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Category Archives: Outreach/Evangelism

It is good to hear a terrible (to you) sermon now and then

One Sunday recently when I was in Central America I attended an English (Gringo) service hosted by the Spanish (Tico) congregation my brother and his wife and other gringo missionaries in the area are part of.

These Gringos (mainly my brother’s family and another family) are involved with setting up a Christian Private school, and have roles in running an addiction treatment ministry, and helping out in a ministry that takes young girls out of the sex trade and teaches them English so they can get jobs in the regular tourist trade and support their families that way instead. It is all great ministry and all three are growing. The lady who was in charge of the Addiction treatment facility has been there 10 years, and clearly has deep connections, relationship and respect from the Ticos. She showed me the Saturday market, and it took us quite some time to walk from one end to the other with all the hello’s and greetings and meetings we had on the way. That respect seems to be the fruit of a combination of her personality and a factor of having put in a long time in the community. All three missions, and even the Gringo congregation, had stories about the difficulty of getting government permits in writing. The more I heard and saw, the more I think it has to do with an innocent, well-meaning arrogance Gringos bring with them, that the Ticos see and smell but that is inodible (I made that word up spellchecker) to the carriers of it. I have developed this radar that is always asking “What am I communicating that I am blind to” and that radar leads me to that awareness.

Back to the worship service. When you are not at home you expect to experience something different. I did. I was not prepared to be so disturbed by a sermon though.

The ‘pattern’ of worship there is to start with a set of worship songs that move from enthusiastic, to pensive, to a ‘pentecostal’ mood and then finishing with a rousing chorus repeated multiple times. After that came announcements, offering, and then the message to close the service.

It began with the obvious challenge of musicians leading us in worship using their second language. I was deeply appreciative of the musicians (the great drummer was only 12 and had been drumming since he was 4) being willing to risk this as hosts. When you are worshiping in a second language, and you get to the part of worship where you usually lose yourself in adoration and pentecostal praise, reverting to your mother tongue is understandable. Meaning it’s ok with me as a Gringo, even if I can’t understand. And yes, the irony of reverting to one’s first language in a “Pentecost” moment is rich and wonderful for a Reformed guy to observe.
The musicians finished and left.
At that point the congregated are all older but-able-to-travel-and-be-active Americans, and my brother’s young family, and the lady from the addiction treatment center and her young son and teen daughter.
Then some announcements.
Then the pastor asks someone to come forward to tell of some mission work they do. It’s a near 60 yr old builder guy from Tennessee or some place like that, who tells of his conversion 6 years before, and how he a year later felt God telling him to go to poor countries and build houses to North American specs (double pane windows) and ready for plumbing and electric if the people want to put them in later (but no one does) to give them away. He tells of how it has grown, and how they’ve done 12 houses now, and if you want support or be part of a team etc etc etc. And I was wondering how helpful that kind of thing really is, but when he asked for questions I stayed quiet. I’m a guest. I don’t want to make trouble for my brother and his wife’s reputation. I had already asked some pointed questions at the open house for the new home some of the same people had built that was to be a group home for the girls who had been rescued from their pimps. Questions like “What do you do to be careful to respect their cultural patterns, like their more lax approach to time, (which I admire and envy) and not turn them into little American Northern Europeans? And in fact could that be one of the resistance factors in getting government permits?” Like that. It’s what I do. But I began to realize these people were not used to thinking that way, and didn’t really understand what was behind the question… they are convinced they are doing a good thing (and they are) and don’t understand why not everyone rushes in to support it.
So I stayed still in church.
Then the scripture was read.
Hebrews 11:6, which we were told was a context where the writer was talking about faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The word “earnestly” or “diligently” became the focal point of a sermon that substantially was a contrasting of lazy and diligent, with a long string of “definition of lazy” jokes being the counterpoint to the diligence. “When the remote is 10 feet away and you decide you like the rerun after all… that’s laziness and not diligence” that kind of thing.
The theme statement or big idea seemed to be “Work hard, don’t be lazy, and you will please God enough that things will work out for you” with the caveat that a prosperity gospel was not what was being preached. There was no caveat about works righteousness.
Very soon I began realizing that my experience of the faith journey, and my understanding of the passage, was completely different than his. My experience was that a certain kind of ‘trying hard’ that he was describing, for me almost always led to problems, and that a recognition that my effort was not the key but my relaxing into God’s will for the moment led to all kinds of great results my efforts had little to do with. I saw and heard the passage saying “Faith in God leads to God being pleased, coming to God in belief leads to pleasing God, earnestly seeking relationship with God leads to rewards that are freaky and wonderful and amazing and unimaginable beforehand.
So there I was, believing the complete opposite of what he was preaching. And I was seeing how a message like this was perpetuating the inodible problems and barriers. And I was frustrated.
Now, that all would have been workable, if this was not a “call for response” insecure preacher. But, alas, he kept asking “are you with me? Let me hear an Amen!” and at my toughest point he directly asked “Do you agree with me? I need to hear if you agree with me!” and I made myself look over at my brother’s family and think about what damage I might do to their work there if I told out loud what I was thinking and feeling, and I kept quiet.
Later, when I had time at the poolside to reflect, I came to realize how important it is to hear a bad sermon now and then, how it can sharpen your awareness of God’s ways.

 

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Something got me thinking (again)

The writings of Lesslie Newbigin – when I encountered them at Seminary in the early 90’s – were, like the talks I’d heard by Tony Campolo in the late 80’s, something that resonated harmoniously in my inner being. They harmonized confusing notes that were bouncing around there. When Brian McLaren first started publishing, I read almost everything he wrote up to about the year 2002, and his questions and provocations too resonated with some of mine. But I saw also that to run with his thinking would be dangerous. So, due to that awareness and a number of other things, I stopped reading him.

Saturday, browsing the qideas website in a time of work avoidance (or, to say it justifyingly: Waiting for my sermon to ripen in my brain before writing it out) I took in two things in sequence, and saw a strong connection.

First, I read a great article by Micheal Goheen on Newbegin:

http://www.qideas.org/blog/the-lasting-legacy-of-lesslie-newbigin.aspx

in which he wrote:

the mission of God’s people is undermined when it is compromised by cultural idolatry. Newbigin believed that this is exactly what happened to the Western church; it is an “advanced case of syncretism.” A missionary encounter requires that the church embody its comprehensive story over against the cultural story. This encounter is eclipsed when the church allows its story to be accommodated into the cultural story. Thus, it is necessary to analyze Western culture and understand its religious foundation.

Newbigin wrote that “incomparably the most urgent missionary task for the next few decades is . . . to probe behind the unquestioned assumptions of modernity and uncover the hidden credo which supports them.” He quotes a Chinese proverb: “If you want to know about water don’t ask a fish.” Western Christians are unaware of the religious beliefs of their culture because they are swimming in it all the time. They are too easily seduced by the myths of a Christian culture or of a neutral secular or pluralistic culture. Western culture, however, is neither Christian nor neutral—it is shaped by a false religious credo.

And then I watched this video of Brian McLaren being asked some tough direct questions and struggling to explain that he’s trying to examine the (Greco-Roman)”Christianity from outside of it’s regular paradigm and so has difficulty answering questions that come from within that paradigm. And I thought: He’s doing what Newbigin said. He’s trying to step out of the water of G-R Christianity (I enjoy the fact that the initials are going to bring something else to mind) and is trying to swim in a Jesus stream instead.

http://www.qideas.org/video/conversations-on-being-a-heretic.aspx

I have some sympathy and admiration for him doing that. I think it is essential that we have people willing and able to do that in Christendom.

 

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George Holecz and God

There are stories nestled within stories here. I mainly feel compelled to tell the story of a man named George Holecz who I came to know briefly and somewhat indirectly.
George’s story unfolds within a context of a group of men who were a big part of my journey and that group of men — self-described and nicknamed as “Zealous for the Word” existed in a context of a church in Nanaimo BC.
I can see no way of sharing George’s story without telling about the context, since God used the context to create the story.
If you can visualize a story as an egg, Christ Community Church (CCC) in Nanaimo is the shell, the men’s group is the egg white, and George’s story is the yolk in the center.
I like to use yolk, because it can easily sound like joke (especially coming off the tongues of folks with Dutch accents). And there is a good measure of God’s joke here — God’s playful sense of humour. George mirrored some of that playful sense in his character. The outer context loop or shell is a story that shows me that in the Kingdom of God “what goes around comes around” or “you never know where an obedient, faith-driven action will lead.” George’s journey came into that shell and if you know a bit about how God sometimes works these loop stories, it makes sense there and brings glory to God even more because of the context. One central narrative line is how George went from recipient in the story, to participant and contributor, but the most striking one to me is how he has gone from being perpetually homeless-by-choice to going to his eternal-chosen-home. I hope I’ve not given it all away in this brief description and that you will still enjoy a tale of how God can work to bring people home.

Either of these links should take to you to the story: or else just click on the underlined text here:

http://wp.me/P4R5s-6o

https://pastorpete.wordpress.com/lifelessons/homeless-by-choice-george-holecz-and-his-journey-home/

 

I just wanted to… and it became a faith conversation!!! Argh!!!

One of the things I think God has been showing me over many years is that opportunities for what we call outreach or evangelism present themselves all the time – at least that is the case for me – but they are often inconvenient, and you have to learn to recognize them.

I have a string of stories of my experiences that point in that direction. In most of them I was just trying to do something ordinary: help a customer out, buy a vehicle, have it serviced, buy a Ferry ticket, watch a Hockey game in a bar, and hire a dog trainer. In each of these situations, some going back to the 1980’s, I was just “being me” or “doing my job” and a  faith or spirituality conversation intruded into what I was trying to do. I need to admit that these are only the ones I remember, and that with most of these I was kind of annoyed, saying to God under my breath “I just wanted to… why is this intruding?” Preaching, in my experience, is sooooo much safer than such conversations, because I get confronted with questions from perspectives I’m not used to encountering. I am educated and equipped to address dangers of slight variations of nuances near or within the Theological perspective I was raised in, but these people ask things that are hard.

So this post is my going public with my intent to compile these stories. If I don’t do so in the next few weeks and months, feel free to hold me accountable to this commitment. As I complete the stories, I will go back an link it to it’s listing above, so eventually all the stories will be findable from this post.

Well, back to packing.

Pastor Pete

 

Would you buy a car from Pyramid Auto sales? I did!

It was back in 1994/5. It was an interesting life-lesson.

Here’s part one of the story: https://pastorpete.wordpress.com/lifelessons/prayer-story-for-alah-abda/

 

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Border crossing stories

In getting ‘legal’ for my work in Washington state, I and some people from the church did a lot of research about what category of work permit I would need.

For instance, after several phone calls to 1-900 government numbers (which took some ‘splainin’ when I phoned a deacon to ask why the church phone would not work for those numbers, which produced some learnin’ for me when the person carefully asked “Um, Pete, why are you trying to call 1-900 numbers?” leading to me finding out they are usually sex lines. OK, that explains it!). When we thought we had it figured out, we filled in and sent in an 18 page form as an application, and it turned out to be wrong and was sent back to us.

Eventually we learned that I needed a letter from the church describing the work I would be doing, and a letter from Classis saying I was qualified.

While this was going on I became pretty good at being honest but vague at the border booths.

Where are you going?

Quincy, Washington.

What are you going to do there?

Visit some people.

What kind of people?

It’s a church group. … … …

And it would go from there, but sometimes that would be enough. I got more bold and direct when I had my letters in hand. I would hand the letters over with my passport and immediately say “I’m going to Quincy to work in a church.”  The first time it worked like a charm. The person perused the letters a moment and sent me on my way. The second time, the same thing happened, but a bit more. He asked “What does this church group call themselves? I replied “Quincy Christian Reformed Church.”  His face changed visibly when I said that, with a kind of tilting the head and squinching the eyes and pausing in an exaggeratedly puzzled fashion. I started freezing up in my gut. Then a twinkle came to his eyes as he pondered out loud while handing me my papers “You mean you are Christian Reformed and you are NOT heading for Lynden?!!!” He sent me on my way with both of us laughing. (My apologies to anyone reading this that is not a CRC insider, just smile and read on for the next story)

The third time I crossed with the letters the person at the booth said I should go inside and have the correctness of this all verified. So I did. I got in line in an intimidating huge space, with mainly burly men in uniform walking around–you know, the kind of guys whose arms are so muscular they would have trouble pressing their palms firmly to their sides if they wanted to and besides, their guns are in the way. Us lineup people were waiting, uncertain of our destiny and if we would be permitted to go on to our destinations or detained as detrimental. I was standing there, waiting my turn, rehearsing all the steps I had taken to try to be legal, so that I could give an understandable history of how hard I had tried to do it right.

Finally I was beckoned to the next open wicket. I walked past an Arabic looking person who was on my side of the wall, explaining his situation to an African American border guard who had a deep friendly voice but an intimidating physique, reminding me of the giant guy from Green Mile or Bubba from Forrest Gump (same actor I think). Perched on his head was a black toque. I came face to face with an older white guy, whose hair may have been red at one point, but the whiting of age had given it a chiffonish hue. He fussed for a few minutes finding a mobile chair that suited him. When he settled, I said “Hello,” and handed him my passport and the letters, aiming for answering questions once he had seen them, rather than my natural tendency to want to gush my story to him right off the bat. I waited. No more than five seconds had elapsed when he looked up from the documents and began to ask me a question. I was ready. I thought. He said, with a kind of expectant look on his face “Do you love a man that follows the Buddha?”

I was taken completely aback–for a second or two. I scanned his face for what was showing there. What could he mean by such a question? Was such a question appropriate? What wrath would come on him if he was asking the Arabic guy beside me that question? His face looked like he was expecting condemnation from me. Suddenly I realized that he was expecting a Christian Pastor to tell him he was going to hell if he followed the Buddha.  “Absolutely I love a man who follows the Buddha!” I responded, with an inner haste of mental gears grinding from one mode to another but keeping a mental foot near the clutch so I could easily switch back to legalities if needed.

His next statement was “Would you agree with me that if everyone followed Abraham and Jesus my job would not be necessary?”

How do you respond to that? I did not want to be telling a border guard his job was not necessary, for fear of riling him somehow. But after a moment I cautiously played along and stumblingly said something like, “Yes, if everyone followed Jesus there would be a less need for law enforcement and borders.” He was looking things up on his computer as the bizarre conversation continued, so it was not always easy to ‘read’ his face.  I felt I was  being ‘toyed’ with one moment, and then convinced he was serious the next.

Suddenly he stood up and reached across the front of me and next to me to touch and warmly greet the young woman who had come to the wicket next to me after the Arabic guy left. She was not necessarily meeting his warmth, in my opinion. So I began a whole other range of thought. Was the man about to ‘go postal’ in a ‘border’ way? Had he lost his mind and/or social graces from having dealt with too many evasive potential terrorists or smugglers?

He settled back onto his chair, only to get up again to go looking for a copy of the rulebook. During this search he told me he was just weeks from retirement and had lost his book and they had to pay for them now, whereas when he started at this job they were free, but he did not feel like buying a new one for just a few weeks of use.

When he got it and came back to work at the computer, he asked me “Would Jesus need a passport?” I didn’t know what to say, and told him so. I told him I found it interesting to get a theological exam to cross the border when I was prepared for more a more legal conversation.

Then he quickly stood up and in a gesture that first looked like clutching the chest with an imminent heart attack but which turned out to be reaching inside his shirts for something, he pulled out an ornament at the end of his gold necklace and held it a few inches from my nose, saying “What do you suppose this says?” It was a three quarter inch circle, the outside of which was made to look like rope and inside the circle there was some kind of Chinese looking letter. I said “I don’t know.” He said “It’s the most important word in any language” and so I immediately said “Love” which earned me a high five across the counter. Which was kinda fun, but then the big black guy said “You’re really weirding me out here” which made me a bit cautious again but reassured me that was I was experiencing was not normal procedure.

Well, after finishing his research, the man stapled a card in my Passport that validated my legally working status, even as the theological banter continued. I played along as best I could, holding hope this was some kind of a Grace sharing opportunity, yet also wondering if the man was merely funnin’ with me to make his day interesting, or if he belonged in a room bordered by padding and securely guarded.

When he was finished, the possibly most ironic moment of the most unusual crossing-the-border conversation happened. He said “There’s just one more thing” – I held my breath – “that’ll be a $6 fee for processing.” Relieved that was all – on several levels – I dug out my wallet and started pulling out some money upon which my new Buddhist friend jumped back from the counter, sending his mobile chair skittering (no wonder he has to go find it again with each new person) and, while pointing at the video cameras which had been unobtrusively and soundlessly documenting our entire exchange, said “Whoa! If those see me take money from you they’re gonna think it’s a bribe and I will lose my pension!” Suddenly he was all about the rules again.

I  went to the indicated teller’s wicket, and an extremely bored and boring person took my money and receipted me. On the way out I wished my buddy a happy retirement.

From that day on, crossing the border has held no anxiety for me, and getting through with his little card in my passport has been a breeze. Each time I tell the story, I pray for him–the Borderman next to Bubba who follows the Buddha.