I am enjoying my longest stay in the USA since I was a student here 25+ years ago. I have been speaking at the annual missions' conference of a church set in the cornfields of NW Ohio - where my father-in-law is pastor emeritus. The church has been supporting Barby's family in India for 95 consecutive years. It is an honour for me to be here. A few reflections...
1. You gotta love rural America. On my first day here the weekly Bluffton News was published. The front page was blanketed with all the names of students at the local high school and primary school who finished the semester with straight As (or Bs, from memory). Not too concerned about tall-poppies around these parts - and a long way from Saturday sports in New Zealand where team mates take turns winning the 'player of the day' trophy.
2. Inside the front door of the church is a map of the world and pockets to hold the newsletters of the 44 missionaries being supported (by a church of about 500).
The conference lasted from Sunday to Sunday. About 8-12 of these 44 were here for the week, gathering each morning to share and pray together. Then every night of the week (except one) 150+ people in the church came out to hear the missionaries share their story. Incredible commitment. They still run a Faith Promise scheme and after the second Sunday it became clear that they would exceed their goal - at a time and in a place where the economic downturn is really biting.
3. Person-for-person these are the warmest and kindest people you could ever hope to meet. I have just had 9 consecutive evenings in peoples' homes for dinner. I made the mistake of coveting the following text on the dining room wall and Ruth ended up giving it to me...
Speaking of wobbling I remember that my first impressions of the USA 30 years ago were the big cars and the big people. The cars have down-sized a lot, but not the people - except I don't notice it so much now because we have such an obesity problem in NZ.
Speaking of gobbling, it is Thanksgiving this week. I reckon we Kiwis suffer for not having this tradition. I do enjoy the way the default setting for Americans is to be an affirmative, thankful, and positive people. It brought back to mind my early struggles, fresh home from the USA, as a pastor in Invercargill. In the US, if ya done good, you tend to hear about it. In NZ, if ya done good, you tend not to hear about it. From those early days I determined to be an enourager and a thanker of others, demonstrating that it doesn't give people 'big heads' and that the occasional (humble) tall poppy ain't such a bad idea. But gee, I've ran out of gas on that one a few times and not sure how successful we can be swimming against this strong cultural tide.
4. One of the reasons for #3 for me in Bluffton, is the esteem in which my father-in-law is held. I've lived with him for two weeks. I never knew someone could be so godly - selfless and caring and serving. He takes every opportunity to pray. He rings every single person on their birthday. At 87 he still makes personal contact with more than 25 people each week. He is on the go from morning until night. His example is one of the reasons why I am deeply convinced that the first principle of (pastoral) leadership is to love people. I watch the way his love opens people up to God.
5. Some of the mission work is local - for example, in the prisons. The guy was telling me that not since Stalinist Russia has there been a country with such a high rate of incarceration. He told me that if a guy gets an underage (that age being 18) girl pregnant, it doesn't matter what the circumstances, if either the mother or the father of the girl chooses to press charges then the guy is likely to be put away for 10 years AND carry the stigma of being a 'sex offender' for the rest of his life, with every single computer record carrying the information. In fact this prison-worker receives a postcard every six months notifying him that a sex offender is living in his area with the address of the person being given.
6. With my visit being so soon after the elections I determined that the wise course of action was not to use the O-word while I was here - and it wasn't until well into my second week here that I heard the word on anyone's lips at all. It has been fascinating. When they do speak of Obama in this conservative pocket of rural USA it is with such a dismissive disdain - not that different to the tone with which George W. Bush gets treated in NZ.
7. The stability of the community is remarkable - as witnessed by the same names appearing again and again on the headstones and the inter-marriage being the stuff of legend! And no matter how challenged Americans think they are by their culture it never fails to amaze me just how much Christianity intrudes into public life. Radio. TV. Community events. Church buildings. Christians are everywhere it seems. But I do wonder how much energy is spent conserving something that is as cultural as it is Christian. And I do wonder if the channel tends to be tuned - again and again - to maintenance rather than to mission. There are huge down-sides to having a homefield advantage in the marketplace of religions. Isn't that what Christendom taught us?
now that I have set a record for my longest post ever, I shall quit!