Saturday, December 21, 2013

Desert Christmas

About a year ago, I was doing some shopping at the grocery store in the Avenues Mall, which is the largest mall in the country. It was December and I was just picking up some food items and looking through the clothing when I heard music. It was the mall background music, but I knew the song. It was a Christmas song! It was not just a generic, non-religious Christmas song, but it was "O Holy Night." I was totally blown away by this. I'm not sure if maybe the manager was a Christian or they just popped in any Christmas album they found for the background music of the mall, but it is interesting to see how Christmas still exists even in Kuwait.

Beyond this, many of the malls, including the Avenues, have some Christmas decorations. They sell fake trees and some ornaments. There will occasionally be Christmas music at malls and restaurants. The English department where I work also put up a large Christmas tree.

However, for the most part, the holidays do feel a bit different here than back home. For one thing, the weather is warmer. While it's not as hot in December as it is in the summer, it's still in the 50's and 60's, and there is certainly no snow on the ground anywhere.  I personally love that it's not cold, but it does take away from the authentic quality of Christmas.  Also, there are no Christmas decorations on houses. Even as I look out the window, I see a towering mosque surrounded by palms trees, a sign for McDonalds, and power lines in the distance. While some schools get two weeks off for Christmas, most educators and employees don't get any extra time off for Christmas. All I get is the day itself off, which is a courtesy to the Western teachers. It doesn't exactly scream Christmas.

Some of my friends here have a tough time being away from family who are back home during the season, and it can be especially painful for them. Please pray that the many Christians here that are away from their families would be comforted by Jesus.

For me, I really enjoy it because it's so different. I have my wife here who is my main family.  I also have my spiritual family, which are my close Christian friends who are together here with me.  My semester ends about a week after Christmas, so it signals a break. It also means that I get to travel. Additionally, there are many Christmas parties--life group Christmas dinner, life group leaders Christmas celebration, worship team Christmas dinner, and many more that will keep me very busy and overweight for the next two weeks.

I will also probably invite the people from my life group who are not traveling to my house on Christmas Eve and possibly have them spend the night (pending wife's approval), which is a Christmas tradition we started last year. We will open presents in the morning and then go to one of the church services at the Lighthouse.

While Christmas is certainly different in Kuwait, I'm grateful to God that the power of the birth of the Savior has reached even to a Muslim country, which is surprisingly close to where the original event happened.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Strategic Love

My wife and I were having dinner with a couple earlier this week, and we had a great time sharing a meal and catching up with each other.  It was a really enjoyable time, but because it was a work night, we had to pull ourselves away so we could get to bed on time.  As our friend was walking us out, he began to give me a little bit of a hard time about not hanging out as much as last year.  It was mostly joking around, but I still defended myself with all the different events that I have hosted or attended over the past several months.  However, he persisted that we used to hang out as a big group of friends every week last year, and my participation in these events has dwindled.  I refused to give up, explaining that I have done many things and even pointed out the events that he didn't attend.  While we left on good terms, I definitely thought about what he said. 

Loving one another.  This was the last theme of The Lighthouse Church and it is one of the distinguishing factors for Christians, because Jesus said that people will know that we are His disciples because we love one another.  The sermon series went through how we love unselfishly and without expecting anything in return.  We even went through the classic Good Samaritan parable.

While the sermon series was a good reminder of how we are to love generally, and I really enjoyed the encouragement and exhortation, I think that even more could be said on the subject of loving one another.  One of the ideas running through my mind is that we cannot love everyone.  If loving someone takes time and energy, then I am limited in the number of people I can love and in the amount of love I show someone.

Perhaps my friend is right, I haven't been loving the same people the same way as last year.  I think the reason is that there have been new people added to the church this school year, and I have been investing time in them.  That necessarily takes away time from loving other people.  Each moment I spent with one person is a moment I won't be spending with another.

Therefore, it stands to reason that we need to be strategic in who we love and spend time with.  We cannot love all people or at least love all people the same way.  So, how do we prioritize our loving one another?  That is a great question, and I don't have the perfect answer.

Of course, we need to love God first and our family second.  Beyond that, I guess it depends on a lot of things.  I make it my goal to try to spend time with the people in my small group and invest in them.  Additionally, I try to make a point to love and invest in people who are new to Kuwait in the church.  Finally, I try to love people who are partners with me in serving or who can give me wisdom and advice.

What do you think?  What is your strategy to love people?  I think if we don't have a plan of loving people, we will just gravitate towards what is natural, easy, and selfish. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Change is Good! Change is Bad!

Before I taught in Kuwait, I was a music teacher and band director at a secondary school in Pennsylvania. It was my first teaching job, and it was right after I finished university. Needless to say, I was totally full of idealism and empty on practical experience. I thought that I was going to turn that music program into something amazing overnight. I couldn't have been more wrong. While many of the mistakes were made by me, one of the major issues that I kept having to deal with was the concept of change. I had several parents that were part of the band booster club who were in the band when they were young and also had children who were in the band. They fiercely resisted any change because they remembered when they were in band, and they didn't want their memories or their children's experiences to be tarnished by changing the way it has 'historically been done.' I even had students resist me just because I had a different personality than the previous music director. It was a difficult three years, and one of the main things I learned is that change is hard.

However, I think the difficulty and level of resistance to change is in proportion to the amount of control or influence you have over the change, or if you have a good understanding of the change. I certainly didn't resist the changes I was making to my program as a music teacher, nor did the people who were were involved in the decision making process. Perhaps I could have handled the changes I made better if I included more people in the process.

The same is true for ministry. I mentioned in a previous post that the Lighthouse Jabriya started a new life group. This was because the previous group was getting too large to sustain all the members. However, I met some significant resistance from some people within the group, having to handle the situation carefully. Even though the reasons behind the change were explained, and people were given the options to choose the group they wanted to commit to (keeping in mind a large group gathering once a month or so), people still have had a hard time transitioning. Again, the people who accepted it the most either didn't have a long history with the group or they had some influence over the split. Those people who saw the benefits of intimacy in having two smaller groups accepted and even welcomed the change.

Our church is going through another major change right now, which is that we are changing the location of our Jabriya church service. As I've said before, we need to leave our location in Jabriya by the end of December because the main church at our location is adding another service at our time. By God's Providence, our church has found another villa in the neighboring district of Mishref.

I am personally excited about this change. I think I am looking forward to this change because I can clearly understand the reason behind the change and see the vision for all the benefits of this change. I know that we can't stay at Jabriya. There are several benefits of moving to this new location. We will most likely have the freedom to make the sanctuary and other rooms look/feel how we want. We will have a reception area after the service where people can connect better. The church can conduct leadership trainings, worship team practice, Christian education and life groups throughout the week. Our service will be able to grow more and it will be incentive to invite more people to church. Because I can see the vision of what it will become, I am excited about the change.

Of course, there will be difficulties. The new building needs renovating and cleaning before we can move in and make it our own. This place is more expensive than our last place and our members will need to give more sacrificially. There will be new issues with transportation and having people locate where it is. There will be opinions and disagreements in the decision making process, so there will be some "dying to self." There will be unexpected difficulties that haven't come up yet that we will need to deal with.

Even so, I am looking forward to this change because I get to be a part of what it will become and I can see the vision for it. It will be difficult for many people in the church and there will be a lot of hiccups. I think one of the solutions is to get as many people to understand the vision as possible and allow them to be a large part of what happens at our new location.

We ultimately need to lean on God, because He is truly the one that never changes. For our lives and our churches, change is absolutely necessary, but we can look to the One who doesn't change and trust that He knows what's best for us.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Night of Joy

Praying for new council members
Once a year, the Lighthouse has an evening set aside where the church leadership discusses the finances for the previous year, the budget for the following year, updates on various church ministries, and outgoing council members are honored and new council members are voted in.

This evening is called the Night of Joy, and I had the opportunity to attend this year.  I was able to support my wife, who was to be voted in as a new council member.

The Lighthouse Church is a pastor-driven church, meaning many of the decisions for the direction of the church are discussed among the pastors on staff. At the same time, the Lighthouse has a constitution which they are bound to uphold. The church council is made up of around 10 people who have monthly meetings with the pastors to discuss various issues and to give reports on specific areas of the church that council members are assigned to.

New and old council members

The evening went quite well. After a time of singing and worship, the finances were discussed from the previous and upcoming year, including a plan to have more money available in the future for emergencies or for generosity towards those who need it. The budget for the 2014 year was ratified at the meeting and approved.

Additionally, the evening recognized that there is a full pastoral staff once again, with the addition of pastor Dan and Pastor KR.  Along with Pastor Mark, these three will be the core pastors, who oversee most of the services at the Lightouse. Pastors Ken and Steve will be specialty pastors to help with certain aspects of ministry, and Pastor Warren will be leading the team with the vision of the church. 

The core pastors at the church

Old council members were honored and new council members were approved, including two from the TLC-Jabriya service, which was really exciting!  It will be good to have representation from our off-campus location. Pastor Warren announced that a new villa has been found for the TLC service at the Jabriya Life Center to shift to, and also that negotiations were in process. However, it was mentioned that this new building is much larger and can easily accommodate about 30% more people than our current worship hall, which is reaching capacity. I'm really excited to see how this unfolds.

Pastor Warren talking about the Lighthouse
The meeting also honored the staff and pastors and concluded with our Senior Pastor Warren encouraging us in this time of building at the Lighthouse, and to make it a launching pad for future church plants all around the world.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Organization or Organism?

A few weeks ago, I attended a church leadership meeting at our pastor's house.  While there was plenty of business to discuss, Pastor Mark allowed time to connect with myself and the families of those on our leadership team on a more personal level.  He grilled American-style hamburgers and chicken, and the people who came all brought something, too.  While we had our 'official' meeting afterwards, it was equally valuable for everyone to just talk and get to know one another better.

This is a perfect illustration that the church is both organizational and organic.  Churches, like any other institution, have a business side.  Programs, initiatives, problems, committees, leaders, and a host of other things are all required for a church to function effectively, especially as a church begins to grow and expand beyond a few dozen people.

At the same time, the church is not merely another organization, business, or institution.  The church is God's bride, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.  Jesus gave us a command and a promise before He went to the cross, which is to love one another; the promise of this is that all people will know that we are His disciples.  This is one of the reasons why the theme for The Lighthouse this month is "Love One Another." 

As a teacher, I have meetings.  A lot of meetings.  All the time.  These meetings are critical for the instructors to be aligned with our students, other instructors, our tests and our curriculum.  However, though there are occasional casual discussions and jokes in these meetings, they are not bathed in love like they are in the church. In every church, there needs to be a balance.  Smaller churches tend to focus a lot on the love and connections, but may lack the business aspect.  Larger churches have the tendency to have a good corporate structure, but may need emphasis on loving and caring for one another. 

Our Jabriya worship service is a bit of both.  We are part of The Lighthouse Church, which is a large, multi-congregational international church.  Under the leadership of Pastor Warren, our senior pastor, and the rest of the pastoral team, The Lighthouse has been growing by leaps and bounds in terms of church structure and alignment across all congregations.

The Jabriya service itself has grown significantly from around 20 people at its start to averaging around 150 people.  This growth has challenged our service to also grow in our organizational structure.  What a few people could do in a 20 person congregation translates to a lot more in a 150 person congregation, along with procedures, processes and a chain of command.

One example of this growth and challenge would be outreach.  When our service started, a few of us could connect with all of the newcomers and tried to take them out to lunch or coffee with our families.  That was pretty easy in the beginning.  However, this is now nearly impossible with all the people we have each week.  With the growth of the service and the increase in responsibilities and time constraints for each leader, we realized the need to delegate to ensure everyone was reached. That's when the greeting ministry started, where we asked volunteers to be in charge of looking for new people, connecting with them and following up with them sometime during the week. Our service continues to do well at connecting people, but we are back in the growing pains of growing structurally while maintaining this love and care for one another. 

Please continue to pray for us as we go through this process of becoming a larger church service, and that God would raise up more volunteers and leaders to help with all the great things that He is doing in our midst.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Shisha: Cool or Criminal?

I spent a few weeks last summer in Jordan with a really good friend while I could take some Arabic classes.  He let me stay with him, and his wife was already back home in Canada.  Soon after I arrived, we decided to go out and celebrate.  We had a delicious Arabic dinner and he wanted to smoke some shisha afterwards.  I posted a picture of my friend smoking on Facebook to capture the event.  The next day, one of my Christian Facebook friends posted that it was bad for health and bad for his testimony.  Interesting food for thought. 

One of the most ubiquitous aspects of Kuwait and the Middle East is the smoking of water pipes known as shisha.  It can also be called narghila or hookah.  Whether in an upscale, high-end mall or on a crowded street corner, you will see all kinds of people enjoying this cultural tradition, sometimes as early as 6am. 

For those who are unaware, shisha is flavored tobacco.  Tobacco leaves are mixed with a gooey, molasses-like liquid along with the flavoring, whether it is apple, lemon, mint, grape, strawberry or an endless number of variations.  The tobacco mixture is put into a small, clay bowl with holes in it, and aluminum foil is placed on top with tiny holes punched in the foil.  On top are placed three or four pieces of coal, which heats up and slightly burns the tobacco.  The tobacco smoke then goes through a pipe and into water to cool the smoke, and is finally pulled into the user's mouth through a long plastic hose.

Popular restaurant for shisha outside

Because I have parents who are chronic cigarette-smokers, who have made many unsuccessful attempts at quitting, I am keenly aware of the addicting and enslaving power of tobacco.  I also know that we are not to make others struggle or be tempted by something, so it would not be something I would do around people who have struggled with being addicted to tobacco.

On the other hand, does smoking it on an occasional three or four times a month constitute enslavement to it or something that is wrong? Living in Kuwait, there is not a lot of outside or interesting events outside of eating at restaurants.  Therefore, smoking shisha could be viewed as a way to avoid always eating with people and a way to integrate with the culture. 

Friend smoking shisha while enjoying the weather

For example, I wanted to spend some time with my friends last night, but none of us were particularly hungry.  They didn't want to consume anymore calories for the evening, but they didn't want to just sit inside the apartment because the weather is really beautiful this time of year.  So, they decided to go to a nearby restaurant where some people could smoke shisha on the rooftop patio.  There were many other people there doing the same thing.  We spent a couple hours talking about our lives, the issues we are struggling with, and some of our plans for the future.  They did this while taking turns smoking a double apple and a watermelon and mint shisha.  My friends found it to be a relaxing way to end the evening and enjoy each others' company. 

What are your thoughts?  Should Christians stay away from this as a way to distinguish ourselves from the culture, or should we partake if we are doing it in moderation as a way to enjoy God's creation and integrate with the culture?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

New Life Group!

tea, coffee, and discussion
I am posting to talk about an exciting new change that is happening at the Jabriya Life Center.  We are launching a new life group this week, so we would like your prayers! We are praying that it would grow both in numbers and in spiritual and relational depth, and that the members who attend would be eager to serve and be open to each other.

A life group (also known as a cell group, care group, small group, etc.) is just an opportunity for people to gather together outside of church to connect on a deeper level with one another and grow in their relationship with Christ.  While any church service is a critically important time to gather as a body and worship God, give, and receive teaching from God's word, it is not sufficient for caring for each other.  As our service has grown to consistently include 100 or more people, we can no longer know everyone in the church well enough through only a short greeting time or after the service.  The Bible also mentions meeting together outside of the corporate meeting: "And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes...."(Acts 2:46).  This shows that people gathered in large groups (temple, or the church) and in small groups (in the home). 

For the past four years, I have been leading a life group at the Jabriya Life Center.  I've mentioned this in a previous post, but it started as a tiny 5 person group and has grown to more than 20 people during its life span. However, it wasn't all continuous and amazing growth without any problems.  I made mistakes along the way, and there have been times when the group has contracted as well as expanded. 

One of the issues that I have struggled with over the last two years is the size of the group.  As the group has grown to around 20 people, it is no longer easily manageable as a gathering.  Besides the general struggles of accommodating an assembly of that size and keeping everyone engaged in prayer request and the discussion, there is the spiritual issue of caring for all of the individuals every week. A life group leader is not just a guy who facilitates discussion questions from the previous week's sermon.  The life group leader is truly a leader, a mini-shepherd who tries to love, encourage, care about, pray for, and spend time with the people in his charge.  With a group that size, I always felt like I was leaving someone out, leaving someone behind, or just neglecting certain individuals.  It's a tricky situation.

tortilla chips count as breaking bread together
At the beginning of this school year, after four years of leading the group and much prayer and deliberation, my wife and I passed the responsibility to another godly couple who faithfully attended the previous year and were willing and interested to lead the group.  This freed me to serve in other capacities, including helping other "younger" groups within our church grow and encouraging those leaders. But, the large size of the group remained and the life group grew even more with new people coming to our church and getting connected. With over 20 people coming on certain weeks, it was too much to ask of the leaders to keep it as one group. 

After talking it over with the leaders, the members of the small group, and the pastor, we figured it would be best to open another life group on a different day in a different location.  This would naturally allow people to choose a life group that would be a little closer to their area, because we had people coming from different neighborhoods to the one life group.  We also wanted a different day because three life groups from our service already meet on Mondays and we don't have any that meet on Wednesday. This could allow additional people from the church to join who possibly couldn't attend on the days life groups were currently offered. 

So, our first meeting is tonight and my wife and I will be leading the group.  The tentative plan is for me to lead for a few months, and then to hand it over to another couple who is interested in leading the group after attending for a while. 

Even though it's painful to not see everyone in the same life group, I think it's exciting because of the opportunity to form new friendships and continue to grow friendships we already have.  Please pray for its growth, and if you are living in Kuwait, please feel free to stop by and see what it's like!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Harvest Festival: Post Event

The Harvest Festival on Saturday was an exciting event and a major success.  While I can't speak for the whole festival, I did talk to many of the people who worked at the booth from our church service. 

It was the first time that the Jabriya Life Center participated in the Harvest Festival in such a major way.  Of course, people from our service have attended and donated to the event in the past, but this is the first time that we operated a food booth.  As I mentioned in the last post, one of the largest draws of the Harvest Festival is the food because you get to eat food from all over the world, and the proceeds go toward missions.

our "fearless" leader, flipping burgers
Since the leader who headed up the Harvest Festival is an American, he decided to have typical 'American' food.  Nothing is really as American as grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, so that was the food we sold- a big contrast to all the Asian noodles and other traditional dishes being served.

Nearly all the food was donated from various vendors, which meant that all profits went toward missions.  There were also four propane gas grills that people lent out to be used for the booth, and many volunteers worked hard to prepare the food and set up/tear down the booth.  In the beginning, it seemed like there would not be enough volunteers to make the workload light; the festival lasts from 9am-4pm. In the end we had more than enough volunteers for two shifts, a set-up crew, and a team for clean up. This allowed everyone to enjoy the festival at the same time as serving.

serving the tasty food
I was really happy to see the collaboration among friends and others who are in life groups at Jabriya.  I was also glad to see a lot of new people in the church taking time out to serve in this capacity.

I don't have all the numbers from the entire festival, but I know that the money brought in by JLC's hamburger food booth was 475 Kuwaiti Dinar- about $1,675USD!  This proved to be a major success and was still just a small part of the large contribution to missions.

the performance stage with children singing

The rest of the festival was a lot of fun, with many people eating, chatting and enjoying the different sights and sounds of the festival.  There was music throughout the day, along with hundreds of children playing on inflatable slides and getting 10 times their daily sugar intake from cotton candy.

Thanks to all those who served, attended, or prayed for the event. Please continue to pray that the money raised will be used to have a major impact on God's Kingdom throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

smile!- photo by Ptr. Mark, edited by me

Friday, November 8, 2013

Harvest Festival

 Every fall, the Lighthouse Church has a massive gathering called the Harvest Festival.  It's like a combination of a concert, a yard sale, and a cafeteria all inside the church compound.  This year, the Harvest festival will be Saturday, November 9th from 9a.m. until 4p.m.- tomorrow!  I would encourage all who can to come and support the event, and everyone else who can't make it to pray for it. 

For those who have never been, it is really an excited and nearly overwhelming experience.  It is like a sensory explosion of sounds, smells, and sights.  First of all, there are people everywhere.  This is really fun because you get to see friends from your church service and people from all the different services.  Pastors, elders, and church council members are all there.  At times, it's like a sea of humanity ebbing and flowing around the church compound.

There is also a lot of music.  From Christian rock bands to soloists to ethnic dance groups, there is definitely a wide variety of musical styles on display during the festival.  Last year, one man played several different instruments during the same song, including a pan pipe, which is pretty unique! 

There is also a second-hand book, clothes, and item sale that goes on during the festival.  As an avid yard sale explorer back in America, I always find this to be pretty fun.  It's like a treasure hunt, where I will one day find my pot of gold buried beneath old books and clothes.

Last, but certainly not least, is the food.  The smell of food wafts throughout the church compound, compelling you to come and try some.  Many different booths offer foods from all over the world, especially amazing Indian and Filipino food.  Additionally, there is a bake sale with all the best homemade cookies and brownies in the world right at your fingertips. 

This year, the Jabriya Life Center is contributing a stand to the food area.  Headed by one of our service leaders, it will be an American barbeque stand.  It will have burgers and hotdogs that will be every bit as delicious as you would get in Texas or Chicago.  Many people from our service have volunteered to help make it a success, so please try to come out if you can.

For those of you who are not in Kuwait, please pray for the event.  All the money that is raised goes toward missions, which include several mission organizations, orphanages, and shelters that we support in India, Tanzania, and around the world.  The Lighthouse Church is one of the strongest international churches in Asia, so it is our desire to use that strength and influence to raise money to help churches and organizations that need our support.  Please pray that it would be a total success, and that thousands of dinars/dollars would flow from The Lighthouse Church to missions all over the world. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Arabic Church

Near the beginning of the Arabic service
There was one activity that I had the opportunity to experience this week that I have not done the entire six years that I've been in Kuwait, which was attending an Arabic church service.  I have found a church home in Jabriya, and I am very happy there, but I have always felt that it would be interesting to see how Christians worship God in an Arabic worship service.  When I was in Jordan this summer, I went to a Sudanese service, because it has always intrigued and fascinated me to see how another culture and language worships Jesus.

The excuses for not visiting this service before have been plentiful.  I have passed it off as being a waste of my time because I don't know enough Arabic to understand anything.  I thought I didn't really know any vocabulary related to church or Christian things except basic words like God, Jesus, Christ, and the church. I also found the timings of the service difficult to attend.  There is a service on Sundays at 8pm, which is really late and the first day of the work week here, and I wouldn't get home until around 10pm.  The other service is on Thursday nights, and I never wanted to give up my free night (the end of the work week) to attend then either.

This past Sunday, I finally managed to push those excuses aside and convince a friend to go with me, so I wouldn't have to be alone on the drive or while I was at the service.  I probably would not have gone alone to do something so new and different.

It was at the main compound in Kuwait City, where most of the English language services are held.  They wrote down my name and the name of my friend as first time visitors when we entered the service.  I don't know if they do this for security purposes or if it was just to contact us after visiting for the first time. 

We took our seats in one of the pews and it started after a minute or two.  It seemed like a blur because it all happened in Arabic.  The man who opened up the service was dressed in a traditional Kuwaiti garment, and I presumed him to be Pastor Emmanuel Al-Gharib. (He is an ordained Kuwaiti Christian, and there are about 300 Kuwaiti Christians by birth, coming from 12 different families.)

The service itself was pretty interesting.  There were about four or five songs that we sang, and there was a keyboard and drummer who led the worship.  None of the songs were translations of songs that I have ever heard, and they all had a very Arab feel to the music in terms of the rhythm and chords that were played, relatively similar in style to Arabic music that is heard on the radio. It seemed like a fairly traditional service- for some songs we sat down, and for others we stood, the pastor the pastor reciting things throughout the service.  I say "things" because I truthfully didn't understand very much at all.  I could catch a word or two every other sentence, and I knew even less from the worship songs.  I had no idea what I was singing, but I tried to at least pronounce the words. 

Afterwards, another man in a grey suit came up to give the sermon.  I think he might have been Egyptian just from the way he said a few of the words. He preached from Ephesians 3:15.  One phrase that I did understand that he repeated a few times was "Everything is from God."  He spent most of his time expounding that and going through the Scriptures.  It seemed a little long, but mostly because I couldn't follow very much of what he was saying. Finally, they had something like a new members introduction because several people got up and the pastor spoke to them and they said "yes" at several points throughout the talk, so I'm assuming it was a charge for them as to their responsibilities in and to the church.
Middle of the service with the man in suit talking to us

After that, my friend and I decided to leave because it was getting late even though the service had not officially ended.  Most people seemed friendly just from looking around, and if I had to guess, I would say they are mostly Arabs from Lebanon, Syria and other countries in that region. 

Overall, I was a little discouraged about how little Arabic I knew, but I also remembered that I just don't have a lot of vocabulary to match something like a Christian religious service. Additionally, I was excited that I had that opportunity to see what an Arabic Christian service is like.  My friend mentioned to me hat it could be a place to take someone who would feel more comfortable communicating in Arabic than in English. 

Humbled by how little I knew, I thought about how hard it must be for all the Egyptians, Indians, Bangladeshis and others who come to Kuwait and are forced to learn English and Arabic very quickly to survive.  It makes me think more about showing respect and kindness to all foreign workers here, because of all the adaptations they have to make. It was a good experience, and one that I will probably draw from often.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Teachers Outreach: Part 2

The ideas for the teachers outreach seemed like they would be successful, especially handing out invitations to church with candy, providing buses, and having a specific day where people can hang out and eat after the service.  However, it took a lot more work than we originally realized to execute those ideas. 

Some of the things had to be ordered in the USA, since it would be more cost effective to bring them back at the end of summer, rather than ship them.  We ordered a few hundred little gift bags so we could place the candy inside them.  That was relatively easy.  We also planned on buying candy from the stores when we returned from the summer holiday, and one of our church members is a graphic designer and was willing to make the initial welcome cards to church.  So far, everything seemed to be working out okay.

The problem came in actually making the bags and their delivery.  The first problem was myself.  My school year starts a little later than my wife's and most other teachers, and before we had solid ideas for the outreach, I booked my ticket to come back to Kuwait later in September. Therefore, even though I helped create the idea, I wouldn't be there to actually do the work to carry it out.  I felt guilty not being able to help, but I couldn't change the ticket.

Another problem was 'selling' the idea or getting other people from the church involved.  My wife and my friend, Kyle (who helped come up with the idea), ended up doing most of the work themselves.  We didn't plan ahead with building teams to help create and distribute the bags, so it ended up being a lot more work than it needed to be. 

In spite of my uselessness, they managed to get invitations to several of the buildings and I did end up passing one more set out to another building when I arrived.  The next thing to set up was the actual event.  Again, my wife did most of the work in getting gift cards for prize give away, buying the materials needed (plates, silverware, cups, etc.) and organizing the lunch itself with a catering company and church members.

It was a lot of work, but once we got the bags passed out and organized a bus and activities after church, we were excited.  The event itself went pretty well.  We didn't have a LOT of new people come that day, but there were about 10 new people along with everyone else from church. The worship included a lot of familiar songs, and pastor Mark gave a sermon about how we have come to Kuwait for a job, but God has brought us here for more than just money. 

The after-service lunch was also successful.  Some food was catered, along with a lot of food that members from the church brought.   The plates were randomly tagged so a few people would get gift cards, and people just talked and shared a meal together.  I think this is the meaning of community, people connecting together and sharing their lives. 

While we only had 10 new people come, something else happened.  I believe God was working to draw
other people to our service through our outreach in other ways, because as the weeks went by, more and more new people (not just teachers) started coming to our service.  One reason could be because people might have felt intimidated by a large event like that, but were interested in the church. 

By December, we had as many as 25 new teachers attending, with around 15 who were coming regularly.  We also had a regular bus transportation ministry that would pick people up in the area, take them to church, and drop them off afterward. 

I believe God used the seed we planted to bring new teachers to the Jabriya Life Center.  I was really happy to be a part of something that God used to provide access to church in Kuwait.  I believe with providing transportation and the growth of life groups that resulted, many people have felt genuinely more connected to God and have considered church a joy instead of a burden.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Teachers Outreach: Part 1

Living in Kuwait has a lot of advantages.  For example, it's the end of October and the temperature is still in the 80's Fahrenheit, which makes for some excellent days at the beach, something my friends and I occasionally enjoy.  It also never snows, and it doesn't get too cold, which is great.  I would die a happy man if I never had to drive in the snow or walk through sub-zero temperatures again!

There are a few critical disadvantages to living in Kuwait, though, the main one being the dissemination of information.  What I mean is that taking advantage of opportunities in Kuwait is far more difficult than where I'm from in the West.  For example, I have found a good beach in Kuwait that is a lot of fun.  But, there is no website, Wikipedia page, address, GPS coordinates, or anything else of that nature to find it.  I had to literally go with someone who has been there before, which is how he found it as well. 

Another example is with performing arts.  There are actually quite a few musical and performing groups in Kuwait, but the only way to really find out about them is through word-of-mouth.  While there are websites, they are not readily accessible on search engines like Google.  Also, since there are limited and confusing street addresses in Kuwait, you usually have to figure it out on a map, which adds another layer of complexity and difficulty. 

Candy to be put into bags
Unfortunately, this also affects the church in Kuwait.  Because there are only a few addresses to the few churches in Kuwait, it can be really challenging to find and get to a new church.  I've documented some of my own difficult experiences here, but it is sufficient to say that it took a long time and a lot of work to find the church that my wife and I call home.

Because of all this difficulty, I wanted to make a change and a difference.  I wanted to break down the barriers to resistance to getting to church.  I'm not familiar with all the different cultural backgrounds in Kuwait, but I was familiar with Western teachers living in Kuwait, so that is what I wanted to focus on at first.  I wanted to do whatever I could to make it easy for teacher expats to come to church if they wanted to, and I wanted to at least give them access to information about the Lighthouse Church.

I was sitting with a friend at a coffee shop one evening a couple years ago when we came up with the idea to have a sort of 'teachers outreach.'   As we passed ideas back and forth, I figured out that it's relatively easy to access a large number of teachers because many from each school live in the same buildings.  Once we found the buildings, we could easily get information to hundreds of teachers.

Candy in bags!
All we had to figure out then was what to give them.  My initial idea was some piece of paper with the church information and address on it.  As it was further discussed, we decided to put some candy in it to bless people in some small way, so even if they aren't interested in church, they could enjoy the treats.

The idea was further developed that there would be an outreach Friday at the beginning of the school year in September, which would be a week or so after the information was distributed.  There would be a type of potluck lunch after the service, along with some games and prizes to entice new teachers to come to church that day.  We would also find a way to get some buses to pick teachers up for that initial Friday. 

"It's brilliant," I thought to myself on that evening two years ago!  My friend and I (arrogantly) gave each other high fives as we believed that we figured out how to bring in teachers by the droves. All we had to do was put our plan into action once the summer and fall came.  Little did I know how much work that would entail...

Monday, October 21, 2013

Understanding the Church

We had a really good church service on Friday at the Jabriya Life Center. I was hoping to take several pictures during the service, but I felt a little guilty to be taking pictures of people who are devoting their hearts and minds to Jesus while I'm casually taking pictures of those moments. I did manage to take a few, and next week I'll try to get one of the ushers to do it so it's not distracting to myself and to others.

The Lighthouse church has been doing a sermon series about the Apostles Creed and going back to basics in our Christian faith. It has been a powerful series explaining the basic tenets of Christian Life, including the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creation and the Virgin Birth. This week Pastor Mark discussed the "Holy Catholic Church."
Worship at Jabriya Life Center on Friday

While it could be easy to recap the entire message because it was really good, I wanted to highlight two things that were interesting to me being in an international church in  with Kuwait. The first was the number of people previous Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christian backgrounds. Pastor Mark asked how many people came from that kind of background and the majority of the congregation answered affirmatively. In an international congregation with people from Asia, North America, Africa, and Oceania, most of them came from this kind of background.

I believe that these backgrounds are legitimately a part of the Christian faith, but from talking to many people from these backgrounds over the years, the majority would say they were not real Christians. Yes, they followed the rules to the letter, but many of them did not have a heart and love for Jesus as our Savior. As a result, many of the temptations and tendencies of people from these backgrounds are to become too entangled in the rules of Christian faith, rather than the heart of faith. Of course, it is important to follow God's commands, but it's equally, if not more important, to have a love and desire for Jesus that generally fuels these commands rather than out of sheer will-power.

The second highlight from the sermon was when Pastor Mark was discussing the importance and value of the church. He mentioned that the church is an imperfect structure because it has sinful people in it, and that people will fail us, including parents, spouses and friends. The church is no exception.

He then asked how many people have been hurt by someone in the church, and I was blown away at the response. Nearly everyone in the church had put their hand up. It was both heartbreaking and unifying to see the overwhelming response of people who had been previously hurt by the church in our congregation.

The previous week, there was an opportunity for prayer after the service, and I prayed for a young woman who was clearly in distress about being hurt by the church. She didn't give me many details, but she was in tears about it. I happily prayed for her healing and I also encouraged her that the resilience to come back to church after something traumatic like that is a sign of genuine faith in Jesus. In my mind, I thought that was a unique experience for someone in our church, but seeing all those hands demonstrated that her experience is tragically common.

Church Picnic at the park
I believe that the Church will fail people, because it is full of people. I also believe that people should not associate a negative experience with the church as a rejection of Jesus and Christianity. At the same time, it is also critical as the church to be sensitive and strive by the power of Jesus to not cause further damage and to bring healing.

I hope that I can encourage, love and support people in the church through my actions and words. We are taught as children that 'sticks and stones my break my bones, but words will never hurt me.' However, the Bible gives much more weight to the power of words and says that 'life and death are in the power of the tongue.'

As a Christian, I want to be on my guard to not tear people down, even if it's for a humorous purpose. We need to be sensitive and have the church be a hospital for healing, not another courtroom of judgment and damnation, especially in the same household of faith.  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Eid Mubarak!

"Eid Mubarak!"  This is one of the most common greetings I see and hear at this time of year in Kuwait.  For all the schools and universities there is no school; therefore, teachers and students have the week off, including myself.  All the government offices are closed, and most other employees get either the week or at least three days off during this time.

I am no expert in Islam, but I'll try to give my explanation of what it all means.  'Eid' in Arabic means festival.  There are two festivals in Islam, Eid al-fitr and Eid al-adha.  The Eid that is going on now is Eid al-Adha, which means the festival of the sacrifice.  It moves about 10 days forward each year on the Gregorian calendar because Eid al-adha follows the lunar calendar.  This is similar to the rotation of Easter every year because it is based on the Hebrew calendar. 

During this time of the year thousands of years ago, Abraham offered up his first-born son.  Abraham was given the promise of God that he would be the father of a great and powerful nation with descendents as many as the as the grains of sands on the Earth.

Muslims believe that Ishmael, not Isaac, was the son of the promise, but the story is similar to the Bible in other aspects.  He was the only of son of Abraham, and God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son as a sign of his dependance on God for everything. 

Abraham was willing to sacrifice him, and built an alter to do so.  His son was around a teenager at this point, and the thought must have caused terrible anguish.  However, when he was about to bring the knife down on his son to slit his throat in the ritual way to sacrifice an animal, God did something amazing.  He provided a ram in the place of his son, so that the ram would be sacrificed to God instead of his own son.

Getting ready to make the ultimate sacrifice!
Because of this, Muslims all over the world sacrifice an animal, which is usually a cow or a sheep, but their most valuable livestock is acceptable.  This is the same in Kuwait and most often it's a sheep, and on the day of Eid or the day before, there are pickup trucks taking sheep to various places on the highway, ready to meet their certain doom.  On the day of the sacrifice, many families will slit the throat of the animal, and will celebrate and eat.  Many Kuwaitis also give the meat from the animal to the poor as a sign of their willingness to sacrifice what is theirs for God, and will additionally have a butcher do the work and divide the meat.

This is also the end of the annual pilgrimage, or Hajj, when millions of Muslims go each year to fulfill one of the requirements of the religion.  Muslims believe that Mecca is the site where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son.   

It is a holy time for Muslims and most of the week is given off.  Many people travel
Most popular mall in Kuwait
during this time, and those that don't are out and about, either with their families, in the malls, or on the road celebrating, lighting fireworks, and other such festivities.  It's an enjoyable time as long you don't get caught in traffic at night, which could cause your commute home or elsewhere to take hours to complete!

As a Christian, this is a good time for me to pray for my Muslim friends and colleagues.  I try to pray specifically that they will understand that God spared Abraham's son only because God Himself would be willing to sacrifice His one and only son for the sins of the world.  I pray that they would see that Jesus was the ram who took the place of Abraham's son, and that through Jesus they can have assurance of God's love and salvation for eternity.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Eternal Perspective in the Culture of Now

Kuwait is a very rich country, as most people know.  It's the 11th most oil producing country in the world, and it only supports a local population of a little over a million natives.  The oil companies are run by the government, so most Kuwaiti citizens get generous monthly stipends along with a lot of other perks.  Of course, this creates a strong desire and tendency toward materialism and living for the moment. 

It is not only Kuwaitis that get a lot of money, though.  An additional two million foreign national workers also live here in order to make money and enjoy a better life than they might in their home countries.  Kuwait needs servers to work in its hundreds of restaurants, engineers to extract oil and other byproducts, managers to operate the giant malls, military contractors to strengthen its army, and teachers to teach Kuwaitis and other students in school. 

These ingredients create a powerful recipe for materialism and love of money.  This is expressed in a myriad of ways, from Kuwaitis driving Maseratis and Lamborghinis to educators tutoring an additional 20 hours a week on top of their full time jobs.  Many other workers who make less money live together in tiny apartments so they can save to buy their dream house back home.

Unfortunately, I'm not immune to this desire for material things.  When I walk into The Avenues Mall, (which is becoming one of the largest malls in the Middle East), my heart is drawn toward many of the items that are on display.  I'm tempted by all the delicious food from hundreds of restaurants that cater to every taste imaginable.  While I normally dress casually and comfortably regardless of venue, my wife has mentioned the pressure that exists for women to be well-dressed; even the most conservative of women wear 3-inch heels under their abayas (black traditional dresses) and tote a Gucci bag alongside them.

At church, we face this issue because many who are here came to make money, predisposing us to allow money to slide into that "god" position.  And like with every false god, we as humans try to protect it, defend it, and preserve it.  In our sinfulness, we take the words of the Bible and twist them to suit our own agenda- I have been guilty of this on more than one occasion. I have thought in my heart that I don't really have to give sacrificially and I should just give whatever I feel like, avoiding the tithe.  The problem with that was I never really felt like giving anything. 

Thankfully, God has worked on my heart in this area.  I have found myself giving more since I've come to Kuwait.  I am realizing that all these miniature kingdoms that we try to build here in Kuwait or in our home countries do not last.  Even if I kept every fil (Kuwaiti penny) for myself and was able to retire early, I would be unable to hold on to it.  The more I try to save for myself, the more I want, and it becomes a never-ending desire for money.  This is because if I look to money for security, prosperity and happiness, it will never satisfy.  In fact, the more I crave it, the less happy I become.

Only God can provide me security, prosperity and happiness, and I won't necessarily get it in this life.  In a country that lives for the now, I have to really work to focus my mind and thoughts on heaven.  I will get all those THERE, not necessarily here.  I may lose everything here, but I am guaranteed I will get it there.  I have investments, including some in the stock market, and I have found it to be similar to gambling at times because anything can happen.  Investing in eternity is no gamble, however.  It is completely sure and I'll get 100 times what I put in on Earth. Jesus calls us to do this in Matthew 6:19-24.

So, while it feels at times like I'm just throwing away money when I tithe to the church or give to those in need, I need to remember that it is not.  I am worshiping God by giving to Him and breaking that love of money that is so prevalent in the culture here.  I want to build my house on the Rock of Jesus, rather than in the sands of Kuwait and this earth.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Not Your Typical: Part 4

In the last part of the mini-series of my quest to find a church family in Kuwait, I want to discuss what has happened to our service in the Jabriya Life Center. From the Sunday evening service at the main church site to the embassy church to the Jabriya Life Center, it has been quite a journey.

Like I said before, people at the embassy started to slowly slip out from the service.   I found out later that the people from the embassy church found another location where they could have their original pastor. I felt like I needed to stay and be apart of this 'new' church plant and help out the pastor in any way I could.

However, there were many services where there were less than 20 people coming on a Friday morning, including the worship team. I usually sat near the front, and I was scared to turn around because I was afraid no one would be behind me.

It was a difficult in the beginning because there was not a lot of growth. I started a small group with three other people from the church and just prayed that God would bring people to the service. However, it stayed pretty small that year, but a few new people started to come.

My third year, they switched the pastors to have a new pastor come in and take over the service, because
Pastor Mark Ingram
the other pastor, Pastor Dave, was more needed in administrative roles. Pastor Mark was just a few years older than me and had a family, so we got along quite well. He asked me along with a few others to help lead service.

At the same time, a few more teachers started coming. Some came from the building I was living in at my wife's school, and a few more people started through teacher-friends that I have made over the years. The life group really started to expand and grow to the point where we split into two locations for a while. The church grew to around 60 people or so. God was really blessing it, and I was making some really good friends via the life group I led.

The fourth year gave us even more growth. During that year, our church grew in size to nearly 100 people on a given week. It was amazing. Pastor Mark was also drawing a lot of people because of his dynamic preaching and relatively young age, so there were a lot of young adults who started to attend. We started a transportation ministry also that year to help people who didn't have a car, and we did an outreach at the beginning of the year to teacher, which had some success.  Additionally, we did monthly potlucks after the service so people could get to know one another better and to invite newcomers, which was a lot of fun.

One of the sad things is that Kuwait is a transient place, so there are people who have left, including several good friends and life group members. However, last year, we still increased our size to around 120 people, and a few more life groups started in different areas. So, it wasn't just growth in numbers but in spiritual depth and stronger connections. I was given more responsibility in the church as one of the 'elders,' so to speak, and I have really enjoyed being part of this service.

In conclusion, God has been faithful to me and faithful to the Jabriya Life Center over all these years. I can definitely say that Jabriya is my church family, which has made Kuwait more of a home to me each year. Yes, there have been rocky and difficult times, and I'm sure there are more to come, but I also know that God will continue to bless His church in Kuwait.  The Lighthouse Church and specifically the Jabriya Life Center is certainly not your typical American church, but God is working in amazing ways here as well!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Not Your Typical: Part 3

This mini-series has been about my journey to find a Christian oasis in the Kuwaiti desert. I mentioned my attendance at the Lighthouse church Sunday evening service and how it didn't seem to fit, which drew me to the Protestant service at the American embassy where I felt like I was at home.

However, that home was not meant to last. When I came back from the summer into my second school year in Kuwait, the embassy decided to no longer allow religious services to be held on their property. This was a big blow to the people at our church, and also to the people who were attending the Catholic service.

Perhaps the embassy pastor saw the handwriting on the wall before I did, so the embassy church seemed to be ready by providing another venue for the service. It was no longer at the American embassy, but in the district of Jabriya.

Worship Team at Jabriya Life Center
This area has several embassies around it, and it is mostly a commercial area. The place itself is in a Kuwaiti villa, which is a large, three-story house made of stone. Once you park your car across the street, you enter the villa from the back, and you head down a flight of stairs to the basement, which is a large area with enough room for around 180 seats and a stage area for the worship team and pastor. The floor is completely covered with brown, Arabic-designed rugs, and there is an area in the back where people can put their shoes to keep these rugs clean. There are two additional rooms in the back where children's ministry is held. The first floor of the villa had a living-area and a kitchen where people can have tea and coffee afterwards. The upper floors contained apartments for various people, including the pastor.

The name of the extension in this area was called the Jabriya Life Center, and it was rented and controlled by The Lighthouse Church. The embassy church was held at 11:30, so that time slot was held the same when they came to the new location because the Jabriya Life Center did not previously have a service at this time. Additionally, one of the pastors from the Lighthouse were assigned to that service.

So, we had a new pastor, a new location but the same time and many of the same people. However, this didn't last for long. Many of the people who I knew from the embassy started to disappear one-by-one from that service. Also, a few people from the main Lighthouse church location started to attend. It felt pretty disappointing that once we felt like we could finally get comfortable with a service, things were becoming very rocky again. It was as if our desires to find a service that felt like family where we could build close relationships were evaporating in front of us.

However, I felt compelled to stay and help out Pastor Dave with this service, even though the numbers were getting dangerously small. He was the pastor that encouraged me to start a life group when there were none in the service. We appreciated the fact that the service was overseen by the main evangelical church in Kuwait, even though we also were friends with the previous pastor at the embassy. So, with just a few of the original people from our previous service, a new place and a new pastor, we decided to stay and see what would happen.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Not Your Typical: Part 2

I discussed in my last blog post about the beginning of God's plan to put my wife and I in a church where we fit best, and mentioned briefly about some of the difficulties and novelties of a church in a land like Kuwait.

Once we started attending the service on Sunday night's, we did end up meeting someone who God has definitely used in our lives over the years. Her name is Darlene, and she was a huge help for us in our first couple years in Kuwait. Darlene is a spit-fire, no-nonsense Texas woman who was always on the go. She worked full-time, played on the worship team, attended several church services and did about a dozen other things in her weekly schedule.

She was very kind to us and very generous to immediately start giving us rides to church and back because she wanted to help us out. This was extremely helpful, because getting a taxi in Kuwait can be an exhausting experience. Imagine stepping outside into a giant blow dryer on maximum heat. Being outside for anything more than a minute and your clothes are wet from perspiration, so waiting for a yellow cab to approach can quickly become an exercise in patience and stamina.

Even worse than that was once a taxi approached, we needed to communicate where we wanted to go to a non-native English speaker, which can be a daunting task, especially since we lived near a very loud major highway. Additionally, the fact that we have white skin makes them see dinar(name of Kuwaiti money) when they looked at us, so we had to act like we weren't very interested or desperate even though we were about to melt into the pavement, and we had to haggle hard to get a price that was even remotely fair for a Westerner.

Typical Taxi in Kuwait traffic

The very idea of having to do this every time my wife and I wanted to go somewhere got old and difficult very quickly. Needless to say, some of the very first Arabic words I learned were numbers to negotiate price and directions to wherever I was going, which still serve me to this day.

So, the fact that Darlene was willing to pick us up and drop us off from church on Sunday, even though we had to be there early for her worship team practice, was a wonderful relief and made an indelible mark of gratitude on us.

Even so, I didn't feel like I was really fitting in on the Sunday night service. I was genuinely exhausted from teaching all day, and because people immediately had to leave after the service for the next one, it still felt pretty lonely.

Darlene also invited us to attend another church service that was held at the American Embassy on Friday mornings. After checking it out, my wife and I really liked it because our minds were refreshed from getting some sleep at the end of the week, the traffic was a lot less crowded on Friday, there was a bit more time to linger and chat after the service, and there were a lot of Westerners attending. We began making more friends and getting to know the people from the service pretty well. The service was a lot smaller, more traditional music was sung, and the pastor also had another full time job so he didn't get the same opportunity to prepare as the pastors at the Lighthouse, but we believed that this is where we could find a church family. Or so we thought.