Recent events have got me thinking about this... It is perilous to write about yourself. I look back at differenet events of my life and I know that they way I describe them today is nothing like I would have described them 5 years ago.
It is God's great pleasure to transform us into the image of Christ or to form Christ in us. Nearly 4 years ago God started something new in my life and I have experienced a radical reset in my life as a disciple. He graciously revealed things about myself that I had ignored up to that point. This produced greater peace in my life. It has humbled me. It has allowed me to proclaim with Paul, "For to me to live is Christ". There are times when I wonder how I lived before. I also wonder how people put up with me. I'm thankful for the grace that was extended to me.
The changes also made me rethink my relationship to those who support us... It has freed me up to be thankful. I saw how my lack of thankfulness and my assumption that people would support us financially stemmed from a sense of entitlement. As if somehow I deserved it. How lost I was.
It also made me realize that relationship we have is a type of covenant. Something that binds us together that is deeper than friendship. We are fellow workers for the sake of the Gospel. What an immense privilege and blessing.
I thank God for this grace. I thank him that he has opened my eyes to the beauty of this fellowship for the sake of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I will at times ask myself "Why are you doing this?" Then there will be days like last Sunday (May 26)... In the photo you see my running partner Henri Andriamanantena. Henri is more than a running pattern he is my faithful friend and brother in Christ.
Yesterday we went for a run and the whole time we were together was spent praising God and talking of his goodness.
One of the reasons I run is to spend time with Henri. Henri was an elder at the CEP when we arrived over 12 years ago. Over the years our friendship has grown.We have served as elders and together we have laughed and cried on so many occassions.
For both of us running symbolizes so much of what our faith is about, endurance, results that get better over time, managing pain, developing good habits...
So in the end I do know what it is about. It is just one thing that points to something greater. It is one thing that brings to brothers together.
There's one other thing that it symbolizes, we won't always run together, schedules don't mesh, work commitments, even the reality that one day we may move away. We know that in this life there will be many separations, many good byes. One day this will all pass. One day we'll be together forever in our Lord's presence.
So we keep in mind the fragility of the moment and the hope of an eternity with Christ. We thank God for each steps that we can take together.
I shared a meal with a brother in Christ today. We eat together once or twice a year and we've been doing this for nearly ten years. What a joy it is to see the life of Christ grow and develop in each of us. It reminded me of many of the things I read in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book "Life Together".
Here's one quote...
“What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”
That describes what I experience with my brother.
A brief history of the ICG’s involvement with the Roma…
From the earliest days of the ICG, members have reached out to the Roma living in Grenoble. In the fall of 2010, the individual actions became known to a wider circle. The first time a Roma family came to church was due to the hospitality and care Wendy Chorot demonstrated to Nicolae and Maria Calman and their family. The relationship grew and a number of ICG members acted in very tangible ways to help the Calman family (odd jobs, food and clothing, warm meals, etc.). In early January of 2011, responding to the Calman family’s dire living conditions, the Association St Paul was contacted and they helped get housing for the Calmans (as well as another Roma family). Through the generosity of the church, the apartments were furnished. This was in January/February of 2011.
The contact with the Calmans and the Association St Paul opened other opportunities. Rapidly the church moved to create the Association Familiale Protestante du Grésivaudan, AFPG (March 2011). Different efforts were undertaken by members of the church to respond to the needs of the Roma in Grenoble: food and clothing distribution, administrative help, visiting homes, Vacation Bible School (August 2012), crisis assistance. While Sylvie and I have carried much of this work, many in the church have helped.
In the fall of 2011, it became clear that we needed help and I made an appeal to the Grenoble churches. Pascal Bonnaz, a pastor at the Chandelier Church in Grenoble, responded and informed me of a prayer meeting that was going on in one of the Roma camps at St Martin d’Hères. I attend this meeting for the first time on December 11, 2011. That experience opened a new door of ministry that was completely unexpected.
Over 20 people were squeezed into a caravan that measured 2 meters by 3 meters. The evening consisted of songs, prayers (everyone prayed at the same time and very loud) and the preaching of the Word, many times. Anna Boninsegni a member of the Chandelier Church who is from Romania coordinated the meeting. At the end of the evening, I was sitting next to a man named Christi who spoke French. When asked what the Roma needed most, he said, “Someone to teach us the Bible.”
Sylvie and I joined Anna in her work to organize services for the Roma. This continued till June of 2012 when the camp where we met was destroyed. The destruction of the camp was a part of a systematic program carried out by the government to remove the Roma from their shantytowns. In the previous year there had been sporadic expulsions. For the next 6 months there were many expulsions creating a series of crises that needed urgent attention. During this time were unable to get a regular meeting organized.
Beyond the assistance for the weekly Sunday services, a number of specific actions have been organized as well as ongoing relationships with a great number of Roma. In August of 2012 a Vacation Bible School was organized with help from Nick and Annie VanWingerden who asked Mike and Elvira Babcock, International Teams missionaries in Romania, to come and help us. This was a great success and highlighted once again the spiritual hunger of this people. The AFPG also organized a Christmas gift distribution. The AFPG has continued to support some families (Grancea and Calman).
In January of 2013, a number of Roma indicated they wanted to hold services as in the past. The Sunday evening meetings began anew with an important change. The number of attendees had grown. Since the new start there have been meetings where over 40 adults have been gathered.
This new start pushed us to seek out new assistance for the work. There was a need for a place to meet. Anna Boninsegni approached the leaders of the Chandelier Church to ask if they could provide this. They agreed and the group now meets on Sunday evenings from 5pm to 7pm at 33 ave de Vizille, Grenoble. The advantage of this location is easy access by tram.
There is also a need for better organization. I came into contact with a Romanian pastor, Mircea Detestan, who is a coordinator of a number of ministries in Romanian. One of these ministries is called EBE-Romania. This is a leadership-training ministry that was established in the early 80s. Mircea graciously agreed to visit Grenoble. During his visit he communicated clearly with the Roma leaders on the need to get organized and trained. He helped to write up a plan for the development of the Roma church that will be called Eglise Philadelphie. It was also agreed that I would coordinate this initial stage.
It is important to note that the Roma as a people group have been despised, rejected and hated for centuries. They represent “the least of these” that Jesus talks about in Matthew 18. We are amazed to see the strong faith that exists among those we serve. God’s grace is amazing.
There are times when I wonder if we can continue in this way. There is uncertainty in all we do. Sylvie and I are limited by language and time. We as a church have the same limitations. The situation for the Roma is extremely precarious. On the other hand, too much has happened and too many relationships have developed, we cannot turn back.What we do know is there are precious brothers and sisters in Christ who need to be affirmed and built up in their faith. There are many who need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate together our common life in Christ, amazing things happen. The world will know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another.
One of the great things about serving in Grenoble is the cooperation that exists between churches and ministries in the city. There is a campus ministry that seeks to reach the 80,000 students in Grenoble. A year ago the ICG took the lead in supporting a food bank for needy students.
This service is a partnership between our the association the enables our deacon's ministries (Association Familiale Protestante du Grésivaudan), the campus ministry and the Isère Food Bank. Every 2 weeks we serve over 70 students with around 3lbs of groceries. Many of the student who come are foreigners in Grenoble of their studies.
Since the beginning of January I've taken the lead in organizing the project. This is a lot of fun as I get put in place the structure that allows this to happen. The distribution is held in the campus minsitries house that is right next to the campus and their is enough room to welcome the students with some snacks. During there are opportunites to speak with the students and to connect them to the truth that brings new life.
The preacher's hands and his Bible kept drawing my attention. I'd look at them then I would ponder my hands as they rested on my Bible. His Bible was worn and tattered from use and exposure. His hands revealed the same reality, a life filled with hardship. My Bible was clean and showed few signs of use. My hands, we won't go there...
I'm sitting next to Viorel an itinerate preacher from Romania. Before us sit a group of 25 Roma gypsies gathered to sing, pray and hear the Word preached. As Viorel moves through his message I listen intently. After two years of hearing Romanian spoken I'm beginning to catch a few words. Yet my mind will wander. I'll look out into the crowd and see these dear ones who love Jesus and long for his return. Their lives spent trying to find enough to eat and a place to lay their heads. What can I do? How can I help?
Then I look again at his hands and Bible. They are dirty. Not like when my hands get dirty and I can just wash it off. No, they are dirty as when you don't have access to water and you can only rinse them off from time to time. The Bible too.The pages have been turned hundreds of times by the same hands. Many passages are underlined. He moves effortlessly from one text to the next exhorting and imploring his hearers to live a life worthy of their calling, to be content.
At first it seems preposterous. How can he implore these dears one to live a life of contentment when to be content means to have little to eat, to live in fear of being throw out on the street and to know that most people just want you to go away. But that's what the Gospel teaches us. Our lives are hidden in Christ, in him we are complete and benefit from every spiritual blessing. We can share the same contentment and our station in life doesn't change that one iota. In fact this opens my understanding to what James wrote...
"Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower." (James 1:9+10)
With hands that are so different we hold on to the same thing. Jesus brings us together. Jesus makes us one. In him we are equals. His life is our life.
Yesterday (Sunday March 17th) the CEP and the ICG had a combined service. We squeezed 100+ adults and children into our building. It was great! We are now in our 7th year of partnership and these services are an important part of our life together. For the combined services during this school year the messages are prepared by preachers from both churches. We are using James' letter as the basis for these messages.
Yesterday's message focused on joy in our trials. We actually broke up into small groups to talk about some of the trails we have faced. It is great to see how the two churches interact during these moments. On a personal note were very pleased with Pascal as he served as the translator. He handled both French to English and English to French.
The two churches are going to have a great opportunity in the months ahead to grow in their partnership, we need a new building. We look to God to provide for all our needs and know that he will lead us in this search.