swahili and even Persians trade there. It’s controlled by the Sultanate of Kilwa, in Tanzania, for awhile. They buy gold from the interior, from the Kingdom of Mutapa (Monomatapa, it goes under differing spellings). Then the Portuguese show up in the early 1500s, a bit late for the gold trade. They end up building a fort. The stones from its remains are taken to Beira a century ago, used in the building of the Roman Catholic cathedral.

There is apparently little to be seen of the remnants of Sofala’s glory days. I certainly see none as our plane leaves the coast and heads inland.

Remnants of our histories are still to be found, of course. That is one of my themes when I speak to the Annual Synod of the Igreja de Cristo Unida em Mocambique. The story I have tried to tell in Toward an African Church in Mozambique is their story, not mine, and I urge them to remember it, and pass it on. Those who have gone before us have left us with a legacy, some good, some not so, and it is part of who we are, defines who we are.

                The 'evangelistic hall' in Beira, 1938

In Beira, I visit the ‘new’ church in Esturro, and I ask about what was once called the ‘evangelistic hall,’ built in 1938. It is still there, now divided into a couple of largish classrooms. At the time, its building is a major event, and in addition to Sunday services, several hundred men come to an evening school. Title to the building and property change several times in those years, in a search to respond to Portuguese xenophobia by becoming legally Portuguese.

Another legacy that reminds us from whence we have come, and what we have faced.

I enjoy teaching about the Pastoral Epistles – 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus – in my course on Paul’s letters at the St. Augustine Theological School in Gaborone. There is wide agreement among scholars that Paul never wrote them, that they are post-apostolic, but I feel the need to cover them nevertheless, as it is still a widely-held perception in our churches. What intrigues me – and it is why I am talking about it here – is that the author, often known as the Pastor, is concerned with how we pass on the message, the truth of the gospel, from generation to generation. The Pastor speaks of how leaders are chosen, and how the centrality of our faith is to be shared, and protected.

I suggest to our students that we are still doing this, doing what the Pastoral Epistles say. We – the Church – are carefully choosing leaders to be ordained, and we are preparing them, and teaching them that they too will passing on the tradition to a new generation. The way we do this, in part, is by reminding them, and all of us, from whence we have come.

What we know of our heritage, of course, depends upon what we are taught. That is why quality theological education and ministerial formation – under threat by a lack of will on the part of church leaders – remain so critical. What is at the center of our faith? What is our tradition? What comprises the life of the church universal?

That is why teaching the history of our cultures and nations is so important too. Pastor Lucas Amosse tells me that when he is in school he is taught the history of Portugal, not of Mozambique. And I wonder what children in Mozambique are taught now. Much of the country is surely born after the liberation struggle. Do they know the stories of their parents and grandparents? Do they know of their ancient history, the story of Sofala?

We pass these stories on. Or not. And then we leave.

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From Botswana to Mozambique

One guide book describes Beira, Mozambique, as ‘drab, dirty and chaotic.’ Not very charitable, and I find it a good and energizing place to be, but it is quite a contrast to Gaborone, which I leave four days ago.

A flurry of activity precedes that departure: A few lunches with people I have wanted to see but never did, preaching a final time at the Holy Cross Cathedral, packing, a couple more classes to be taught, a kind farewell at St. Augustine, turning over keys to school and flat and car. Fr. James sees me off at the airport.

It is a brief less-than-two-hour flight from Johannesburg to Beira, situated on the Indian Ocean at the mouth of the Pungoe and Buzi rivers, close to the north-south center of this long country. I am here to attend the Annual Synod of the Igreja de Cristo Unida em Mocambique – the United Church of Christ in Mozambique – being held in Chamba, a short distance outside Beira. I am invited because I have written a book about their church – Toward an African Church in Mozambique – and they want to meet me and talk about it. The feeling is mutual.

Comparing and contrasting countries is unproductive and often unkind. Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest countries – although its recent economic growth rate has been impressive and the discovery of oil offshore is promising – and Botswana is considered a ‘middle-income’ country. Thus the fine Botswana roads yield to potholed and patched Mozambican ones; and the modern Gaborone shopping centers, to myriad shops and stalls along the side of the road. That’s what we drive along, and see, as we head to Chamba.

The church building is small, so they have erected a large tent and set up plastic chairs and tables. It’s hot and humid as the synod proceeds with reports from regions and parishes, read in Portuguese by someone, then comments invited, either made in Portuguese or in Ndau, interpreted into the other, then the person whose report it is responds, again in a bilingual fashion, and the delegates decide to ‘accept’ the report, or not. All are apparently accepted. It’s very systematic and organized, but also a bit of a strain for one who knows neither language, despite the best efforts of my faithful interpreter to keep me informed.

Some months ago I send 30 copies of my book to the church here, for them to give away or sell as they see fit. I imagine there is limited demand, as it’s written in the wrong language. But there is interest, and I wonder about it. Theirs is not an especially large church. It is a church that has managed to work out its own identify, largely without missionaries, from the early years on; has faced all sorts of adversity, from colonialism to civil war; and has been left alone to its own devices for many decades. All of those are reasons their story fascinates me. But I suspect my version of their story interests them in part because someone ‘outside’ cares enough and considers it important enough to tell.

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