I was in Turkey last week. My body still thinks I am there. My mind is definitely still there. It was a difficult pilgrimage in some ways. But it was a very stimulating one in almost every way.
For the first week, Gwen, my dears friends, and I fulfilled a long-held vision of taking one of the famous sailing cruises through the Aegean. I had very little idea of what I was getting into, especially since I let my friend do most of the planning. When I showed up in Bodrum, I met the people with whom I would be sleeping and eating on our little boat: two Belgians, four Dutch, two South Africans, four Americans, including me, and four Turkish crew members. They were nice people.
What I want to tell you about today is the small experiences I had of introducing myself to people whose English leaves a little bit lost in translation. Being the pastor of Circle of Hope is odd enough in the religion-saturated United States. Explaining it to the post-Christian Belgians and Dutch is even odder.
The bad news church
For instance, my now-new-Belgian-Facebook-friend was very puzzled about my very existence. In Belgium the national government still owns the church buildings for the state-subsidized religious groups. My new friend was very interested (as a former mayor) that the people of my congregation actually pool their money to support my work. Belgium is still highly influenced by the Catholic church, even though in 1967 about 42% of the population attended mass weekly and now it is only about 5%. My friend was also a bit shocked that I was married. When the subject of church came up, the first thing she had to talk about was celibacy! She was very concerned about the sex life of priests, since there has been a major sexual abuse scandal in Belgium for the last several years. I was meeting another person telling me the bad news about the church.
I think we forget that people are not necessarily antagonistic toward faith in Jesus; they really have no idea about faith in Jesus. They think it is about connecting to the bad news church. It is hard to imagine an intelligent person in Belgium signing up for the state-sponsored Catholic Church, run by deviant, politically-savvy priests holding meetings in empty, historic buildings. The only “issue” my friend had to offer when religion came up in our conversation was about celibacy! How unusual that I can have a wife! A sexually-active being, serving a community that supports his leadership — revolutionary!
More poignant, perhaps, was my small conversation with a Dutch passenger. She had some Christians in her background, so she was more in the know. Apparently, there is a “Bible belt” in Holland. She had ancestors from there and even knew about Mennonites, who got their start in the Netherlands. As soon as we started talking about Christianity, she made it plain that she was not happy about how churches judge others and hold to their bizarre convictions. Her first thoughts revealed her feelings about the notorious time there was a breech in the dike and people from the Bible belt would not come to help with saving the land because it was Sunday and they would not work on the Sabbath. It was the bad news church, again. But when I described to her what we were living as Circle of Hope, she almost immediately softened up. It struck a chord with her. She smiled at me and said, with a Dutch accent, “I would come to your church.”
Honestly, I think she is hungry for something. It is like she has been deprived of the church by a bunch of numbskulls who somehow took it over! I hate to be so negative, but the Catholic church still marching around in medieval costumes and the revival of Calvinist propositional-legalism is disastrous for evangelism. I know I am not supplying a lot of evidence for that, but I keep running into the bad news. What self-respecting Dutch person is going to ally themselves with people with so little love in their hearts that they would rather be “right” than serve their neighbor?
Incarnation is the answer
On one hand, I have nothing to prove. A person who wants Jesus can find him in the least likely places. We don’t worship the Christians or their churches. I am not the church’s history. On the other hand, we have a lot to prove. We are an incarnation of the kingdom of God, the presence of the future, as the Holy Spirit lives in us. If someone bumps into me, they should meet the love of Jesus. If they talk to me, they should hear some truth that resonates in some empty place in them prepared for God.
The old church is about gone in Europe and it is quickly disintegrating in the United States. Praise God! But do we have the followers who have the courage to incarnate what is next? Do we have people who can demonstrate the Lord’s truth and love to hungry people? I hope to be among them.