Friday, February 25, 2011

Pancakes and Church

On most Sundays in the northern Michigan town of Marquette, a handful of college students gather for church. However, they don’t arrive at a church building. There’s no stage, no hymnals, no pastor, no kids’ program. Instead, they have pancakes. They also have a guitar, a TV, and DVD player. But, most importantly, they have people… people who desire to learn about God and his Word. In Grant and Kari’s one bedroom apartment in a snowy college town, church happens. (By the way, Kari’s my daughter and Grant is my son-in-law!)

Ben likes to arrive first. He makes pancakes for everyone and as people arrive, they enjoy a late breakfast together catching up on the events of the week. Before long, Grant and Ben grab their guitars and the group sings some worship songs together. The group then settles into their seats to hear a sermon they found online from one of several churches around the country they enjoy. (This week, they’re beginning People of the Way from Ada Bible Church). After the sermon, the group shares their thoughts, asks questions, and discusses what all this means to their lives. In a one bedroom apartment in a snowy college town, church happens.

This little house-church is filled because of Kari and Grant’s network of friends and acquaintances. These are all people they’ve cultivated friendships with and are comfortable enough to invite to their breakfast and church gathering. Ben’s a great example of how this works. When Ben met Grant a couple of years ago, he was a bit of a skeptic to Christianity. He had lots of questions and some hang ups about the whole Christian thing. Ben and Grant connect through their college classes. They found some common connections in their lives and a friendship was forged. The friendship grew and real conversations about God, faith, and following Jesus came more frequent. Over time, Ben moved from skeptic to explorer to believer to pancake maker and guitarist for a little house-church.

What’s Kari and Grant’s secret? Why do they seem to be shining in their environment? What’s so special about this young couple (other than they’re my kids)? Let me give you some of my biased observations.

• They have a positive approach to life. They express life with incredible joy. As a result, people are drawn to them.
• Their home is open to friends. Their hearts are filled with hospitality.
• They love to see people grow spiritually. They love to see the lights come on in someone’s spiritual journey.
• They’re wise with the resources they use. They choose good teachers, materials and subject matter that resonate with their group.

So what would the apostle Paul say to Kari and Grant? More of the same, I bet!

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. Philippians 2.14-16

In a one bedroom apartment in a snowy college town, church happens.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Open Door

How often do you get a chance to talk with a kid from Kazakhstan about Jesus? Well, last Sunday I was surprised to have that opportunity. After the 11 a.m. service, I was introduced to Laura. She’s a 17 year old exchange student living with a family in my small group. Kazakhstan is a former Soviet block country where two thirds of the country is Islam. This is Laura’s backdrop and worldview.

The host mom introduced me to Laura in the back of the auditorium by saying that Laura had some questions about Christianity. As our conversation began, it was very evident to me that Laura was not shy. She had some wonderful questions and was intent in finding solid answers. She explained that her host family had been taking her to church over the past few weeks which she really enjoyed. Then she said this, “I don’t want to just come to church and just sit. I want to understand what’s being said. I want to explore what this is all about. So… my first question is- who is this Jesus? I’ve heard people say that he saved people when he was on the cross. What does that mean?”

Wow, what great questions! It was as if this girl’s mind and heart was a clean canvas and I and the others around her had the opportunity to paint a new and beautiful picture of God with her. I honestly felt a little pressure in that moment. I wanted my first words to be right. I wanted her to understand. How sad it would be if she walked away confused and disappointed with my answers. Because of the busy environment around us, it felt like we only had a couple of minutes to talk. How could I communicate the story of God, the person of Jesus, the way to salvation and God’s desire to have a personal relationship with her in just a couple of minutes? I gave it my best shot. She seemed to understand and vowed to continue to explore, to ask questions and to have another conversation at another date. She was grateful and I was relieved that it went well. Her host mom seemed grateful and relieved as well.

I drove home from church on Sunday excited about the possibility of beginning a redemptive friendship with this young lady but I was also deeply challenged to do three very important things in the meantime.

• First, I need to be devoted to pray for Laura. It seemed that God was revealing himself to her in a new way. I need to pray that her heart would remain open to experience God’s pursuit of her.

• Second, I need to work to be clearer in how I describe my faith. Can I clearly articulate God’s redemptive work in this world and his work in my life in a compelling, authentic way?

• Third, I need to help the people in my small group grow in both these areas. We all can be clear and helpful to Laura in her pursuit in understanding who God truly is.

Paul, a traveling pastor and evangelist, experienced similar things. Take a look at this passage. Wow, does this nail my situation on Sunday!

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4.2-6

Who are you praying for this week? Who could be behind the door God is opening for you? How are you preparing for the conversations that God may bring your way?

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Allure of an Elephant Ear

Every 4th of July, the little town I grew up near had a community celebration. Like other small town celebrations, they had the typical parade, tractor pulls, and fireworks. But they also had something that my parents forbid us to attend—it was the carnival. For an entire week, in the center of town, the “carnies,” as my dad called them, set up shop. And, it was a setting that no 12 year old boy could resist. It came with rides, the intoxicating smell of fried elephant ears, and games that offered the biggest stuffed animals the world had ever seen—if you were skilled enough to win.

I was drawn to the lights, the smell, and the challenge like a mouse to a big piece of cheese; but my parents saw the trap the cheese sat on. Every year, I asked to go. Every year, they gave the same answers and explanations. “No! It’s a rip off.” But, the shiny lights and aroma of fried, doughy, sugary treats was all too alluring.

So, I hatched a plan. My parents made the horrible mistake of leaving me home alone and telling me how long they’d be gone. I called my neighbor, Gil, and we discussed our plans. We knew we had six hours to get into town, have our fun, and get back. We’d have to ride our bikes—an hour ride there, an hour ride home, which left four hours of fun. We stuffed our pockets with our lawn mowing money and headed to town.

Our plan worked perfectly! We rode the rides. We feasted on greasy treats. We played the games and, yes, I won a huge panda bear. When the money was gone, we decided to head home. And, that’s when our brilliant plan was altered. It started to rain and it rained hard. Here I was riding my bike home in thunderstorm with a soaking wet Panda bear tied to my back. Needless to say, we arrived home a dirty, soaking mess. Gil peddled on to his house, leaving me to figure out how to cover my tracks. I had a couple of problems that I needed to handle before my parents returned home. What would I do with my wet clothes? What would I do with this Panda bear? Both, if discovered, would raise suspicions. Pressured for time, I chose to throw all my clothes in the dryer. I took the Panda bear, squeezed out as much water as I could, threw it in a garbage bag and stuffed it in a closet. My cover up was working beautifully until the sound of the family car disrupted my plan. They were home early. Way too early! I shut off the dryer, ran to the closet to stuff that stupid Panda deeper, and then raced to my room to get some dry clothes. My cover up would work as long as my mom didn’t need to use the dryer that evening. I could retrieve my wet clothes later.

I remained remarkably cool and calm that evening knowing full well that a look into the dryer or closet would expose my folly. I lied my way through dinner when questions about my day’s activities came up. I withdrew to my room for most of evening, trying to avoid any more conversation that may raise suspicions. I even went to bed early hoping that in the morning I could erase all evidence of my deception. I fell asleep.

A knock on my door woke me. It was my dad and he asked that I get up and come into the living room. There in the room was a basket of dirty, wet clothes and that stupid Panda bear. “Would you like to tell us the truth about what you really did today?” dad asked intently. I broke. The pressure to maintain my rouse was too great. I confessed fully. I was punished (for lying, not for going to the carnival). My parents prayed with me and I went to bed left emotionally exhausted because of my deceitful choices.

As I reflect on this story, I think some important things were spiritually formed in me that day. I think this was the first time I was faced with some universal truths about temptation and sin. Here’s what I learned.

• I am drawn to shiny, sweet smelling things in this world.
• There’s something attractive about things that are forbidden.
• Lying and covering up sin is exhausting and never really works.
• A stuffed Panda bear is not worth $25 of lawn mowing money.

This week, read the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. Reflect on David’s choices, his cover up and the final outcome. Then, write your own story. Where have you learned these hard truths? Next week, we’ll look at God’s response and David’s restoration.