Monday, November 1, 2010

Love

I've been sitting on this one for awhile.  Do you ever have those things that you know you have to share, but you're not sure exactly how to do it?  I have probably re-written this in my head a million times before I actually sat down to type it, and even now I'm sure I'll go through several drafts of the blog post. 

I recently read a devotional from Proverbs 31 Ministries that talked about stories.  It talked about how every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The point of the devotional was that each of us could be part of the beginning of someone's salvation story at any point.  As I read, however, I began to think about the middle of our stories.  I thought about all the little stories that are written during the spiritual journey we take from our acceptance of the gospel until our final breath. 

35 years ago a church in Mesquite, TX made the decision to begin a story in the form of an outreach ministry.  They called it the JOY Bus Ministry, and their plan was to reach out to the community by providing transportation and building relationships.  If you will, please indulge me a little while I tell you about this ministry.

Every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night eleven school buses painted yellow and brown left the church parking lot and went into the community.  (Today five buses run on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights).  They picked up riders, and on the way to and from church they sang songs, taught Bible lessons, and played games with a spiritual message.  The ministry was geared toward children, but entire families were welcomed with open arms.  Over the years, the big brown and yellow buses became a well-known sight in Mesquite.  As a teenager I would tell people who asked that I went to "the church with the buses".  And people knew what I meant.

The people that rode the JOY Bus were often the outcasts of society.  Most of them lived in poverty or close to it.  They came from run-down homes and apartments, and many of the children had been subjected to things that no child should ever have to experience (abuse, drugs/alcohol, etc.) .  Their clothes typically came from Goodwill, and they definitely didn't have the money for "Sunday Lunch".  Often they were dirty and smelly.  No, these people were definitely not the elite members of society.

But the church welcomed them anyway. 

They hosted Sunday afternoon events filled with hot dogs and kite-flying contests.  The church members would challenge the riders to meet goals (bring friends, memorize Bible verses), and when they accomplished these goals the members would subject themselves to water-ballooning, whip-cream-pie-throwing, or in one notable instance, moustache-shaving.  There was even the annual JOY Bus Olympics with races, contests, and Bible Bowl competitions where the children could take home ribbons and prizes.  And none of these things cost the riders or their families a penny because, you see, the love of God is free.  Above all, the children and their families were able to see people working together out of love for God to show them that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

As time went by a teeny little rift began to form between what became known as the "bus kids" and the "members kids".  It wasn't obvious and it wasn't malicious.  It was just two different life-styles.  The "bus kids" usually sat with the "bus workers" since that's who they came with, and the "members kids" sat with the members for the same reason.  It was natural for one side of the church sanctuary to be the side for the "bus kids" since it was easier to keep track of everyone if they all sat together.  Gradually, the church became figuratively divided between "bus people" and the other members.  The members that worked on the JOY Buses had very different schedules than the ones who didn't, so it was easy for friendships to form along those lines.  As the distinction between "bus people" and "members" became more pronounced there began to be a lack of understanding of what the JOY Bus Ministry meant and how it related to the church as a whole.  Again, I want to be clear that I don't believe there was malicious intent, and in most cases I believe that the church didn't even realize what was happening.

Until it was too late.

You see, as I type this post the church eldership (which interestingly does not include any "bus people") has decided to end the JOY Bus Ministry permanently.  The church was not consulted before the decision was made.  It was simply announced that the buses would no longer run after the first of the new year.  The reason that was given is that the ministry is "ineffective" due to changes in demographics and that there is a shortage of people to work with the children.

And this is where this blog entry gets tricky because I am furious and sickened by the eldership's decision.  Why was the church not consulted and allowed a voice in the decision?  What will happen to the children who will no longer have the regular influence of Christ in their lives?  My initial reaction to the news was to launch into a series of personal attacks and accusations which would have done absolutely no good (not to mention being a very un-Christian approach).  Jesus reacted in righteous anger when clearing the money-changers from the temple, but his actions accomplished something.  My angry words will only serve to make a tense, emotional situation worse.  After all, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" [Proverbs 15:1].  On the other hand, I can't sit quietly and watch this ministry disappear without bringing up the inconsistencies in the explanations that have been given.  My heart is full of hurt and righteous anger that need to be expressed.  So, instead of allowing myself to fume and think negatively, I've tried to find what God says about the situation.  With that in mind, I think the best approach I can take is to examine the reasoning behind the decision, ask the questions that need to be asked, and then look to Scripture for the appropriate response.

(My intention here is to interpret facts as best I can without allowing emotion to creep in.  If I fall short of that goal I extend my sincere apologies.)

First, the elders have said that there is a shortage of workers for the ministry, and they are exactly right.  After all, working on a bus means early mornings and late nights.  It means dealing with the hot summers and the cold winters.  It's not a glamorous or easy job, and for as long as I can remember there has been a need for more workers.  It's interesting to me, however, that throughout the shortage I don't recall an elder standing before the congregation and asking for workers.  That job always seemed to fall to the "bus people".  Where was the support from the church leadership?  If the ministry was on the verge of being shut down due to a lack of workers why did the elders not speak out and ask for support?  If attitude reflects leadership (and I believe history proves that it does) then the shortage of workers can be explained by the leadership's lack of action and, therefore, can only be combated by a change in the attitude and action of that leadership.  If the leaders are unwilling to change their attitudes how can they pass the blame by using the natural consequence of that attitude as support for closing the ministry?

Second, the elders say that the demographics in the area have changed.  The definition of demographics according to Dictionary.com is "the statistical data of a population, esp. those showing average age, income, education, etc".  Okay, let's look at demographics in Mesquite, TX over the past few decades.  I checked the census records from 1970-2010, and certain demographics have, in fact, changed.  Median household income has more than doubled even after adjusting for inflation, and the number of households living below the poverty line has dropped by nearly half.

Here's what has not changed since the 1980 census:
  • The percentage of the population under 14 years of age has stayed consistently between 25-28%.
  • In each census year, households that fall under the middle-class income classification represent the largest group.  (The only exception is the 1990 census when the recession caused the lower-class group to temporarily increase).
  • Residents with high-school diplomas but no college education have consistently represented the majority of the population.
I am left, therefore, with the conclusion that Mesquite has been and continues to be a middle-income, family-centered suburb with neither extravagant wealth or severe poverty when the large-scale model is considered.  The only areas with significant demographic change that I can find on record are income (as referenced above) and race distribution (which I can't even bring myself to consider as a possible motivating factor behind this decision).  So what exactly is the change in demographics that keeps being referenced?  And when did reaching out to people in the name of Jesus become limited by demographics?

Finally, it has been said that the ministry is ineffective.  I have to admit that this is the hardest part for me to digest.  Is it possible that processes should be examined to make sure the ministry is maximizing its impact?  Sure.  Do new ideas and approaches need to be consistently considered to make sure the ministry is keeping up with this rapidly changing society?  Absolutely!  But the fact remains that every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening a group of believers is making contact with the community in the name of Jesus Christ.  How can that possibly be ineffective?

In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a prodigal son.  We see a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who has wandered away.  We see a woman search diligently for one lost coin even though she has nine others in her pocket.  We see a father throw a feast for a son who has returned to his home after squandering his blessings and living a sinful lifestyle.  Over and over again Scripture teaches that there is rejoicing in heaven over even one person who comes to know Jesus.  If the JOY Buses are bringing in an average of 50 children per week (and I think that's a pretty low estimate) the church has at least 50 opportunities to reach out and show Jesus each week.  How can we turn our backs on such a powerful opportunity? 

As I said earlier, it's very difficult for me not to throw around accusations and personal opinions in hopes that those words will help diffuse the ache in my heart and the anger I feel.  It's hard not to jump on things I've heard and to sit in judgement of those making the decisions.  I would love to have answers to the questions posed above, but I don't expect to get any.  I also don't expect that my words will have any impact on the hearts and minds of the leadership.  And that's okay because it's not my place to sit in judgement, and God will convict the hearts of mean where necessary.  Jesus said "let he who is without sin throw the first stone", and, therefore I have no stones to throw.  My intention is simply to point out what I consider to be flaws in the logic of the decision in hopes that my words will do some good. 

So where do we go from here?  What's next?

I can't tell the people I love whether they should stay or move on to a different church family.  I can't tell them what ministries to focus their energies on once the buses are no longer running.  But I can tell them how to respond to the hurt and anger they are feeling.  The answer is love.

I'm not talking about a watered down Americanized version of love.  I'm talking about the deep, sincere love of Christ that translates to the unconditional forgiveness of those who hurt us.  It's a love that, although we are filled with righteous anger, will not allow us to do damage to the body of Christ by participating in gossip and malicious talk.  It's a love that helps us see that while one story is ending many others are beginning.

In Genesis 37, the Bible tells the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers.  I believe that his brothers thought the story was over.  They no longer had to deal with the little brother who was dad's favorite and liked to spout off about dreams he had.  But we know that the story wasn't over.  In fact, it was just beginning.  Joseph kept his faith through each painful obstacle, and in the end, God used him to help countless people and prove His glory.  And when faced with the brothers whose hatred had caused him so much pain and difficulty, Joseph responded in love.

Joseph's story feels like something out of a Hollywood movie.  When we're in the pit of anger and hurt it can be difficult to believe that God will work a miracle and deliver us from our pain into a better situation than we could have imagined.  Surely Joseph is an anomaly!  But he's not.  The Bible is filled with stories just like Joseph's, and although Scripture is complete, the story of God's people is not yet finished.  He is alive, His Spirit is working in us, and He will use each and every circumstance for His glory. 

Hollywood likes to tell stories about the power of love where two people ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.  And we all know that Hollywood's version of love is not real.  Life is rough and will beat you down in ways that the warm-fuzzy infatuation that we see in the movies can never overcome.  But there is one thing that Hollywood gets right.  Real love never fails.  That's not a Hollywood cliche, it's the word of God in 1 Corinthians 13.  If we choose to practice real love - patiently, kindly, without envy or conceit, respectfully, unselfishly, meekly - we can't fail because God promised we wouldn't.  The final result may not look the way we thought it would - I'm not sure Joseph ever imagined the twists and turns his life would take - and the road is not guaranteed to be smooth and painless, but acting in love will never fail to bring us in line with God's plan. 

So as the story of the JOY Bus Ministry ends, the stories of what happens next will begin.  My prayer is that the people who are hurt by this painful decision will take comfort in the promises of God.  I pray that they can move forward in love and, in turn, prevent bitterness from taking root in their hearts.  I pray that Satan will not gain footholds because of dissension and anger in the body of Christ.  I pray that the leadership will be considerate of the pain and frustration that surrounds their decision and that they will be patient with those who are struggling to understand.  I pray that new avenues will open for the children who will no longer have a JOY Bus to take them to church.  And above all, I pray that we will all have an open heart to see the glory of God in the new stories that will be written. 
"Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." 
~Colossians 3:12-17

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