Sitting in my office this morning is the first time I’ve had a chance to quietly reflect since I returned from North Africa last week. It was a hectic trip, and since I’ve returned my life hasn’t really slowed down any. But as I skimmed over the blogs that I wrote while overseas I realize there is so much more to write about, whether it be experiences, lessons God taught me or revelations about the church worldwide. There is no way to capture everything in one article, but these are some of my thoughts as I look back on my trip.
I now have a whole new appreciation for VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation). Hopefully it will be a long time before I complain about closing a lane down for shoulder repair or the delays that inevitably come with summer-time road construction. On our way to Dougga, the turnpike we traveled on, a four-lane, limited-access highway, had sections that were being resurfaced and repaired. As opposed to the U.S. there were no workers with signs directing the newly diverted flow of traffic, nor were there traffic cones to separate the thoroughfare from where the heavy equipment was operating. With only a small road sign to warn us, the nicely paved 4-lane highway transformed into an unpaved two-lane road without road markings where you had a choice of dodging the backhoe or playing chicken with an oncoming bus! So to highway workers across our nation I extend a heartfelt “Thank You!”
I firmly believe my sister’s shower is possessed by demons. One minute you are taking a nice, warm shower, the next you are being pelted with ice-cold water that you are sure comes from the run-off of a melting glacier. Quickly you try to adjust the knobs only to result in lava-hot water steaming out of plumbing that must extend into the fiery pits of Hades itself. Again, you desperately try to adjust the temperature, using only the minutest of turns lest the shower-head turns into a snow machine. Finally you give up, leave it on cold, and take the fastest shower of your life and you would not be surprised to find penguins waiting in line on the other side of the shower curtain.
Tunisians like their coffee and they like it strong, which means it was exactly right for me! Everywhere you go, there are cafes, no chains like Starbucks, just locally owned coffee houses, and nearly every restaurant serves hot coffee all day long. It was a coffee lover’s paradise. Of course, the bulk of the coffee houses are men-only in their clientele. Very seldom did you see a woman at a cafe, unless it was marked ‘Cafe d’ The’. It wasn’t so much a law as it was an unwritten rule. Like the cigar parlors of a previous century, the coffee houses in Tunis are a man’s world. Of course, this seems bizarre to a Westerner like myself, but it is so ingrained in their culture that no-one even questions it.
How to be Dependent
In a culture where I knew nothing of the language, customs or geography I was totally dependent on an interpreter lest I became hopelessly and utterly lost in a city of 2 million people. That interpreter took the form of my sister. This was a complete role reversal for me. Growing up I was the older one. I blazed my own trail and she had to keep up with me. I was the defender, I was the overseer when parents were away. I was the one in charge. Not so in Africa. Suddenly I found myself at the mercy of my sister. When a shopkeeper or cabbie spoke, I had to wait for her to interpret. I had to listen to her as far as what the cultural taboos were and how to act in certain situations. All of the sudden, she was in charge. This was humbling, but at the same time it served a living illustration of how God wants me to depend on him. Too often I act like I am in charge, when it is God who knows what is best, knows what to say and knows how to respond in a given situation.
What is Really Important
In America there are so many distractions inside the church that we often lose focus on what is truly important. Things like style of music, dress codes, methodology, programming and doctrinal disputes over matters of opinion muddy the waters for many church leaders. Christian magazines are filled with articles on how to reach Gen Xers or Millennials. Debates abound over whether to be missional, purpose-driven, attractional or whatever the newest ‘it’ word is. What I found in North Africa was a singular focus on the most important powerful evangelistic tool the Church possesses: Jesus Christ. May I never forget how important and central He is to the Gospel, because without Jesus there is no Gospel.
The Church Worldwide
Too often we treat church like an organization when she really is an organism. When the Church is at her healthiest she is an organism possessed by the Holy Spirit, which Jesus warns us in John 3 will ‘blow wherever it desires’. My most ‘successful’ moments in ministry were those where I was holding on for the ride of a lifetime. It wasn’t that there wasn’t planning, preparation or prayer, it’s just when the Spirit starts to take the Church where He wants you can’t always predict the direction you will end up taking; you are along for the ride. I believe that is what the global Church looks like right now. The Spirit is moving in places like North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Pray for our brothers and sisters as they take this ride with Him, and may we learn from their example and not program and plan the Spirit out of our churches.
It Doesn’t Look Like My Church
Imagine a church where people lived life with one another; where people were really honest with each other (sometimes brutally so); where there are no hidden agendas; where the church’s survival rests heavily on each individual contributing. That’s the Church Jesus wants, and that’s the church I saw overseas. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but what I witnessed were brothers and sisters helping each other mature and develop, even through the growing pains. I saw people speak openly of victories God has given them and of challenges they face in the coming days. I saw a group of people thrust together by a common bond in Christ shared in a culture hostile to the Gospel. Would these people even be friends in the U.S. where we approach church with a consumer mentality? Probably not, but God united these uniquely gifted individuals to carry out His purpose and plan with circumstances that can only be attributed to His sovereign will. What I saw was God’s family, living and interacting just like a family should. Did it look like my church? No. It looked liked Jesus’ Church. My prayer is that the church I serve will one day look like the church in North Africa.