There it was again yesterday. The reality that tomorrow is not promised to any of us. 2017 has been a year of instruction on that fact from experiencing our Uncle Gene’s sudden passing, to an attempt by a close relative to take their own life, to the head-on collision and shocking death of a ministry leader I worked right alongside, to another head-on collision in Morgan Hill at 5:30am yesterday morning ending the life of decorated CHP officer James Branik, and brother of a dear friend. I knew James personally, and to visit the house of mourning yesterday, with CHP vehicles coming and going, family stopping in, and tears flowing ,you just felt the upheaval of life ending – abruptly. Today my plea to God is for Jan, and Jill and Gina, the wives of all these men who passed too soon and too ahead of “their time” in my opinion. Grief of this kind sinks into your bones and almost makes you sick. How I pray that God’s “peace that surpasses all understanding” spoken about in Scripture will not be a theory, but their reality today as they grieve.
King Solomon rightly observed in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” In the original Hebrew language it more literally reads, “Breath of breaths. All of life is but a breath.” In other words, life is but a puff of smoke. Life goes by really quickly and we don’t know when our days in this life will end. That’s why Solomon makes this important observation that I’m trying to take to heart this morning, “I know that there is nothing better . . . than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.” Ecclesiastes 3: 12-14 There are people in my life who I need to tell “I love you” today. There are people in my life I need to tell about the glorious hope of eternity with Jesus today. There are steps I need to keep taking to seek reconciliation in broken relationships because I don’t know how many days I have left. Let’s walk out that reality today because today could be it.
In 2001 there was this book named “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” I didn’t read it, and I don’t really know what it’s about, but I do know how to look at Wikipedia which is always accurate – right? According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the book was a coming of age story where this pair of pants that was shared between a wide set of girlfriends, and the pants served as “a symbol of the girls’ unique bond.” I don’t have a pair of traveling pants, but we do have a sort of sisterhood/brotherhood of the traveling refrigerator.
Two years ago we bought this mini refrigerator for our daughter when she went away for her first year in college. That little two foot friend held all of her snacks and drinks as she made her way through her first, significant, freshman year in college at Asuza Pacific University. The next year she didn’t need it, so we shared it with her cousin when she started her first year in college at Point Loma University. Now this week we’re handing it off to our adoptive nephew as he begins his freshman year at UC Davis. I was looking at this traveling refrigerator this morning as it sat in my garage, waiting to go to its next college home, and I smiled at the generosity of God in my life. God is the one who made it possible for my daughter to go to college. He made it possible for us to give her a mini refrigerator in our her dorm. Long ago, all I had in my dorm were my clothes and my Samsonite luggage. God made it possible for us to share that refrigerator with our extended family, and He made it possible for us to be so surrounded by so many great people in our lives who love us and who we love so much in return. I know it’s just a refrigerator, but that traveling refrigerator is one more reason for me to be so incredibly grateful to God for the outpouring of His undeserved goodness. Do you have anything like that in your life – something you can look at and be reminded of God’s underserved kindness to you?
I thought I’d share this video telling the story about a pastor friend of mine here in Santa Cruz named Brandon Johnson who pastors at Gatherings by the Bay. His story is a great picture of how God likes to use His people. It also reveals the bigger picture of what God did through the work of our local church as we partnered with Brandon and other churches to give financial help during a very dark moment in our city. I think you’ll be encouraged and inspired.
We did it once again for the fifth year straight. A whole chunk of people from Faith Community Church took over the Sequoia group camp site at Big Basin and camped out for the weekend. It’s become such a high point of people’s lives that we have some people willingly coming to camp even though it’s their birthday, and for some their wedding anniversary. All we do is hang out around a fire, let the kids rumble through the forest, eat, hang out, eat some more, hang out, hear each other’s stories and get to know people more than we did before. I feel like every time I camp I’m experiencing something of the un-rushed rhythm of heaven.
I have tons of favorite moments from my time with the lovely people of Faith Community Church but I think my happiest moment was when I was talking to a 5th grade boy. This young man has had a rough beginning to life. He and his brother came through the foster care system, and though he’s been adopted into a fantastic, loving family, he’s had a hard time settling into feeling safe. He’s opened up his heart to Jesus as a result of our Kids Community ministry, but it’s still been a tough road for him and his adoptive family. I don’t know why but I truly believe God’s going to use this young man in a powerful way in his future. So on Saturday night, this boy came up to talk with me. We chatted and then I put my hands on both of his shoulders, looked into his eyes and said, “Buddy I want you to hear this clearly. I truly believe that God is going to use you to reach out and help many people who have had it as hard as you have had it in your life. Remember that.” He bowed his head to the ground, then looked up at me and said, “I love you Andy.” How easy it was for me to say, “I love you too buddy, and I really mean what I just said.” Definitely a cool moment for both of us!
Over the last bunch of years, as the American church has emphasized church growth, many American Christians have arrived at asking a particular question as part of their internal dialogue when assessing a church. The elephant-in-the-room question has become, “Doesn’t being small mean something is missing or even wrong?” In the same way we completely overlook the potentially much better no-named laundry detergent on aisle 5 because it’s on the bottom shelf with only one row of bottles, and we assume the new and improved Tide is the “best” because the rest of aisle 5 is loaded with unending rows of it right at our eye level, in that same way we tend to do this same thing when we look at small churches. We’re pretty well-trained to think: small = lacking, and big = significant.
So I decided to do some digging around. You see, I read about these influential early church congregations in the book of Acts – churches like Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi – and because of my “bigger is better” grid, I find myself assuming these churches had to have a healthy size attendance, or what church people call “critical mass.” You know, they had to have had some critical mass of 250 or 300 or more congregants. What I actually discovered is quite interesting.
Recent archeological digs have discovered a meeting room of the Lullingstone Villa house church in Kent, England (built during the Roman occupation) that measured approximately 15’ x 21’. By modern standards this would seat about 50 people. In addition, an examination of floor plans in Pompeii shows typical atriums measuring 20’ x 28’. This would seat between 60 and 80 people.The ESV Study Bible notes that early Christian churches “met in homes . . . There is extensive archaeological evidence from many sites showing that some homes were structurally modified to hold such churches.” One such modified home known to host a church was found in Dura-Europos, Syria. It could, according to the archaeologists who excavated it, seat 65 to 70 people. [Graydon Synder, Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1991), p. 70.] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor measured six homes in Pompeii and Ephesus and found the average atrium size to be 797 square feet. [Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Saint Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), p. 18] This would seat around 100 people. It seems as though what we define as “small churches” were very much the vitalized size of influential congregations that met in these Roman villas during the first and second centuries. Oh, and as first century congregations grew, they did not erect bigger and bigger buildings – they planted new churches.
So I have one word for all of us who still wonder,“Doesn’t being small mean something is missing or even wrong?” My word is – Stop. Just – stop. The size of a church does not automatically equate with something being wrong or missing.
I’m sitting here on a Labor Day morning having a little wrestling match inside of myself. Should I come up with a very evocative title and write something funny about some life experience of mine, if I can remember one worth writing? Should I make some bold statement about one of the current issues of our time? The analytics of my blog hosting site tell me that I get the most hits when I do either of those two things. So if I want as many readers as I can get today that’s what I need to do. My problem is I that can’t think of any funny stories about my life, and I’m just not creative enough this morning to make some bold statement about current events. My other problem is that I started writing this blog as a way of being honest about my human condition and my experience of God. Sometimes that gets me readers, other times – not so much. So do I go for the readers or stay true to why I even started writing this blog? I think I’m going to stay true to why I write this blog and simply admit that I don’t have any big thing to say today that’s all that interesting or evocative. All I have to say is that I’m grateful to be alive, experiencing God’s grace in my life, and enjoying a day off with family and friends. You can’t always be interesting.
“The local church is the Gospel made visible.” – Mark Dever
If I may, I’d like to add a further idea to Mark’s hope-filled insight. “The local church is the Gospel made visible” – OR NOT. The local church carries so much potential that I can look at its existence with a sense of hope. At the same time, it is sobering to consider how much of a problem a local church can be when it fails to make the Gospel visible.