Free buffet! / Giant Easter Egg Hunt! / 3,000 Eggs! / Burma-Shave!

American Readers of a “certain age” will remember the iconic Burma-Shave advertisements that lined the two lane highways across America for decades.

For those who don’t remember, Burma-Shave, the maker of men’s brushless shaving cream, put up numerous multi-sign advertisements with poetic ditties that drew everyone’s attention.  As Wikipedia explains: typically, six consecutive small signs would be posted along the edge of highways, spaced for sequential reading by passing motorists. The last sign was almost always the name of the product. The signs were originally produced in two color combinations: red-and-white and orange-and-black, though the latter was eliminated after a few years. A special white-on-blue set of signs was developed for South Dakota, which restricted the color red on roadside signs to official warning notices. This use of a series of small signs, each of which bore part of a commercial message, was a successful approach to highway advertising during the early years of highway travel, drawing the attention of passing motorists who were curious to learn the punchline. Some of the signs featured safety messages about speeding instead of advertisements.

The messages were clever:

  • Train approaching / Whistle squealing / Stop / Avoid that run-down feeling / Burma-Shave
  • Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave

I thought someone was bringing back the Burma-Shave signs when I saw a sequence of three messages out front of a church the other day: April 5 / Free Breakfast Buffet / 10 a.m. No mention of the occasion, just an announcement about a free dinner.

Then there was the large sign erected in front of a church in the next county over that read: Gigantic Easter Egg Hunt, 10 a.m., April 4, 3,000 eggs!

At least this one mentioned the holiday.

It looks like another holiday is going the way of Christmas trees, flashing lights, consumerism, and Santa Claus.

Today it’s “Spring” Break, Easter parades, chocolate bunnies and 3,000 eggs along with a free breakfast buffet.

Oh yes, it’s also Easter Sunday—just to set the record straight.

Would that we could recapture the overwhelming excitement of those early days of the church following the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

The writers of the earliest accounts reported as fact, with no doubt, that Jesus had risen: When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. (Mark 16:9); Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. (Mark 16:12); Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. (Mark 16:14)

The Apostle Paul summarized the record which so enthused the early Christians:  Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (First Corinthians 15: 1-7)

At our church in Costa Rica one year we emphasized the resurrection by greeting each other with the words: “He is risen,” “He is risen, indeed!”

Those words were the affirmation of the earliest Christians as a positive statement of belief that Jesus had risen. That’s why we Christians worship on Sunday, to celebrate each week the resurrection of our Lord.

Much more powerful than a gigantic hunt for 3,000 eggs.

During our years in Ecuador we got to know a number of people from the Otavalan Indian community. These Quichua (and Spanish)-speaking descendants of the Incas had only been evangelized for about 20 years before we knew them and we occasionally worshipped in their Quito church.

I remember asking my Otavalan friend Pablo one year what he and his family planned to do for Christmas. “On Christmas Eve,” he told me, “we will play some soccer after work, and then eat dinner. After that we’ll go to church and worship.”

“What about Christmas day?” I queried.

“We’ll go to church in the morning, and then we’ll come home and eat dinner. In the afternoon we’ll play some soccer.”

What else, I wondered. “Nothing else,” he responded. “Just celebrate the birth of Jesus.”

No decorated trees, no blinking lights, no stuffed stocking, no frantic last-minute shopping, no Christmas cards and letters.

Just a little soccer, fellowship with family and fellow believers around the table, and worshiping God for his incredible gift of Jesus Christ.

These fledgling Christians have it right, Christmas or Easter. Focus and celebrate and proclaim the essential.

He is Risen! He is risen, indeed!

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A first-line source for help a long way from home

Businesses, organizations and the military which send employees abroad often don’t realize the tremendous pressure and cost that these people and their families pay to live far away from home.

While some have initiated cultural adjustment programs, most are at a loss when it comes to dealing with an employee or family member who doesn’t adapt well, falls into depression, or whose work and status may be threatened by family problems, the breakup of a marriage, or the inability of children to adapt to a new location.

Several recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and the WSJ Expat Blog highlight the stresses and pressures that expats find as they move from place to place around the globe.  Divorce is high on the list of those whose marriages may already have experienced problems which are exacerbated by the move to another culture so far from the normal support systems at home.

What many expats and their employers may not realize is that help is readily available in most major international cities where expats are posted.

Just as back home, the pastors and priests of local churches provide the first line of counseling and support for those experiencing personal problems of almost any kind.

And, for those expats who speak English, that first-line help can be found at the more than 1,000 international, English-language churches that are situated close to the expat communities around the world.

Just like back home, most of the pastors of these unique congregations have been trained in qualified seminaries or Bible colleges, and their course of study included classes in counseling, psychology, marriage and family issues and other helpful topics.

Several years ago, The Nation in Bangkok reported that with the passing of the Great Recession, more companies were expected to send employees abroad. But, the newspaper reported, not all international moves were successful.

I wrote an article about that, including the following observations:

The Talent Mobility Study by Towers Watson, a New York City-based global professional services company, warned that assignment failures among expats can largely be attributed to job performance issues and family or personal situations.

The most common reason given for an assignment failure by Asian companies was the assignee’s family (53%) while among U.S. companies family issues ranked second (52%) after job performance problems (68%).

The newspaper reported that “Asian-headquartered companies identify the employee’s inability to adapt to the host country’s culture, language barriers and inadequate infrastructure (healthcare/schools) in the host country as significant causes of assignment failures as well.”

But, the report continued, most companies do not evaluate an employee’s family situation when selecting candidates for international assignments, nor do they often provide support for the family as a means of minimizing assignment failures. Only 15 percent of U.S. companies and 14 percent of Asian companies take those situations into consideration.

The report concluded that companies need to develop innovative solutions and approaches to address the challenges.

Many international churches already offer that kind of support to expats, whether business people, diplomats, NGO workers, educators, missionaries or others living overseas.

“Every Fall, when most of our new folks arrive, we have a several week Welcome to Beijing program following our Sunday services,” said Pastor Mark Blair who serves as the pastor of the 600-member Zhong Guan Cun daughter church of the Beijing (China) International Christian Fellowship. “This is a sit down in a circle, have a coffee, sharing time with long-term residents who are church leaders. Often the chat time follows with going to lunch together in a near-by restaurant.” 

Mr. Blair said the church also produces a Welcome to Beijing booklet with language tips, maps, lists of restaurants, government offices, and other information that would be of interest to new expatriate residents.

There is what Blair called a “great economic boom” in China which has led to an increase in expats there in recent years. He also attributed the expansion to an interest in helping the growing church in China and the “generous amount of scholarships given by China to students from all over the world.”

The Rev. Scott Herr, pastor of the American Church in Paris (France), where 700 people worship each Sunday, uses a similar methodology. “We have been offering an orientation course to life in Paris called Bloom Where You’re Planted for the past 40-some years,” he said. “We also publish a book that is a survival kit encyclopedia of helpful information.”

Rev. Herr said that his church doubled in membership in recent years primarily by adding a third worship using contemporary music.

In Santiago, Chile, Pastor Samuel A. Mateer also reports growth in the expat population propelled by “the demand on copper from China and India which means the mining industry has great demand for management level and above workers.”

“Our women spend time at the grocery stores listening for English spoken and at international women´s groups, looking for ways to help the new ladies adapt to their new culture,” Mr. Mateer reported. “They invite them to church and to the women´s Bible studies to give them a sense of being loved.”

“They provide them someone who can talk their language and understand what they are facing with a maid they cannot talk to, a husband extremely busy, and a school with new demands,” the pastor explained.

Rev. Mateer said that at his 100 member San Marcos International Church (a Presbyterian congregation), “We lose one third of the congregation each year due to transfer in business and new postings with the U.S. embassy.”

Jimmy Martin, an elder of the International Christian Fellowship in Oberursel (Frankfurt), Germany, affirmed the role of church women in helping expat spouses adapt to living in another country. “Finding a ‘home away from home’ in a loving group of women who understand many of your own challenges is a tremendous help to moms and wives,” he said. Mr. Martin is also the General Secretary of the International Baptist Churches, an association of Baptist congregations in 27 countries.

Many overseas churches integrate cultural adaptation and expat issues into their regular weekly activities. Small groups, parenting and cross-cultural support ministries, counseling, language training and prayer groups all form a strong component of support for those who struggle with the issues of living and functioning well in a different culture. Many pastors also address those issues in sermons and study groups.

The International Church of Bangkok, Thailand, is one example where expatriate concerns are a natural part of its many ministries. “We address all these areas comprehensively and holistically through our worship and small groups ministries,” explained Stewart Perry, the pastor of the 300 member congregation.

Among other issues frequently reported by pastors of expat churches are loneliness, culture shock, language-learning struggles, bureaucratic hassles and homesickness.

Hopefully, those involved with placing employees outside of their home countries will be alerted by the WSJ story and will provide them with information concerning the international churches which can be of great service to expat workers whether they are Christians or not.

It has been my privilege to serve as a pastor of eight international churches in six countries in Latin America, Europe and Central Asia.


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Let’s Do Lunch

Polly and I have been hosting international students from the University of West Georgia in our home for dinner and conversation.

At our latest gathering we asked who the students would most like to meet someday for lunch. They could include anyone, living or dead. The answers were interesting—Nelson Mandela, President Jimmy Carter, President Obama, Pope John Paul II and others.

The discussion got me to thinking about who I would like to meet—who are my heroes from whom I might learn something. Of course, some of the well-known personalities, including many on the list above, would provide a stimulating and insightful lunch companion.

But as I think about people that I have met and others I would like to meet, most are not among those whose name would be readily recognized by daily newspaper readers. They are, instead, people whose quiet, unassuming nature hides their incredible commitment to the Lord and magnificent accomplishments for His kingdom.

Take Nancy Writebol. (Disclosure—she and her husband relocated to Ecuador to expand a fledgling Bible Study Fellowship group that Polly and another friend had worked to start in Quito. We met both of them briefly, but returned to the United States shortly thereafter.)

I was amazed to watch her recent appearance on NBC as she and her husband David talked about their return to Liberia—the country and the work where she contracted an almost fatal bout of Ebola.

There is something unique about folks like the Writebols and so many others who have given their talents, time, even their lives to serve people in some remote and often dangerous part of the world. We know that historically missionaries to Africa took a coffin with them, knowing that they would never return alive.

What is inspiring is that people today still go to places of danger and challenge and fulfillment to serve the Lord.

I was deeply touched by Nancy’s comments in a Christianity Today interview last year:

I always felt safe going. I trusted the Lord that we were the hands and feet of Christ. I had experienced Christ’s peace way before I ever contracted Ebola. [After I got sick,] my relationship with the Lord deepened, knowing he was in control. He was in control of what was happening, and it was not a surprise to God. He has our days numbered.

Even more amazing, and challenging, were her comments in that same article about the possibility of returning to Liberia after her health improved:

Liberia is where God called us. We truly care about our West African brothers and sisters and what they are experiencing. We went to a Liberian church and had fellowship with them. Being part of the body of Christ was a blessing for us. We were at the ELWA compound, where the hospital was as well as the radio station and school. There was a church there—not the church that we attended, we attended one of the Liberian churches in the community and so were able to get to know people within the community better too.

It’s a spiritual issue. We’re living in a spiritual battle for people’s lives and for people to come to know Christ as their Savior.

There is something even more thought-provoking about people like the Writebols and the involvement of Christian organizations in serving the needs of the poor. According to Mrs. Writebol: Samaritan’s Purse and SIM were the only ones providing services to Ebola patients in Foya and Monrovia from early June until early August. 

While it took the eventual intervention of the United Nations and the U.S. military to attack such a massive epidemic, it is significant that the original outreach, at least in parts of Africa, was carried out only by Christian organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse and SIM.

In a chaotic world beset by social unrest and intense conflict between world views as well as increasing warfare aimed at bringing down the Christian foundations of our society, it is well to remember that people like the Writebols and thousands of others since the time of Christ have formed and secured the foundations of our society and given us the moral basis for the development of our civilization.

The Guardian newspaper recently observed that just about the only remaining basis of moral authority is the church (and by implication, the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ.)

In an op-ed piece, a writer came to the defense of the church on a current social issue—a stance that had been criticized by those who cast aspersions on the influence of the Christian church.

The writer said: What has moved Anglican leaders to write is the distressing condition of so many of the people that the church encounters in its daily ministry – living, increasingly, in a society of strangers, as the leaders would say, often lonely, uncertain about the prospects of a career or to what extent the social bargain will help them out. The Church of England is one of the last few institutions in touch, through its parishes, with the entire country. Before a general election whose result will be fateful for state and society alike, the bishops feel compelled to spell out the need for politics to recover the language and conviction of serving the common good.

This is inconvenient for our political leaders. The majority of the country may no longer have faith, but those who lead the church do – and they remind the rest of us of our forgotten Christian roots.

The Christian quest for “at-oneness”, they argue, with each other and God, can only be achieved in a spirit of respect, neighbourliness and a mutual search for the common good….The bishops are a last redoubt of moral authority that insists on the primacy of a public realm that serves the common good. None of the ministerial responses spoke the language of common good, or even accepted it as a premise for political action.

The bishops cite Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians as an inspiration that should bind believers and non-believers. “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” They long, they say, for a more humane society that reflects Saint Paul’s injunction – a better politics for a better nation. Amen, you might say, to that.

I found it encouraging for this writer to recognize the church as a moral force in our society. Indeed, it has been that for 2,000 years (read some of the work of Christian sociologist Rodney Stark to further explore that idea.)

As we live in an era of severe criticism of Christianity and the church, we can be heartened by the recognition of our faith’s influence on society and the self-sacrificing dedication of people such as the Writebols.

I hope I can have lunch with them some day.

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Two words

There are two words that I never want to hear used together.

They are “quick” and “prayer.”

As in: “Let’s have a quick prayer and we’ll dismiss.” Or, “We’ll have a quick prayer and get started.”

I would suggest that “quick prayers” are basically a formality with which to open or close a meeting, a worship service or some other event. They are perfunctory, shallow and generally accompany the putting away of papers and books and the shuffling to find the car keys.

Prayer, properly done, is anything but quick. Not that prayer needs to be long, drawn out, boring or rambling. Those aren’t necessarily much better.

But prayer, genuine prayer, genuinely conversing with God, is sharing our deepest thoughts, emotions and desires. Prayer is exploring who we are and who God is. Prayer is expressing our adoration of almighty God, our praise for all that the Lord has done for us, our thanksgiving for His faithfulness and love, our appreciation for his forgiveness and his life and death for our salvation, our requests that he will continue to make himself known to us, our confession of our shortcomings and failures, our petitions for our own faithfulness and devotion, and our requests for purity and service.

You can’t do all or any of that quickly. It just doesn’t happen.  It won’t.

When Polly and I talk; when we really talk and share, it takes time. It happens over the meal table, or on a long drive, or in the evening as we are winding down the day. We talk, we appreciate, we question, we explore, we confess, we commit.

Of course, we have those occasional bursts of short communication. “Don’t forget to pick up the milk.” “Could you please bring me another cup of coffee?” “See you later.”

Those brief messages communicate. Sometimes we use code that has developed between us over more than 50 years. But, those bursts of rapid communication work only because we have spent half a century communicating frequently and in depth.

There are those times when we and God can communicate with a so-called “quick” prayer. But those short bursts of prayer will only truly communicate between us and God if we have spent substantial time in deep, heart-felt prayer in the privacy of our homes and in the middle of our worship.

Just the term “quick prayer” communicates shallowness and a lack of sincere communication with God. It indicates a rush to do something else, perhaps seemingly more important, than to spend time in prayer with the Lord. It demonstrates a stronger interest in getting home to the TV or on to the next event than in spending time expressing ourselves to Him.

If we are not communicating in depth, then the “quick” prayers that we use to open and close meetings are nothing more than procedural functions. Certainly, they do not facilitate any kind of quality communication with our Lord.

So, when we pray, whether at length in the quiet of devotions, at the beginning or end of a meeting or in a worship service, let’s really pray, communicate, appreciate, trust and believe in Him who knows the desires of our hearts and in His compassion and love hears and answers all of our prayers.

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