Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Unforgettable Individuals

  by Christi Sleiman

 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
 ~ I Corinthians 4:8-10

I'm an extrovert, so having a conversation is like breathing to me.  Yes, they are necessary to life for me, but not something that I really think about.  More of a natural thing.  I had countless conversations on my mission trip to Israel and Palestine, but like most breaths, almost all of them will be forgotten.   However, two people I spoke to left such an impression on my heart that forgetting them is impossible.
One woman I spoke to translated for a youth service we did in Bethlehem.  She was upbeat and positive, but upon truly getting to know her it was apparent that her life is full of pain.  She is a member of what we call the persecuted church.  She doesn't fit in with the Muslims for obvious reasons but also cannot get along with traditional Christians.  Her kids get in verbal fights at their catholic school until they finally silence themselves about their faith.  She can't let her kids play at the park because the other kids won't accept them.  Her kids aren't allowed to run two minutes away to the store for candy because the streets aren't safe for them.  I cannot imagine trying to explain to my children why they cannot live like the others around them.  She lives in fear of Isis mere hours and checkpoints away.  I had the honor of praying for her that day, and I continue to keep her and the rest of her church family in my thoughts and prayers.
At a block party hosted by a church, I sat down to have what turned into the most insightful conversation of my life with a 90-year-old man.  He was charming and had kind eyes and became like a father to me.  What I thought would be five minutes of chatting turned into two hours of learning about his past joys and pains.  He was originally from Jerusalem but was made into a refugee and relocated to Bethlehem after Israel was reestablished as a nation.  He went by Abu Jonny because his oldest son's name was Jonny.  My dad's name in that regard is Abu Jonny too, so we connected on that fact.  His son Jonny passed away, which he told me while holding back tears.  He has lost so much, yet his love of life and love for God shine through it all.  He taught me the value of family.  Yes, he told me about his past job as a judge and bus driver instructor, but the only thing that really mattered to him was his loved ones.  It reminded me that when everything is said and done, family will be all that is left.
I'm sorry that I could only scratch the surface on what these two showed me.  I can't fit into one blog post what was said and how it changed me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reasons for Reaching Out

As a church, Acts 2 has been stepping up this year in the area of outreach. In addition to our mission trip this summer, we are also planning more outreaches to the community than we have in the past. But why reach out? Some might suggest that evangelism is not about social programs, and there is some truth in that. Jesus commanded us to go into all the world and preach the good news to all men. But going into the community and blessing people is a primary way we can build bridges and create space for sharing the good news of Jesus in a receptive environment. Beyond that, reaching out to the poor and hurting fulfills a different but equally important instruction that Jesus gave us. Here are four very important goals for reaching out to our communities and beyond.

1. Good Impressions. Sadly, many people in our contemporary culture have a very bad impression of Christians and the church. Christians are often viewed as close-minded, hypocritical, judgmental, and downright mean people. Perhaps that's because those sort of misguided "Christians" tend to be the most vocal about their faith. But the quiet majority of goodhearted, true Christians need to rise up and change those impressions. We need to be loving, giving, accessible people of integrity who can be trusted. We need to exude God's peace and joy. We need to be reaching out to the world both through intentional outreach programs and also through our daily living. That combined with an occasional mention that we are indeed followers of Christ and that we do attend a wonderful church will begin to change those bad impressions to good impression, and open people to the good news of Jesus and to the church.

Acts 2 members reaching out through service
2. Have Conversations. Outreach opens opportunities to get to know people. Not preach at them, but to ask them questions about themselves. To open a give and take of information that will show that you care about them as individuals. These conversations make a space for the Holy Spirit to move. If the conversation is going well, you might even bring up an issue related to faith. For example, "Do you attend a church?" or "What is your background with religion?" Maybe you're afraid that those sorts of questions might bring out anger in that person, but if they do, you will learn something very important about where the person is and how you can pray for them. You might even have an opportunity to apologize on behalf of Christians and share what true Christianity is all about. Or perhaps you're concerned that the conversation could bring up questions that you're not prepared to answer. That's a okay. Just say something like, "That's a good question. Let me think about that and we'll talk some more later." You can always take those questions to your church leaders and get their input. And guess what? You'll have a chance for another conversation.

3. Prayer Invitation. If a conversation goes well, you will also have an opportunity to ask someone to pray. Before you say good-bye, ask them if you can pray for them about anything. About half of the time, people will say yes. But don't be shy; take it a step further. If their answer is something friendly along the lines of, "Oh no. I'm fine. Thanks," ask if you can pray for them anyway. At that point the vast majority will answer yes. Prayer is another way we can show our love and concern in a tangible manner. More importantly, it opens a very immediate and powerful channel for the Holy Spirit to minister to their spirits. Because in the end, it's God's job to move in people's hearts and change them. We are merely the messengers.

Acts 2 kids having fun and reaching out
4. Jesus's Instruction. But perhaps the most vital reason to reach out to the needy and hurting is because Jesus tells us to. By reaching out to other people, we bless the God who created them in His image and loves them. We also change our own hearts, both through humbly serving, and also through getting a better perspective on our own lives. So even if we never change another person, never get anyone to accept Christ, never add one member to our church, through reaching out and blessing others, we have pleased God and fulfilled His instruction. I will leave you with this powerful message from Jesus in Matthew 25.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The 12th Man

by Pastor Bill Heffelfinger

It’s football season.  And in every stadium around the country, the teams are putting 11 men on the field in a physical game of combat.  But, the home team always has an advantage.  They always have “The Twelfth Man.” Every fan believes that even if they never touch the field, they are the difference maker.

Does anybody remember how many disciples Jesus chose? Twelve. This is not a coincidence, okay? It's not an accident. No other rabbi had 12 disciples. All other rabbis had disciples. No other rabbi we know of had 12 disciples. Nobody would have. It was too presumptuous. When Jesus chose 12 disciples, he was making a claim. It was a really clear claim, and it was a very dangerous claim. It was part of what got him killed.

He was saying to all of Israel (he was saying to Rome, for that matter) that what God began so long ago with the 12 sons of Jacob, with the 12 tribes that have been lost, that have been broken, that everybody aches to see restored, God is now beginning again, redeeming, recreating through Jesus. This is one of the most audacious acts of Jesus' whole ministry. It's the number 12. He chooses 12 disciples. He says, "Take a look at these 12 guys. These are the 12 tribes. This is the whole people of God, God's redeemed community on earth. God's dream is beginning again with me and these 12 guys."

The disciples loved being the Twelve. It was like, "We're it!" Individually, they didn't look like much. There was Peter the denier, Judas the betrayer, Thomas the doubter. Individually, they looked a lot more like Snow White and the seven dwarfs, but together, they were the Twelve. They loved being the Twelve. That's why they argued about who was the greatest. "We're the Twelve. It's all starting again in us!" Now at the end of the gospel, there's the crucifixion, the resurrection. Jesus is going to send them out, but Matthew says there are only 11. In other words, they're not whole anymore. They're not perfect anymore. This is a wrong number. There are not enough. They are not ready.

Dale Bruner, who is a great New Testament scholar, writes this: "The number 'eleven' limps; it is not perfect like twelve. […] The church that Jesus sends into the world is 'elevenish,' imperfect, fallible." Inadequate. Jesus did not say, "First let's get enough numbers." He doesn't say, "First let's get enough faith." He says, "You go. We'll work on the numbers thing, and we'll work on the faith thing while you're doing the obedience thing. You will learn as you go, but I'm going to send you out ready or not. I'm going to send you out ready or not!"

The truth is this is not just true of the disciples. This is the theme throughout the Bible. In the Bible when God calls somebody to do something, as far as I know, nobody ever responds by saying, "I'm ready! Good timing! You came to me at just the right moment when my tank is all filled up, and I'm adequately prepared." Over and over again, God says to Moses, "I want you to go to Pharaoh and say, 'Let my people go.'" Moses says, "Really? Oh Lord, I have never been eloquent. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."

God comes to Gideon and says, "I want you to liberate my people." Gideon says, "But Lord, how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." God comes to Abraham. "I want to begin a new community in you." Abraham says, "Will a son be born to a man 100 years old? There's like no pharmaceutical help involved here at all? I don't think so." God comes to Jeremiah. Jeremiah says, "Ah, sovereign Lord, I'm only a child. I don't think so."

Have you ever gone skydiving? Or maybe bungee jumping? I haven't had the chance to do either, but I really want to do so. But, one thing I know, when I'm 10-15,000 feet in the air, and the door to the plane opens, and they ask me, "Are you ready?" there is zero chance I'm going to be "ready" to jump out of a perfectly good airplane and hope a giant tablecloth is going to prevent me from face-planting at 100 mph. Or, when bungee jumping, there is zero chance that I'll be "ready" to jump from a bridge or any other tall contraption and hope this giant rubber band doesn't snap. But, I'll jump. I'm a thrill seeker. I'll jump.

Jesus takes his friends up a mountain one time, and they're staring off a cliff. There are not enough of them. The ones who are there don't have enough faith. It doesn't matter. The reason is not that they're ready; the reason is Jesus is ready. Because when you go…you have to go even though you don't feel ready. You have to risk. You have to try. You have to share. You have to give. You have to connect. You have to trust.

The reason you do it is not that you feel ready. It's because you won't be alone. See, we're "elevenish." We always are. I was thinking about this. Do some of you remember who won the Super Bowl in 2014? The Seattle Seahawks. They won the Super Bowl, and they had a secret weapon. They say they have the loudest fans in the NFL. Nobody wants to go to Seattle to play. They actually set a Guinness World Record of 136.7 decibels in their stadium.

One hundred decibels of sound will create hearing loss. One hundred and thirty decibels is like being within a football field of a jet takeoff. They cranked up to 136.7 decibels. They called their fans the "twelfth man." They actually put a flag up in their stadium to the twelfth man. They say, "We never would have won without the twelfth man." Jesus says, "Don't worry about only 11. You're forgetting the twelfth man: me. I'll be with you."

Monday, September 7, 2015

Love, In Person

 by Bryan Stevenson

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. ~ I Corinthians 13: 7-8

My grandfather was determined to stand up for my parents’ wedding. You can see him in those photographs, standing there, leaning heavily on his cane. A few days later he was confined to a wheelchair and would never walk again. Multiple sclerosis took his ability to walk, but it never took his joy in living life. His grit, determination, and optimism was amazing, but I’ll save that story for another time. This tale is about his wife Joanna, my grandmother, and how she taught me one of the most important lessons that one person can teach another.

They didn’t know what was wrong with Granddaddy. His balance was off and he was having trouble walking. Grandmother took a job with the city and my Dad started working as well. They weren’t sure what the future held, but they were going to work hard to make sure the family survived. When they found out it was MS, Granddaddy decided to do everything he could for himself, driving, vacationing, working on cars, fixing up around the house. He had disdain for motorized wheelchairs, and fashioned all kinds of homemade tools to help him get stuff done. Still, there were things he simply couldn’t do.

Some of my earliest memories of him are when I was in elementary school and I got to push him in his wheelchair up the short ramp to the 2nd level of their house where their bedrooms were. It was only 2 steps up, but when I was old enough to help him get up the ramp myself it was a big deal. Grandmother usually did it, and I can picture her leaning forward and pushing Granddaddy up that green, wooden ramp. I also remember cross country trips my family took with them when I was a kid, pulling their trailer and camping out as we made the trek from California to Florida over the course of 5 or 6 days. Granddaddy always drove, and he always helped to set up the trailer. Grandmother was always there to help, whether it was packing up the wheelchair or leveling the trailer on the lot, she went to work and that was how it was.

As they grew older Granddaddy had to rely more and more on Grandmother’s help. He didn’t have any feeling from the waist down, and his circulation wasn’t very good. So occasionally he would get a cut or a sore of some kind and Grandmother would have to change the bandages and clean it multiple times per day. Granddaddy’s shoulders eventually wore out from all of the wheeling around and lifting himself up with his arms. Grandmother was always there to help him move from his wheelchair to his bed, or into the car for the rare trip out of the house. During the last few years of his life, multiple strokes gradually took his ability to speak or communicate, and one side of his body was partially paralyzed in addition to his MS. Still, well into her 80s, Grandmother was the primary caregiver, never wavering. I don’t think I ever noticed her fortitude until one of our final visits before Granddaddy passed away.

Grandmother shared a story with me. Shortly before we arrived she was loading Granddaddy into the van for a trip to the doctor’s office. At this point Granddaddy was unable to do much of anything for himself. He couldn’t propel his wheelchair himself and he couldn’t talk or communicate much at all. Grandmother had him on the electric lift to raise his wheelchair into the cargo van when she lost her balance and grabbed onto to him to keep herself from falling. Unfortunately they both fell out of the van from a few feet off the ground. Grandmother was OK, but Granddaddy broke both of his shins.
Grandmother had tears in her eyes as she told me about it, “I just felt so bad for him. To know that I did that to him.” Then she kind of laughed at herself and said, “But he can’t feel a thing, so I don’t know why I’m so upset. It’s just that Steve has been through so much. I don’t know how he keeps going day after day."

In that moment I realized how much Grandmother loved him. Her love blinded her to the inconveniences in her own life. She didn’t wallow in self pity, instead she felt sorry for the one she loved! She didn’t rage against God or fate, instead she used misfortune as an opportunity to show her love. Through 50+ years of marriage, and decades of care and compassion she showed love in a way that no one else I know has shown. She didn’t say “I love you” with words. Grandmother is love, in person.