At First Baptist Conroe, our theme for 2019 is All In. We want to challenge our members to pursue Christ like never before. I’ve already written about the All In theme itself (click here to read that post). But now I want to give you some encouragement and tips to help you complete the first challenge: Read the entire Bible this year.
Most Christians I talk to have a strong reverence for the Bible as God’s inspired Word. They also admit they don’t know it as well as they should. Many feel guilty about this. They’ve tried reading it straight through, but got bogged down and quit somewhere in the middle of Leviticus. Some think they’re not smart enough or spiritual enough to understand the Bible. They content themselves with the bits of Scripture they pick up from sermons and devotional books. So why should you commit to such an awesome task?
It’s how we know God. (See Jeremiah 9:23-34, Philippians 3:8) The Bible is a letter from God to us, telling us the history of His dealings with humanity; letting us know who He is and how we can live with Him. If there was a newfound letter from a loved one you hadn’t seen in years, would you want someone to tell you the highlights? Or would you want to read it for yourself? Reading the whole Bible assures that you learn all about God, not just the truths that we tend to find more comforting or easy to grasp.
It’s how we know ourselves. (See Hebrews 4:12) We tend to be lousy at seeing ourselves realistically. We need someone from the outside, someone who knows everything about us and loves us totally, to tell us truth about our lives. That’s what God’s Word does.
It’s how we know how to live. (See Joshua 1:7-8, Psalm 119:105) The Bible is not a rule book or an instruction manual for life. But it does show us how to make decisions that keep us in step with God and His plan for our lives.
Don’t read the Bible so God will love you. He already does! That’s true whether you read His word or not.
Reading the whole Bible is difficult, especially the first time. We’ll all be doing this together. Stick with it! You’ll be glad you did!
The Bible raises some difficult questions. God’s ways are different than ours, so reading His Word will shake you up at times. Don’t hesitate to ask your Life Group or one of our ministers about things that confuse or trouble you.
Prepare: It only takes, on average, fifteen minutes a day to read the entire Bible in a year. Decide now what time of day and where you’ll do your reading.
Pick up a copy of our reading plan. (or download it here) We chose this plan because it allows you to read a little bit from four different parts of the Bible each day. It also has only 25 readings per month, so if you miss a day, you can easily catch up.
You can also read on your smartphone through the Youversion app. It’s free! Once you have the app, go to the “plans” tab at the bottom of your screen. Then press “find plans.” Search for “Discipleship Journal Reading Plan” (not “Discipleship Journal 5x5x5” or “Discipleship Journal Book-at-a-time”).
Pray that the Holy Spirit would help you understand His Word, and that He would help you stick with this new discipline in your life.
Keep a record of the things you learn. Each day, write down one thing that stood out from your reading. Pray and ask God to help you apply that truth to your life. Go back periodically and see what God has been teaching you.
Talk about what you’ve learned. This is a great way of reinforcing God’s truth, and sharing it with people around you!
I’m so excited about 2019! I can’t wait to see what God will do in our lives as we go All In on seeking Him through His Word!
Here at FBC Conroe, we’re on a journey together. We’re a church with a wonderful history, amazing people, and we’re sitting in the center of a growing region, led by a God who never stops seeking the lost. But when our current ministry staff took our first retreat in the Fall of 2016, we knew our church needed a DNA transplant. We wanted to see God bring us back to being a church that transformed ordinary people into world-changing disciplemakers. In other words:
–Instead of seeing the church as a place we go to hang out with others like us, we will begin seeing it as a group of people who are called to transform our city through the power of Christ.
–Instead of seeing Sunday mornings as a time for us to get fed, encouraged and comforted, we will see them as a time to get equipped for God’s purpose in our lives.
–Instead of thinking of the church in terms of programs, we start thinking of it in terms of people—the people Jesus wants to reach through us.
–Instead of seeing ourselves as a minority group holding on to some important traditions, we will begin seeing ourselves as missionaries to the places we live, work, and go to school.
We’ve been praying that God would make this change in us over the course of three years. We’ve been focusing on connecting people to God, helping them to grow into His image, and equipping them to reach others in His name. We’re now two years into that vision, and we’ve seen some exciting changes in us already. But in this third year, we want to strive for more of Him than ever before. We want to challenge our people to make the greatest commitment to Christ they’ve ever made. In other words, we want to be All In.
So this year, we are challenging every FBC member to commit to four actions:
I will read the entire Bible.
I will pray daily for the people in my life who don’t know Jesus.
I will engage in mission work outside the church walls.
I will commit to greater generosity.
Don’t worry, the details are coming; we’ll provide you with a Bible reading plan, a specific way to identify and pray for people in your life who need Jesus, mission opportunities, and a specific challenge regarding generosity. But for now, consider this: We believe a church full of people who are pursuing these four goals will be a church that grows spiritually like never before. We can’t wait to see what God will do with such a church. Will you join us? Are you All In?
People sometimes ask me, “Is it hard being pastor of a church where most of the people are older than you?” Truth is, I don’t know any other reality. Since I started pastoring full-time 22 years ago, I have never led any other kind of church. So when people ask, I tell them it’s a joy. These people are some of my closest friends and most faithful servants of Christ. They inspire me. I and my church would be in a world of hurt if they all suddenly left. That has been true for all 22 years of my ministry.
Of course, some things have changed in those two-plus decades. When I first started, I was pastoring mainly people from “The Greatest Generation,” who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Now, the largest single demographic group in my church is Baby Boomers, who are in their 70s to late 50s. Senior adults in churches used to be stubbornly old school, but now they have smart phones and send me emails. One thing older Christians then and now have in common: They are concerned about the future of their churches. I’m no psychologist, but I believe something happens in the mind of a devout believer sometime between the empty nest and retirement, and continues for the rest of life. They feel a consuming burden for the ongoing health of their church. They express worry about things like, “Why don’t we have as many young families here as we used to?” “Who’s going to fill all these ministry roles after we’re gone?” “I sure wish our church was out of debt.”
Of course, you don’t have to have gray (or color-treated) hair or be eligible for Social Security to be worried about the future of your church. So I as a pastor feel led to share some advice. If you fear for your church’s future, here are seven things I advise you to do:
Pray. I hope you do this already. But beyond just a vague, “Lord, bless our church,” there are more practical ways to seek God. Pray for the leaders of the church, as Scripture commands us to do. As a church leader, I can tell you we need wisdom, courage, humility and spiritual power…to name a few. Pray for their families as well. In the New Testament, Jesus and His apostles show that they are very concerned about our unity and our faithfulness to the truth, so pray those things for your church too. Jesus told us to ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers into His harvest field. I think that’s still a great prayer to pray. Know the needs of your community and pray that God would show your church how to meet them. Pray that He would raise up men and women to serve in all those key roles that keep a church going. Most of all, pray that your church would keep Jesus at its center.
Invest in the next generation. Last year, our ministry staff read a book called Growing Young, by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin. The authors identified 363 American churches which were doing a great job reaching youth and young adults. One of their findings was that these churches have older adults who invest in the lives of those younger than them. They don’t just pay a youth minister, they have tons of adults who hang out with teenagers, text message them during the week, and attend their sporting events and recitals. They practice “keychain leadership,” making it easy for young adults to use their skills and expertise in the church; whereas too many traditional churches have an unspoken code that says, “Wait until you’ve been here a few decades, then you can lead.” If you’re worried about your church’s future, a great place to start is to find a random young person (or couple) on a Sunday and invite them to lunch. Get to know them. Find out how you can pray for them. Follow up later and see how they’re doing. It’s so much easier to spend all our time with our own tribe. Get out of your comfort zone for a change.
Plan for after you’re gone. One concern I hear often from older Christians is “Young people don’t give like we do. What’s going to happen to our church when we’re gone?” That’s a very good question, and one which many pastors and churches are anxiously pondering. If you are concerned about your church’s financial future, have you considered naming the church in your estate? In his book, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, J. Clif Christopher writes, “Every one of us will die one day…most of us will be richer on that day than we ever were while alive. First the bad news: You can’t take it with you. Now the good news: You won’t need it. YOU ARE, HOWEVER, STILL RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.” He goes on to suggest that we put a tithe into our wills; in other words, a sentence such as, “After all my bills are paid, please give ten percent of what’s left to ________ church.” He suggests that if we did that, churches would benefit for years to come. Have you made a plan for what happens to your stuff after you’re gone?
Guard unity. The night before He died, Jesus uttered the magisterial prayer found in John 17. Did you know He included you and me in that prayer? Here’s what He prayed for us: “…that all of them may be one, Father, as you are in me and I am in you.” When you read on to the letters of Paul, he constantly urges each church, “Be of one mind…Count others more important than yourselves…Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Yet there always seems to be some low-level tension in any church, that boils up occasionally into full-on battle mode. Why? Because we’re sinners, period. When you add the emotional stress of people concerned about the future, you have a recipe for complaining and conflict. I do NOT believe it is wrong to criticize a church leader or to disagree with the direction your church is headed. But I also believe there are biblical, gracious, God-honoring ways to do those things. Come and speak to your pastor if you have concerns. Confront him with significant flaws you see in his character. If he responds badly, he’ll answer to God for his lack of humility. And when you hear negative chatter, ask yourself, “How would I feel if I overheard someone talking this way about my spouse or my kid?” You would step in, wouldn’t you? Well, the local church is the Bride of Christ. When we run her down, it hurts our Father. So step in—graciously of course—to say things such as, “I’m not sure that’s what actually happened. Why don’t we talk to the people who made that decision to find out for sure?” Or, “I don’t think us saying these things is helpful at all.” Or even, “I don’t always like change, either. But sometimes you have to try something new.”
Don’t retire from serving God. Years ago, when my parents retired, an interesting and unexpected thing happened. We didn’t see them anymore. In their working years, Mom and Dad would often drive out to spend a weekend with us. Now, if we wanted to see them, we had to drive to them. What had changed? They got busier. Now that my parents no longer had to work for a living, they chose to work for the Lord. Mom volunteers at a Food Pantry. Dad teaches a Bible study class. They’re involved in tons of other stuff they wouldn’t have had time for during their careers. That’s what I mean by, “Don’t retire from serving God.” In my time in ministry, I’ve known many people my parents’ age (and older) who had this same mindset. Their wisdom and life experience combined with more time to give make them the backbone of some very important ministries. On the other hand, I’ve known others who said, “Now I have time to focus on my bucket list. I’d better hurry and do it before I’m too old.” Look, if you take a cruise to Alaska or a bus trip to New England, that’s great. If you play Pebble Beach or visit the Louvre, I will rejoice with you. But please understand something: Our true retirement comes when we walk the New Earth alongside our Savior and King. We will enjoy experiences there that will put any earthly bucket list to shame, and we’ll have unlimited time to enjoy them. In the meantime, we have a VERY limited time to reach those who don’t know Christ. Don’t waste the years and strength God has given you.
Don’t idolize the past. I talked to a man once whose church had just started using drums in worship. He complained to the interim pastor (His church was between pastors at the time) and was told, “Friend, you need to accept the fact that the church you grew up in is never coming back.” The man told me, “It made me so mad I almost punched him, even though I knew he was right.” That pastor should have spoken more gently to my friend, but he told him the truth. One of the most frequent sins of religious people—of all ages—is when we put our preferences on the level of God’s will. We take a tool, experience, or person God used to grow us in the faith, and we idolize them to the level of believing God cannot reach people in any other way. That is idolatry. In my opinion, it causes more division and wasted energy in churches than anything else. Consider how many times you have heard (or thought to yourself) things like:
“That just doesn’t sound like church music to me.”
“When we used to knock on doors every Tuesday night, that’s when we had people getting saved.”
“I guess no preacher will ever measure up to Brother Tommy in my mind.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with that youth minister now. When my kids were teenagers, we had 200 kids there on Sundays.”
“I liked it better when the pastor wore a coat and tie.”
In Acts, we see the first Christians build a huge, vibrant church in Jerusalem. But God doesn’t stop there; He raises up Paul, who takes the message to people outside the Jewish nation. Some Christians who hear of Paul’s success are overjoyed, but many are upset. After all, the Gentile converts didn’t know or respect their traditions. Everything was going to be different. They tried to stop Paul. Thank God, they failed. Paul would later write of his philosophy of ministry: I am all things to all people that through all possible means I might save some. That is the mindset that changed the world. No one likes change. But we can’t stay where we are and go with God. We can’t serve the Lord and idolize the past at the same time. Don’t let your love for “the church you grew up in” keep you from joining God in His work.
See outsiders the way Jesus does. When I was entering the ministry, conventional wisdom assumed the best way for a church to reach people was to hire a great ministry staff, build great facilities, and start excellent programs…then wait for people to come to church and hear the Gospel. I don’t know if that ever really worked, but it certainly doesn’t today. If a church does that kind of attractional ministry really well, it might grow a little, but only by stealing sheep from the churches down the street. Irreligious people (the fasting-growing group in the nation) aren’t looking for great preaching, choirs and youth programs. God isn’t on their radar screen. If we want to reach them, we must go to them, not wait for them to come to us. Unfortunately, many Christians know very few irreligious people well. That seems to be especially true after retirement. So we have to go out of our way, make it our mission to make these friendships. Take a look outside your front door; how many of your neighbors do you know by name? How about other people you see on a semi-regular basis: Your barber, the waitress at your favorite restaurant, your grandkid’s soccer coach, the checker at the grocery store? Do you know them well enough to know how you can pray for them? Do you know their hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties? Start those conversations. Get to know these folks well enough to pray for them regularly, and you’ll start to see them through the eyes of the One who created them…the One who died to redeem them.
My family and I recently returned from nine days in Germany on a mission trip. We went with a group from Champion Forest Baptist Church in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in Minden, a town about three hours north of Frankfurt. For six years, these two churches have been offering a baseball camp for kids. I know what you’re thinking: “Baseball in Germany? Really???” True, Germans love their soccer, but they are intrigued by this strange American game. In fact, there were over 100 kids who participated in the camp.
Here’s how it worked: The kids were separated into a younger (8-12) and older (teenagers) division, and placed on teams. We Americans coached the teams: My daughter Kayleigh and another young lady coached the Yankees in the younger division, while Carrie, Will and I coached the Phillies in the older group. They had T-shirts that looked like the team’s jersey, and replica caps, which was a really nice touch. Each morning, we would have baseball drills with our teams, along with “team time,” a moment for sharing a story from Scripture. After lunch, we played 45-minute games with some modified rules: No more than five runs per inning, only one base advance on an overthrow, and my personal favorite, a free base if you hit the coach with a batted ball (We pitched to our own teams). At night, we had a worship service (I got to preach on Monday night!). It was a busy twelve-hour day, but it was a ton of fun.
So you’re probably wondering about a few things: Do these kids speak English? Most of them speak at least a little, and all but a few of our Phillies were fluent. Each team was assigned at least one translator (a kid who had outgrown the camp, but still wanted to be involved…ours was Amy). They came in handy when we taught our Bible lessons, or when we tried to explain some of the finer points of baseball (“Please tell him to run through first base, not slide into it”). Are they any good? Some of them are. We had at least three kids who any select team in America would love to have, and several others who were good athletes…it seemed that was the rule on all the teams. Some kids were just there to have fun. And some had never played the game before. Was this more about baseball, or more about Jesus? We took the baseball part seriously. I saw each kid grow in their abilities, even those who were experienced players. But the team times and the worship services were very deep. The Minden church had a praise band that was excellent, and the kids really engaged with God. Germany is a nation that has a rich Christian history, but is now quite irreligious. Some of our kids were Christians, but I was very aware that for many, God just wasn’t something they thought about often. Near the end of the week, one of our players asked me, “Why do you pray in the name of Jesus?” I told him that it’s because Jesus died for our sins that I now have the right to go into God’s presence and ask Him for whatever is on my heart. Praying in Jesus’ name is a reminder to me of that important fact. I was so glad to be able to share that!
There were a few exceptions to the schedule. Our first full day in Germany was our sightseeing day. We took a train to Wittenberg, where Martin Luther launched the Reformation 501 years ago. I am a huge history buff, and I read a Luther biography recently, so walking in his footsteps was a powerful experience for me. Taking the train also allowed us to see the countryside of this beautiful nation. On Tuesday night, the church had a block party, so we got to meet some of our players’ families and other folks from the neighborhood over bratwurst. Wednesday night, we Americans put on Astro Tshirts and caps to play an exhibition game against the Minden Millers, the local club team (several of our translators are on that team). We won, 9-2, thanks mostly to Travis, who dominated on the mound, and Nick, our 18 year-old, Blinn-bound catcher, who hit a home run that is probably still airborne somewhere over Copenhagen.
I have to confess something here. I grew up playing sports of all kinds, and used to be very proud of my throwing arm. I didn’t have a cannon, but I could throw the ball with accuracy. But it’s been a while, if you know what I mean. Pitching to my team was rather humbling. They would watch me throw bad pitch after bad pitch, waiting for something they could hit. The night of the game against the Millers, I was at second base. I immediately thought of Chuck Knoblauch, the great second baseman of the 1990s, whose career ended when he suddenly was unable to throw from second to first. Fortunately, thanks to Travis’ lights-out pitching, I only made one play on defense, and our first baseman managed to dig my throw out of the dirt. At the plate, I managed a base hit into right field that brought home two runs. My daughter was good enough to record it on her phone. My swing doesn’t exactly look like Altuve (and I certainly don’t run like him), but it was an exciting moment nonetheless.
On Thursday afternoon and Friday, we played a tournament. Kayleigh’s Yankees had started slowly, but by mid-week were a well-oiled machine, so we expected them to win. In our older division, the Rockies seemed like the team to beat. Every kid on their team seemed to be able to hit the ball into the outfield, and they could field the ball on defense, as well. They had no weak spots. Our Phillies had been erratic all week, but did well in the tournament. We played a double-round-robin, and we won four games and lost two—the two we played against the Rockies, of course. Then we won our semifinal against the Marlins and went into the championship game against those powerhouse Rockies. Our kids played hard, with nothing to lose, and managed to win! We celebrated with these ten German teenagers like we’d just won the World Series, then walked to the younger division ballfield just in time to see the Yankees win their championship as well. Seeing our entire family win the championship seemed a little too good to be true, but we enjoyed it!
There were so many blessings to the week. We were hosted by Alex and Judith Haak and their children, Vivian, Sarina and Lennard. They were incredibly gracious hosts. They fed us extremely well (we all gained five pounds at least). The day is long in northern Germany (the sun sets at around 10 PM), so after baseball camp was over each night, we still had time to grill in the backyard, or visit the Kaiser Wilhem Monument looming over Minden, or drive into downtown for a look at a church first established in 805 BC and to eat some spaghetti ice (Ice cream pressed to look like spaghetti…it’s delicious). We loved getting to know this family. In just a few days, they became incredibly dear to us, and we hope to see them again soon. We were impressed with the entire church, who worked so hard all week, from manning the brat wagon and the concession stand to making us lunch each day to washing the jerseys each night. This church is smaller than ours, but very committed to reaching their community for Christ. They are starting an Alpha course soon (a class designed to teach newcomers the basics of the Christian faith). Pray for that effort, for Pastor Olaf and his entire congregation.
For me, perhaps the greatest blessing was getting to do mission work with my family. That was a first for me. Kayleigh went on this trip last year and told us “the whole family needs to go next year.” I said that was impossible. Perhaps we could raise enough for her and one parent to go (I even offered for it to be Carrie instead of me…I know which parent is more important!). But she insisted. I prayed about it and decided even if we have to take a huge financial hit, it was something we should do. Well, thanks to so many generous friends, we didn’t take a huge financial hit. And it was an incredible joy to serve the Lord together.
We each absolutely left a piece of our hearts in Minden, Germany. God is good!
Our church has experienced several deaths in the past month. These were people I knew well, whose loss I feel deeply. But my feelings pale in comparison to those of their spouses, siblings, children and grandchildren. According to 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we don’t grieve like those who have no hope, but we do still grieve. The Gospels record two times that Jesus wept, and one was at the tomb of a friend. I have learned a lot about grief in my years in the ministry. But I truly learned about grief when I lost loved ones of my own. I can remember when my grandmother lay dying, and people from the community came to visit her. I overheard them saying to her as they left, “I sure hope you get better soon!” That infuriated me. She was laying in a hospital bed in her living room, barely able to speak. But they made it sound like she had a cold. Their words seemed like a mockery to me. Now, over a decade later, I know how unreasonable I was. They were trying to be kind in visiting her. But I also know how their “comfort” made me feel in the moment.
So, for the sake of the grieving people in my own congregation now, and for all those who have grieved, are grieving, or will someday grieve a loss, here’s a list of the worst things to say to someone who is hurting:
“God needed him more than you do.” Stop and think about how selfish that makes God sound. And it’s certainly not true. God doesn’t “need” anyone. He is perfectly content in the Godhead. When our loved ones pass away, it’s not because God requires their companionship.
“It was just God’s will.” First of all, we don’t know that to be true. If someone is murdered, was it God’s will? What about a suicide? Or a drunk-driving accident? We live in a warped, sin-stained world that God is in the process of redeeming; until then, things will happen that are NOT part of God’s original plan. It’s just a bad idea all around to try to interpret God’s will for someone else’s life. Oh, and by the way, I assume you know not to say something like, “You must have done something to cause God to do this to you.” People who say such things should be glad a gracious God is their judge, and not me. I would zap them with extreme prejudice.
She’s your guardian angel now. No, she’s not. People are people, angels are angels, and there is no biblical evidence that ever the twain shall meet.
Look on the bright side. Or some version of this, such as “You have so many other things to be thankful for,” or “You should be grateful for the time you had with him,” or worst of all, “You can still have another baby.” People in grief aren’t ready to look on the bright side. We need to respect their need to grieve instead of trying to distract them from it. Speaking of which…
Don’t cry. Okay, we probably don’t actually say that, but when in the presence of a grieving person, we often feel intensely uncomfortable. We see a side of them that we’ve never seen before. Suddenly, this once strong, dignified person loses all social decorum, turns red, trembles, weeps, moans, and generally collapses. Our gut instinct is to do whatever we can to make those tears stop. But what if those tears are exactly what is needed? Jesus said Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, not “Blessed are those who keep a stiff upper lip and an ironic eye roll.” Psalm 56:8 says God keeps all our tears in a bottle, which I take to mean that when we cry, He pays attention to it. He remembers it. Our tears are not an embarrassment to Him. Neither should they be to us.
There is an exception to this, though. Jesus once told a grieving widow, “Don’t cry,” and then He raised her son from the dead. Let’s all agree that when you or I develop the power to reverse death, we’ll also have the right to tell someone else how to grieve.
It’s time to move on. Rick Warren is a well-known pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life. In 2015, his son Matthew took his own life at age 27 after battling depression for years. A year later, Rick’s wife Kay wrote a blog post that went viral, entitled, “Don’t Tell Mourners to Move On.” In it, she wrote of people who seemed surprised she was still grieving, They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever… There is no rule book for mourning. Everyone mourns in their own way. We may be legitimately concerned about their emotional health, but unless we are close enough to them to suggest seeing a therapist, asking them when they will “get over it” is a way of saying, “Your grief is an inconvenience to me.” To put it mildly, that doesn’t help.
How are you doing? This one seems harmless, and all of us have asked it with the best of intentions. But Warren’s blog post reveals something most of us have never thought of: Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok), to end the conversation, or try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it.
Call me if you need anything. I’ve said this one many times. But no one ever called. I finally realized, people who are mourning aren’t capable of knowing what they need for you to do. They are in a fog. When we say, “call me if you need anything,” or “Let me know what I can do,” we aren’t harming them, necessarily, but our words are meaningless. If we really want to help, we’ll offer to do tangible things: “Can I bring you some food? Want to bring the kids over to my house for a few hours? Want me to go to the funeral home with you?”
He’s in a better place. This isn’t always the wrong thing to say. God’s Word tells us about the certainty of Heaven for a reason. But if you don’t know the deceased well, your words may ring hollow (“How do you know where He is? You don’t know anything about him.”). And if talking about Heaven is just a way to spin their thoughts toward happiness, it’s just another version of “Don’t cry” or “Move on.” So yes, talking about our assurance of Heaven can be the perfect thing to say, under the right circumstances. Just don’t be surprised if they’re not ready to think cheerful thoughts yet.
So what should we say to grieving people? “I’m so sorry” is always welcome. “I’m praying for you,” works as well (especially if you actually are). But mostly, it’s not about what you say. It’s being there that matters. Spend time with them. If you feel like crying, don’t hold back. Weeping alongside them can be incredibly comforting. Checking in with them weeks (or even months) after the funeral, when everyone else seemingly has forgotten their grief, is powerful as well. Listen to them. Don’t be shocked if they express confusion, even anger toward God. Don’t feel you have to defend the Lord; Job’s friends made that mistake. Sometimes, the less you say, the better. Your presence is what matters. They will remember, years later, that you were there.
Earlier, I reference 1 Thessalonians 4:13, which indicates that although we are not exempt from grief, there is a distinctively Christian way to mourn. We have hope that the world does not. Perhaps part of that is the way we grieve alongside others. Someday, this world will be renewed. Someday, the Savior who died for us will be the King who rules over us. Someday, sickness, pain and death will be no more, and our Father will wipe every tear from our eyes. Until that day, let’s make sure we know how to weep with those who weep…in a way that actually comforts them.
I don’t often cry at movies. I bawled as a kid watching Old Yeller (and I’ve never watched it since, as a result). I get a little misty when Bubba dies by that river in Vietnam in Forrest Gump, or when Red finds Andy on the beach at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, or when Harry Bailey says at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, “To my brother George, the richest man in town!” But now, I must add Paul: Apostle of Christ to the list. I found the ending of this movie one of the most emotionally powerful things I’ve ever seen.
I must admit, I don’t like most movies made for the “faith-based audience.” They tend to fall into one of two categories: Cheaply made films that are more like extended sermons than art, or big-budget biblical epics with A-list stars and great production values that play fast and loose with the stories of Scripture (Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings are a couple recent examples). I feel a little guilty, but I rarely go see any of these, especially the ones in the former category. Even if I agree with the message, I want to be entertained for my $10 (minus the cost of popcorn). I made an exception for Paul, and I’m glad I did.
The story is set in 67 AD, during the reign of mad Emperor Nero, as Christians in Rome are being thrown to the lions or burned as torches to light the city streets. Paul is in a dungeon awaiting his execution at Nero’s hands; the cruel Caesar has scapegoated Christians for the recent fire in the city, and since Paul is the most famous Christian of all, he must die. The small Christian community in Rome is struggling to survive this time of desperate persecution. Priscilla and Aquila, now leading the church in Paul’s absence, must decide whether to leave the city for safer environs, or weather the storm, while also trying to pacify the faction of young men who would very much like to take up arms against their oppressors. Paul’s old traveling partner Luke arrives in Rome to visit the prison, hoping to write down the apostle’s life story while there is still time. Meanwhile, the prefect of the prison has a daughter dying of a mysterious illness. He wonders if perhaps killing a few more Christians (including this Greek physician Luke) would persuade the gods to heal her.
The performances are excellent. I was not familiar with James Faulkner, who plays Paul (If I had watched Downton Abbey with my wife, I would have seen him before), but I am now a fan. He plays Paul as a weary man, old before his time from years of deprivation, hard travel, and physical abuse, but whose worst torments are the dreams in which he sees the faces of Christians he once persecuted. The movie speculates that it is these dreams which were Paul’s true “thorn in the flesh” (1 Corinthians 12:7-9), a theory I had never heard before. Faulkner’s Paul may be one step from death, but he has lost none of his devotion to Christ. Much of his dialogue is lifted directly from his biblical letters; the movie assumes Paul lived out these words and repeated them often, instead of simply writing them once on a page. Jim Caviezel plays Luke. I smiled when I first saw his short, decidedly non-biblical-epic hairstyle; I assume they made that choice so we wouldn’t think he was playing Jesus again. But it didn’t take long for me to get lost in his performance, accepting him as a man who has already written a Gospel, a man who deeply admires Paul, but who struggles with the idea of possibly dying for Jesus. The relationship between these two men is the heart of the movie, while the other two subplots–the prefect and his daughter, and the struggling Roman Christians–lend some suspense to the film.
There are some slow moments, and a few clunky lines of dialogue (“With all this persecution, what will you do?”). I had a minor quibble with the flashback that shows Paul’s encounter with Ananias (why didn’t they show scales falling from his eyes?). But it was so rewarding to watch a movie that took Scripture seriously AND was a well made, well-acted film. And then that ending came, and hit me like a ton of bricks…
When this day began, I was in Lima, Peru. Now I am sitting in my den in Conroe. That’s rather remarkable, I think.
For the past nine days, I have been part of a small team (along with Sara Hassenger and Kaylee Martinez) from FBC who participated in a mission trip among the Quechua people of Peru. We were there to assist Russ and Sherry Fleetwood, IMB Missionaries from Conroe, in hosting a youth retreat. I wanted to get some thoughts down in print while they are still fresh on my mind, because this has been quite a trip.
When we think of Peru, we tend to imagine Llama-covered mountains. But there are some very distinct areas of the country. Lima, the capital, is a huge (roughly twice the population of Greater Houston), modern city. Much of the coast of Peru is a desert. There is also a substantial region that is jungle. And then there is the mountainous region, including Pomabamba, a small town in the Ancash region in the center of the country, where we spent most of our time.
In Pomabamba (which means “Cougar Plain”) and the Ancash region, nearly all of the population are Quechua. There are at least 3.5 million Quechua in Peru, along with millions more in Ecuador and Bolivia. They speak various forms of the language that was once used in the Inca Empire, although the Quechua were around before the Incas. The Quechua who we met were mostly farmers, living hard lives off of the land. They tend to be small relative to Americans; I only saw one or two men who were as tall as me. But as Russ told us, they are tough, resilient people. Several times, I saw tiny, elderly Quechua women carrying on their backs loads that were larger than themselves. Small towns like Pomabamba are built around a main plaza that sits in front of the Catholic church building. They have a few restaurants and businesses, along with locals who sell fruits, vegetables and other stuff in the street (one guy tried to sell Russ and me a bag of Guinea pigs). But they don’t have the conveniences you and I take for granted. There are no fast food spots. A grocery store is smaller than most of our living rooms, with items crammed onto the shelves, and a few barrels of rice, grains and vegetables. Pomabamba has a hospital, but it’s not well-resourced. Serious medical issues require a seven-hour long trip to Huaraz. Most of the residents don’t have cars; fortunately, there are now buses that take people to Huaraz and beyond, but the roads are not paved, and the trip is a hard one (more on that later).
Life in Pomabamba is different from life in the US in so many other ways:
–The Quechua love their potatoes. They should; after all, the potato originated in Peru, and they have thousands of varieties. The typical Quechua diet is full of starch; most meals are served with potatoes AND rice. The Atkins diet would have a tough time catching on in Pomabamba (of course, the Quechua would have a hard time understanding a culture so affluent, we lose weight on purpose).
–We ate twice at Mesa Rumi Restaurant in Pomabamba. The first time, I had Loma Saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish (Roasted beef and onions over fried potatoes, with rice on the side). Quechua get most of their liquids in soup, so when you go to a restaurant there, they won’t bring you a drink unless you ask for it. They also don’t like cold drinks, so your beverage will be lukewarm unless you ask for it “helado.” (One member of our team told us that she has served Coke to Quechua friends in her home, who then asked to heat it up in the microwave).
–Many Quechua women, especially those in the country (called Campesinos) dress in a traditional way: Brightly colored, layered clothing (a T-shirt and sweater on top, pants covered by a skirt on bottom), and hats.
–Animals are allowed to roam free in much of rural Peru. If you take a trip, you will have to pause several times for cows, pigs, sheep, horses, donkeys, and more dogs than you can count. Sometimes, these animals are being herded by a Quechua man or woman; but often, they are simply roaming.
–Traffic laws are more like guidelines in Peru. I’ve lived most of my life in the Houston area. I have learned to drive offensively, if you will. But Peruvians make the most aggressive Houston driver look like an old lady out for a Sunday drive in her Town Car. I lost count of the number of near-wrecks we had, all the fault of drivers who ran stop signs or red lights, were in the wrong lane in a blind curve, or cut in front of us without warning. In Lima, a city of over 10 million, it was even worse. So if you drive in Peru, keep your eyes on the road and be ready to use your horn.
–Truthfully, not many laws are strictly enforced in Peru. People put speed bumps in front of their homes without permission. Businesses in town often set up signs that block the public sidewalk. Quechua men routinely relieve themselves by the roadside, in full view of passers-by. On the other hand, the people are incredibly polite and friendly. The drivers may be aggressive, but I saw no signs of the road rage so prevalent here.
–Even though it is technically summer in Peru, the temperature in Pomabamba never got higher than the high sixties when we were there. There was virtually no humidity (even though it’s the rainy season), and I never broke a sweat, even when playing soccer. There are no poisonous snakes, and no cockroaches. The natural beauty of the place is stunning. This paragraph alone will make some of you want to pack your bags and move here immediately.
Oh, one more thing: I didn’t see a single Llama. Not one.
Russ and Sherri Fleetwood
Russ grew up at First Baptist. He met Sherry at the Baptist Student Union at the University of Houston (which is where I met my wife, as well!). The Fleetwoods have been Pomabamba for 14 years, recruiting and equipping Quechua men and women to lead home Bible studies to spread the Gospel. Although most Quechua, like most Peruvians, are nominally Catholic, church attendance is very low, and knowledge of the Gospel is almost non-existent. Evangelical Christianity has grown substantially in the time the Fleetwoods have been in Pomabamba, but they have found that many of these professing believers have very little Scriptural knowledge. Many pastors don’t preach the Bible, instead “preaching” about the latest dream they had. Their religion tends to be very works-based. So along with helping new people come to saving faith, the Fleetwoods also see their role as teaching professing believers how to study Scripture.
Kaylee, Sara and I took an early flight to Lima from Bush Airport (we left my house at 5:30 AM–huge thanks to Jim Hassenger for driving us). With a stopover, we landed in Lima at 8 that night…but our trip was far from over. We were met at the airport by Daniel, a Peruvian friend of the Fleetwoods who would help us get to the bus station. Daniel teaches English at a school in Lima, so he was the perfect guide for us. He helped negotiate a cab ride for us (actually two cabbies had a pretty heated disagreement over who would get the fare), and made sure we had our bus tickets in hand and luggage stowed.
Our bus for Huaraz departed at 11:30 PM. It was surprisingly comfortable, with fully reclining seats and plug-ins for us to charge our phones (I was picturing something out of the movie Romancing the Stone). But the road was rough and curvy, and I didn’t get much sleep. We arrived in Huaraz in the morning, where Russ was waiting for us with his pickup. He took us to a hotel in town, where we had breakfast and met Lisa and Amy, missionaries based in Lima who would help us lead the retreat. We then made the long drive from Huaraz to Pomabamba, picking up the final member of our team, Jose Marco, along the way. That drive winds around mountain roads through a pass that exceeds 15,000 feet elevation. The last three hours of the drive are on an unpaved, single-lane road that hangs precariously over the cliffside. Perhaps due to my lack of sleep, I wasn’t ready for the altitude, and I felt pretty miserable. We arrived at the Fleetwoods’ house on Tuesday night in time for supper. Fortunately, my altitude sickness had passed.
Wednesday, we drove to Jatun Era, site of one of the house churches the Fleetwoods work with. From the road, we walked up a steep, narrow trail (the sun had already set, so we had our cell-phone flashlights out, and stepped carefully). The church met in a small, tin-roofed structure with pews made of planks balanced on logs. There was a table up front and a tractor-supply calendar on the wall. A kitten roamed the room as we sang songs in Spanish and in Quechua. We split into two groups; the men went outside with Russ and me, while the women stayed inside with Sara, Kaylee, Amy, Lisa and Jose Marco (the older women are less likely to know Spanish, so we left Marco there to translate everything into Quechua). In our time with the men, I spoke (with Russ translating into Spanish) about God’s purpose for our lives. We shared about grace; Marco had told us there is no Quechua word for grace. Fortunately, we both felt they understood that grace is a gift of God, and our salvation cannot be earned. One of the young men asked me for my advice to them on building a church. It was a fruitful meeting, although I must confess (based on the laughter I heard coming from inside the building) I think the women had more fun.
Thursday we spent preparing for the youth retreat. We also helped the Fleetwoods with a yard sale, which gave us a chance to interact with local people. Friday morning, the retreat began. We ended up having fourteen teenagers (we would have had fifteen, but one young girl got sick). We found these kids to be extremely polite and easy to please. Russ told us that Quechua churches don’t have youth or children’s ministries, so any focused attention on them is welcome. Our goal for the retreat was to practice Bible storying–a technique in which a Bible story is shared several times, with a game or activity to reinforce it, and questions to make sure the students got the main point. The theme was Para mi, vivir es Cristo, y morir es una ganacia (“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” Philippians 1:21). I was first to share my story: The story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. I had memorized the story in Spanish, which is WAY out of my comfort zone. But the kids listened well, and answered all my questions correctly. We sang Spanish-language worship songs, played games and did crafts. We went to bed that night good and tired.
Here are some pictures of the kids:
By the way, one story from that first day that stands out: At the start of the retreat, Kaylee asked the kids a series of questions to “break the ice.” One of her questions was “What is your favorite holiday?” One young girl answered, “Father’s Day.” Russ later told me that this was particularly moving. The girl’s father suffers from crippling arthritis and has a tough time providing for their family. He feels judged by the other men in the area, because he can’t do all that he would like to. Yet to this girl, Father’s Day is her favorite day of the year. Even as I type this, I’m getting a little teary-eyed thinking about it.
Saturday, we rented Teatro Obregon, a small theater in town, so we could play volleyball and soccer in between Bible lessons. Speaking of Bible lessons, I need to share a word about Jose Marco, who was there to translate our lessons into Quechua. The kids are all fluent in Spanish, thanks to the education system, but Quechua is the first language they learned. It’s what is still spoken in their homes. When Marco spoke, you could see the kids engage with him in a way they didn’t with the rest of us. He was speaking their language, yes, but it was more than that. He is a well-read, highly knowledgeable preacher of the Gospel who has a deep passion for the discipleship of his people. I enjoyed him tremendously. Actually, I am very grateful for every member of the team. Kaylee, who is only nineteen and is an intern in our student ministry, really shined. She organized games, hung out with the girls during break times (not surprisingly, the girls were drawn to her), and went the extra mile in so many ways. Sara had done the complicated logistical work to get us to Peru, and she led in the crafts as well as teaching a Bible story. I was glad to have someone with her international experience and fluency in Spanish, as well as her wisdom and maturity. Lisa and Amy were both incredible, too. They brought so many good ideas and knowledge about the Quechua. Combined with Russ and Sherry, they gave us the encouragement and confidence to do what we would have otherwise felt ill-equipped for.
Sunday, we wrapped up the retreat by 4:30. Most of the kids had walked to the retreat (trips that took several hours), but it was raining, so members of our team took them home. Kaylee was able to meet some of the parents of the kids, and exchange tearful goodbyes.
Monday, we started the long journey home. We took our time driving to Huaraz, stopping for a picnic lunch at 15,000 feet, later for a hike near what seemed like the top of the world, and still later for ice cream (although I must say…Peruvians need to import some Blue Bell). We took the same overnight bus back to Lima that night. Tuesday, we had all day to see Lima. Our experience there was quite different than in Pomabamba. Lima has all of the conveniences of home, including American restaurants. The people dress in modern styles and tend to look more European than the Quechua. Many times in the nicer sections of town, it struck me that if I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was in Houston. We went downtown, saw the Presidential palace and other government buildings, ate some great food by the seacoast, and briefly toured the ruins of the wall that surrounded Lima in the 17th century.
Our flight back to Houston departed Lima at 12:50 AM and landed here at 6:20. I had slept well the entire week, thanks to the Fleetwoods’ hospitality (and in spite of their neighbors’ rooster, who got cranked up every morning at 5), but the last two days of travel were so hectic, I was grateful for my nice, quiet bed when I got home.
What Will Stick With Me
The kids we met will stick with me most of all. Although they were very shy, they also impressed us with their intelligence and kindness. This generation of Quechua has great potential. Even though they still live in what we would consider primitive conditions (some don’t even have electricity), they are much more likely to finish secondary school and go on to advanced studies than their parents or previous generations. Pray that as they interact with the world in a way Quechua have never done previously, they are drawn closer to God, not pulled away from him. Pray that they will become leaders in their communities, who start house churches that spread God’s love, and lead their people to a better standard of living to God’s glory.
During the trip, I kept thinking about how hard it was to get to Pomabamba. And yet I was glad I had come, because if not, I never would have met these people. We tend to live in such a small, self-contained world, only interacting with the people we want; it is good to see that other people live in places we never consider, and they matter to God just as much as we do. Russ and Sherry have lived in this isolated spot for fourteen years, forgoing conveniences that we take for granted, simply because God loves the Quechua. It occurred to me that Jesus traveled a much longer and more treacherous road than I had: Leaving Heaven behind, emptying Himself of all divine privilege and prerogative (Philippians 2:5-8), becoming poor like us (poorer than any of us Americans, in fact), facing the rejection of His people, and dying for us on a cross. Why? Because we matter to God. We were worth it to Him. We still are. Quechua or Americans, rich or poor, Republicans or Democrats, rule-followers and rebels…God loves us all, and He’ll go to the very depths of Hell to save us, if we’ll let Him.
So if we call ourselves His followers, people need to matter that much to us, too.