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.