Vanya sat on the end of the bed looking subdued. A crowd of mainly strangers were piling into the bedroom he shared with his mother and 3 siblings, one of whom was only a few months old.
Despite the understandable fear of such an intrusion none of them were going to turn away these strangers for they had been welcomed in with some members of the local church. Team Hope have been working with Yuri and the Church of Christ Saviour for nearly 15 years. This year they shipped 17,000 shoe boxes to Transnistria, each one a welcome passport into the heart of a child.
Vanya opened his box and began to loosen up a little. He gave a wow when he saw a picture from the child in Ireland that had put the box together. The best present though was the sunglasses. He put them on and was slow to take them off. He looked cool. And he smiled.
I had heard something of his story before we entered the hovel he called home. His father was an abusive alcoholic who had caused his mother to miscarry. My heart went out to any son of such a man even before I went in.
After handing him the shoe-box I dropped to the floor beside him. I so wanted him to know that the picture his dad had given him of what God was like was so false. But what could I do in such a short time? I prayed and played with him a bit, looked into his eyes and encouraged him with unintelligible words.
There was a nod as we were about to leave as if he had understood something.
I hope he will continue to understand that God his Father loves Him into eternity. There is much hope that he will: Team Hope’s partners in Transnistria are exceptional people. They have a fervent love that carries them throughout the country bringing hope and love wherever they go. Despite their own poverty they are overflowing with joy and abundant giving.
I went out into the car and took a while to process my emotions. And yes I wept.
We’ve only been to a few churches and we have usually spent a long time at each. The last church I attended for 18 years and my wife was there for longer. This current one we have been at for over 11 years now.
The two churches in many ways could not be more unalike. There are many differences but the one difference I want to look at today was their approach to the character of Christians/ God. Holiness v. Grace.
One church very strongly emphasized something that I believe is true from Scripture: It is possible to be “perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” as Jesus commands us to be in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20, 48). In fact the Scriptures tell us how. First be born again (otherwise you can’t even see the Kingdom of God), second consecrate yourself to do the will of God only, third walk in the Spirit, or as John puts it, abide in Him (John 15). And, despite doing this, if you do sin, and everyone sins, then confess your sins and you will be cleansed and can start afresh (1 John 1). Simple really.
The other church very strongly emphasizes something else that I believe is true from Scripture: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world for all time so you can stand before God unconditionally unashamed. It is by believing in your heart that Christ died for you and confessing with your mouth that you are saved (Romans 10:9-10). This is typical evangelical doctrine and, inevitably, there will be a proclamation of that simple Gospel at every service so that people have a chance to encounter God. The hope is that the encounter will then change everything for the person who has it – and very often it does.
Emphasis is the main difference here. An over emphasis on walking in the Spirit or your behaviour as in the first case, can lead to that being the criteria that you are assessed by. The danger is that on entering that church you would first have to behave in a certain way and then show the right beliefs before you (might) be accepted.
However the emphasis in the second church also has its problems. In this case you are accepted no matter what your behaviour is like with the hope that you will believe and then God will then work with you to change your behaviour. However you can be left wondering what difference there is between those going to the church and those who don’t. In some cases their behaviour can seem indistinguishable. It is very messy.
Personally I think the second emphasis is better than the first. But then who wouldn’t prefer grace to holiness?
This is a true story. Sometime in mid 1996 I was in Kiel, Germany at a GSM standards meeting. It was Friday evening and I was on my way home, looking forward to the weekend.
The first leg of the journey was by train from Kiel to Hamburg Airport where I took a plane to Dusseldorf. It was then that things began to become a bit surreal. When I got off the plane I got onto a bus which brought us to a tent/ marquee. Everyone got off the bus and calmly walked into the marquee as if there was nothing unusual about using a tent to receive passengers from an airplane in a first world country. I was wondering was there a special wedding being planned or something.
Things got even more surreal after I entered the tent. The first thing I saw was a conveyor belt with luggage on it. The thing that was different about this conveyor belt was that it wasn’t a loop – if you didn’t get your luggage off it, it fell into an ever increasing pile at the end of the belt! I watched this for a while a bit bemused. I could see the airport employee loading the belt from behind a tent flap. He saw me looking at him with my bag. The dream like nature of the whole experience was reinforced when he pointed at the bag and signed that it was going straight to Dublin, which it was….
I walked on. At this stage it had begun to rain. Water was dripping down between the joints in the marquees. I walked from the arrivals marquee towards a check-in marquee. There was a long line of what looked like hot dog stands stretched out the length of the tent with queues of people at each one.
I walked along the line looking for my flight number. These were written on sheets of paper in thick black felt marker and tacked to the top of each stand. I queued up with some others at the stand with my flight number on it. At the side of each stand was what looked like a bathroom weighing scales with a couple of wires out of it. People were putting their luggage on the scales.
The girl behind the stand looked a bit flustered. She almost seemed to be crying when I asked her what happened: “Oh” she said, “we only got the franchise to manage the Aer Lingus luggage two weeks before the airport burnt down!”
I had been out of the country and had missed the news about the airport burning down. On the 11th April 1996, a fire broke out inside the passenger terminal at Dusseldorf Airport and 17 people were killed. I arrived a couple of weeks later.
Things made a bit more sense now. After getting my tickets I walked on to the X-ray machines which were sitting on pallets on the grass and towards the duty free tent. I pointed at what I wanted for Olive and the woman behind the counter entered the value into a handheld calculator and put my money in a grey petty cash box. I don’t think I got a receipt but then nothing was surprising me much any more. I walked over to the departures tent, found departure flap number 11 and sat down on a wooden form at the back of the area.
Much and all as I wanted to get home I was in no rush to get on the plane so I let the first and second bus leave and got on the third one.
That bus sat on the apron outside the tent and went nowhere. I could see a man remonstrating with an Aer Lingus official further along the apron. I didn’t know it but things were about to get even more surreal…. (to be continued)