On Death and Glass

I once cleaned windows for a dead man.

I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when it happened. And it still grips me, even today…

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Several years ago, I was working for Brad’s Window Cleaning out of Rockford (best company I’ve ever worked for, so I am unashamedly promoting them!).  One day, we had a cleaning job for a cottage by a lake. Nothing unusual about this job; a quick exterior power washing and in/out window cleaning. Since I was the crew leader for window cleaning, I headed inside the house to begin my work.

I was greeted by a kind woman, probably in her late 60s, and later met her husband who was sitting in a recliner in front of their television. I don’t remember their names, but the impression of their personalities is engraved on my memory.

It was a lovely cottage. A brightly toned, open living room facing the lake to the East, with large peak windows that needed a ladder to reach. There was a set of French doors that led to a deck, so the whole room filled with natural light.

As with most homes by a lake, most of the window cleaning was done in one or two rooms that face the scenery. So, as I was expecting, I spent the vast majority of my time in that living room – moving my ladder around, handing screens, and moving furniture.

I got to know their family quite well, even though I don’t remember all the details. They had a recently married son who did business somewhere in the South. I believe they also had a daughter who was rather successful in her field. This couple were proud parents, and they expressed interest in getting to know me as I cleaned the dust off their sills.

The television was on most of the time, and the sound was a dull white noise to us. I recall it being Fox News, and the story of the hour was a natural disaster or political upheaval in a foreign country. Something like that.

The main thing I remember was that the conversation between us was cordial and inviting.  I actually missed them as I went to other parts of the house to finish my work.

The following year, I pulled up to their cottage in our work van, and felt excitement at doing this job once again (we had some customers who were… less than exciting to work for. But some customers were a blast to have!).  I was by myself this time, as it was a small enough job that didn’t justify more than one cleaner. I will never forget being invited in and walking into that living room; that sacred space.

This time, however, the recliner was empty. I asked, “Where is your husband?”

“He passed away.”

I remember just standing there, staring at the chair. I so clearly remembered our conversation a year earlier while he sat there, and I was dumbstruck that he would never be there again.

I don’t think I ever paid so much attention to detail as I spent that afternoon working quietly around her house. I even cleaned up the dead spiders and bug carcasses that fell on the ground as I cleaned the garage windows (If you’ve never had to clean a garage window, consider yourself blessed by God. They’re the worst!).

Sometimes, while I’m cleaning windows, I still remember those moments. I learned, then, that even minuscule tasks can be significant. Ever since that day, window cleaning was no longer my job. Window cleaning became my ministry.

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On Missions and Selfishness

A few days ago, I was talking with one of the missionaries at the compound here in Kenya. The topic of missions came up, and we began to discuss the frustrations faced by missionaries when mission teams come and give almost no thought to how their presence, words, and activities affect the local people. In fact, we concluded, many times the mission teams leave the field more damaged than how they found it (wrongfully assuming that their purpose was to ‘fix’ anything in the first place).

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This conversation reminded me of something that took place many months ago at a Missions in Action chapel service at Olivet. During this particular service, members of mission teams from the previous year were on the stage and some shared their experiences with the collected student body. As it turns out, Twitter can be quite a menacing mistress, as dozens of tweets started flying around talking about how ‘full of themselves’ these mission-trip members were, or how ‘holier than thou’ they seemed. Not only that, but many of the tweets were downright ridiculing international missions…

“What’s the point of going overseas when there are so many needs in our own area?”

“Missions trips do more harm than good.”

“They’re talking about this just to make us feel guilty.”

Etc. etc. etc.

While there were certainly tweets that were more pointed than that, and cause quite a stir between some people who were quite argumentative, there was one tweet that still sticks in my mind: “The only thing these people are talking about is what they experienced. Mission trips aren’t about you!”

It was a tweet meant to bash the people on stage who were sharing their thoughts, but it struck a chord with me that resonated with the conversation I had with the missionary a few days ago. It has me wondering if we sell missions and ministry on a faulty platform.
I think we tend to view mission trip experiences as an exercise of our holiness, or at least an event that facilitates our sanctification. We see them as avenues towards building a better tomorrow for us and the rest of the world. But what if the purpose of missions isn’t for us at all? What if the purpose of mission trip experiences was to sacrifice any benefit toward ourselves for the sake of helping those to whom we are going to minister?

I think we have bought so much into the mindset that missions is about making an investment – which out to provide a reasonable rate of return! – that we forget that the whole point of mission (and, by extension, ministry) is to give ourselves away, to forego any expectation of a reasonable rate of spiritual return, and to simply offer ourselves as servants (not workers, who at least get paid) for the Kingdom.

It irks me to no end to see members of mission teams come in and neglect even the basics of doing cross-cultural work. Sure, some mistakes can be understandable, but when ‘veteran’ workers come and even the locals become annoyed with attitudes and insulted by words and actions, it makes me wonder why on earth such people do missions work in the first place.
Taking this more to heart, I have begun to wonder if I have taken the same approach to ministry. Do I administer my ministerial duties for the sake of building my reputation? Will I commit to certain programs and themes in my future church in order to rake in more potential members, or make people feel more comfortable in my church? Will my style of pastoring be based on who I am and what I need? Or will I be the pastor who offers himself to his people regardless of any amount of personal benefit?

Before I came to Kenya, I was asked by a few people the following question: “How will going to Kenya help you be a better pastor in the States?”

I think I have the answer to that question: I am not here in Kenya to be a better pastor in the States. I am here in Kenya to be a minister in Kenya. The purpose of my time here is to love the people here, and to be obedient to what God desires of me here. I am not here for the purpose of becoming a better pastor, or to become more spiritual. Will I learn a lot that can help me as I pastor in the States? Sure! But that’s not the reason I’m here.

I am wondering, what is the reason we do what we do in the lives of others? Is it to generate a ‘God-moment’? Do we treat people like stocks, where we keep depositing our time and energy just so we can get a nice return on our investment? Or do we invest ourselves in the lives of others for the sake of others, and letting that be enough?

When we treat people like shares, and the Kingdom like the stock market, all we do is make a fool of ourselves.

Would it be okay for us if we never see the results of all of our time, energy, and resources? I think the answer to that question would reveal to us quite a lot about ourselves.

On Bait and Switch

Can I confess something with you? This might be a small thing, but it is something that has started to irritate me a little bit, and I feel the need to get it off of my chest. I am starting to get annoyed with certain Facebook posts. Now, I know we all have our own preferences on what types of Facebook posts we like or don’t like, and I’ve made mention of Facebook posts before, but this particular type of post is quite aggravating. I’m talking, of course, about what I call the ‘bait and switch’ posts.

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You all know what I’m talking about. The posts that have the eye-catching titles that seem to be communicating a summary of an article but it turns out the article says something completely different. For example, the post titled, “This Man Is Dating Someone Even Though He’s Married. Sounds Disgusting, But I’m On His Side.” [SPOILER ALERT] After reading the article, I found out that the man in question is actually ‘dating’ his wife and the article is about how married people need to be constantly pursuing their spouse. But, the title of the article draws you to conclude something entirely different than what the content of the article is. [end of spoiler alert]

There are other articles similar to this, but you know what I’m talking about. I’ve stopped clicking on them simply because I hate being tricked. I don’t trust those provocative links anymore; the one’s that shout out, “This is a different view on something and should spark controversial conversation, click on me!” I’m beginning to wonder, however, if we tend to do the same thing in our Christian lives.

I’ve been to several different churches, and I’ve read about several more. It is always amusing to me to listen to a pastor talk about how ‘hip,’ ‘different,’ or ‘loving’ his/her church is, and then when I step in the door I’m confronted with an entirely different story. The ‘hip’ church just plays a different genre of music while the people are stoic and wear jeans, the ‘different’ church is unorganized and doesn’t really communicate a coherent message, and the ‘loving’ church has a lot of hand-shakers but no one will sit next to you in the sanctuary. I will admit that this is a gross generalization, but it has happened enough that I have given up trusting what pastors have to say about their churches. Let the actions of the people in the church speak for themselves.

On a more personal note, I have come to realize that we tend to do this in our own lives. The way we act, the way we talk, and the way we treat others all communicate a message of who we are. But, do we really communicate the reality of who we are? Or are we performing our own bait and switch on people?

“I love people! (except those who think differently than I do.)”
“I’m not judgmental (unless I see you drinking alcohol)”
“Anyone is welcome into my home (but you have to nice to me first)”
“Of course I don’t look down on you (until you start talking about abortion)”

We carry around this notion of a God who loves all people and has his arms open wide to even the most vile of persons. We shout this message as loud as we can, but when someone starts to respond to this we turn the tables and assimilate them into a mindset that looks down on everyone that looks different, thinks different, and acts different than ‘we’ do. We talk about how Jesus offers forgiveness, and yet we don’t forgive. We talk about a God who hates gossip and yet we spread rumors all the time. And we talk about a church that welcomes any and all, but will shun someone if we see them in a bar.

I’ve said this before to people, and I believe it is true. If I were not born into the Christian faith, I would most likely outright reject Christianity. I look at how we talk about ‘the world’ and I see the ‘Christian’ movies we tout as being life-changing, and I honestly don’t see much that is very warm or welcoming in those.

If we’re critical of ourselves, then I think we would see that we often pull a bait-and-switch on people. The way I see it, we need to either look at ourselves objectively and realize that we are messed up people who don’t have it all together and stop trying to make ourselves seem perfect, or we need to start taking our faith more seriously and start living out what we believe (which is not intolerance, hate, and judgment as many would claim). To be fair, I think we need a little bot of both; We ought to be real with who we are and recognize that God is still working in our lives, and we should also see that we are called to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

If the Gospel is manifesting itself in our lives, then there is no need to perform some elaborate marketing campaign. Our lives becomes testimonies in themselves of who God is, and our God is a God who accepts us where we are in spite of our flaws. But, do we accept others in spite of their flaws or do we only say that?

On Dating and Marriage

The atmosphere for the message was set.  I had been worshiping with the congregation for about 20 minutes, and even though there was some awkward reverb going on, my heart was ready.  The songs, the prayers, and the readings had allowed me to focus in and hear from the Lord.

A man in a suit walked up to the pulpit to introduce the revival speaker for tonight’s service, and after he had prayed over the service in preparation for what was to come he began to introduce the man who would bring the word of the Lord to us this evening.  But then it happened…

The audio feed for Olivet’s Live Streaming  website cut-out, and I couldn’t hear anything through my headphones anymore.  Since there wasn’t even a video feed to look at, I decided to go for a drive.

The morning message was good.  Very good, in fact.  I sat with my group of fellow Preaching Ambassadors and heard how our lives shouldn’t be lived through our efforts and actions, but that God should live in and through us in a way that our lives naturally produce good fruit. (the spirit of Christ in us – holiness).  It wasn’t until my drive tonight that something began to solidify in my heart and mind.

I enjoy driving.  Especially evening driving.  The day is winding down, not many people are on the road, and there is a general calm to the world.  Not to mention the low lighting gives a sense of privacy when driving a car with no tinted windows.  Evening/night driving has always been a time of quiet reflection and prayerful thinking for me; and a time to tune in to whatever God wants to talk about.

Apparently he wanted to talk to me about relationships.  I can’t say for sure if he had ever ‘said’ anything to me overtly about this topic ever before, either because I thought relationships are too ungodly to talk about, or because I have always been oblivious to what the word actually means when it is lived out.  But this time was different.  And in a world that has so many mixed and perverted messages about dating (or courting, or whatever you want to call this period of a relationship) and marriage, it was refreshing to hear what my Heavenly Father had to say about them as they pertain to my life.

As most of my conversations with God start out, I admitted my general stupidity about a lot of things.  I don’t claim to have a corner on relationships, and even though I worded my previous paragraph a little pointedly, I could very well be mistaken in my understanding and (God forbid!) I am putting words into God’s mouth.

What if our relationships didn’t exist for the sake of the relationship?  What if we dated someone for something more than just the dating experience?  What if marriage was not an end to a means, and dating a simple ‘phase’ to get through with no inherent significance outside of engagement, which has significance only in the fact that it precedes an ultimate goal: marriage.  What if our romantic relationships existed for a purpose greater than romantic and emotional fulfillment?

The Christian life is about living in a way that points directly to God.  Holiness is about being sourced by God; not leaning on our own strength, abilities, and understanding, but being entirely dependent upon the Spirit.  After all, the ultimate purpose of a Christian is to show God’s love to the world, correct?  Living selflessly, thinking of others before ourselves, showing grace and forgiveness – these are all ways that we demonstrate who God is and how much He loves us (and all people).  And what is important to know is that we cannot live in such a way on our own, which is why we need God to live it out through us by his power, by his mercy, by his love and grace.

What has been on my heart and mind recently is this:  What if my relationships did the same thing?  What if the purpose of my relationships was not to reach an ultimate goal, or fulfill some desire, but that the purpose was to show God to the world?

This morning before the service I jotted down something in my phone, and it says:

“What if the purpose of [a] relationship is to be a means by which the love of God is communicated to the world?  Wouldn’t that force us to focus beyond ourselves, to desire to build up and support each other?  To forgive mistakes and show grace [quicker]?  To love each other more?

“What would it look like if our relationship was not about us doing all things for the sake of the relationship and constantly trying to weave God into the mix, but that it was a vessel God uses to show the world who He is by the way we treat each other?”

If that were a reality, then everything changes.  Rather than constantly looking forward to the next anniversary, engagement, marriage, and whatever other major points in a relationship, every moment becomes significant.  Dating is no longer an awkward pre-engagement phase – it has a true purpose.  engagement becomes more than wedding-planning.  Yes, there are many nuances of relationships that are complicated, but what would it look like if communicating/displaying God’s love to the world was the primary purpose behind it?

Suddenly, marriage no longer becomes a goal.  Marriages becomes a part of the overall story of the relationship.  The two people get married because they can’t not get married.  They love each other so much that they can’t not commit their lives to each other.  They love each other so much that they can’t not forgive each other.  They love each other so much that they can’t not give up themselves for each other.  And all of this is not because they inherently have an ability to love each other in such a way, but because God has loved through them.  God is so alive within each of them, and is living through each of them, that they get wrapped up in this active and vibrant display of His love.  It is not merely a story of each person loving each other, but God loving each of them through each other.

Would that create a beautiful image of God’s love for the world?

“You see this couple and how they love each other?  That is how much I love you.”

What are your thoughts?