I spend two hours most Friday nights in a sanctuary. It seats 15.
It’s nearing midnight as I drive down the highway at 70 mph (okay…75 mph). The driver’s side window motor on the church van broke month’s ago. We’re finally trying to fix it. Wires and hardware from inside the door are visible next to my leg after removing the door panel. A wood 2×4 sits wedged vertically inside the door panel, preventing the van window from slamming to the bottom. But I mis-measured. The window has a 1-inch crack in the top, so loud wind is blowing inside. The smell of delicious home-cooked Indian curry still clings to our clothing. My ears fill with sounds of English and various dialects from India. On my right sits a soft-spoken young Indian man, curious about all-things-American. I concentrate on understanding simultaneously understanding his accent without being able to read his lips, my eyes directed on the highway.
At 11:30, we drop off the last Indian college student and drive 30 minutes back home to Southwest Fort Worth. We pull into the parking lot. My Indian friend and pastor opens his car door to drive home. It’s cold outside. I reach for my house keys to quietly slip inside, wherever my wife and little boys are sound asleep.
I’m driving to our church building on a Saturday morning. We don’t yet live in the parsonage house on church property. We’re in apartments a mile away, working for an apartment ministry that plans resident activities. On my short commute, I pass a park and see Indian men playing cricket in the field. They play every Saturday and the occasional Sunday. At least, I think they’re Indian. But they could be Pakistani. I guess I should find out.
(A year ago, I planned to walk my dog at the park when I knew the men would be playing. As I pass by, I yelled out what must have sounded like an extremely strange question, “Are y’all Indian or Pakistani?” Indian).
I see many Indians in our neighborhood. I see the Indian women taking strolls in their saris, traditional Indian clothing made with abundant amounts of colorful fabric. I pass them in the grocery store. Occasionally, I see them walking slowly with a deer-in-the-headlights look and assume they must have recently moved to the United States. And we even serve them food during events in our apartment clubhouse. With our Indian apartment neighbors, we’re privileged learn their stories. Most traveled here on short-term contracts with their companies. They’re happy to take unfamiliar assignments in the United States, because it looks good on their resumes when they travel back home to India.
Whenever I see them, I smile warmly and then offer up a short silent prayer: “Lord, give me a pastor who can help me tell these dear people about Jesus.”
God answered my prayer for an Indian pastor. I’m driving our church’s 15-passenger van. But it’s lately been a 2-5 passenger van. The bench seats sat in our gym much of the summer. We removed them and transformed our van into a furniture delivery vehicle.
Our Indian pastor and his family arrive from Kansas City in a couple of days. With the help of summer interns, we’ve moved furniture countless times. We’ve filled the van with donated items from homes and storage units, purchased used furniture from storage lockers, thrift stores, and Craigslist. The interns and I load it in the van, and then carry it upstairs in our gym, where a few rooms sit filled with household items. Children from our summer day camp and feeding program ask why we’re carrying mattresses into the gym.
I spent hours hunting for a rental house for the family. Two days before they arrive from Kansas City, we fill their new home with furniture.
I’ve introduced our Indian pastor, Premal, to a contact I have with Baptist Student Ministries at a university where an estimated 4,000 Indian students attend. Premal’s entire family begins making the 30-minute drive to the BSM’s weekly International Student night. God gives them great favor. They play ping-pong, eat pizza, and meet invite Indian.
In October Premal began their weekly Friday night meals in their home. Which brings me back to this cold November night…
Each week, we make the 30 minute drive to pick up a van-full of Indian students and drive 30 minutes back to southwest Fort Worth. We then spend hours eating authentic Indian food, a real treat for these young people so far from home. We close our time as we began it, with prayer. About half the students are Christian. The either half either claim Hinduism or no faith at all. Premal has carefully planned these fellowships. The opening and closing prayers to Jesus make clear his family follows Jesus; the casual intervening time makes clear the family will not force their faith upon their guests.
My status during these weekly visits ranges between “honored guest” and, my preferred status of, “silent observer.” This time was not created for me. Non-English conversations swirl around me. Smells from recipes which originated thousands of miles away fill the air. The customs are Indian, not American. The goal is to make the Indian students feel at home, not me. This is as it should be. I’m simply the van driver.
And as I drive, I worship.
Sometimes I worship when I walk into a building intended for Christian gatherings, such as a church building. Such times are vital to the Christian faith.
And I enjoy the times I’m overwhelmed with emotion as I worship through song. The emotions that spill out through my tear ducts as I sing praise to God remind me of the One who created my emotions. Why shouldn’t I express love to him with the very emotions He created?
Other times, however, I’m invited into worship in thoroughly non-churchy environments…such as an unattractive 15-passenger van with a broken window, missing a door panel…while I’m chauffeuring college students who don’t own vehicles.
I drove a school bus while college and grad school. And my training kicks in when I drive the van. I drive with a laser-focus on the road and cars around me. I dedicate all my mental effort to safely transporting a van full of people on a busy interstate. In other words, it’s a rather emotionless time. Tears never well up in my eyes. I have no wish to raise my hands in worship. I don’t get ‘Holy Spirit goosebumps.’ I can’t say I’ve ever “felt” God’s presence in the same way I’ve “felt” it during a worship service. There’s never any worship music playing on the radio. And, yet, I know God is present. I know I’m in a sanctuary. I’m worshiping Jesus.
Friday, I started volunteering at an elementary school. I helped two first graders, quite behind in Reading, work on alphabet recognition and simple sight words, like ball, cat, and dog.
Minutes before I meet with my first students, I’m in a 10-minute meeting with the school principal. When I shake her hand to leave, I’ve agreed to find more volunteers, start a School Dads program, and adopt a family of 6 children who need Christmas presents.
A first-grade teacher gave me two packs of flash cards. In two 30-minute segments, I tutored a child in the school library. Both children fidgeted non-stop in the sturdy oak chairs. It’s as though the little girl’s legs were a wind-up toy. Her feet cover every imaginable inch of territory, other than directly on the floor beneath her chair.
My second student was a 6-year old boy with a speech impediment. I assumed we’d breeze through the alphabet flash cards and move on to the sight words. He recognized about half of the alphabet.
Our oldest son has known his entire alphabet since he was 3. I suddenly realized how humbling it is to volunteer my time helping others learn a concept that is entirely fundamental for me.
For one hour, I got a taste of Jesus’ entire life. Jesus came to be our Teacher. The entire human race couldn’t understand the Fundamentals their Creator laid out for us long ago.
God-In-Flesh came to teach us the ‘Remedial Humanity.’
Long ago, we should have learned such fundamental concepts as “God is Love,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “it’s better to give than to receive.” Even a people group who walked with God for centuries, the Jews, needed to re-learn basic concepts about the God they worship.
The night before Jesus died, Philip, one of his disciples asks Jesus to show him the Father. But Jesus replies, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
It’s as though Jesus’ entire life was a living flash card with the word “God the Father” below it.
But Philip doesn’t make the connection.
Jesus of Nazareth, the very embodiment of God, came to earth to serve. In fact, he says this very thing: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).
On the same night of Jesus’ famous last supper, he washed his disciples’ feet. Few tasks were as humbling in ancient times as washing sandal-clad feet that may have just waded outside through animal or human waste.
And then, in John 13:14, Jesus spoke these words: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher (emphasis, mine), have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
While leaving the elementary school Friday morning, I passed a Nativity display in someone’s front yard. Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds gathered around baby Jesus.
I remembered the angelic heavenly host who first sang in earshot of those Shepherds, “Glory to God in the Highest.”
It’s Christmas, so let us continue loudly singing our praises to God. When we sing the majestic Christmas hymns, we follow in the footsteps (or wing flaps) of those angels.
And let’s reenact the great Nativity scenes. Let’s exchange gifts, remembering those first Wise Men who understood it is better to give than receive. Let us raise our hands in worship. Let us shout and weep with joy at the forgiveness Christ provides.
But, let’s remember it is our “God in the Highest” who chose to act as lowly Foot Washer…and commanded us to do the same.
Let us also remember our worship is incomplete if we do not obey Jesus’ command to serve one another.
Yes, ‘imitation’ really is the ‘best form of flattery.’ And, when it comes to Jesus, it’s also the best form of worship.
When I spend hours driving a beat up church van to pick up lonely Indian college students who don’t know Jesus, I am worshiping the Newborn King, who came to seek and save the lost and commanded us to make disciples of “all nations” and not just “my nation.”
And when I, a white man, spend time teaching little Black boys and girls how to read, I am worshiping Jesus (my teacher), by following his example of lovingly interacting with all people, not just his own race.
When I serve others with no expectation of being served myself, I am worshiping Jesus. When I visit someone sick and lonely in the hospital or nursing home, just to be with them, I’m following the example of Immanuel, “God with Us.” When I serve the least of these, I am serving–worshiping– Jesus.
When you understand that ‘Service to others’ is ‘Obedience to Christ,’ then the simplest acts become opportunities for worship.
A deck of flash cards becomes your hymnal. A library chair becomes your pew. Your steering wheel becomes an instrument for praise. And a church van becomes your sanctuary.
Brothers and Sisters,
This Christmas season, and all our lives, let us worship not only through song, but through service in the name of Christ.