Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Things You See In Church

Usually, when I am preaching, I am well prepared, I have clear notes, I know what I am doing and I am generally in command of the situation. But there was one occasion when I nearly did lose my way.
I was speaking one Sunday morning in Bethel CRC Church in Papua New Guinea. I was well into my message when I noticed a young woman sitting in full view on the end seat of the third row breast-feeding her baby. But that wasn’t what put me off. I guess I expected that sort of thing to happen in a place like Port Moresby.
It was when she reached down into her string bag and pulled out a bottle of Coke, raised it to her lips, pulled off the crinkled metal cap with her teeth and began to drink, with the baby still suckling at her breast, that I confess I did find it difficult to concentrate.
The next week, in a village congregation, the missionary pastor next to me was praying with a dear older woman. He laid hands on her head, his eyes closed as he prayed. The woman began to cry. So she just grabbed the bottom of her tee-shirt and pulled it up to wipe away her tears. It would have caused a stir in church in Sydney.
On another Sunday at Bethel, I was asked to speak on giving. After I had finished the message, and we were singing a song of praise, I felt that even though we had already had the regular offering, we should now have another. I leaned over and whispered to Barry Silverback, the Australian missionary who had pioneered the church, what I was thinking.
‘If you hadn’t suggested it, I would have,’ he replied.
He organised a couple of the deacons to bring some large plastic buckets from the kitchen. They found half a dozen and placed them across the platform.
‘I believe it would be good for us to give again today,’ I announced. ‘I think God has spoken to us all about being generous. So I am going to ask you to leave your seats, come forward and place your offering in one of these buckets.’
I knew that many of the people had no more money in their pockets – to be honest, some didn’t even have pockets. They were not a rich congregation. So I continued, ‘You may not have any money here today or you may not be able to give for some other reason. If that is the case, will you just come forward anyway, hold your hand over the bucket and open it as if you were dropping something in. In this way you will be saying to God, “Father, if I had something I would give it. This is my act of faith that you will provide so next time I can give.”’
The following few minutes were deeply moving. The people crowded to the front. Many of them did give. Others just did as I suggested – they simply held an empty hand over the bucket and acted as if they were putting money in. They were giving spiritually if not materially. It was an exceptional offering in every way.
I heard later that throughout the following week a stream of people dropped into the church office with extra gifts and that some had drawn out significant amounts from their bank accounts to do so.
There was a principle there that can be applied to other situations as well. For example, if we don’t feel loving but we need to show love, we act as if we are loving, and wonderfully, that’s what we become. If we don’t feel joyful, but realise our need to rejoice, we rejoice anyway and joyful we become.
A week later, I noticed a man in church who had grotesque and ugly swellings all over his face and arms. I don’t know what they were but some of the lumps were as big as golf balls. Others were more like marbles. I shivered involuntarily and wondered if it was contagious and whether physical contact with him could be risky.
Later, during communion, Barry Silverback invited us to serve each other with the bread and the cup. This required us all to leave our seats, exchange both our glasses and the small piece of unleavened bread we held in our hands. As soon as he said this, I knew I had to go to that man to serve him – and to be served by him. This would mean drinking from the cup he grasped in his malformed hand and eating the bread he held between his diseased fingers. My natural reaction was to shrink back from him. Surely I could serve one of the missionaries or one of the better-dressed and healthier people? But the Spirit’s leading was clear. It was this man and only he.
I stepped down from the platform and walked directly to where he was standing. There were no words between us, just a simple act of sharing bread and wine. It was a memorable moment.
Looking back, I suppose it was a small thing to do, but at the time, given his terrible affliction coupled with the health risks that always face international travellers, especially in less developed countries, it seemed difficult enough. (It never occurred to me to wonder if I might pass on some infection to him!) As it happened, I suffered no ill effects. And neither, I hope, did he.
This divinely foolish incident was a reminder to me once again of the wonderful love of Jesus. He, too, stepped down, a lot further than I did. He emptied himself, the Bible says, left heaven and took the form of a man. He shared much more than food with us. He took upon himself our sinful humanity, with all its deformities and blemishes, and carried it himself, in order that we might no longer bear the infection and septicity of our sin, its corruption and corrosion removed forever. It was as if in some wonderful way I could have deliberately taken that man’s affliction and knowingly made it mine so that he might forever be free.
I don’t remember what I preached on that day. But I vividly remember what happened. It was a sermon without words. And it was preached to me.

Barry Chant

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Barry Chant is a regular speaker at church services, seminars, conferences and conventions. Hundreds of thousands of his books have been sold around the world. He has degrees in arts, theology and ministry, a diploma in education and a PhD in history. He was the co-founder and former president of Tabor College, Australia.

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