From Asbury to Africa…


As many of you know, we have reached a level in our giving  at Asbury where we can now give serious consideration of what type of pew Bible will replace the aged versions that currently find their home at our church.   

I am not sure whether it was a desire to insure that every last penny that came through our coiffeurs was used for mission and ministry,  or how we grabbed the commitment to old fashioned yankee frugality with both hands, or more likely  some combination of the both that led to the current battered state of our pew Bibles, but it became clear that we were extremely overdue to replacing the pew Bibles at Asbury.

What is exciting is that we have lined up passage for those Bibles in the best condition, on a container of goods going to a small African village whose parishioners are in dire need of them.   Even though they are looked upon as pretty beat up when they sit in a pew in New Hampshire, they certainly will be treasures on a shelf in a family’s home in Africa. 

That alone gives me some pause.  

I look around at Asbury –  a church that prides itself on the proper balance of mission and stewardship – and I wonder how many things that we look right past or that hideaway in some shadowed corner, that would be a prized possession in a different area of the globe.

 Does my desire to replace these beat up old Bibles say something about me?  

What does it say that these things, which I have been arguing speaks volumes to the visitor who joins us on a Sunday, are worth more than gold or silver to those on the other side of our planet.

 I recently read about a ministry whose sole mission is to provide Bibles to people in the poorest countries of Africa.  

The ministry receives requests with sometimes as many as two dozen names in each letter.   There are whole communities and churches that share a single small and torn copy.   For these people, that Bible is the tie that binds them all together.    That Bible forms the center of everyone’s worship, and study.    Hundreds of hands have held it, and countless fingers have travelled its pages.

If you step back and consider it for a moment, it’s hard not to be awed by the significance of an entire village or church sharing a single Bible.   Thousands of miles away, you and I gather in worship at our churches each week, and we too are called to unify and gather around the pages of our Bible too.   For us is symbolic and maybe to some degree a goal never quite attained.  

There are countless statistics that might even suggest that Bible reading in the US is a myth. 

There are some reports that have less than 10% of Christians ever having read the Bible completely through.   Less than 25% of the country, according to Gallup, read the Bible more than once a week.    Almost 40% of those who call themselves Christian will state that they never read the Bible.

Now let’s make the giant geographical jump to the portion of our world where faith is growing the quickest, and coincidently people are struggling with intense and overwhelming poverty.  In places like Tanzia, Liberia, and Nigeria people are surviving on less than $1.00 per day.   Their children are underweight, most don’t go to school, and many won’t survive until adulthood.  

Crime, corruption, and violence is widespread. 

You would think that hope is a rare commodity in these places.  You would think that people live depressed existences in these parts of the world.   You would think sorrow would prevail.   

You would be wrong.

Folks who visit this part of the world from ours, will almost always unquestionably return torn with emotions.  

They will see and experience a hardship like no other.   They will see the impact of filth, disease, and dirty water all around them.   They will see the impact of warring neighbors and political corruption everywhere they go.   But they will also report that there is a sense of joy and hope that’s second to none.

Maybe they will point to the poor family not realizing how bleak their existence is.   They might say that there is joy, hope and celebration because they don’t know what they are missing.  

There are those that point to the fact that when you lack the ‘material’, you learn to treasure the truly important.  

In the end, others point to the church, and to the pages of that single torn Bible as the source of their hope.

Church is done differently there than it is here.   Church is not the passing idea for a Sunday morning; church is their identity.    It’s not a place to go and watch, but a place where one is active and involved. 

 It’s not something that is chosen by how good one’s butt feels in the pew, how good the coffee is, or how comfortable the pastor and worshippers make someone feel.  It’s all day.  It takes hours to make the trek to the small shack with the cross above the door.   It’s spending all day and into the night signing, learning, praising and praying.  It’s about huddling around those worn pages and listening to what God is telling them.

Church is not something that is chosen out of convenience or because they have always done it that way.   It is chosen because of a calling deep down in their gut to experience the richness, the completeness, the holiness, and the perfection of the message contained in that battered book.   Church for them is seeking out that message while they stand neck deep in the chaos and pain of poverty.

Now in order to get you to think differently about this for just a few minutes, lets quickly hop back to the here and now of 2012 New Hampshire.  

Let’s pretend that you and I had a mission this afternoon.   You graciously and lovingly decide to assist me with that ever growing “honey do” list that Stacey has laid out for my weekend.   Although I cringe that I will never be able to tackle that listing in its entirety, you see me roll my eyes and hear me vent, and together we decide that there are things you can help me with.   

Number One on that listing is the item listed as “Clean up your office”.   

Truth be told, I don’t have an office.   I have a corner of the basement with a work bench that has been taken over by a printer  and stacks of files and paperwork.  

On either side of that workbench are book shelves overflowing with all my “church” books.   There are commentaries, theological textbooks, and classic Christian writings.    Some are well worn from frequent reference, but most remain untouched.   They sit there filling two purposes:  1.) waiting for the day that they will eventually be used and 2.) to drive Stacey nuts.

That corner does indeed drive her nuts.   It always has the appearance of clutter or work in progress, as I am not always as diligent as I should be in keeping it orderly.   Let’s suppose that somehow you are convinced that you need to accompany me on this organizational journey, and today we are going to tackle that corner. 

There is one thing that I can say for certain, you would walk away from that undertaking convinced – as I am – that every single piece of paper is critically important… and that one man should not possess so many Bibles.

 Together, I am certain that we could cull upwards of thirty Bibles from those basement shelves.     There sitting among the commentaries and text books are Bibles in every version and style.  There are a few that are pocket sized, and one is a set of twelve volumes each two inches thick.  A few of those Bibles would be tattered and worn from frequent reference, but many more would sit there never having been touched.

It has been said that there are over 6 billion Bibles in existence today.    In the US, some estimates have 80-90% of homes having at least one.   That’s no surprise as upwards of 150 million are sold each year.   That figure is equal to ten times the numbers of vehicles sold in the country each year.   And when it comes to me, I am one of those shoppers who love to buy Bibles.  If there is a new version with a pretty cover, or some nice bound leather front, its coming home with me.  It’s as simple as that.

 As I think on the battered ones awaiting replacement at Asbury, the ones on the shelf in my basement, and the ones that sit in various places in the homes of our neighbors and friends, I can’t help but think of the small church with a single Bible, and those that huddle around it in joy. 

I think about a town writing a letter with 24 people filling out their name, hoping to be added to the list of people who might receive just one Bible, probably much like these beat up versions. 

As I think about it, I can’t help but feel they do this church thing different.   I can’t help but think they approach scripture different.   I can’t help but come to the conclusion that they do it right.

As I researched the mission and ministry of shipping Bibles, I discovered a moving interview by one involved with a similar program.    He talked about the reverence and the hopefulness that overcomes a village when Bibles start arriving.    For some, this becomes their sole possession, beyond the everyday tools of existing.   He spoke of a true sense of elation that came with the Bible’s arrival.

They even have a special service to celebrate the moment when they arrive.  

It’s called something akin to the “Service of Witness and Evangelism”.   Now his particular ministry worked directly with the church or pastor of the village where the Bibles where to be delivered.   When they arrived the pastor would send children announcing a special celebration was to be had.

When the time arrived, he would line up those who received the Bibles outside of the church.    They would stand, Bibles in hand and waiting.   Soon people would be gathering around them.   They would sit on mats, or in whatever shade they could find, and they would wait.  Only when the crowd was gathered and silent would the pastor begin.

He would raise the church’s bible over his head, and as he did a silence would spread across the crowd.  After what seemed like an eternity, he would release his booming voice and call out the first chapter of Genesis from memory; 

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light

Without missing a beat, the man, woman, or child to his right would continue where the pastor left off.   From there the readings would continue for 80 hours as the entire Bible was read, to the assembled crowd, cover to cover.   

That was what they called their service of evangelism and witness, and what they were doing was saying to all those gathered that before those Bibles made their way home, to some shelf in their houses it became, through the spoken word, the property of their neighbors and their community.

We need to remember that.

We need to be reminded that Scripture is treasure.    It is a blessing that countless people are dying to have, dying to keep, or have died to give to you.   It is not something that should sit on a nowhere shelf in some dark corner of our living rooms – or our basements -gathering dust.   It is a guide.  It is a tool.   It is a gift.

Because of that gift, I have a challenge for you today.  

I challenge you to go home, and pull your Bible from your shelf.  Pull all the Bibles in your house from their shelves.   Take them, and put them on the coffee table or kitchen table, and have a seat.   Take a moment, and just look at them.

Acknowledge that sometimes those big books are intimidating.   Acknowledge that maybe in its pages are lessons we don’t want to hear, or that we don’t want to learn.   Acknowledge that there are parts that might not be easy, and others that you should have known all along.  

Grab one of those Bibles from the pile, and hold it.  

Hold that Bible tightly with both hands and feel its texture and feel its sturdiness.  Take a moment to open it, flip the pages, and smell its pages.    Realize as you do, that for some simply holding a Bible, especially in a time of struggle or pain, is a source of incredible comfort and assuredness.  It can be that and more.

I don’t want you to just hold it.   I want you to open it, and read it.   Start today.  Put that Bible in your bag, or bring it with you in the car.   Open it and read.    As you do realize that it is a gift from God meant to fill those empty places.   Know that you will find parts meant to be sarcastic or stern, funny or gentle. In its pages you will find a friend, a companion, a minister, and a tour guide.  

Remember, it is God’s love letter to you.  

It will change your life, your family, your marriage, this church, this community, and our world… if we let it.   It might not always be easy, but it will certainly be worth it.     Today, I pray that those Bibles that sit somewhere in your house, get as tattered and worn as those that begin their trek thousands of miles from Asbury to Africa.     Thanks be to God, Amen. 

(If you are interested in learning more about how to get Bibles in the hands of the world’s poorest please visit the American Bible Society at http://www.americanbible.org/home)

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