Friday, November 25, 2011

Simple Church

I love the word ‘simple.’ I like the ‘sssss’ at the beginning…it’s a sound soft and soothing. I like the ‘imp’ in the middle…the way I have to have bring my lips together and then pop them apart to get that ‘p’ sound. And, I like the sort of raspy ‘llll’ at the end…how I have to move the sound back towards the middle of my mouth, sliding towards the throat, to get that soft sound to come out…. And, of course, I tip my hand here as to my propensity towards philology…in its very literal meaning. I love words…and, more precisely, I so enjoy examining the effect and power of words. For me, ‘simple’ is a word of power, able not only to conjure smooth and rounded images in our minds, but even able to lower our heart-rate and breathing, to drop our blood pressure a few points. Yes, this is a good word…and we ought not to use it lightly!

So, on to the idea of ‘simple church.’ For some, there is a sudden, just-out-of-reach disconnect when we put these two words together. Why? Because for some, church is anything but ‘simple.’ Church means getting up early on a weekend and fighting with the kids to get them out of bed…and then to get them dressed, too often in clothes they would not usually want to wear, to go where we they feel they must put on a happy face…mingle with people who have all put on their happy faces…and then sit together (or worse, forced to stand and clap together!) in a large area singing songs that they don’t hear all week long and then listening to a sermon that calls them to give more, do more, be more…and they’re already exhausted and they don’t know HOW to give, do or be more…and their only thought is, “When will it be 12:00pm so we can leave?”…which is followed by, “Where are we going to eat…and what will it cost…and who will we bump into?” Now do you see why many read or hear ‘simple church’ as an oxymoron? These words for many just don’t belong in the same phrase, much less the same sentence.

However, for me, this is a phrase pregnant with hope! Oh, how I long for the reality of simple church. First, I believe we either have to find a new word for ‘church’ or reprogram our minds to hear it as it was first used. We now associate the word with a building and all the feelings that come with that building-image. For far too many, “warm and fuzzy” doesn’t quite capture those feelings. Since I don’t have another word, I’m just going to have to replace the image I have in my mind or give new meaning to the word. Church: from ekklesia in Greek; the congregation, the gathering, the coming together of a group of people for a common cause. For our New Testament fore-fathers and -mothers, the ekklesia was always a reference to the people…not the place. And, it was a special people, for when the ekklesia—the people--gathered, all social statuses were left behind—the slave and the business owner, the teacher and the soldier, the old and the young all were suddenly on common ground, equal footing. Stepping into the gathering of God’s people—regardless of the house in which those early Christians met on any particular day—was stepping into a wonderful place where the socially astute could relax and ‘let their hair down’ and the social outcasts could sit elbow to elbow with the movers and shakers of society.

In fact, when we reorient our understanding and image of the Church—that group of people who gathered regularly to hear the reading of the Scriptures and to understand God’s will for their lives, we find an image of simplicity. The early gathering of God’s people had very little in common with the sound and light shows we find in church buildings today; there would be very little in common with the weekly fashion shows that silently happen in the aisles of our gathering places today; we would not find the emphasis on music (and its seemingly necessary technologies) that we have today. We would find a people who recognized their common dependence on and need for God’s grace, a people hungry to hear the Scriptures and its application to their lives (not so interested in the elocutionary finesse of the reader/speaker), a people who all sat (or stood) on a common level together before God. We would find a simple people…we would find the Church.

Earlier, I said that the phrase—simple church—is pregnant with hope. I’m still looking for that Church, and I feel that I get ever closer. There have been moments when I have been astoundingly close, even there…in the mountains of North Georgia. I hold on to the idea…because if the idea exists, then that idea can become a reality. Even as I write, I see that my attitudes and dispositions, my accomplishments and my university degrees, my self-perceptions—positive or negative—and my judgmental tendencies—all of these must be “checked at the door,” left at the edge of the circle as wade into the gathering of God’s people. In so doing, I believe that God will help me to be what I seek…a simple person in His simple church.

That Unruly Wind….

I lay in bed night before last, the windows open for our cool “fall” nights here in the Rio Grande Valley, and I could hear the wind as it rustled through the leaves of the tree in our backyard. We are just an hour from the Gulf coast, and the wind often blasts off the open water and over our flat lands here in the Valley at 20 mph or more. Besides cooling off this usually warm land, the wind also provides a soothing, calming symphony to fall asleep to. So it was the other night…the undulating winds—at once soft and gently swishing through the leaves…then a moment of calm…and suddenly a blast that fairly shook the tree like maracas. As I lay there, I noticed that patterns of the wind were completely unpredictable…yet the wind was still calming in its random coming and going.

As I lay there, I recalled what Jesus had said one evening…perhaps while listening to the night winds blowing through a nearby sycamore tree: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Jesus employs a wonderful double entendre here in that the word for ‘wind’ and the word for ‘Spirit’ (pneuma) are the same in the Greek of the New Testament. The wind and Spirit both are unpredictable…as are those born of the Spirit.

Ever since the Holy Spirit was unleashed (and that is a very good word for it!) at Pentecost, the Church (and those outside the Church) have been trying to bring God’s Spirit under control, to “put it back in the box,” to tame the Spirit. The Church has written theologies of the Holy Spirit…and sure enough, these tend to suck the life out of the Spirit, or suck the Spirit out of our lives! These theologies often end up setting all the limits of what the Spirit can or cannot do, showing us how the Spirit can or cannot act in the lives of others. But I wonder—should we really be limiting the Spirit of God?? Pentecost itself sure broke all the rules up until that time…can God not “break the rules again”??

And, speaking of rules, others have shown their complete lack of confidence in the Spirit of God by buying into legalism. Legalism is really nothing more nor less than saying, “We don’t believe that God can take care of His people, can rightly guide His people…we don’t believe that His Spirit really ‘seals’ His people (Eph.1:13,14), so we right-minded, obviously holy leaders are going to set rules and protect you…for God.” (Things usually don’t end very well in this scenario….) But, should we be taking the place of God in people’s lives and establishing their rules for living? Isn’t the Scripture excitingly clear in Jeremiah and Hebrews: “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer.31:33; Heb.8:10)??

We proclaim a God who is powerful, righteous, good and loving. Why would we want to presume to limit such a God? How could we imagine that our petty legalism would somehow be more engaging and life-changing that the indwelling Spirit of God? And, how can we presume to predict how or what God will do—in our own lives, much less the lives of others? We must face it—the wind and the Spirit and the life in the Spirit are unpredictable...sometimes unruly…untamable.

As I lay in bed, God reminded me that even though we can know much of Him, we cannot understand our God completely—not even close! Even though we can see how God has worked in our lives in the past and how He works today, we cannot predict how God may work tomorrow. Like the wind, God’s Spirit moves in and through our lives…one day a gentle breeze, another day barely a breath, and still another day a riotous west wind. As my eyes became heavy with sleep, as I slipped into the land of dreams, these final thoughts did not leave me anxious. No, instead I thought, “Yes, thanks to God’s Spirit, the life of faith certainly can be a little unsettling…but, oh, so exciting!”

The wind blows to the south
   and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
   ever returning on its course. (Eccl.1:6)

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Car Blessing...

One of the oft-repeated sayings heard of The Mission Society folks is, "God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing to others."  The basis of this is found in Genesis 12 where God calls Abraham and says to him, "...and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing" (Gen.12:2, NRSV).  In fact, the whole mission endeavor around the world is God's people living this out, from evangelism on the ground ("God has changed my life...saved me, so I want you to know this life-changing, saving God") to the sending ("God has blessed me; allow me to help you bless others").  From the beginning of our own life in missions, we have seen this played out time and again as churches and individuals have prayed and given that we might go.  We are so incredibly grateful for all who have taken part in this mission.

From time to time, we get to see the blessing multiplied and passed on...and recently we had one of those experiences.  The story begins in February 2006...on our daughter, Jesse's, birthday.  After we dropped her friends back at their houses after a gathering at our house in Cabudare, Venezuela, as Jesse and I were coming home, the brakes suddenly went out on the old Suburban that belonged to the mission.  To make a long story short, I decided to take out a tree rather than the pedestrians or the house nearby.  When we got home that night-- shaken, bruised...but otherwise fine, I sent a letter to our supporters just to let them know about what happened and asking for their prayers.

The very next day, my parents called.  Papa was serving a small church in rural Alabama.  He and Mom had lifted up the prayer request for their "children" in Venezuela during Sunday School.  After church, Mr. Max walked up to them and asked, "What you think it'd cost to get your kids another vehicle there in Venezuela?"  Unsure, Papa responded, "I guess $10,000 - $12,000...."  Mr. Max showed up at their house that afternoon with a check for $12,000.  Mr. Max was a farmer...a simple man in the best sense...and he knew that God had blessed him, and he wanted to bless others.

We were able to get a wonderful vehicle that helped us to minister all over Venezuela:

Our Fiat Palio Adventure...and some little kid I hardly recognize!
Mounting the hill up to Lugar Altisimo....

And, when we left Venezuela in 2008, we were able to sell our Fiat Palio Adventure...and took the money with us to Mexico where it bought us another little red car:
VW Pointer..."El Rojito"
Of course, we recently moved across the border...and laws wouldn't permit the import of this vehicle, so what to do?  Should we sell it and use the money here?  As we prepared to leave, we realized the answer was right in front of us.  Juan Manuel and Claudia had left Honduras five years ago to serve as missionaries in Monterrey, to share the Good News of God in a different land.  They, too, had left behind family and friends to do what God had placed in their hearts.   Their old mini-van had been in the shop three times in the last couple of months.  They needed a new car.  ...And, now they have it!
Handing over the keys to our dear friends, Juan Ma and Claudia...
What a joy to bring joy to others!

 God had blessed Mr. Max...who turned around and blessed we could bless someone their ministry could be more effective, so they could bless others....  Isn't that the way it's supposed to work???   May we all continue to bless others out of the blessings that God has given us.  We may or may not see it, but we can remain confident that He multiples whatever we give, using what we offer Him to touch the lives of others, even if we know nothing about it!


The phone call came one afternoon before I got home from teaching.  Jeanne took the call.  "What?  How many?"  Jeanne met me at the door as I got home.  "You're not going to believe this.  A pastor here in town called today...and she had just returned from a meeting up in Austin.  She said she saw Pastor Steve...and he gave her almost 20 boxes of books for the schools in Mexico!!"  Pastor Steve Buchele is a dear fellow, one of the pastors at St. Philips UMC in Round Rock, Texas.  He put out the word about the need for books...and his people responded!

So, Andrew and I laid down the seats in our small-but-utilitarian Toyota Matrix and headed over to Trinity UMC.  There, Rev. Danette met us at the door...and we started moving the boxes from the foyer of the church into the car.  She was a bit doubtful of our being able to get it all in...but she didn't realize that Andrew and I are by now professional "missionary packers"--that means we can do magical things with large amounts of stuff.  Ten minutes after arriving, we had the 20 boxes of books in the car...with only one box under Andrew's feet.

After getting all the boxes out and into our carport, we began the process of sorting, separating and repacking--theology and adult religious books in one pile, children's books and novels in another, and all the rest in yet another!  Priority-one was getting the children's books to Laurens...and fully one-half of the books were books for children and youth.

So, bright and early one Saturday morning, we loaded up the cars with the ten boxes of books...and headed to Monterrey.  Again, thanks be to God, we weren't stopped at a single check-point...and got all the books to the children at El Instituto Laurens in Monterrey.  Here are some pictures of our visit and of the children enjoying the gift of reading.

Laurens now has a Library!  (That's a rare thing in Mexican Schools.)

Andrew with "the haul." (Yes, he is now 6' tall!)

Jeanne with Mrs. Andrea, English Coordinator, in the Library.

One of the reading corners...

Enjoying a book...!

Reading aloud.

Dr. Suess, helping another generation of readers...
Hangin' out reading...!
Reading, reading, reading...!

Now, we just have to get the theology/religious books sorted...and down to the Seminary!

Thank you--ALL OF YOU--who have had a part so far in getting books to us for the school in Monterrey.  If you have children's books lying around looking for a home, please consider gifting them in this direction.  So far, almost 3000 books have found their way to us...and they are helping, teaching, changing lives.  God is good...and His people are, too!

Jon, Jeanne...and the J.A.M!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Changes Coming…

The wind whistles through the windows, rain pelts the window panes and temperatures fall by the minute as the cold front hurries down from the north.  When I went to bed last night, gentle winds from the southeast caressed our corner of the world, stars shone brightly in the night sky.  I had stepped outside just before bed to breathe deeply the comparative cool of the evening, preparing to go and sleep.  And then, around 5am this morning, everything changed.  I awoke to winds and rains…and to the cold air blowing through the house.  I awoke refreshed, filled with anticipation at the changes rushing in upon us.

I sit now in our living room, awake and writing far too early, listening to the patter of rain as if falls on leaves and driveway.  Because the winds still blow, and colder by the moment, and because we are reluctant to close up the house, I sit wearing my polartec…bringing back memories of winters in Monterrey where we could not escape the winter cold.  Here, of course, we can escape the cold that rolls in…but we choose not to, enjoying the brisk and bracing morning air.  We may tire of the cold soon…and then we will close it all up.  But, for now, I breathe deeply the cool air…while the family snuggles more deeply in their warm beds, sheets and covers pulled warmly around them.

Life-changes too often come this way, surprising us, shocking our system, disrupting our routines, awakening us when we least expect…or least desire.  Yet, it is not a bad thing.  The changes of weather remind us of how little control we actually have in life…and remind us that while we cannot control happenings and circumstances, we do have something to do with how we respond.  I could have snuzzled down more deeply in my bed this morning, too…but I decided, determined, to arise and write, to enjoy the quiet of the morning and the start of this new day.  I do not regret my choice.

When those unexpected changes in life come, those changes that are far more impactful than mere weather, how do we respond?  How do we react?  Do we recoil in fear, self-doubt, uncertainty…and snuzzle-down under the covers of life?  Or, do we see the changing winds as something to experience, as a moment to face with anticipation and expectation?  Do the rains dampen our lives, or do we see them as feeding our future, as a necessary element for a healthy life-garden?

As I awoke around 5am, I knew that the weather had changed, the wind had changed, the temperature had changed…I knew that a cold-front was coming into our sub-tropical lives here in south Texas.  But, I also knew that something more profound was moving into my own life.  I felt the hints of change even last night…and the night before.  Something in my own mind and heart was changing…that change was coming. 

While I’m aware of the obvious changes that come with the weather, I don’t know what to expect with regard to the changes in my mind and heart that are coming.  I cannot see what the changes will be in my interior life.  Yet, I prepare to face the changes as I have faced this front—head-on, awake, with anticipation, with hope, welcoming the change, knowing that change will grow me, push me, move me.

Changes are coming…and it’s about time!  My God is with me and is shaping me through time and experience more and more into the person I am to be.  So, let’s see what new and exciting things come into this adventure of life….