An equipping and sending church culture

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NKJV).

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you'” (John 20:21 ESV).

When we first planted Wilson Community Church twenty-five years ago, we were so small that it was hard to see anyone leave. It always seemed that the people that we sent out were our best people. They were the ones that were serving, giving, and helping grow the church. It was especially hard to see them go. In those early years, I used to pray, “God, I’m glad that you’re calling people out of our church to the mission field and to other ministries, but could you please send someone here to stay and help us?”

It took a while for me to recognize that God was using our church in just the way He intended: as an equipping and sending church. Once I gained the peace of this understanding, it brought me great joy. And besides, as our church grew I noticed that God was sending us great people too, people that had obviously been raised up at other equipping and sending churches.

One of those people that God sent us recently was a talented young man named Devin Gallagher. Devin joined the team to help plant our Rocky Mount campus with his mentor, Pastor Jonathan Combs. Devin and Pastor Jonathan had met at a previous church and had always wanted to work together again. So when the opportunity came up. Devin jumped on board.

Devin has served as lay staff, been a vital member of our worship team at both campuses, and has been key in establishing the worship ministry at our Rocky Mount campus. The Wilson campus probably knows him best as the “rapper” and lead guitarist in our annual Rockin’ Christmas outreach.

This coming Sunday will be Devin’s last leading worship for us. We have been encouraging him to continue his education and he has been accepted to The College At Southeastern. He will be moving to campus and begin classes later this month. We are thankful for his ministry with us and hope that we have helped equip him to take the next steps in his calling. We’ll miss him, but we joyfully send Devin on to answer God’s call on his life!

The truth is, this equipping and sending occurs every week. For we gather weekly for worship and small groups to get equipped and then we scatter afterwards, being sent back out to the mission field of our community. This is the biblical rhythm of a gospel centered church. This is the culture that Christ has given our church, so much so, that we decided to put a sign over the door that says, “Now entering the mission field.”

 

Leaving 2016

“For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight, for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12 ESV).

We’ve all heard the cliche, “Out with the old, and in with the new.” Yet, people are not computers with hard drives that can be erased and new software installed. We remember. Even though the calendar may have changed to a new year, many of us remain stuck in the past. The dearer the loss, the deeper the engrained sorrow. The greater the pain, the more lingering its intense memory.

Some were married or had a child in 2016. Some got that promotion at work or were finally able to buy their first home. The year 2016 was a milestone year of happiness and achievement for them. Strangely, they will have no problem leaving 2016 behind and embracing 2017 with hopeful expectancy.

Yet, for those who lost a loved one this past year, those whose troubled marriage ended in divorce, those who lost a job, or heard the doctor say the word, “Cancer.” For them, 2016 is a year to run from, a year to forget. However, the harder they try to erase or medicate, the more they remember. They are stuck in the muck of past memory. And it keeps them from moving forward.

How can we leave the past, live in the present, and not worry about the future?

God told the prophet Isaiah how the Israelites should leave Egypt, which was a place of pain and slavery, and trust Him with the future. We can learn from God’s instruction on how to leave our hurtful past behind and trust Him with our future. Notice His three instructions:

  1. Leave yesterday in God’s care. God told them, “You shall not go in flight.” He didn’t want them running away from their past. Instead, He comforted them by saying, “The God of Israel will be your rear guard.” In other words, God said, “I’ve got your back.” When you look at your past, look at it through the lens of God’s grace and forgiveness. View it through the promise of God in Romans 8:28. Give God your past!  How?
  1. Trust tomorrow to God’s provision. Isaiah told them, “The Lord will go before you.” God told them, “I’m leading the way. I’m taking point. Follow Me.” Don’t let yesterday ruin your tomorrow. Just because there was pain and suffering in your rear view mirror, doesn’t mean that there’s more pain coming around the next turn. Trust God with your tomorrow. He’s already out there paving the way.
  1. Focus on living for today in God’s power. The Lord told them, “You shall not go out in haste.” Don’t be in such a hurry to leave yesterday behind and dive into tomorrow. Live in the now. Be fully present. Give God your past and future. Live for today praying, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). And daily denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Him (Luke 9:23).

God has our backs, He is running point on our future, so we can focus on living today in His power. That’s how to leave 2016 and get on with living for today.

 

Giving good gifts at Christmas

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11 (ESV)

How do you celebrate Christmas? Decorations, lights, a tree, special foods and candies… I’m sure all of these play a part. But for most of us the climax of the Christmas celebration is the time of exchanging gifts. Yet for many, this time causes anxiety. We hope we got them a gift that they like. We want to give good gifts.

Perhaps we should look at the very first Christmas, Christ’s birthday, to see what kind of gift God gave in Christ and consider how it affects the kind of gifts we give. When God gave us Christ…

  • It was a relational gift. The angel told the shepherds that Jesus had been born “unto you.” God didn’t send money or a card. He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus. The Father gave the Son to us, so that we might become His children too. Christ is a relational gift to us.
  • It was a sacrificial gift. The angel said that the baby was born to be “Savior.” God sent His Son to die in our place. Kings are born in palaces, but lambs are born in a manger. This baby was born to be the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world.
  • It was an incarnational gift. The angel announced that the one being born was “Christ the Lord.” The title, “Christ,” means “Anointed One.” It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew title, “Messiah.” Jesus was born as a fulfillment to over 300 Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah who would come in the lineage of David to lead God’s people. The title, “Lord,” is to say that He is God. He is both God and man. Jesus is God in the flesh.

When we receive Jesus as Lord and Savior, we are adopted into God’s family and become children of God. As children of God, we can let Christ empower us to give as He did.

We can give relationally. Spend time with others, especially those who are lonely. Show them love and make them feel like family. Give the gift of your self.

We can give sacrificially.  Cut back on spending on yourself and your own family to make margin for giving to others. Give to your church, especially to ministries that will carry the “good news” of Jesus to others. Give to a hurting family in your neighborhood or church that is out of work and won’t have Christmas without help.  Cook a meal. Bake a cake. Make a craft. Give sacrificially.

We can give incarnationally. Give people far from God the gift of the gospel. Tell them about what Jesus has done for you. Live before them in such a way that they see how Jesus lives in you. We can give good gifts this Christmas that point to Jesus.

 

Questions about Rockin’ Christmas?

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19-22 ESV).

Why do we do Rockin’ Christmas?

The apostle Paul’s passion for sharing the gospel made him willing to become “a servant to all,” even becoming “all things to all people,” so that they might believe and be saved. We share Paul’s passion.

If we travel to Guatemala, we try to speak Spanish, eat tortilla and drink café con leche. If we journey to Indonesia, we say “Apa khabar?” (How are you?), and eat nasi goreng (fried rice with other stuff). In other words, we attempt to speak their language, eat their food, and learn their culture, in order to share the gospel with them.

But that passion isn’t limited to our international efforts. We use that same missional thinking at home too. That’s the reason for our Rockin’ Christmas program. Whether they’re Christ followers or not, everyone in America tends to celebrate Christmas, at least the cultural version of it. So, we’re playing a mixture of secular Christmas classics along with some sacred stuff too. We do this in order to reach people who celebrate Christmas, but don’t go to church.

How can you as a believer make the best use of Rockin’ Christmas?

  1. Pray that people who are far from God will attend. Pray for our workers’ health and rehearsals.
  2. Personally give an invite card to those who may not have heard the gospel. Offer to give them a ride or meet them there for a coffee in our coffee shop.
  3. Distribute invite cards throughout your neighborhood and at stores where you shop (ask permission).
  4. When you arrive, don’t take the best parking spots. Leave the ones near the front for guests.
  5. During the response time, complete a connection card yourself. When everyone  fills out a card, it makes it more comfortable for our guests to fill them out too.
  6. Don’t forget to bring your tithes and offerings, especially your Christmas Missions Offering. After all, it is Christ’s birthday that we’re celebrating!

I hope that helps answer a few of your Rockin’ Christmas questions…

What? You have another question?

Well, yes. Bubba Ray, Butch and Delmar will definitely be there.

Hope to see you there too!

Say “Bah humbug!” to spending that doesn’t satisfy!

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:1-2 ESV).

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world” (C.S. Lewis).

I don’t mean to sound like a “Scrooge,” but I say, “Bah, humbug!” to overspending this Christmas.

Have you noticed that the more you spend, the less you are actually satisfied? There seems to be a crazy countering equation at work here. Once basic needs are met, spending on ourselves has ever diminishing results. Like a drug addict, our self consumption requires more and more spending to get the same effect.

How do we break this addiction? Simple. Or should I say, “Simplify.” Start simplifying your life. Live beneath your means. Don’t go into debt. Give your presence this Christmas, instead of more presents. Be with friends and family. Sing Christmas carols. Eat good food and tell the story of Immanuel, God with us.

So, what do you do with the money you don’t spend? Invest it in the Kingdom. That’s the only way to experience real satisfaction. Stop being a consumer, a taker, and start being a giver. Stop buying worldly things that will never satisfy, and start investing in eternal things.

Start a new family tradition this Christmas. Spend less and give more. Satisfaction guaranteed.

 

 

This is from an earlier post that first appeared 12/9/11.

4 Ways to Celebrate Your First Love

celebrate“Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4 NKJV).

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30 ESV).

Have you noticed that we tend to celebrate what we love most? We might throw a party, sing songs, give gifts and eat cake. We might even write poetry-filled love letters when romance moves us. We can’t help ourselves. We celebrate, we worship what we love most.

Did you know that God cares about what we celebrate? I think it’s because we worship what we truly love. And God cares about that. He cares about our worship.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus told the church at Ephesus that although they had demonstrated perseverance and hard work for God, they had forsaken their “first love.”  It’s like Jesus was accusing them of letting all the romance go out of their relationship. It seems amazing, but God really wants us to love Him first. He loves us and He wants us to love Him back with priority.

So, how do we get the romance back? How do celebrate God’s Son as our “first love?”

In the book of Mark, certain religious leaders asked Jesus to give them the greatest commandment. In a sense he was asked to simplify all of the writings of Scripture down to one simple statement. Jesus didn’t hesitate. He gave them a simple command on how to make God their first love. We can hear and follow this same simple command to love God with priority by loving Him in four ways.

4 Ways to Celebrate Christ as Your First Love

1. Give God the first part of your week through passionate worship. Jesus tells us to love God “with all your heart.” The heart is a metaphor for the center of the self, which includes the will and emotion. One way that we can express our priority love for God with all our heart, is by willingly and passionately worshiping Him with the first part of our week, along with other believers.

Worship is like romance and like romance, we sometimes get it wrong. Two ways we can get it wrong are:

  • No passion. Our worship becomes a dry ritual. We just go through the motions.
  • No priority. We only worship when we don’t have anything better to do.

God wants both our passionate and priority worship. He is looking for whole-hearted worship.

2. Give God the first conversation of your day in focused prayer. Jesus tells us to love God “with all your soul.” The soul is another metaphor for the self. Unlike the heart, which represents the will and emotions, the soul seems to represent the personal identity or internal conversation of the self. As a lover might say to another, “A penny for your thoughts,” the Lord desires us to express our love for Him by sharing our inner thoughts with Him in prayer.

3. Give God the first thought of your day through biblical meditation. Jesus tells us to love God “with all your mind.” The mind is the seat of our intellect, the place where we consider and think. Just as we think about those we love, God wants us to think about Him with priority. A way we might express loving God with our minds is to meditate and study His Word.  When we study God’s Word, it helps “rewrite” our thinking. Studying God’s Word gives us both the mind and the language to love and worship God with priority.

4. Give God the first part of your substance through joyful offering. Jesus tells us to love God “with all your strength.” Strength represents our effort and indirectly the wages of our effort. When you love someone, you want to give of yourself to them. You want to share your time, talent and treasure with them. God asks that we love Him by offering ourselves fully to Him. We can express our priority love for God by giving Him the first part of our income and by giving Him the best part of our time and talent.

Are you celebrating God’s Son as your first love? Do you love Him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength?

I wonder, what does Jesus think of our love for Him?

The 4 Commitments of Life Changing Small Groups

CG“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42 ESV).

We’re not a church with small groups. We’re a church of small groups. Our church started in my living room with seven people. So, we’ve considered small groups to be one of the keys to fulfilling our calling to make disciples from day one.

As our church has grown in attendance, we have continually launched more small groups, or “community groups,” as we call them. Over 75% of our weekend services attenders are involved in one of our community groups. We recognize the importance of growing big and small at the same time, so as our weekend attendance grows, we launch more groups. And we strive to keep our church calendar uncluttered to make it easier for members to follow the the weekly rhythm of meeting together in the “temple courts and from house to house” (Acts 2:46, 5:42).

But the real secret to our life-changing small groups are the four commitments of the first century church found in Acts 2:42. The Scripture says that they were devoted to 1) the apostle’s teaching, 2) the fellowship, 3) the breaking of bread and 4) the prayers. So, we decided to base our community group ministry on these same four commitments.

1. A Shared Faith (“The apostle’s teaching”). All of our groups study the sermon from that previous weekend. We plan our sermons a year in advance to make sure that we offer a balanced diet of expositional studies through books of the Bible, topical sermon series that address current needs, such as biblical parenting, marriage, and financial stewardship, and other sermon series that our teaching team prayerfully prepares to meet the unique needs or our flock. Our desire is that the community groups would help move the weekly sermon from head to heart, as members discuss and apply the Scripture to their lives. Our teaching team writes weekly community group discussion guides to help facilitate the shepherding of these groups. Having the whole church essentially studying the same Scripture every week is also a powerful unifier, which leads to the second commitment…

2. A Shared Family (“the fellowship”). The commitment to meet together weekly in one another’s homes creates a more family-like environment. The shared hospitality of sitting knee to knee with a beverage and Bible in hand makes for a more relational experience. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. This word could also be translated communion or participation. And that’s the key to this second commitment, we want people to actively participate in discussion and application of the Word of God to their lives. We’ve learned that people grow and are better discipled in circles than in rows. These groups help facilitate life on life discipleship.

3. A Shared Food (“the breaking of bread”). Sharing a meal together and regularly remembering the Lord’s Supper together is the third commitment. We train our community group shepherds to plan a weekly meeting that lasts around two hours. The first hour is to be devoted to fellowship and food, and the second hour to Bible study and prayer. There’s just something about eating together that breaks down barriers and enhances the sense of family.

4. A Shared Focus (“the prayers”). Praying together is the fourth commitment. We encourage our groups to keep this in balance with the other three commitments. We want our groups praying real and transparent prayers together. This takes time and trust. We’ve found that breaking up into men’s and women’s groups for prayer time often enhances the trust factor. Men and women are different. And they often have different prayer and communication habits. The key here is to be creative. Sometimes they might pray all together, sometimes in pairs or triplets, and sometimes according to gender.

When we first launch a new community group, we have them study Acts 2:42 together for the first four weeks before joining the rest of the church in studying the sermon. We’ve written a new group launch guide for this. We also encourage the group to appoint champions for each of the four commitments during the launch. The group shepherd will champion the apostle’s teaching, but will also name an apprentice. Then, they are to ask for volunteers to champion the other three commitments. So, each group has a fellowship champion, who keeps members informed of meeting times/places, birthdays and anniversaries; a food champion, who organizes the weekly meals; and a prayer champion, who records the prayer requests and keeps the group informed concerning the group’s prayer list.

By basing our small group ministry on the four commitments of the first century church, we have seen wonderful and miraculous life change in the members of our church. It is not always easy to stay committed to these four devotions. There is always a temptation to add or subtract or to emphasize one over the other. Sometimes it is like herding cats trying to convince people of the efficacy of this approach. But it has been our experience that when we steadfastly devote ourselves to these four commitments and keep them in balance, life change happens!

The joy and sorrow of cross cultural ministry

CrossCultural“And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:27 ESV).

I’m a little sad. We recently had to close the door on our Hispanic ministry.

We launched our Spanish-speaking worship services on Easter Sunday 2012 and within two years we were seeing around 60 in attendance on Sunday mornings. It was such a joy to greet our members in two languages in our lobby each week:

“John and Sally, Good morning! How are you? … ¡Buenos dias, Miguel! ¿Cómo estás? … Hello Mary …  ¡Dios te bendiga, Lucero!” I had to switch back and forth between the two tongues until I became tongue-tied. And I loved it!

I even had to add a third language for a while, as we had a Haitian church meeting in our building on Sundays during most of 2012.

“Bonjour! Comment allez-vous? Dieu te bénisse! Bienvenue!” I would say, trying to remember my high school French, as I greeted the Haitian earthquake refugees gathered in one of our conference rooms for worship.

Those were exciting, yet challenging days, as we managed to have four Sunday morning services (Two in English, one in Spanish and one in French) in the same building each week. The Haitian church met with us for less than a year. They had their own pastor that traveled around Eastern NC preaching at several Haitian churches. We did several clothing and food drives for them, as many of them came to the States with little or nothing. They constantly expressed their thanks for our help, but we never quite broke through the cultural barrier to get a sense of oneness with them. I’m sure it was difficult for both sides to try and understand the other. Cross cultural ministry is hard.

However, our Hispanic ministry was different. Sure, we still had cultural challenges, but with them we were determined to be one church. Our vision was” One church, two languages.” We had separate, language specific, worship services, but we did children’s ministry, baptisms, picnics, outreaches and praise services together. Their children attended the same classes as ours. Once they reached preschool age, their children were bilingual, and able to enjoy being together with our English speaking kids. We translated our membership class and other materials into Spanish. We even attempted to preach the same sermons.

Yet, staying on the same page visionally was a continuous challenge. As long as we met with the Hispanic leaders weekly, things seemed to go pretty well. But these meetings were very taxing on me personally, as every word had to go through a translator, and it took great amounts of time to avoid misunderstandings in communication. So, I asked them to appoint someone from their congregation that was bilingual, that could act as their lay pastor, and also be the one who stayed in constant communication with me. They agreed and identified one of their own, so we appointed him as a lay pastor for our Hispanic members. We even enrolled him in a Hispanic school for pastors sponsored by our denomination.

It wasn’t long after this that our vision for one church, two languages began to diverge. I suppose I should have seen it coming. I don’t think our newly appointed lay pastor ever fully embraced the one church vision. He wasn’t part of the core group that we started with in 2012. And as he grew in influence as the lay pastor, I think they began to think of themselves as more and more, a separate church.

Little things started cropping up to reveal our growing disunity of vision. The Hispanics started entering through a side door rather than coming through the front door on Sundays (The lay pastor said that it made them nervous to come in the front door because they felt that everyone was staring at them). They had a baptism service at a campground for Hispanic believers without including the English speaking church. They started expressing concern with having their kids attend English speaking Sunday services together. And many other instances of a diverging vision became obvious.

So, we met with the lay pastor and other key leaders and asked if they wanted to be a separate church. We offered to change our relationship from one to two separate entities and offered that they could rent the same space from us until they found a place of their own. We did this because we didn’t want to act in a patronizing way towards them, which is always a risk in cross cultural ministry. God had called them to be part of us, but perhaps He was calling them to be a separate church plant now. They declined. They insisted that it was all a misunderstanding and that they wanted to stay one church with us.

However, things really didn’t improve much after this meeting. Apparently, there was also a difference of vision within the Hispanic church itself. Some wanted to be separate and some wanted to be one with us. And so, in the Spring of 2015, after a doctrinal disagreement with another Hispanic member, the lay pastor left to start a new church plant and took the majority of our Hispanic members with him. This left about 15 Hispanic members behind, who were actually among the first core group that we had started with in 2012.

We attempted to hit the restart button on our Hispanic ministry after this. The remaining members gave it a courageous effort, struggling for a year to grow. But the growth never came. When our Hispanic worship pastor accepted a call to another church, that was the last straw. The remaining Hispanic members decided to fold and go elsewhere. Our final meetings with them were filled with both laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, as we remembered all that the Lord had done among us and all that we had learned from one another.

And so, I’m a little sad as we close the door on our Hispanic ministry. I’m not sure what it all means. I’m convinced that God called us to start the ministry. I know that for a short season, He gave us an “open door” of ministry with our Hispanic neighbors. I don’t know why it has seemingly drawn to a close. But we’ve learned a lot about cross cultural ministry during this time (mostly what “not to do”). And when the opportunity comes for another “open door” to Hispanics or Haitians or whoever, I want us to be ready to say “Yes” and walk through the door once again.

 

What motivates your God questions?

GodQuestioning“And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years'” (Luke 1:18 ESV).

“And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?'” (Luke 1:34 ESV).

As a pastor, I get a lot of “God questions.” Yet, people are often apologetic in asking them. It’s as if they fear offending me, or worse yet, that they might offend God. I try to put them at ease.

“God isn’t afraid of your questions.” I often reply when questioners express concern.

I tell questioners this to keep the conversation going. After all, how can you learn if you don’t ask questions? However, I’ve noticed that some aren’t really interested in learning. Their questions are actually agnostic arguments. They are more like intellectual barrages of skepticism that they throw out to avoid trusting God. They aren’t really seeking understanding. They are expressing unbelief.

These two kinds of questioners can be found in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke. The first questioner was an older man named Zechariah and the second was a young woman named Mary. At first glance, their questions look very similar, yet upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the first was motivated by unbelief and the second by a desire for understanding.

Zechariah and his wife were advanced in years and had no children. When God sent the angel Gabriel to Zechariah to announce that his wife would soon give birth to a son, Zechariah questioned God’s Word. He asked, “How shall I know this?” Zechariah wasn’t asking for an explanation. He was asking for a sign. God’s Word wasn’t enough. He needed proof to believe. So, God gave it to him. He made old Zach a mute for nine months. It’s like God said, “Here’s your sign, Zechariah. You won’t be able to ask any more questions until you learn to trust Me.”

The second questioner was Mary. She was a young girl who had never been with a man and here was this angel telling her that she was about to conceive and bear a son who would be the Messiah. So, like Zechariah, she had a question. And at first, her question doesn’t sound that different from Zechariah’s. But the motivation for her question couldn’t be more opposite. While Zechariah’s question clearly expressed his heart of unbelief, Mary’s revealed her desire for understanding. She asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Mary didn’t ask for a sign, or for proof. She didn’t doubt that God was going to give her a son. She didn’t express unbelief that she would be the mother of the Messiah. No, she just wanted to understand how a virgin could have a child. And so, God answered her with an explanation that she could understand. And then, she uttered one of the most profound faith statements in the Bible, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

I still try to put questioners at ease by telling them, “God isn’t afraid of your questions.” But lately I’ve been adding the instruction, “But be aware, He knows your heart. Does your question come from a heart of unbelief or a desire for understanding? Because how God answers your questions has more to do with your heart than your head.”

What motivates your God questions?

Loving the sojourner

“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19 ESV).

What is a “sojourner?” The dictionary defines it as “one who resides temporarily in a place.” Other Bible versions translate it as “stranger, alien, or foreigner.” Or as they would say in the South, “You ain’t from around here, are ya?”

Over 15 years ago, my wife and I were having dinner at a local Chinese restaurant when we met a waitress named, Lily. We discovered that she was actually from Indonesia, a country that I had previously visited. Of course, I had to practice my few Indonesian phrases on her every time we visited the restaurant.

“Selamat sore, Lily! Apa kabar?” (“Good afternoon, Lily! How are you?”) I would shout out to her when I entered the restaurant.

“Baik, baik, terima kasih! Apa kabar?” (“Fine, fine, thank you! How are you?”) She’d answer, with a huge smile on her face. Obviously happy to have someone speak to her in her heart language.

After a time, we became very connected to Lily. We had her over to our house for meals. We helped her navigate some things like going to the dentist and hearing her struggles as a “sojourner” in America. She became like family to us.

One day when we visited the Chinese restaurant, Lily ran over to us very excited and said, “Good, good. I’m glad you’re here. I want you to meet someone new. His name is Yuhan and he is here from Indonesia too!”

Gary & Yuhan - Christmas 2001 in Wilson, NC

So, we started including this young man named Yuhan in the invitations to our home too. He depended on Lily like a mother and it wasn’t long before he started referring to me as his “American father.”

One Christmas, we had Lily and Yuhan over for Christmas dinner. We hung stockings on our fireplace with their names. We ate, and sang Christmas songs, and gave out gifts. Lily and Yuhan were part of our family.

A few months later, Yuhan announced that he was returning home. We hugged and shared an emotional goodbye. We exchanged email addresses and wrote to one another a few times, but soon lost contact.

We continued to be close to Lily. She started attending our church. Her oldest daughter came to live in the States for a while and attended our youth group. Lily became an American citizen and recently started traveling back and forth to Indonesia to visit family.

Earlier this April, I led a small team to visit a missionary family our church had sent to work in Indonesia. Before we left, I contacted Lily to see if there was any way to get together with her while we were there. Unfortunately, her schedule and ours didn’t align. She was leaving Indonesia just as we were planning to arrive.

But as we were leaving the States, I got another email from Lily saying that she was extending her stay and wanted to meet with us in Jakarta the last two days before we planned to return. She would have to stay two extra weeks, buy a ticket to fly from Surabaya to Jakarta, and rent a hotel room there, but she was going to make it happen just to see us! We were surprised and humbled by her desire to be reunited with us. But the surprise didn’t end there.

As we were riding a taxi from the Jakarta airport to our hotel, I phoned Lily to see about planning dinner that evening with her. She was so excited. She said we would need two taxis to travel together to dinner. I told her we had room in our taxi for her, but she insisted that she already had two lined up because she had her daughter and some friends with her that wanted to go too.

Imagine my surprise when we arrived at the hotel and there stood Lily, her daughter, Amanda, another friend, and this smiling young man, nearly bursting with emotion at our arrival.

“Yuhan?!?” I shouted. Not meaning to ignore the others, but so surprised to see this older version of the young man from 15 years earlier.

“Yes, yes! You do remember me. I have waited 15 long years for this. I am so happy to see you again, my American father!” He exclaimed, as he ran towards me to embrace me in a hug.

“Where? Hmm… how did you know I was here?” I stuttered.

“Lily called me. So, I caught a flight from Singapore where I was working and booked a room here for the night. I wouldn’t miss seeing you and Mrs. Robin for the world!” He explained.

As we rode to dinner together, Yuhan told me that I was the only one in America who had ever invited him to their home while he worked in the States. Then, he pulled out his phone and showed us a photo he had of us together at my dining room table at Christmas in 2001 (photo above).

“See, I never forgot you!” He said, while pointing at the photo with tears welling up in his eyes.

GaryYuhan2“Now, I’m going to take you to dinner.” He announced. He insisted on paying for everyone’s meal. He even made sure that the restaurant that was closed when we arrived, remained open for us.

At the end of our time together, I told him, “I love you, Yuhan.” And he replied, “I love you, too.”

In the book of Deuteronomy, God told the Israelites to remember the time that they were “sojourners” in Egypt and how He had loved and cared for them. God commanded them to “love the sojourner,” just as He did.

After all, we are all just sojourners in this world. Yet, God has loved us so much that He sent Jesus to make a way for us to become citizens of heaven. It is the love of Christ that urges us to love the sojourner in our land. It was Christ’s love that moved us to love Lily and Yuhan when they were living in the States.

And I believe that it was God’s love that moved them to surprise us when we were sojourners in their land too.