Tuesday, May 29, 2012
When he walked into our little country church, everyone’s head turned. Black leather jacket, hair down to his waist tied in a ponytail, dirty jeans and motorcycle boots. Our church was in farm country, attended by regular ol’ people who faithfully sat in the same pew and talked to the same people each week. His name was John and he came late that Sunday, slipping into the second row behind my dad, the pastor. He sat quietly throughout the service, soaking in everything that was said. Following the sermon, John and my dad had a long conversation in the front row. Mom watched pensively from the back foyer of our church, her heart both worried and filled with prayer for this disheveled, rough looking man. These types of people rarely darkened the doors of our quaint church.
The conversation ended with Dad praying, his hand firmly placed on this man’s shoulder. Dad prayed with a look of authority and earnestness. John shook my dad’s hand, wiped tears from his eyes and left quietly through the doors he entered. Later, Dad shared with us that John had lived a hard life filled with drugs and booze. Someone had recommended that he try going to our little church. He said John prayed for the first time, asking God to enter his life and forgive his sins. Dad was confident John’s heart toward God was authentic and that we’d be seeing John again. God was interested in bringing a dramatic change to his life.
This memory from my childhood flooded my heart on a day when I was visiting my elderly father. Dad has since passed away but at the time he was in his nineties, with his pastoring years well behind him. My mom had died a few years prior and dad was living his final years in a comfortable room in an assisted living facility. As I flipped through dad’s mail, I found a prayer card from John. Attached was a picture of him and his family. For the past 20 years, John has been a traveling preacher; he calls himself an “evangelist.” His home was in Texas but he traveled from town to town, church to church telling his story. John has shared with thousands the Good News about Jesus’ forgiveness of sins, his love and his desire to give a true, meaningful life. This all began during those nervous, awkward moments in our little church over 30 years ago.
As a preacher’s son, I heard plenty of sermons on how God loves to radically transform people. But this, perhaps, was the first time I had actually seen radical change in someone. Over time, we saw John grow. He cleaned up—inside and out. He read his Bible, came to church faithfully, prayed and did Bible studies. He enrolled in a local Bible institute, studied to become a pastor, moved to Texas and started preaching to anyone who would listen. John, once a dirty, drunk biker—an unlikely choice for a missionary and pastor.
John’s story would fit perfectly into the story of Acts. Acts is a story of God moving in ways that can only be explain as, “That had to be God.” God is interested in reaching people who could have been thought to be unreachable. The first Christians never imagined the inclusion of Gentiles into the Jesus movement. God also is interested in changing people we thought irredeemable. The first Christians never imagined that Saul (later Paul) would be powerfully used to build the church and not destroy it. And, God is interested in sending people on missions that are inconceivable. Paul (formally Saul) would deliver the message to the center of the known world (Rome). Healthy churches would be sprinkled along the way where passionate followers of Jesus would build community with one another and spread the Good News through their towns and regions. Acts is filled with unlikely characters doing unlikely but extraordinary things as God moved among them.
When my dad woke that morning, I’m sure he didn’t anticipate spending time with a guy like John. I’m betting he thought about his sermon that morning through the ears of the regular folk that had faithfully filled the pews in that country church. But, knowing my dad, I’m fairly confident he asked God to use his sermon any way that HE saw fit. I think Dad was ready for the unlikely to happen that day.
Friday, May 18, 2012
Every few months, kind of out of the blue, I’ll get a call from Red. We’ll spend an hour on the phone taking about life’s challenges and what God is doing in our lives. Red lives in Florida now and is going through some struggles with cancer, employment, and issues within his relationships. I try to be an encouragement to him and he often asks me to pray with him over the phone. I never feel like I have enough to give to him in those phone conversations but he always thanks me for my time and friendship. He tells me he loves me and I can tell, from the rumble in his voice, tears are flowing. He’s a guy who encourages me immensely as well. He gives me hope that God is at work and that ministry is worth the effort. He reminds me that broken people can heal through the power of God in their lives. I always hang up the phone in tears, grateful that Red has a place in my life.
Honestly, before we met, I wouldn’t have picked Red for a friend nor do I think he would have picked me. We’re nothing alike. He’s short. I’m tall. He has a long red pony tail and I’m bald as a cue ball. He’s a tattooed, motorcycle nut who drives a semi-truck for a living. I’m a pastor who sits in coffee shops and meetings all day and watches way too much baseball. He grew up in a rough, abusive home and I was a pastor’s kid. Red’s had experiences in life that make me blush when I hear his stories. We have nothing in common… except one thing. We both have lives radically shaped by God’s love. We both have been transformed by the Good News of Jesus.
Red was introduced to me by a friend and fellow ABC attender, Dave. Dave was Red’s boss at a local trucking company. Dave had been praying for Red since he began working at Dave’s company; and when Red was in a serious motorcycle accident, he asked Dave for spiritual help. Through loving conversations and invitations to hear about Jesus at church, Red realized his need to receive Jesus’ forgiveness available to him because of Jesus’ death. He gave his life to Christ. I intersected with Red when he asked to be baptized. From the moment we met, Red and I hit it off. It was strange. We were nothing alike but deeply connected because of the work God was doing in our lives. I love talking with Red. I love seeing him and getting his long, awkward guy-hugs. It’s a special friendship that only God could have crafted.
I’ve come to realize that God uses fairly ordinary people in some unexpected relationships to do amazing things. Red’s and my relationship reminds me somewhat of Peter and Cornelius. Like us, these two guys had nothing in common and didn’t even belong in the same room. Peter was a former Jewish fisherman turned preacher with a tannery side business. Cornelius was a Roman army officer from an Italian regiment. Peter grew up learning that he was never to associate or befriend a non-Jew (Gentile). Cornelius was taught that anyone less than Roman or Greek were scum that needed to be controlled and subdued. Cornelius was a man of importance and financial means and Peter was a guy who gave up everything for the Jesus movement. If these two would have passed each other on a street in Jerusalem, they would probably not have even made eye contact. But through visions and angels, God puts these two together. This was such a radical friendship in that day that Peter faced an ethical dilemma.
You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean. Acts 10.28
So what’s God up to with this unusual relationship? Why put these two in the same room to discuss the work of God on the planet? Answer: He’s opening the door for the Good News of Jesus to go to the utter ends of the earth to people of all nations. Something needed to break. Cultural and religious barriers needed to broken. A retired Jewish fisherman having lunch with a Roman military enforcer would launch the next phase of God’s movement around the planet. Today when I, as a Dutch pastor in Michigan, connect meaningfully with an Irish trucker in Florida in a rich, spiritual conversation about the work of God in our lives, I can thank Peter for walking into the home of Cornelius.
Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.” Acts 10.34-35
So where does this story leave you today? Is there an unusual friendship that God has put in your path? Embrace the movement of God in your relationships. He may be up to something bigger than you can imagine.
Friday, May 11, 2012
There are certain nights in the life of a small group that just need to be called…heavy. They are the nights when someone shares news that’s tough to hear and the group responds with a deep sigh of concern. On a Sunday night in December, my small group had one of those nights. Fortunately for me, I had gotten a heads up on the news to come but for most of the small group, this would come from out of nowhere.
As we settled on the couches to start our time together, I asked the group a typical and simple question, “So, how’s your week been?” Across the living room sat Rich and Sandy, and I knew they had some tough news to share with us. Sandy let out a deep sigh, looked at Rich and then began to share. She told of how a routine mammogram had led to a biopsy on some suspicious tissue. Then came the phone call…it is cancer. For the next few minutes, the group peppered her with questions. “Do you think they caught it early?” “What’s the treatment plan? Surgery? Chemo? Radiation?” “How are your kids handling the news?” “How’s your heart with all this?” Sandy graciously answered the questions to the best of her ability. It was an honest, vulnerable talk among friends who deeply love each other. We prayed over Sandy and Rich, laying hands on them, pleading for God to heal and sustain her through what was to come.
Soon after, Sandy had surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. Because it was caught early, there was the possibility that the surgery would take care of it all. But, the doctors stressed that studies have shown the chance of recurrence rapidly decreases when chemotherapy follows surgery. The next step would be their choice, and they chose to try to cut down Sandy’s future risks by starting chemo. The doctors prescribed six treatments over 18 weeks, one all-day treatment every three weeks with other medications on the off-weeks. This would mean 18 weeks with each treatment taking a deeper toll on her body.
Sandy has always been an athlete. She’s a healthy, fit, triathlete. During the early days of treatment, Sandy stayed active and worked to maintain her typical training regimen. But as the effects of chemo piled on over the weeks, her energy and strength were greatly diminished. She talked about missing the things she had done in past years like training for the 25K River Bank Run or getting ready for her next triathlon. You could tell there was real sorrow over losing some things that cancer and chemo had taken away. But, you could also tell that she was treating cancer like she was running a marathon—with perseverance…strength…one step at a time…get to the finish…celebrate.
Sandy and Rich’s journey reminds me that life can be littered with detours, many of which are unexpected and disappointing. It is spring in Michigan and orange cones are finding their way back to roads telling us that road construction season is upon us. It won’t be long before I’ll be flying down the road to a destination that I feel is important just to be stopped in my tracks with a construction backup. But, if I’m paying attention, I may see a sign leading me down an alternate road that should get me to where I need to go. It’s called a detour. Detours are never our first choice. We only use them when somebody forces us off our chosen path. They usually aren’t the most direct route or on the best roads. They are often backed up, slow and filled with tense, bitter people in a big hurry—angry because they are unexpectedly late. But eventually, a detour takes you back to the road you need to get to your destination.
As you read the stories in the book of Acts, a detour theme seems to be rising off the pages. The new church that was formed through the Holy Spirit’s work in Peter’s preaching is threatened with a wave of persecution. Stephen, a church leader, is stoned after passionately preaching about Jesus and sins of the religious establishment. As a result, the church is scattered. People lose their homes, their jobs and even their lives. Why? What could possibly be the purpose of that horrible pain? What good could come from having this fledgling church get the snot kicked out them? You’d think they’d fold or go underground. Instead, they became stronger, bolder and more passionate about their message.
The week before Sandy’s final chemo treatment, she talked with our group about what she had experienced on her detour called cancer. There was no bitterness or tension in her voice. Fatigue? Yes. But, there were no words of disappointment or anger regarding her recent journey off the path. Instead, she talked about the good things she was learning on her detour—like empathy and compassion. “Having been sick for the past few months, I have a much deeper heart for those who are suffering,” she told the group. As she spoke, I thought about how beautiful pain with purpose can be. God had used Sandy’s detour to create something fresh and new in her, perhaps not possible without this adventure in her life.
Just before Stephen is stoned, we find this verse. This is the attitude of a people willing to endure purposeful pain for the good of Jesus.
The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.” Acts 6.41-42 NLT
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Marcel Destiny is the owner and driver. Marcel is a Haitian pastor who has given his life to seeing churches and schools grow in Haiti. Marcel leads a network of eleven churches and schools in the St. Marc, Haiti area. With each of these churches and schools, there’s always a building project of some sort. Piece by piece, load by load, Papa Poze delivers all the supplies for these projects. Marcel seems rather close with his truck—I guess close enough to give it a name and paint it on the front.
But, Pape Poze has also been used for things beyond Marcel’s building projects. Marcel told us stories about the days that followed the devastating earthquake in Port-a-Prince. St. Marc is a two-hour drive north of the capital city and though they felt the ripples of the earthquake, the damage was quite minimal. Word trickled into St. Marc of the enormous damage in the capital, the lives lost and thousands of people displaced from their ruined homes. Marcel told of his church loading up Pape Poze with small bags of water and then daily for three straight weeks, they delivered water to the damaged areas. He said after the first day, they had to park the truck a few miles away and hand-carry the water into the city to avoid mobs that may overturn the truck in their desperation for water. What a vital piece of equipment this truck is to Marcel!
On Sunday of that week I spent in Haiti, the work projects stopped. No cement blocks, rebar, or gravel. Instead, Pape Poze picked up people. Marcel took the long route to church through the streets of St. Marc, stopping on several occasions where people would pile in the back of truck. Lots of people! More people than I would have considered possible for Papa Poze to handle. People packed in the cab. People on top of the cab. People sitting on each other’s laps on the benches in the back. People standing, holding onto bars and rails to keep their balance. At one point, I asked one of the guys on top of the cab to get a headcount. After a few minutes, he reported with a huge smile on his face, “Forty one! There’s 41 people on this truck right now!”
Moments later, we pulled into the church driveway. We piled out and I began to observe one of the most powerful church experiences I’ve ever seen. People were coming from everywhere; some by foot, some by motorcycle, even an old bus filled with kids from a local orphanage. Everyone dressed in their clean Sunday-best clothes. The music started and people gathered in the auditorium, every seat filled with people standing in the back while others stood outside participating through open doors and windows. The worship was loud, long, and very expressive. Marcel preached his heart out and people engaged and affirmed his words with their expressions and words.
After five days in Haiti, what happened on Sunday answered my question: “Why?” Why do this? Why the building projects? Why the poverty and earthquake relief efforts? Why not leave the mess of Haiti to the Red Cross and other global relief agencies? The answer: the Gospel. Only when the good news about the resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ, takes hold, does true relief and rebuilding take place. Marcel and Pape Poze were living out this truth. Preach the Gospel. Take care of the needy.
This is what I love about the message of Acts 6. As the first church formed and came together, needs began to arise. The most vulnerable and needy members of their group, the widows, came into conflict with each other. The Greek-speaking widows were feeling slighted as they saw the Hebrew-speaking widows receiving better care. The Apostles, commissioned to preach, teach, and pray, had a crisis and conflict on their hands. The care of the widows needed attention and oversight. If they neglected the needy in their midst, their message would be hollow. If they focused all their attention on the human crisis in front of them, the spiritual work of teaching and training would be put on the back burner, compromising their mission. I love their solution. They chose good men to attend to the physical needs of their congregation, freeing them to do what God asked them to do. Leadership expanded, needs were met, and the Good News was proclaimed.
I love how the Gospel and humanitarian efforts work together. God calls us to bring healing to a broken world; to bring truth to injustice, to feed the hungry, to care for the widows and orphans, to bring hope to the destitute and care for the weary. But, what makes the church powerful in these endeavors is the hope, forgiveness, and freedom that is given through the message of the Resurrected Jesus. What a wonderful mission for us to embrace—bring hope and relief in Jesus’ name!