Yes, it was what I hoped. For 3 days I received a heavy dose of the Jewish background to the Biblical text. This type of learning has marked my most exciting encounters with the Word of God in the last 15 years. Here’s the back story.
Some years ago I heard a recommendation for a book by Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. It explored the Jewish traditions that lay at the heart of scripture. It was a great book, insightful and readable. It explored Jewish family life, wedding ceremonies, and world and life view, rabbinical teaching, education in Jewish villages, etc. . . . I began to use Wilson’s stuff as background in my sermons. The messages were well received. That set me to thinking, “I want to go to Israel for more land and Jewish practices background to the Bible. If simply this book does so much for my preaching, how much more a holy land visit?”
Fast-forward 15 years: I was tired and discouraged in my work and pleaded with the Lord, “Please either take me from here to a new charge, or encourage my spirit so I can carry on.” God delivered an answer in 2 weeks. A couple came to me and pledged to send Michele and me to the holy land, if we’d accept. I knew this was God’s answer. “Yes, you are the answer to my prayer,” I shared with them. They sent us with Brad Gray, a young guide from Western Michigan who was a protégé of Ray Vander Laan, famous holy land guide. That trip reinvigorated my preaching and renewed my soul. The Bible was written in a Jewish context, but by 150 AD, most Christians knew very little about the Jews. The church became increasingly Greco Roman and lost touch with Judaism. Yet the Bible is packed with Jewish history, sayings, stories, hyperbole, and codes that make it come alive in a whole new way when explored in its original context.
Which took me to Zeeland, MI this past Monday through Wednesday for “the Bible in Its Jewish Context Conference.” Brad, our holy land guide, and other presenters taught the first Bible in Jewish context conference. Most of the presenters are holy land nuts who shared a common thread of guiding people in the holy land and attending Jerusalem University College (JUC). As guides, they are an independent explorers. As JUC attendees they shared a heart for the land of Israel and Jewish history, and studied there. However, it was the first ever conference led by such a group who largely do solo tours in the land rather than locking down in a conference setting in North America. What a rare opportunity to learn from holy land zealots. Over 300 people converged from over 20 states, knowing they were coming to a rare event. Many attendees had been holy land travelers with the conference teaching staff. Most conferences celebrate the church, center on programming, or teach the value of leadership. This conference was a college level teaching extravaganza on the Jewish roots of the Bible. We listened to 10-12 teachings per day on various Bible passages aimed at geography and Jewish culture back stories to the Bible text. All teachings brought new insights to widely known scriptures.
Here's one tiny example from the parable of the great banquet. In small village life in ancient Israel there were 2 invites to a party. The first invite was a “save the date” invite. The response to this invite let the host know that there were no other conflicting events in villagers’ social schedules. Villages functioned as a unit, so it was a social disaster to have overlapping parties. First you checked to make sure all were available. All were, so the Luke 14 party could proceed. While none of that is found in the Biblical text, it’s the assumptions between the lines based on studies of Jewish village life. However, when the second invite goes out in Luke 14: 15-24, villagers begin to make excuses why they can’t come. I’ve got to “test drive new oxen,” “just got married,” “new field visit” were reasons given for not coming. To western society, these may sound like valid reasons to not attend. However, all had agreed to the date earlier, so the party host is rightfully angry. He had been dissed. These are nothing but sorry excuses. So, the host turns to others, so that the banquet hall can be filled. And so it is with the Father in heaven. The Jews broke covenant. They agreed to be His people, then don’t accept the visit from the Messiah. The “others” invited to the party are the Gentiles. The Jews listening to Jesus would have clearly understood the Jewish village context and the embarrassment to the host in receiving foolish excuses after all had cleared the date.
That’s a simple example. I heard 30 or 40 more in 3 days, and learned methods for discovering these on my own. Another tool I intend to use is to take another trip to the land where the church was birthed. Next February, 2018, Lord willing, Michele and I will go to Turkey on a “ministers and spouses only” trip and visit the 7 churches of Asia Minor. Those early churches shared much in context with us in western society. I look forward to having my tank topped off for the next several years of preaching. Monday through Wednesday whet my appetite.
It was a whirlwind weekend that seemed driven by the winds of the Spirit whom the church of Jesus Christ celebrates as arriving this weekend in Jerusalem nearing 2000 years ago. God was, is, and will be at work through Word and Spirit.
Pastor Siang and I touched down late afternoon in Albany and were met by a four man, Burmese delegation who whisked us to a blue collar, 1930’s vintage upstairs, 3 bedroom, apartment home in central Albany. The next we knew, we were sitting with a pastor representative from Classis Atlantic NE and eating from heaping bowls of Burmese food, traditional Burmese soup, and a splash of the hottest condiment known to Asia. We partook, then gathered with the 12 including children in the living room for prayer. The prayer was a chorus as we all called out to the Lord in a blitz of audible, passionate prayer in English and Chin Fulam dialect. Twelve voices were raised at once unto the Lord. It reminded me of the audible voices in various languages at Pentecost. Then we were off to the next home to pray. This home too was an upstairs apartment in a blue collar Albany neighborhood. This time we met with a widow who came to the states 7 years ago with her husband and 2 children, Nee 16 years old and a son 18 years old. Within a year her husband died from cancer, leaving her widowed in her mid-30’s in a new land without the ability to speak English. However, she had a deep love for the Lord. This was instantly apparent at our prayer meeting that evening. We asked her how we should pray for her. Siang translated our desire. She responded that she first wanted to praise the Lord for His goodness to her. She also celebrated that her son and daughter-in-law recently gave birth to a granddaughter, and her longing was for a safe trip to see them in Indianapolis the next weekend. Then she asked that we beseech the Lord for the souls of her brother and wife who are Hindu, and newly moved in with her. They recently acquired permanent visas and would now look for work. Meanwhile they sat 3 feet from her as we asked the Spirit to convert their hearts. They too couldn’t speak English. Again we offered up a chorus of prayer out loud in English and Burmese. Most of us kneeled. The others sat or stood. I’m convinced it was a sight and sound pleasing unto the Lord. Around the corner was the third home. This was a woman and her 2 children, 5 and 3 years old. Her husband, the chairman of the church board, was at work that evening at his $11/hour job. But she wanted prayer and was a gracious host serving us Burmese delights and telling us about her children. Before praying we sang songs together with the girls giving a duet of "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children" in Chin Fulam dialect. Then we prayed again, out loud, all together. At the end of the visit she gave to both Siang and me envelopes, and explained that it was a Chin custom. “When one has been blessed, one gives to those who have brought the blessing in the knowledge that God will bring even more blessing.” I was very uncomfortable with this custom. I was there to receive only as my heart united with these beautiful people. Here she had handed me a gift that I suspected was money. “She is poor. I have so much. I shouldn’t take this,” I thought.
However, I forced myself to be a gracious recipient. I’ve had to learn that other believers’ customs and traditions must be honored, even if it doesn’t fit my tidy Christian world view. I accepted what amounted to several hours work for her husband. Siang did the same. Later we talked of my discomfort. Siang said it was important that we received this return blessing. “By responding to our prayer blessings in gratitude,” Siang explained, “she was sure God would bless her even more richly. This was her act of faith.” After our 3rd home prayer meeting we settled into our hotel room at 11 PM exhausted after travel and an evening of prayer and new friendships, but grateful for an encouraging beginning. We had been embraced. And we felt close to the Albany church already.
The next morning we met the group back at the 3 bedroom upstairs apartment to talk about the CRC and how this independent group of believers could find a firm foundation with us. Their questions were many. How can they start a Christian school? Is there assistance available? Does the denomination require ministry dues? They are poor and barely able to provide for their families. However they are hard workers and industrious people. Over time they will do well economically in America, but right now they are in survival mode. We discussed ways that they can pay funeral expenses by taking a monthly offering, negotiating expenses ahead of time with a local funeral home, and using that agreement and funeral home fund at their time of loss. We explained in a limited degree the CRC church order affiliation process, and described this as the “getting acquainted” phase to be followed by mentoring and orientation. Affiliation is the final step, should they choose to walk with us. They wondered about denomination letters of certification to help them get a pastor from Burma who speaks the Fulam Chin dialect. Must he be Reformed? They were used to believers only baptism, so we consulted Bible passages about why infant baptism is the new circumcision. This was new teaching to some, but they received it well. Another Classis Atlantic NE delegate joined us and promised to follow up with the CRC denomination to encourage a letter to USA government officials to move ahead a visa request for Pastor Sum, a Fulam Chin pastor in Burma who is willing to come to the USA to pastor a Burmese congregation in Syracuse, and possibly to help with the Albany church as well. It was 4 hours of intense discussion, translated by Siang. We began with 20 adults, but the ladies and some of the men headed out to, as I discovered later, prepare more food. After the meeting Siang and I took a break, and our Classis Atlantic NE representatives left for home.
Siang and I reconvened with our friends that night in the apartment for a worship service. There were 25 of us including the children. We sang hymns and praise songs accompanied by keyboard and guitar. Our friends are joyful worshipers. They sing with smiles on their faces and clap along to some songs. I preached on the ascension of Jesus Christ and His intercession for them at the throne using Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 49. It was a new teaching to many. Siang translated. As we closed, I blessed them, individually touching each forehead. The children looked up wide eyed with wonder. The adults bowed their heads reverently and expectantly. It was a special evening again guided by the Spirit. We did not share a language, or even yet—for most—a joint national citizenship, but we are one in Christ and that foundation united us powerfully.
Sunday morning five Albany church delegates, Pastor Siang, and myself attended a local Reformed Church. We prearranged with the pastor a meeting following worship to talk about renting a space for the young Burmese church to worship. The Reformed congregation was old, but they joyfully announced during worship prayer time that for the first time in years, they would need nursery attendants. A young family with children had begun to worship. Child care assistance was needed. The congregation giggled and applauded the announcement. I smiled inwardly at the thought of that aging church gaining Burmese children too through sharing their facility. If one or two children brought such a response, 11 kids would overwhelm them in joy. After worship we shared coffee and sat with pastor and 3 elders to discuss a possible rental arrangement. The church loved to bless other groups and had a long history of allowing NA and AA groups to use the church. Of course they would welcome this young, small Burmese refugee group. They would make sure the rent price was low. After all, this was God’s church, not theirs. They needed to share. “Would the first Sunday of July be suitable to begin?” We left with ginormous smiles and praise to God. At the Sunday afternoon worship service back at the Burmese house church apartment, the same lady who handed me the envelope with money told me that she would always remember us every time she worshiped in their new building. Inside myself I wondered if this was the return on the blessing she craved as she handed me that gift of gratitude.
After the Reformed Church visit and another large meal, this time Vietnamese soup which is more meat and vegetables than broth, we finished our time together with another worship service in Fulam Chin dialect. We sang together. Pastor Siang preached and hosted communion. I led the congregational prayer asking for the Lord’s blessing on this young church, and for a joyful union of CRC with our new Burmese friends in Albany, NY.
The weekend ended as it began. We were whisked to the airport by our male delegation. There were handshakes, hugs, smiles, and “God bless you’s.” We were now friends. And Siang and I jetted back to Indiana having communed with the Spirit and our new Burmese friends.
Pray that God will bless ongoing discussions between the Albany church and Classis Atlantic NE. Pray that Classis Atlantic NE will enfold and love this immigrant group. Pray that joint use of space between the Reformed church and the Albany Burmese church will be mutually beneficial. The CRC would be an ideal home for this young church. We understand coming to a new land not knowing a language, but having strong faith and industrious spirits. God has blessed us in the land. Our new friends can bless us with their sincere, humble, simple faith, and industrious spirit. I believe this is a marriage made in heaven. May God be praised!
*Pastor Siang Hup and Pastor Joel Zuidema travel to Burmese churches throughout the United States seeking affiliation with the CRC. They are sponsored by Classis Illiana of the CRC.
I just got off the phone with a Reformed church in Albany, New York, and I’m jacked!
Now the back story. Tomorrow I fly to Albany, NY with Pastor Siang Hup who’s planting a Burmese Church in Indianapolis, IN and inviting a wave of Burmese immigrant churches to join the CRC. Recently he received a contact from a group of Burmese in Albany that are interested in joining the denomination. Tomorrow we will fly to Albany and in the evening go to the various members’ home for prayers and introductions. On Saturday we will meet with the group of about 30-40 individuals to discuss what it means to be a CRC. In the evening I will bring the word of God about the ascended Christ on the throne interceding for them. On Sunday we will worship with them in their Chin dialect at 1 PM and fly home around supper time.
Which takes us to my phone call with Bethany Reformed Church in Albany. Pastor Siang had asked me to network with Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the area to find a meeting place for the young church. The church is about to lose her current rental space. So, I called several churches. When the secretary at Bethany answered, and I told the reason for the call was to find a place for a Burmese congregation to meet, she responded, “That’s right up our alley. Let me put you through to our pastor.” I spoke to Pastor Peggy about what was needed. She responded, “We’d be very interested in helping out. Of course our board needs to decide, but that’s our kind of thing. Could you worship with us Sunday and meet with some of our elders?” “Sure,” I responded. “Oh, and by the way, are you located close to the city where most of the Burmese live? Most don’t have vehicles, so they ride share.” “No problem,” she responded. “We are right along the down town bus route. They can get here easily.” “Praise God,” I whispered, sensing the Spirit’s work.
So on Sunday morning at 10 AM EST, I’ll be worshiping with Pastor Siang and some representatives from an Albany Burmese congregation in an urban Reformed church in Albany, NY in hopes of forming a connection for our denomination, and in hopes of securing a worship meeting space for new Burmese friends.
Thank you to Pathway Church’s leadership team for letting me help. Thank you to Classis Illiana Home Missions Committee for blessing Burmese ministry. Thanks to Classis Illiana for providing traveling funds to unite the Burmese churches across the United States. Thank you to Classis Atlantic NE for sending several representatives to our meetings. Thank you to a newly forming Burmese congregation in Syracuse for sending a representative. And most of all, thank you Lord for opening doors. This will be an exciting weekend!
It has been a very moving time at Pathway as we honored Mike's request for prayer for a kidney donor. In addition we sent the request out to schools, churches, and the St. John Chamber of Commerce. Inside myself I wondered how many years this might take and how worn down Mike's body would be before a donor was found. Meanwhile the Holy Spirit was knocking on our own Tom Kamp to call the donor hot line and begin the process of discovery whether he was a match. Others called too. Meanwhile prayers continued to ripple heavenward, and the God of the heavens answered very quickly. Pathway's own Tom Kamp was a match. The successful transplant surgery occurred on April 21. By April 27 both guys were home and recovering well.
It's been an honor to walk beside both families during this time. I've watched the incredible gratitude of the Bultemas at this great gift. I've also witnessed the sacrificial generosity of the Kamps. Most of all, I'm in awe of our Lord's answer to His people's prayers.
On Tuesday when I visited Mike in Indianapolis he shared a poem with me that he wrote. Enjoy this story from his perch:
One day I got sick
I prayed, "Lord, take this away from me."
He said, "No."
I got sicker.
I said, "Lord, I need a cure."
He said, "No, here's a doctor."
I got a little sicker.
"Lord, I need a miracle."
He said, "No, here is a transplant center."
I said, "I don't have any more energy."
He said, "Here, go on dialysis."
I complained, "I'm missing a lot of work."
He said, "Take the machine home and use it at night."
I said, "I don't think I can do this for five years."
He said, "You don't. In six weeks I'm giving you a new kidney."
I cried, "Lord, things are moving too fast. I don't think I have control anymore."
He smiled, "You have never been in control. I got this."
I simply said, "Thank you."
He said, "I know, I love you too buddy . . ."
Thanks for sharing with us from your perspective, Mike!
Thank you, God, that you are a good and sovereign Father who loves us!
Background: On October 30 I preached a lesson “Reforming the Vote.” I recommended who to vote for and why.
One 13 year old suggested the song after the teaching was the wrong choice. Because I suggested that we vote for God, he thought a better choice would be “Good, Good Father.” We may have a budding worship director in our midst!
A person commented that it was my strongest message in six weeks. I countered with a “thank you,” but also noted that strong messages every Sunday get dangerous. If you agree or are persuaded to see it from the Pastor’s perspective, great! But on a Sunday one doesn’t like a strong message, they are hard to take. So, once in a while is good. Too many are dangerous. Always be real. Always be Biblical. Occasionally be “strong.”
One mom will remember the service forever. Her son, in response to my question ‘Who should the adults vote for?’, said “Mommy.”
One husband threatened to hold me responsible for his wife’s possible ulcer. He said, “She was 99% sure you wouldn’t endorse a candidate. However, that 1% unsure may lead her to an ulcer outbreak this week. I hold you responsible.” My response, “A little creative tension occasionally in a message is good.”
We had a number of new guests at Pathway last Sunday. One came because of a Pathway member’s yard sign. That guest is a new resident of St. John and was hired by a local para-church ministry. Another came because of our relaunch post card mailing from 8 weeks ago. Still another guest of 4x’s told me that she’s praying regularly for me: “I’m praying for your marriage and family.” I responded gratefully to her. Inside myself I wondered how she knew that it had been a couple difficult few weeks with extended family. Then she asked me for advice. I gave a careful answer. Two days later she emailed that she had received double confirmation echoing my advice. I love the Holy Spirit’s work!