Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Traveling

Christmas is coming in just a few weeks, and many people are excited about that.  For many in Kuwait and abroad this means that there is some sort of extended time off of work.  Whether teachers are getting two weeks off for Christmas and early January, or people in business are taking a month off to return home, many people get some sort of extended break. 

This brought the question to mind: why do we travel?  I think people travel for many reasons.  Some are good and legitimate, such as seeing the world around them, experiencing what other cultures are like, taking some time for rest and relaxation, exploring a favorite historical or architectural monument, and many others. 

However, I know that in my heart and the hearts of many others there are selfish reasons for why we travel.  Sometimes I want to travel just to boast to others about my amazing experience, or to say that I've been to more countries than most, or to make the world jealous with my amazing Facebook pictures and how happy my wife and I are. 

These reasons for travel are not good, and they won't satisfy us.  There will always be someone going to more countries than you, having more income to spend than you, traveling more cheaply than you, posting more amazing Facebook photos than you, and looking happier than you.  That will just leave us either feeling despair that we can't keep up with the international Joneses, or endlessly pursuing the next thing and not appreciating and enjoying what God has already given us. 

I would submit that we need to check our hearts when we are getting ready to travel somewhere, whether it's back home or to an exotic location.  If we have enough discretionary income to travel the world, we need to be trembling on our knees with gratitude to Jesus for it.  All of the opportunities we have to travel are pure grace, and we SHOULD enjoy it, but in a way that pleases and honors God, not that exalts ourselves and our pride.  Let's check our hearts and travel for the glory of God!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bringing God on Vacation: Georgia

About two weeks ago, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Georgia with my wife for a week. This is not the Georgia where peaches, Coke and Chick-fil-a come from, but Georgia the ex-Soviet Union country that is famous for churches, wine, and monasteries. I was very grateful for the opportunity to go there, and it was both relaxing to enjoy the city, physically demanding with quite a bit of hiking, and educational as we learned about the history of the country and also it's Christian history. Here are some ways I encountered and worshiped God on my vacation.

Encountering different Christians

My wife and I went to the Holy Trinity Cathedral on our first day in the country. It was a massive church that overlooks the entire city.  The cathedral had a very large area around it for gardens, fountains, and other aesthetically pleasing structures.  It was interesting to note that nearly all the women who went inside the church wore a head scarf, which is not too different from the hijab, which is a head scarf that covers the hair of Muslim women in Kuwait and the Middle East.  There was no requirement that women had to wear a head covering to enter the church, but I think most women did this as a sign of respect.  My wife left her scarf at home, so she decided not to enter and waited outside.

As I entered the church, it was a very different experience for me.  As a man who has grown up in the evangelical tradition, I find the beauty and intricacies of orthodox Christianity very different.  The inside of this building was as beautiful as the outside.  There were paintings and icons everywhere, and incense burning in several places.  There were candles set up in a few locations, and even the inside of the building was symmetrical and made the shape of the cross, where the top of the cross is where the priest would give his sermon.  It was extremely fascinating.  Even though I don't believe in the spiritual value of icons and burning candles as prayers for loved ones, it is nice to see that there is care taken to the beauty of the church, both inside and out.  Most evangelical churches are not nearly as ornate, and the churches I've often attended have been in re-purposed warehouses or school gymnasiums. 

Another thing I noticed was the quiet and reverence that people had in the church.  Even though there were well over 100 people walking around, lighting candles, reading the Bible, and praying, it was very quiet.  Most people didn't talk to each other, and when they did, it was a whisper.  It really felt like you were in a holy and unique place.  This is also very different from the evangelical tradition.  We are quite loud, and for good reason.  Every week, people are happy and excited to see each other, so there is a lot of socialization before and after each service.  There is also a time of greeting during the service, and I try to talk to as many people as I can.  I think this is a good thing.  However, I do think there is value in reverence and respect in church. 

The other thing I noticed was some of the sincerity that people had towards praying and reading.  There were a lot of people who were praying, and, at least, looked earnest in their prayers.  Many people were praying in front of icons, and I wasn't sure what to think of that.  However, it could be that some of the images in the cathedral, such as Jesus on the cross, were just a reminder to these people to encourage them to pray and give thanks.  There were also a handful of people who were standing up and reading the Bible quietly to themselves.  It was in Georgian, so I didn't know what they were reading or praying, but there certainly was a level of devotion in the people.  In a very different way, I believe that many of them were truly expressing themselves to God and loving Jesus for saving them from their sins by His death on the cross. 

Do I believe that all of the people in the church were Christians?  No.  Do I believe that all of their practices, such as candle lighting and praying to icons, are biblical?  No.  However, even in the evangelical tradition and at the church I attend there are plenty of people who are not Christians, but attend because they are culturally connected or are socially interested.  And I am sure that when I get to heaven, I will discover there are things that we have done wrong as well.  Through that experience in Georgia, God taught me that there are Christians who look very different from the style of Christianity that I like and that I am used to.  However, it doesn't mean that their faith is necessarily different from what I believe.  I pray for the Christians in Georgia, that God would be with them and show Himself to them in a very real and authentic way, and that the Holy Spirit would empower them to not only look inward to the Georgian orthodox church, but would reach out to other religions and those who are not religious and share the gospel with them.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Traveler's Prayer

Jesus, thank You so much for the opportunity to travel.

Thank You that I get to live at the apex of human history where I have the money and ability to see the world.

Thank you that I get enough time off of my job to explore other countries or visit my home country regularly.


I pray that you would help me to be a blessing to others in another country.

Make me generous enough to give to those who ask, whether or not I think they deserve it.

Give me a heart and foresight to buy extra food for the poor and needy.

Help me to tip well and truly be thankful for any service rendered to me.

Open my mouth to share the hope that is within me if an opportunity arises.

Also, help me to be a blessing to the people I'm traveling with, whether it's family or friends. Help me to put their needs above my own.

Give me the mind of Christ to be humble towards them.

Strengthen me to lead well in difficult situations.

Empower me to have devotions or a time of prayer throughout the vacation with others with whom I am traveling.

Support me as I try to listen to Your Spirit when interacting with my friends or family.

Finally, I ask that you would use this time to make me more like You.

Let this time be an opportunity to have my emotional and spiritual batteries recharged.

Allow my trip be enjoyable for me and, even more importantly, pleasing and glorifying to You.

Help me not to forget that I'm blessed to be a blessing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

How do we participate in Worship II

In my last post  , I explained a little bit about worship in church and why we do it.  I would like to give four tips that have really helped me to grow in my congregational worship.  I don't explain these as rules that must be followed, but rather as methods that have helped me to more expressively worship God.
  1. Sing Loud.  Yes, actually singing the words out loud is something that helps me to worship God expressively. It connects the words on the screen and in my head to my heart as I physically sing the words. The good news for me and for many of you is that God doesn't care about the quality of our singing! So, I sing loud and (probably) badly for the Lord.  God cares about your heart and mind being engaged, which is why I think we should sing loud as a congregation.  I also believe that singing is a way for me to agree and say "Yes" to the truths that are being displayed on the screen.
  2. Close your eyes. Like I said above, there are many distractions that happen at church. People are coming in late, moving around, there might be something distracting with one of the worship team members, you might want to check your cellphone, and a whole host of other things which can be distracting.  I find that I can concentrate more on the words when my eyes are closed.  You don't have to have the songs always memorized either.  What I often do that helps is that as I'm looking at a song I'm not familiar with, I just capture one line of the song at a time, and then I close my eyes as I'm singing.  I reopen my eyes for the second line to put that line in my short-term memory and then I close them to concentrate on the words of the song and to keep from being distracted.  By repeating this process, I find myself far more engaged in the worship than by having my eyes openedClosing my eyes is a great way to focus on the Lord during worship and not think about everything else that is going on.
  3.  Use my body.  Yes, this can be hard for many of us, because we associate church with being still and having a somber mood.  However, using our body in our worship to God is entirely biblical.  The entire book of Psalms includes raising our hands, bowing heads, shouting and dancing to the Lord, among many other postures toward God.  Like I said previously, if we can jump up and down for something as transient as a football game, then certainly we should be physically involved in our worship.  It's not to make a show or to act crazy, but to give ourselves more fully to God.  I often lift my hands in worship as a sign of surrender to God, exactly because I feel more vulnerable with my hands up.  It shows that I want God to be in control of my life, not myself.  I clap because I'm excited about whatever the song is exclaiming, whether it's celebrating God's love or demonstrating his power to break sin in our lives.  We should use our "members for God as instruments for righteousness."  
  4. Sing your own song.  Often during worship, there are breaks between the verses and the chorus, or at the bridge, or between songs in general.  I believe that creates some down time during worship when we are not singing.  However, I don't want be just staring at the worship team or impatiently waiting for the next song.  I try to use that time to make my own song to Jesus.  Like I said, I'm not a good singer and I'm not very creative, but I am using that time to sing to God, thanking him for all his blessings or asking Him for help in various areas of my life.  I believe this is also a very heartfelt sign of worship, because it's me directly engaging with God and not just following the worship team.  Often I do this out loud, but sometimes I softly sing to myself.  I believe this also creates love and fuels our desire for God.

    I hope these have been helpful in your desire to worship the living God and I pray that we would all become more God-centered in our worship and singing.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How do we participate in Worship I

For the last couple years, I have been serving the church in Kuwait at Mishref. Sometimes that means that I am helping with the sound, or watching for new people during the service, or making sure that needs are being met. During this time, I have had many opportunities to watch people as they are worshiping God. This is a very humbling experience for me. It can also be a very unusual thing to watch. I see some people passionately expressing their worship to God, others quietly reflecting during worship, and I see a third category who are just standing their looking at the screen with their hands in their pockets.  Perhaps they are worshiping God in their own way, but it is also safe to say that some people in every church are not engaged during worship. It seems that there is a some confusion as to what it means to worship God during the singing part of church.

What does it mean to expressively worship God?
We worship God as a response to all that God has done for us. I came from a more reserved church
background, where people would dutifully sing the songs that they are supposed to, but only a few people would occasionally lift a hand while singing. Most of those people were standing in the front, and were either the pastor's family or other leaders in the church. It was not until my college years did I see the general congregation expressing themselves to God during worship. It was a bit of an adjustment initially, but I realize that's because I was never really taught to do that before. However, why shouldn't we be expressive before God. I know many people who go totally crazy for a football or baseball game, spending hours beforehand preparing what they are going to do for the day and what they are going to wear. They do the wave during the game, and shout and cheer for the players who score a goal or do something amazing, and are completely mesmerized and immersed in the total experience. However, some of these same people can look like total zombies blankly staring at the screen when we worship God at church. This should not be! How much more amazing and all-consuming is the God of the universe than any sports game. How much more have we been recipients of physical, emotional, and spiritual healing from Jesus than any other earthly memory that we have.

So, what is it?
We sing because we are responding to what God has done for us and in us. God made words to tell how to think, but He made music to tell us how to feel. Music has a special power in our lives to illicit emotion, whether it is exciting and driving, or slow and melancholy, or soft and reflective. This is one of the main reasons we use music and songs in worship. This is combined with words that demonstrate truths about God, truths about our relationship to God, or ways that we interact with God. We are saying in our hearts AND in our minds the words that are displayed in front of us, whether it's thanking Jesus for the cross, discussing how we will be with God forever, or admitting that God gives and takes away. So, combining these truths with the music that is playing allows people in the church to experience God. At the root, though, expressive worship is engaging on a mental and emotional level with God through the songs are being played.

Am I always engaged emotionally with the songs? No, I'm often distracted by various thoughts that are running through my mind, or seeing something out of the corner of my eye, or just generally feeling distant from God. However, by God's grace, I am able to often become affected by worship at church. And there are four things I do that help me in my worship to God that I will explain in my next post!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

New Service at TLC Mishref

Last year, I was invited to go to out with friends to a very special dinner.  There was a new Texas Roadhouse restaurant opening up in Kuwait relatively close to my house, and my friends had tickets for themselves and for us.  The best part about this dinner was that it was free, which is one of my favorite words in the dictionary!  Because the restaurant was brand new, they wanted to try out the food, the staff, and the service on people before it went to the public.  They wanted to take care of any issues or problems that might occur before in a smaller, more contained environment.  This is what is called a "soft opening." I can't really get that angry about my steak being overcooked if I'm not paying for it, right?  Actually, everything went really well that evening, I had a lot of fun with my friends, and we had so much extra food that we had to take some home.

In much the same way, we have been having some "soft openings" for a new service at TLC Mishref.  Thankfully, the main service at the Mishref campus has grown a lot over the summer and has gotten even bigger with the return of many people from summer holidays and the recent outreach that we had.  So, now we are nearly reaching the capacity of our service each week, and the leadership has been talking for a while about opening another service at 8am. 

The leadership team decided to open the new service on October 3, but also wanted to have several soft openings to make sure all the bugs and glitches were worked out before we announced it to the entire church and the public.  We also started these soft openings so that if people from our 10:30 service wanted to come to the 8am, it would relieve pressure on the amount of people who are attending our main service and will allow more and more visitors to attend.

Our first soft opening for the 8am was on September 12th, and we didn't have any one running the sound or worship in the beginning, so I had to learn very quickly how to use a sound board and some of the controls.  It was also quite small, with about 10 people not including the worship team and other people who were serving in the service.  It was strange looking at all those empty chairs, but all new services have to start somewhere.  The original Mishref service also started at around 10 people over five years ago, and it stayed that way for a long time before it began to grow. 

The second soft opening was the next week on September 19, and it was a significantly improved church service.  There were plenty of people to run sound and media, a great worship experience, and pastor Mark, the primary pastor at both services, preached a really good sermon. We also had nearly 40 people that attended the service, not including volunteers.  It was a much improved crowd and I was surprised that so many people came.
We have one more soft opening on the 26th of September, and then we have our official opening of the service on October 3rd.  We plan on having breakfast cakes and snacks on the 3rd as a way of blessing the people who come to the official opening, and it should be a lot of fun.  Please pray that this new service would be blessed by Jesus and that we would have new growth.  We would prefer that new people come to this service who don't go to church, rather than people who are merely switching services out of preference.  It should be a very exciting event! 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Gospel in a Land of Mirages

Kuwait is often about appearances.  While this is true nearly everywhere, it is especially true in the Middle East.  If you go to the mall, you will find most of the people extremely dressed up looking their best.  The women are wearing makeup, the latest outfits and six inch heels.  The men are wearing sunglasses that match their shoes and perfectly trimmed facial hair. 

I work at a university, and the same is true there.  Nobody wears their pajamas to class like when I was in university, but everyone is dressed up to the point where the professors often look less presentable than the students by comparison. 

Gyms are also wildly popular here, and you see extremely fit women and really ripped men.  Steroids are not uncommon and there are areas where used needles riddle the ground.  Along with this are a bunch of diet based restaurants where you can order something that's low-calorie to fit your bodily needs.

People live in amazingly beautiful multi-floored homes with stunning gardens and indoor pools.  In the garages are brand-new BMW's, Bentley's and Porsche's that are clean and ready to take a ride on the highway.  Keeping up the Joneses takes on a whole new meaning living here.

The weight of all that pressure can be crushing.  However, the gospel frees us from being trapped by appearances.

As Christians, we know the truth is that we don't have it all together.  There are days where I feel like my marriage is falling apart, like I'm going to get fired from my job, or that I just can't generally figure out my life.

We also need to be reminded that we don't need to have it all together.  That is the gospel.  If God loved us based on our performance, we would all be miserable failures and would be destined toward hell.  In the midst of a Muslim worldview, often the emphasis is on what we do and how we appear. Ramadan, for example, is where all Muslims do a month fast.  I've talked with Muslims who told me me they cheat, but not when they are in public, because they at least want to be seen as people who fast while they are in public. 

However, God loves us based on the performance of Jesus.  Only He lived a life that was perfectly pleasing to God.  We just trust in Christ, and He will change our hearts, and we will slowly but surely become more like Him.

Tim Keller, a pastor and author, said it this way: "We are more flawed and sinful than we ever dared believe, yet we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope at the same time."

So, next time you feel crushed underneath the facade of appearances, cry out to Jesus and remember that He pierces through the outside and looks at the heart.

Photos Courtesy of Mohammad Raha