quite a lesson

In a recent devotional series we read:

Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” And there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.Genesis 12:7

 “From place to place, Abraham would build an altar to the Lord. And in between altars, he grew very rich! (Genesis 13:2) There is no biblical record, however, of Lot ever building an altar to the Lord.

 “What is an “altar” in today’s context? It is a place where you know that you have a close relationship with God.”

The author went on to give an example of a time when he was exceptionally close with God…citing the miraculous healing of a family member. He then closed with this statement:

“We have got to have this kind of relationship with God, one full of “altars” that remind us of His love, goodness and faithfulness. Let’s not live the Christian life like Lot, saved by the skin of our teeth. Let’s walk closely with God as Abraham did, and be richly blessed in every area of our lives!”

As we read this it occurred to me…that’s what each post in this series has been! I’ve built an alter to remind us of God’s love, goodness and faithfulness with each and every one.

Close on the heels of that thought came the memory of the season we hold most dear. I suppose it was inevitable that this ‘alter’ be built.

Awhile ago I told you about our first ‘evangelistic meetings‘ and what a humongous flop that turned out to be. Another lesson we learned the hard way.

Now to be perfectly honest, while our ‘show’ hadn’t exactly drawn rave reviews, it wasn’t so awful that we were forced to fold up our tent and slink away in shame either. So, we continued to attend our friend’s church and with his unfailing encouragement, we decided to approach our ‘ministry’ from a slightly different perspective.

A few members of his congregation, including two dear souls who hung in there to the bitter end of our ‘meetings’ were interested in our peculiar brand of simple Word based theology. Plus, every Sunday morning the church literally crawled with Filipino children—only three or four adults—but dozens of children.

“Where are their parents?” Dick wanted to know.

“Well, some of them have come here off and on over the years. There is a large Filipino population in this area. They are brought here every week by a couple who feel it is their ministry to pick up the community’s children and bring them to Sunday School. Sometimes it takes more than one vehicle to transport all of them. On those days there will be more adults.”

“Let’s see what we can do to get their parents here too.” Dick suggested. And with that—our excitement and enthusiasm fully inflated again—we began a new process; a process that was to make every lesson we’d learned so far seem like a preschool field trip by comparison.

In early June of 1984 Dick and our minister friend met with a few members of the Filipino community to find out what could be done to interest the adults in coming to church. By the first of July the decision was made to hold some Sunday evening services, making a special point of encouraging them to attend.

Alejo, our Filipino emissary, would interpret—some of them spoke little or no English—and Dick would teach. We would sing some psalms and hymns and study the Bible.

Or, maybe we wouldn’t!

Looking back through my notebooks, our attendance fluctuated from three (Dick, me and our friend) to twenty, then back again like a pendulum. As attendance swung, our hopes swung with it. From week to week, we never knew what to expect, but every week, with absolute dedication, Dick prepared as if he would be speaking before hundreds.

During those months of Sunday evening services, yours truly was about as helpful to have around as a headache. There were problems with my job. I wanted to be somewhere else. There were problems with my health. I was producing enough stress to create ulcer symptoms, plus a few other things. And…there were problems with my faith. I developed a pattern of running from one ‘minister’ to another looking for a magic formula that would transform us into the ‘full-time ministry’ I wanted so badly. That was the biggest problem of all.

By early October my heavenly Father had finally had enough of my looking to everyone else but him for guidance. He allowed me to experience first hand the results of looking to man rather than the Holy Spirit for instructions.

Dick and I enjoy the art and culture of the Orient. One of the men I invited to our home during my search, could supposedly tell us how it should be done. Upon entering our house this ‘minister’ was overwhelmed at the thought of our Christian home decorated with pagan images. He advised us that God would also be offended, and therefore reject any attempts on our part to serve Him.

The only solution to the problem, we were told, was to destroy every item in our home that was of pagan origin. With our permission he proceeded to pick out paintings, art objects and linens that he deemed ‘pagan’ and started to destroy them.

In our defense, the strongest desire of both our hearts was to serve the Lord. This man, this ‘minister’, not only supervised a large local charity organization, he associated with other ‘ministers’, among them some TV Evangelists that we held in high esteem at the time.

At first his demands seemed reasonable to us. That didn’t last long.

We watched in stunned silence as he heaved his four-hundred pound bulk through our living room, smashing and tearing and cursing the evil pagan spirits residing in our stuff. About ten items into that process I heard myself scream:

“Stop! I can see my earthly father tearing our home apart in a drunken rage, but my Heavenly Father would never do this!”

Needless to say my reaction put something of a crimp in the party. The ‘minister’ and his fat wife stormed out, thoroughly offended leaving dire warnings of failure and reprisal behind. Dick and I were left alone to figure out whether he’d been right or wrong!

Then, in January, through a surprising turn of events our Filipino families asked to move their Sunday meetings away from the church campus and into their living-rooms.

At that point we could see clearly why God had allowed us to experience being judged for our decorating choices rather than our hearts. If not for our earlier experience we might have been tempted to view those precious homes with less love and compassion than was needed. Fresh from our very own painful experience, we entered a world filled with the imagery of an Oriental culture, pagan artwork and non-Christian ornaments, all overpowered with love for Jesus.

Upon entering one home, the first thing to catch our attention were two-inch-high letters painted around the room at ceiling height: “BUT AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE WE WILL SERVE THE LORD. Below those letters hung beautiful carvings in teak and monkey pod, imported from the Philippines, no doubt crafted by and representative of something totally non-Christian in origin.

With tender hearts and experiential understanding we interpreted the Scripture to mean “this is WHO we are”, and the carvings to be “reminders of our homeland and culture, appreciated for their artistic value and beauty” – nothing more.

On those Sunday evenings, from July to January, we’d gotten to know the ten to twenty adults who were willing to attend “church” with us. We’d learned their names, seen their love of music and laughter, but we didn’t know these precious people yet. As we moved our meetings into their living-rooms the numbers increased rather dramatically.

“Why?” we wondered.

It seems there were many old wounds caused by ‘ministers’ and ‘churches’ in their hearts, too.

Those first six months had been a period of “We’ll try this for awhile and see what happens.”

As we worked to earn their trust and respect we heard horror stories of nine ‘ministers’ in about 15 years! They had been searching for a church, as a community, for at least that long.

One man was sent from their homeland to plant a church, leaving a wife and family behind. During his term as ‘pastor’ he married a wealthy widow from their group, then after making a sizable hole in her estate abandoned her and the church, returning to his life and his wife in the Philippines. Another ‘minister’ supported his time of service with them by selling huge amounts of insurance to the members of the congregation. The money went into his pocket and he “went away suddenly” leaving them to start over again.

At one point some of them decided to put their trust in the pastor of a local denomination. They believed him to be a man of honor. He showed them love and compassion. Unfortunately, due to religious intolerance, and probably racial prejudices, the Board of his church forced him to suggest they look elsewhere for a denomination “with a more Pentecostal theology.”

Did I say we worked to earn their trust? A more accurate assessment might be, we acted as medics – again. But this time the wounds were nearly fatal and would require much more than simple bandaging.

We were beginning to understand why so many of our lessons had been in how not to show God’s love. It almost seemed as though our Father was saying, “I’ve got a job for you. Watch carefully now. Here’s an example of what will happen if you approach it using your own insight.”

Looking back at this altar to God’s goodness and love I can hardly imagine what damage might have been done if He had not allowed us to be blessed with these lessons.

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