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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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Valuing Others Above Yourself

So I’m pushing my way through an article in my hard copy of CT, you know, one of those articles where you decide “I should read this because it looks important.” But the words were not getting traction in either my brain or my heart like a story I would later read in The Banner or a first person reflection in the same.
My eyes are persistently plowing through the words as little is registering — I dissociate whenever I get a feeling someone has picked a classic Christian truth or Truth that needs defending and their strident yet lamenting tone implies they are the guardians, I hope you know the type – well in process of that, a phrase catches in my awareness. I’ve missed the context, so all I’m aware of is the phrase: “
Faithfulness to the mission of Jesus means emulating his humility by valuing others above ourselves. This is the Way of Jesus.”
Instantly I’m engaged. In a second instant I both agree and disagree. I stumble over several small things, and one big one that I do a lot of thinking on, and which I have not resolved yet. My first hesitation bumble is over the possibility of emulating humility. I don’t think it is a possibility. If I’m aware that I’m emulating humility or humble sample actions, to me it means I’m mentally in a pride place. But that’s the smaller issue.
Valuing others above myself like Jesus did is the biggie. Although I believe I know what the author intends and have some sympathy with it, and although I know it has been a strong teaching in the last couple of centuries in the Christian church, the statement leaves a grand void that gives me a sense that if I step out into living that teaching, there will be no ground beneath my feet.
Here’s my struggle: Where is valuing yourself in this? Think on that. Deeply. Is it presumed that I value myself? How do I value myself? I have seen too many who act the valuing others above themselves well, but closer acquaintance points to the fundamental fact they do not value themselves. They have no self identity of strength. In fact they create identity by servility, as it is a Biblically recommended way to be. Do you catch my dilemma?
Whenever I encounter that issue, I am brought back to a key statement from Christian scripture, taken from the Old and quoted in the New Testaments. In my own words it is “Love God with all you are and have, and, love your neighbour as yourself. That tagalong – seeming afterthought – statement clearly implies love for self. It does not just imply it, it states it in a way that makes it foundational to all that comes before it.
So now I know I’ve got part of my brain working on the question again. It is still not resolved. I still don’t know how to value others above myself like Jesus did. Mainly, that is because I don’t know how to value myself in an healthy way. I’ll keep thinking on it.

 

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Twist of faith

The last Saturday of November started out as one of those kinda aimless days. I had a bit of work-work to do and I had some house work also. Deep down I was an unhappy camper for reasons I can’t always get at. I just know what I feel, not why.

Earlier, I had come to the awareness I am content with my work situation, but I am not fulfilled in it.

In conversing with God about this the way I do, I made pretty clear I was discouraged, and I desperately needed something to strengthen my confidence and hope for the future. And just in case the wireless heaven-line was busy that first time, I repeated it. “Hello: I need a new sign of hope.” It was said in various ways with various levels of lament or gate-of-heaven smashing defiance. A few requests found the happy humbler middle.

I went about my day, tugging my proverbial bootstraps as if by moving the boots I was motivating me.

It worked. I got busy and my request for new hope – for a sign from God – became a vague darkness in the back of my mind and depths of my heart. I remained alert for signals, looking for them to come in ways I expected: an email from a church inquiring further about hiring me; or a phone call from the bank saying there’d been an error in calculations for all my life and they had $10,000 for me… that kind of thing. Nada. None of that happened. I was watching carefully, remember!

During the week I had written a report to the board in of the camp I live and work in, a report in which among the good things I had to share I had mentioned two things I was dissatisfied with, two things that frustrated me in my work. One was an extremely slow desk computer, the other was a lack of a reversible drill, either corded or cordless to make some of my repair tasks more efficient. Numerous times I had done repetitive screw turning by hand. Reporting these irritants was more about venting and getting things known. It was done without serious expectation of change. Maybe it was even a precursor to the glum feelings Saturday morning. It likely had some self-pity in it. I’m good at that (He said with insecurity-covering-ego-pride, another thing he’s good at).

Well, I need to tell you that it wasn’t until this morning, the day of writing this, Sunday, when I picked something up from where I had set it down yesterday that I realized very unusual, non-coincidental, sign-like things had happened, and I missed them completely, even though I was part of it. I made no connection in the moment.

Saturday a lady came to the camp to do some cleaning as a volunteer. As I went over to check if there was anything she needed and to describe what I’d done to prepare for her arrival, she opened her trunk and said “could you use a cordless drill? And I have a cordless screwdriver here too. Here, take them. I don’t have a use for them.” And so I picked them up, duly thanked her dully and started walking toward the camp workshop to put them away. She said: “No no no, keep them in your house, use them for yourself” and so, my steps a little lighter with a load that was now mine, I dropped them off in my back room and went back out into the dull weather to do some things.

Later, the two guys from the camp board who do the property work came. They said “We’re here to see if we can speed up your computer with new memory chips and a cleanup, and Pete, we brought you a cordless drill” to which I replied “I already got one” and I fetched it and enjoyed seeing their tool envy. I can’t remember ever having others envy tools I had. But still, I was nonchalant in the bigger picture sense of things. No lights were going on for me.

Nothing registered until Sunday, when I pulled the cordless drill out of it’s neatly compartmentalized box with bits and attachments each with their own cubby, and I realized it had two batteries with the charger, it was a 14.4 volt Mastercraft (newer units, I knew, had voltages in the teens, older ones were below 10), a nice darker blue colour that I like with bright yellow buttons, it had an adjustable clutch for if you were either drilling or driving screws, it was not only reversible but had two speeds and, most significant, it looked like it had probably been used once on a Sunday afternoon it was so clean and unscathed. And I held it in my hand, and felt the heft and balance of it and imagined the torque and whine of it, and the ability to reverse and to adjust the clutch… and I realized something unique had indeed happened the day before.

For this lady to show up with a drill, particularly not knowing anything of my whine in my report, and then for those guys to arrive ready to address my concerns when I didn’t expect it, well I had to admit it was notable or remarkable at the very least, and worth a silent restrained-Reformed “thank you Lord” (Hallelujahs are too charismatic in such situations, as is Holy Celebration Dance). And for it all to happen that same day, within hours of my lament! Quite something. I’m not sure how to interpret the sign though. I’m reluctant to give it too much meaning. I’m watching my email still, and waiting for the bank to call…

Somewhere in me I know my problem is that I’m missing the billboard message. I’m missing it because I’m not liking it. It doesn’t fit my plan, my agenda, my hopes and aspirations. God seems, at least at the time of writing, to be reinforcing me where I am with hope signals on request. My problem is my agenda is not the same as Gods.
Who’s going to change agenda’s first?
Stay tuned. The batteries are charging. Will a green light go on for Pete, or will it stay red?

 

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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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