Today I Saw God
There were six rows of benches on either side of the aisle. Each bench sat four people, which meant our United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team took up 25 percent of the space. It was Wednesday evening, and we were at a United Methodist church in Manajanabo in the center of Cuba. It was their midweek service, and it was packed.
There was music, drama, reading from the Bible and songs sung by so many different people. Five small children came up, one playing a ukulele, and sang a song with such joy. A young girl sang and though I didn't understand many of the words, I knew in my heart that she was praising and worshiping God. Even one of our mission team members sang a song. It was a wonderful, joy-filled praise and worship experience. The pastor talked about serving and the importance of serving. She talked about the sacrifice we made to come to Cuba, "leaving their homes and their families to come here."
At the end of the service the pastor invited a family up to the front of the church. It was a mother and her eight children. Apparently their dad had left them. Our UMVIM team leader, Aldo, was invited to pray over them. He did and then he sang too.
I was so struck by the love and nurture I saw in this church. They had such deep love of God and an equally deep love for one another. This small band of Christians was committed to taking care of this family, and in that "one anothering," the love of Christ was palpable.
I saw this deep love of God and of others over and over again all over Cuba. Love for one another. Christian community. The joy of fellowship. Genuine love of God. What I saw in Cuba reminded me of what I read about in Acts 2:42-47. The early church was a close-knit community that took care of one another. The Bible tells us they were "devoted to teaching and to fellowship…They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had needThey broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God."
The church in Cuba is growing, just like the church in the first century grew. Acts tells us that "The Lord added to their number daily." Something is happening in Cuba. Something that the early church knew and something we could learn from. There is power when people come together to love God and love others.
It's a funny thing to work on a church staff.You see trends ebb and flow. You see people join the church. You see people dig deep into their spiritual lives. You see the transformation that comes with surrendering yourself to God.
On the other hand, you see people leave the church. You see people burn out or "give up" on God. You see the full range of human emotions.
I attended a memorial service at the church a couple weeks ago.As I sang "Amazing Grace" with those that gathered to celebrate this person's life, I couldn't help but think about the status of the Christian church today.
The church stands in a world of love and hatred. The church stands in a world of poverty and excess. The church stands in places of utter sorrow and in places of immense joy. Sometimes the church stands in the right place. Sometimes, it doesn't. One only has to read history books to see the ups and downs of the church and its people.
When you read the news and the surveys today about the state of religion in America, it's easy to see that the church as a whole is declining rapidly. Some blame it on what they see as the perceived hypocrisy of Christians. Others blame it on access to other, more exciting weekend activities. And some blame it on the rise of the "spiritual but not religious." Many more people today just no longer believe.
In Portland, Oregon right now, the worldwide United Methodist Church is gathering to determine what the future looks like for the denomination. If you read the news about this conference, uncertainty abounds in so many ways.
Uncertainty abounds. That's actually a good way to view our world today.
I would say that over the next year "uncertainty abounds" might be my mantra. One only has to look at the politics surrounding the current presidential elections to have an understanding of the stress and anxiety that we face as a nation.
Uncertainty is our lives on a daily basis.
Today, there are some people trying to figure out how to take care of an aging parent. Today, another family is a week late for their month's rent. Today, a person you know may be battling depression or another troubling situation.
Uncertainty abounds. In my life and in yours. So very much of it is out of our hands. And yet, I have hope.
Despite the uncertainty that life throws our way, I am hopeful in a future of God's kingdom. It's not because I have a greater insight into the nature of God. It's not because I pray harder or know the Bible better than others.
I am hopeful because of what I read in Scripture about God's faithfulness and because of what I've experienced.
I am hopeful because of the life-changing work that Christians are doing around the world and in our community.
I am hopeful because despite my flaws, I am loved and forgiven.
I am hopeful because there is grace.
I am hopeful because, like Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
So, uncertainty abounds. But hope does too. And for that, my mantra will need to change. "Hope abounds" works better for me.
It's an odd thing, to work in a church. In addition to interacting with my co-workers on a daily basis, one of the things I enjoy the most is the opportunity to interact with the people of the church and the people of the community that come into the church on a daily basis. One of the things that people who do not hang around a church during the week might not realize is that the church is a busy place, even when it's not Sunday. People are always coming in and out. When you have worked at the church as long as I have, you begin to notice the people and the patterns. There is a certain comfort to the faces you see each day.
There are the preschool families. Most preschool parents pick up their kids through the kiss-and-ride line, but there are some that park and walk their kids in. Several times a day, we get to see children walking with their parents, eager to start the day or, if it's the end of the day, eager to tell their parent all about the day's activities. These children start out as tiny 2-year-olds, and three short years later, they are big 5-year-olds. I only see them for about 30 seconds each day as they walk by the office windows, but they grow up so fast.
Then there are the small group attenders. Throughout the week there are several Small Groups that meet at the church. Each week the members of the Small Group trickle in alone and hurry to their group. When the class is over, they walk much slower, usually in pairs or groups, talking to each other and catching up about life. It's not unusual to find a group of friends talking in the parking lot, using every last second to spend time with each other. Some of these groups have been meeting for years. I've heard stories of how these group members have cared for each other when someone was sick or helped out when someone needed extra support.
Finally there are the volunteers. Even after all my years of working in the church, I'm still amazed at the generosity of the volunteers. We have volunteers who serve in the office on a weekly basis, faithfully coming in each week to help. These volunteers are vital members of our team. They provide much needed assistance. There are the volunteers that come in to serve for various ministries. For example, every Tuesday, a team of volunteers cooks a meal in the church kitchen and then delivers the meal to individuals living along the Rt. 50 corridor without homes. When I leave work on Tuesday, I can count on there being a delicious aroma coming from the kitchen. There are also volunteers that help prepare the Sanctuary for worship each week. They check the candles, walk the pews and make sure everything looks good before Sunday. There are volunteers that answer phones, volunteers that print the bulletins, volunteers that stuff the bulletins; there are so many volunteers that I could write an entire blog post solely on the volunteers that come in during the week. I'm so grateful for these volunteers.
In addition to the regulars that come in and out of Floris, perhaps the ones that touch my heart the most are the people who come into the church for a specific visit. Sometimes it's a newly engaged couple coming to meet with a pastor about their upcoming wedding. You can usually spot them by the big sappy grins on their faces. Sometimes it's a mom with a new baby coming by to show off the new baby to the staff. Sometimes people are there for a more somber reason: a funeral. No matter what kind of day I'm having at work, I always take a moment to pause and pray for the family and friends on days when there is a funeral at the church. Many times I'm not familiar with the person who died and so I don't attend the funeral, but it's a strange thing to operate like business as usual, when just a few rooms away, a group of people is having one of their hardest days.
In a few weeks, I will be transitioning to a new job. I won't be working at a church anymore. For ten years, my office building has been the spiritual home for so many. That will all change in a few weeks. I'm excited about the new opportunities that are in front of me, but there are definitely things that I will miss. I will miss the people. I will miss the dedication, the heart and the love that people have for their church. I will miss seeing that every single day.
The one thing you realize when you work in a church is that the church is not about the building. The church is truly made of people. The people are the ones that care for each other. The people are the ones being the hands and feet of Jesus. A building, no matter how nice it is, cannot provide that.