Sunday, May 20, 2012

An Early Victory Against the Bourgeois! part 2

 My idea of the Christian life, as a truly sincere religious fanatic, is one of constant challenge and that concept I still hold to.  I wanted to take on the toughest task, to serve the most needy, to tackle the nastiest problems.  To me, that’s just the challenge of Jesus—he’s given me so much, I want to give as much as I can in return.  I was interested in becoming a missionary because that seemed to be the most challenging work in the church.  My friend Diane and I, when we were sixteen, were ready to sign up on a missionary/service ship.  We knew that it would be hard work, but we felt ready for it.  We were told to return after we were eighteen, graduated from high school and generally more mature.  I suppose if there was a list to be a martyr, I would have signed up.  “Whoa!  Ministry opportunity in Mecca!  Cool! I love religious suicide!”

I did volunteer at a Sunday school class for the developmentally disabled.  I went out with the visitation team to give the gospel to unbelievers who came to our church.  I volunteered to go every year to go to Arizona to teach a Vacation Bible School to Navajo kids.  And I volunteered to go to Mexico, to serve and teach there.

            Mexico was the first cross-cultural trip I had ever made (even before my trips to Navajo Arizona).  It was short, only over a Thanksgiving weekend, and it was organized through my youth group (which I barely kept connection with) through an organization called YUGO—Youth Unlimited Gospel Outreach.  We went through many days of orientation, in which we learned what we were to do and a number of songs in Spanish (I still love “Alabare”).  We were split into teams, each of which would go to different villages, pass out tracts in Spanish, do service for a congregation there and offer two services filled with evangelistic songs and sermons.  I suppose the main purpose of us going was the same as a congregation offering a “revival” in the United States.  Hopefully, you have something interesting (like people from another country) that would draw unbelievers into the church and then pray they get converted. This doesn’t really work anymore—if people want to experience a religious show, they can turn on the television and get more entertainment there than in a small congregation. 

            In my team, I was chosen to give one of the sermons, so I had to learn how to speak through an interpreter, and I was given a text to preach.  It was something along the lines of, “How to be Born Again” and it was very similar to the end of the Jack Chick tract I had read when I was twelve (See A Lame Odyssey, Part 2).  It wasn’t really satisfying as a message—having the spiritual maturity of a zygote— but it was a sermon, and I was excited and nervous to be a fourteen year old speaking to adults. 

            On the weekend of our ministry, we were told a bit more about the village we were visiting.  I don’t remember the name, but I clearly remember the circumstances that church was going through.  It was a Pentecostal church (see, I told you it was the Pentecostal’s turn) in the midst of—of course— a Catholic community.  Many of the men of the village would gather together and threaten those who attended the church.  One evening not long before our visit, some of the men were drunk and threw stones at the church while they were having a meeting and broke windows, disrupting the meeting.  I was stunned.  I grew up in Orange County3, California, where I had never heard of such goings on. Sure, in other countries—mission fields, right?— but I had never seen it. 

And these poor people, well, they needed encouragement.  That’s just it.  I looked again at the sermon they gave me.  I can’t preach this drivel to a suffering church!  They don’t need an evangelistic sermon!  They need to hear from God’s word about their circumstances!  As far as I was concerned, well, that was it. 

So I went to my youth leader and told him that I wanted to preach a sermon about persecution the next night.  He thought about it and decided it was a good idea.  So he approached the leadership of YUGO .  The first response he received was completely negative—“No!  We must have Control over what these kids say!  If we let him come up with his own sermon, who knows what he would say!  And besides No One Has Ever Done This Before  Absolutely not!”    (I’ve heard that a lot.  I think that some people have bracelets around their wrists that read NOHEDTB.  Those folks are constantly seeing a triple six on my forehead.)  In my humble, even-handed way, I also determined that I COULD NOT preach the sermon they gave me to these suffering people.  They needed a real teaching.

My poor youth pastor.  Trapped between two stubborn, religious prigs.  He said he would take care of it, and that I needed to focus on writing the sermon if that was going to be done.  He was as good as his word.  The leadership said that I could preach a sermon on persecution, if they saw it ahead of time.  So it was time to focus on writing it.  Outside the church in San Diego we were staying in, I sat on the steps, opened my Bible and prepared.  My bible, at that time, was (warning: prepare yourself for technical lingo here) a New American Standard Open Bible.  What was significant in this is that it had (more technical lingo ahead) a Biblical Cyclopedic Index.  In other words, it is a subject index of the Bible.  This is just what the neophyte preacher needs!  I looked up “persecution” in the index, and found a brief but interesting section on that subject.

It had two sub-topics: “Persecution, caused by;” and “Persecution, Christian’s attitude under.”  After that was a single reference under “Persecution Psalm.”  Looking at this list today, it seems pretty paltry compared to the depth and multitude of texts that deal with persecution, especially in the New Testament.  But for a first time speaker, fundamentally ignorant of Biblical themes, I was pleased with the number of texts.  Plenty for me to work with. 

But this list was disappointing, in that my purpose was to encourage the persecuted believers, while the far majority of texts listed focused on the cause of the persecution.  I think the church in this situation knew the cause of the suffering they were under.  They needed to know what God had in store for them because of their suffering.  Ah, well, beggars can’t be choosers and I only had so many hours to write the sermon—and to sleep!

            On a number of sheets of paper I wrote out my sermon in my printed scribble.  I passed it on to my youth pastor who passed it on to the Powers That Be, who reluctantly approved it.  The next evening I prepared to preach my first sermon at fourteen years old. 

            Today, I wish I had the text of my sermon.  I know it primarily consisted of me explaining the texts I found in the Biblical Cyclopedic Index, as best I could.  My principle then, and it hasn’t changed much since then, is to do little more than to say what the text says, as simply as I can, while opening up the core of the meaning to those listening.   Since my purpose here was to encourage, I suspect that part of my sermon sounded kind of like this:

            “Matthew 5:12—‘Rejoice and be glad for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets before you.’ Jesus has a special promise to those who are persecuted.  If you are suffering for Jesus, then you can be assured of this: you will gain all the best that heaven has to offer.  Perhaps now things look grim, and you feel like you want to give up.  But in the end, Jesus is preparing for you a reward which you cannot imagine.  Yes, now things look difficult, and the world is stubbornly, fiercely against you, but someday soon Jesus will exchange all of this suffering for a joy that will never be extinguished.  The promise you receive right now from Jesus is greater than the sufferings you are enduring for only a short time.”  Well, something like that, anyway.

            After the service was over, one of the men of the congregation came up to me, shook my hand, smiled and said through the interpreter: “Someday you will be a great preacher.”  I spent many hours trying to decide if that smile was patronizing or sincere.  At the same time, perhaps he was wondering if my sermon was naïve or just handed to me from someone else.  

3. Okay, yes, so you know now.  I grew up in Orange County.  The “OC” (gag).  Let me tell you, growing up there in the 70s and early 80s—sure, it was suburbia, but it wasn’t the hotbed of economic prestige and teen angst/lust.  Look, if you want to make fun of me because I grew up as a suburbanite, fine.  But don’t think that I grew up super-rich or spoiled.  Well, perhaps a little.  More about that later.

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