What it Means to Church

When God dragged me kicking and screaming back to Charlotte, I began a new season of my life. The sun of that season, which warmed the ground and made things grow, was The Gathering–a nondenominational church meeting in an elementary school gym.

Until The Gathering, I had always attended church. It was as necessary as attending school. The Gathering, however, spurred me on to something more. It wasn’t just a corporate worship event. It was a community of friendly smiles that made me feel like Sunday morning was home–like I had friends even though I was new. They taught me that being a part of the church was so much more rewarding than being a member of a congregation. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to miss a Sunday because I didn’t want to miss the love and support of that relationship.

I can’t lie. I joined their children’s ministry because I thought it’d help me get a job. You know they say connections are key and volunteer work is what builds them. But all that changed in an instant when I showed up the first Sunday to work with kids. Before the service began, Pastor Derwin came back to pray with us. The head of the children’s ministry grabbed me and said, “Derwin! This is the one we have been praying for!” I knew then, that I wasn’t there for me. I can’t describe that feeling–to be needed that much, to be an answer to prayer. It was such a boost in confidence that it stirred a powerful sense of humility in me.

I was a part of the Gathering for eight years, working in the children’s ministry as much as I could. It was the longest I had ever attended a single church. And it was the first time I was really a part of a church.

Through them, I learned of One7 Ministries, which became my passion and the start of my teaching career. I gained invaluable friendships that have lasted through thick and thin. I found loving accountability and genuine connections. Through them, I found what it really meant to church.

The Gathering closed their doors this summer. It was the end of a season for all of us, and God is ushering us on to the next. He has sent us out to bear witness, and all the things we’ve gained from that community will be shared.

So we will “go out with joy and be lead forth with peace (Is 55:12).” …There’s not too many mountains around here, and far more buildings than trees, but… I think the sentiment is still there.

Thank you, Gathering, for your part in my life!

Jacob, Jonah and My One Word

I’m starting off the new year reading The Forgotten God by Francis Chan, and it has taken me all of 2 weeks t realize how terrified I am of the Holy Spirit.

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Some people are afraid that if they call on the Holy Spirit, he won’t show up–that God will remain silent. I am afraid of the opposite. I’m afraid that he will show up. As soon as he does, I know there will be things in my sinful life that he will want to strip from me and there will be things he wants me to do that are not easy, comfortable, or pleasant (and all this coming from a missionary kid who grew up with spiders the size of my hand).

The topic has driven me to wrestle with God for all of January. I know that I can’t say “no” to the Holy Spirit. And I know that he should be the focus for My One Word this year. I can’t ignore him anymore. He’s too much of an integral part of the Bible, salvation, and relationship with God. Even Jesus said that it was better that he leaves us so that the Holy Spirit can come to us. How can I shrug that off?

So out of a sense of Christian duty, I started praying that God would help me want the Holy Spirit (because I was still at the point where I couldn’t just say I wanted him on my own). And then I took a walk to sort through my thoughts, to argue with myself, and wrestle with God about the fears I had for the future.

The truth is, I already know what it’s like to have God pull me into places I don’t want to go and situations I’m not comfortable with. I’ve been a Jonah several times. That’s how I ended up in Charlotte after asking God to send me anywhere in the world except Charlotte.

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I mean, it looks fine from a distance and all…

But after I got over myself, I found that God didn’t actually want me to be miserable. In fact, living in Charlotte was how God managed to give me exactly what I wanted all along, in ways that were far better than anything I had dreamed up for myself. God actually made me happy and gave me a chance to serve him joyfully in a place I never thought I could stand to be in. It was almost like… God was smarter than me or something. And he proved to be a good God. He made me a part of something awesome, gave me meaning, and used my gifts in ways I never thought possible. I helped start a school for God’s sake! (literally, for God’s sake. And at the age of 21, too).

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But being dragged into Nineveh (or Charlotte, or wherever I decide I don’t want to go) wasn’t my only fear when it came to following the Holy Spirit.

I have on my wrist a constant reminder of Christians around the world who were willing to follow the Holy Spirit boldly–even to death.

Coptic Cross tattoo

I keep this Coptic cross as a sign of solidarity with the persecuted church, but there are many times that I wonder if I have the courage to back up my tattoo with action.

It’s not that I’m afraid of death. It’s more a fear of everything that leads up to death. Physical pain, mostly. I’m a wimp. Hell, I whimpered just getting the tattoo!

But as I took my walk/wrestling match with God, he reminded me that suffering isn’t something he sends us through–it’s something he carries us through. Kind of like the famous poem about footprints in the sand, but instead of a peaceful walk on the beach, it’s more like hot coals and beds of nails. (Life is rarely a walk on the beach).

When I was 11 years old, I had guns pointed at my head by a gang that threatened to kill my family and rape us. It was an experience that a lot of people would say they never want to risk going through. The kind that makes people like me (right now) say, “God better not put me in that situation because I can’t deal with that. I’m not ready to follow the Holy Spirit into that kind of thing.”

But I did go through it. It wasn’t easy, comfortable, or pleasant, but I didn’t suffer through it on my own, either. God carried me through. And looking back on it, I would never want that experience–painful as it was–to stop me from being there in Papua New Guinea where my family had the privilege of serving God in an awesome and exciting way.

Which means that these two big fears I have are both things that God has already answered with proof of his goodness. And in retrospect, I can’t be surprised. I already knew all along that God is good and that His ways are better than my ways. I just… forgot.

So with all that said,

Come, Holy Spirit, come.

My One Word for this year is Follow.

Explaining my Tattoo to Kids of the Inner City

Working in a place where everyone and their 30-year-old grandma has a tattoo, it’s been an interesting experience trying to explain mine to them. I thought it was simple to understand. Especially since so many of them understand the significance of a cross.

The difference stemmed from the fact that they think a tattoo should be a part of self expression. It’s very personal. Unless it’s a gang tattoo. Then it’s a part of a group identity and is meant to show loyalty.

“That’s a gang tattoo,” the kids told me in May. “You’re a part of a gang. Or at least a squad.”

“No,” I insisted.

“Yes,” they said. “It’s a tattoo that all these people got to show that their the same, right? That’s a gang tattoo.”

I was baffled (as I often am with these kids), but after I let the idea sink in, I accepted it as a difference in semantics. Since gangs are what they know, their vocabulary to describe what I have reflects that. They don’t understand standing in solidarity with others around the world, but they understand sticking up for a gang brother. And really, the two are the same.

What I mean to say is, I, apparently, am a part of a “gang,” which would make Jesus my gang leader. He’s a very strange sort of gang leader. He says things like, “If someone takes a swing at you, let him take another, too” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.”

It was not the conversation I expected to have over my tattoo, but it has been a fascinating look into the world of my students and a chance to see myself in a new light. I already knew that I was a Citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), an Ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), a Slave of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22), a Prisoner of Christ (Ephesians 3:1), a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a Child of God (John 1:12) and a Friend of God (John 15:15). But now, I have a new identity:

I’m Christ’s Gang Member (my students).

Standing in Solidarity

I got a tattoo.

In this day and age, that can be a mundane statement, or a damming one. I have been talked out of, scared out of and begged out of getting one many times before. To all of those who make that scrunched up and hurt face, I do apologize. I don’t mean to offend.

But this tattoo means more than a western taboo.

My sister, Jodi on the left. I'm on the right.

My sister on the left. I’m on the right.

What it is:

The Coptic Cross is the symbol of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt and has been tattooed on Christian arms, young and old, for centuries now. In a world of religious violence and oppression, the cross tattoo is a symbol of faith and solidarity. It’s a symbol of fearlessness in the face of  terror. And it’s a family crest.
Why the tattoo:
God has blessed me greatly by allowing me to live in a country where it’s safe to be a Christian. In fact, Christianity is so common place that people have a hard time understanding what trial by fire really means. We read about the martyrs of the Bible and we think, “Huh. What saints!” and move on with our lives of soccer games and TV show, comfortable in knowing that no one is going to imprison us or torture us for saying we believe in Christ. Worst case scenario, we’ll get a scoff and an intellectual challenge, which I always enjoy because it makes my brain tingle.
But elsewhere in the world, the scene of the martyrs is still going on. Christians are being killed, and imprisoned around the world today. Sometimes we hear about it and shake our heads sadly for the people we don’t know–who live so far away we should probably pull out a map to find them, if we weren’t too busy looking at kitty pictures on the internet. We call them brothers and sisters in Christ, but we have very little emotional connection to them. We don’t even know their names. And if we heard them, we’d probably bulk at how foreign it sounds. It’s nothing like Paul or John, whom we proudly name our kids after.
In our world of placid comfort and spiritual lethargy, it is important to have a constant reminder of the turmoil and spiritual war going on in the world–something to keep me mindful and alert, to think beyond my own little bubble to the Christian family members around the world.
That’s what this tattoo is: a reminder of my greater family around the world–all who are suffering for their faith. And it’s a reminder of my own identity. I stand with them.

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