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單身者的牧師

聖誕晚會很失敗--至少,布懷特牧師是這樣想的。教會成員冊上有四十位單身的成年人,可那天晚上才來了十個人。尤其讓他難過的是,妻子瑪麗花了整整三天的時間來做蛋糕、烤餅乾,甚至還特意為晚會準備了三明治和其他的小零食。為什麼四十個人沒有都來呢?來的人為什麼不帶朋友一起來呢?他還特意給每個人打了電話,好確定一個大家都能來的時間,並親自邀請他們來參加晚會。他哪裡做的不對嗎?

他拿起那本已經從頭到尾讀過三遍並曾無數次查閱的《單身者服侍指南》,立即就翻到了熟悉的那一頁,上面寫到:"對單身的人來說,最不好過的三個節日分別是情人節,感恩節和耶誕節,因此一定要在這些節期為他們舉辦活動。"

他真是厭倦了這些活動!在二月的第二個週六他們總會一起玩雪,感恩節之後的那個週六在他家燒烤,而今年的聖誕活動定在十二月十三號,這個時間對他和妻子來說都不太方便,但卻是一個所有的單身者都空閒可以參加的時間。在過去的五年裡,他用自己能想到的各種辦法來幫助教會的單身者們,可是和他初到教會時相比,他卻似乎離他們越來越遠。

他抬頭看了眼桌上的日曆。光是看看聖誕季的那些活動就讓他心生沮喪:孩子們要參加的學校的聖誕活動,已婚成人主日學的聖誕晚會、教會的聖誕外展事工、詩班的唱詩排練⋯他想要逃離這一切,但他知道,自己要有一顆服侍的心並參加所有這些活動。然後還有專為單身者舉辦的新年晚會,他和瑪麗操勞一番後,有多少人會來?

他拿起聖經,決定要為單身主日學的課程作更好的預備。他很喜歡即將要教授的"預備婚姻"這一系列課程,因此心裡也快活了些。這周的課程主題"滿足他人的需要"是他所喜歡的,因為他能結合自己的經驗來展開教學。想到這裡,他停下來看了眼桌上瑪麗的照片,心想:她是個很棒的妻子!

主日學的早上,當布懷特牧師站在教室前整理筆記時,他聽到教室外貝蒂--他一向認為貝蒂過於直言快語--正對著一群要進教室的姐妹們大發議論,"家庭建造班的老師不讓我和他們一起學習《加拉太書》,我告訴他我不想再學‘預備婚姻’,可他就是不讓!這個課程我們高中學了大學學,現在工作了還要學!幹嘛總是要重複學?既然很多已婚的姐妹總有一天要單身守寡,乾脆我來教她們"預備單身"好了!"

人群中有一些尷尬的咳笑聲,隨即她們走進了教室,貝蒂尾隨而入在教室後排找了個座位坐下,但她臉上的表情分明在告訴布懷特:我真不想坐在這。那天早上,布懷特不能再像往日一樣滔滔不絕。儘管他確信婚姻是來自於上帝的美好禮物,他卻覺得自己在對著一堆石頭講話。他曾希望他能教會這些單身者如何為他人著想、如何滿足他人的需要,他以為如果他們學會了這些,他們就會有更加美滿幸福的婚姻。那天早上,布懷特驚訝地發現自己早早地就結束了課程,讓學員們去參加上午的敬拜。

那天吃午飯的時候,兒子波比興奮地談論了在即將開展的聖誕外展事工中他所在的高中主日學班要舉辦的活動,這個談話讓布懷特大受鼓舞。八歲大的女兒撒拉也引述了在學校聖誕活動中要講的三節聖經經文,布懷特不禁想到:如果他小組中的那些單身者們也能結婚養育這樣的孩子,那該多好啊!他迫切地渴望成為上帝的器皿來傳遞這種喜樂。

主日晚上聚會結束時,他聽到史塔克·詹森,小組裡的一個單身漢,隔著教會大廳朝另一個單身漢喊:"彼得,詹森家見!"布懷特當時就問詹森,"詹森家有什麼事嗎?"

詹森茫然地看著布懷特,仿佛他也不知道問題的答案。"不知道,我們只是去那坐坐。"說完,他就離開了教會。

布懷特認識詹森一家,這家的孩子已經長大成人離開了父母所在的社區,留下一對老夫妻是教會的忠實教友。他們沒什麼為人所知的特別恩賜,家裡卻總是有訪客--有些是受邀而來,也有些是不請自來的。布懷特很想知道為什麼即使沒有特別的安排,詹森、彼得,可能還有其他人,都喜歡去詹森家。

之後那個週一的早上,布懷特參加了八點的同工會議,參會的還有教會的五位牧師、全職的執事和三位教會秘書。主任牧師開場的時候似乎有點匆忙,他說:"在這個繁忙的時節,大家手頭都有很多事要處理,所以我長話短說。今天要討論的事情是查特提議的新年家庭外出滑雪活動,我們還有時間通知給會眾,大家覺得怎樣?"

除了布懷特,每個人都點頭同意。他抗議說:"每年12月31號晚我們都要舉辦單身晚會的。"

主任牧師像往常一樣熱情而積極:"把那些單身的也帶上!年輕人喜歡滑雪。我們所有的人在31號早上從教會出發,2號晚上回來。"

布懷特細細地看著主任牧師為數不多的幾根白髮,心想很多單身人士比主任牧師還年長,他為什麼稱他們為"年青人"呢?

一切似乎都已安排妥當。布懷特在心裡修改了原定的排程,默認了同工會議的決定。

週二晚當會眾分開禱告,單身者們聚集在他們主日學的教室時,布懷特宣佈這一年的單身新年晚會將會被家庭外出滑雪取代。房間裡立刻鴉雀無聲,他試圖活躍一下氣氛,說:"詹森,你不是很喜歡滑雪嗎?還有你,彼得,讀中學時你是不是還贏過什麼滑雪比賽?"詹森似乎還有點不知所措,他困惑地問:"教會為什麼要用一個家庭活動來代替單身者的活動?他們為什麼不讓我們舉辦一個單身者晚會?"

布懷特沒太聽明白詹森的問題,他解釋說:"大家以為你們喜歡滑雪,就邀請你們一起參加,這是整個教會的外出活動,你們也都來吧?"

詹森眼睛裡還是茫然,他說:"但那是為家庭舉辦的外出活動,他們不是真的想要我們參加。"然後他轉身去問後面的一位姐妹,"你覺得元旦晚上我們能去詹森家嗎?我想他們不會去滑雪的,你說呢?"

布懷特啞然無語。他原本安排了單身者晚會,可主任牧師邀請他們去滑雪。而現在,一個身強體壯的大男人卻寧願去詹森家閑坐。這些單身的人怎麼就不明白呢?

聖誕季飛逝而過。這一季的重心是家庭,布懷特也好好享受了和瑪麗和孩子們在一起的美好時光,他喜愛耶誕節一切關於家庭的歌曲,他也和家人分享了這個節日一切的歡快喜樂。瑪麗鼓勵他說獻唱的那一晚三分之一的詩班成員都是單身者,他所教授的主日學班上有幾個單身姐妹在預備學生聖誕活動上做得很好,她還提醒他說為了這個活動她們很可能在準備教學之餘還額外花了不少時間在課外。那晚,當學校活動結束時,他很驚訝地發現詹森和彼得在停車場值班。原來他們考慮到自己沒有孩子,就自願去看守停車場、維持交通秩序。他為這些單身者們感到自豪。當他想起取消的新年晚會時,他很幸慶瑪麗不用再像往常一樣忙碌準備了,而他也可以放鬆下來和其他人一起去滑雪。只是,單身的人士們會來嗎?

十二月三十一號,當他坐在大巴上放眼向人群望去時,他發現來的單身者只有那些和父母一起來的大學生們。失望和沮喪油然而生,這明明是單身者們都能參與的很好的一個活動,他們卻都不來。 當他和瑪麗坐在雪橇上時,他問她:"你說那些單身者們今天在做什兒呢?"

瑪麗回答,"詹森不是提到了去詹森家嗎?"

"是啊",布懷特突然想起來。"你說他們為什麼總愛去那呢?我們有為他們準備很好的活動,可少有人來,但他們好像很愛去詹森家。我們要做點什麼好讓他們來而不總是去詹森家呢?"

瑪麗的建議很簡單,她坦然說:"那我們也去詹森家好了!如果不能打敗他們,那就加入他們!"她的笑聲在清冷的空氣中回蕩。

布懷特很驚訝,但他也想不出理由來反駁。也許哪天他能順路去詹森家問問他們認為的正確的做法。

元旦後的那個週六,布懷特就給詹森家打電話,"泰德,你好!我是布懷特,我想知道這個週末你們有沒有空,我好來拜訪一下你們?"

"隨時歡迎,布懷特!"布懷特很驚訝泰德聽起來很熱情卻又不讓人覺得催促。"如果你想來,現在就可以,我們也沒什麼特別的事要做。"

布懷特說他即刻就去,並徑直走向了他的車。在這十分鐘的車程裡,他越來越緊張,外面凜冽凍人,他卻滿身大汗。最後他終於敲響了詹森家的門。

泰德開了門,布懷特走進去與泰德和他的妻子芙瑞德寒暄問暖。這時他看到兩個單身的人士正在詹森家看影片,他不禁感到一絲妒意。他試圖聊點更為友好的話題,但他想不出來,只好突兀地問:"你們是怎樣做到的?"

泰德和芙瑞德一言不發,等著布懷特進一步解釋他的問題。布懷特想了一會,意識到自己剛剛的提問後解釋說,"我注意到單身者們很喜歡來你們家。他們愛在禮拜結束後來,有些節假日也來,今天週六,也有兩個人來。你們是怎樣鼓勵他們來這裡的?"

泰德和芙瑞德彼此看了一眼,然後泰德開口說:"我們沒做什麼,他們自己就來了。也許我們經常請他們來吃霜淇淋,以致於現在他們不請自來了。”芙瑞德笑著說,"有些人在自己的公寓裡覺得孤獨,就來了;還有些人只是來看我們家的影碟。我們沒有為他們計畫什麼,畢竟他們都是成年人,足智多謀。你知道詹森會作詩嗎?” 布懷特很驚訝,熱愛運動的詹森還懂詩?

芙瑞德笑著回憶:"詹森也不懂什麼嚴肅的詩歌,他只是會一些簡單的韻律。他還把我們都編進了一首關於紫色奶牛的詩裡呢!"然後她壓低了嗓音,模仿著詹森的語氣:"我可以告訴你,無論如何,我都寧願…"泰德和芙瑞德開懷大笑起來。

布懷特想要掩蓋他的失望和嫉妒,問道:"元旦那天有單身者來嗎?"

泰德聽到這個問題似乎並不驚訝,"嗯,來了好些。他們整天都在這進進出出,那天可能總共來了20個人吧。他們說教會沒準備什麼,只是為家庭準備了活動,所以他們想來這。"

一股怒氣從布懷特心底油然而生,"沒準備什麼!"他們怎麼能這樣講呢?但他什麼也沒說,直到心裡的怒氣漸漸消退,然後他問:"他們知道外出滑雪的事嗎?"

泰德平靜地說:"他們告訴我滑雪是為家庭準備的,所以他們怕自己去了不受歡迎。"

布懷特被惹怒了,他反駁說:"不!滑雪是為整個教會準備的!去的每個人我們都歡迎,我還特意邀請了他們,我不明白他們為什麼會認為自己是不受歡迎的。"

"在教會我們聽到的是家庭滑雪外出活動,可能就這是那些單身的人所顧慮的。"

布懷特這才明白,那些單身者們是被活動的名字嚇跑了。不管他多熱情地邀請他們多少次,他們都會因為是"家庭"活動而遲疑。

"我們的本意是為整個教會而準備的,"布懷特抱怨說,"所以我們才稱之為‘家庭’,意思是每個年齡的人都可以去。不然還可以怎麼稱這種為整個教會準備的活動呢?”

芙瑞德看了眼泰德,建議說,“要不直接叫‘教會外出活動’?”

布懷特震驚地發現這個建議是如此簡單。如果那些單身者認為‘家庭’活動就是為有家有口的人而準備的,那改稱為教會活動,也許他們就會參加了。

這個頓悟讓布懷特比以往更為敞開,他說:“我能和你們分享一下嗎?其實這個單身者的服侍讓我很受打擊。我為他們準備了各種各樣的活動,卻很少有人來。你們覺得我應該怎樣做呢?”

泰德似乎有點猶豫,但隨後他的話讓布懷特感到震驚。“他們中有些人談論說希望你能為他們過作為一家人一起過的節日,比如說感恩節和聖誕,或者是他們最不喜歡過的情人節。” 布懷特真想發火了,但他很快意識到泰德並非在批評他,就申辯說:“我真的有為他們過這三個節啊!我努力把他們都找來,激發他們的興趣,為此也做了大量的準備工作。”

聽到布懷特這樣激憤,泰德有些驚訝,他看了妻子一眼,然後才說:“ 那你耶誕節有準備什麼活動嗎?那天他們來了我家說教會沒什麼安排。”

布懷特厭惡地搖搖頭,“ 我在十二月十三號為他們特別準備了一個聖誕活動,我確保那天每個人都有空,儘管找出這樣的一天來可不容易。我妻子花了三天的時間來準備食物,但那天來的人很少!”

泰德似乎有些困惑,“ 這麼說聖誕那一天你沒安排什麼,但你在十二月十三號準備了一個聖誕活動。你為什麼不把聖誕活動安排在耶誕節那一天呢?”

布懷特覺得他的答案不答自明,但他還是費力地擠出了這句話:“ 那天我和我的家人一起過聖誕。”

泰德停頓了一下,似乎有點猶豫,然後他深吸了一口氣,說出了心裡所想的,“ 你能不能另找個時間和家人過聖誕,然後在耶誕節當天安排些聖誕活動?情人節和感恩節也這樣?”

布懷特坐在那,細細想著泰德的話。他回想起《單身者服侍指南》上的建議,意識到自已一直以來都誤解了那些話。單身者並不需要他來為他們籌辦一場聖誕晚會——他們都是成年人,會自己來安排。他們需要的是在聖誕那天有地方可去,以便不至於太思念身在異地的家人。

布懷特發現自己越來越欽佩泰德和芙瑞德,佩服他們對單身者的瞭解。他決定再問一個問題,“ 我真的很為這些單身者難過,因為他們沒有配偶來照顧自己,特別是單身的姐妹,她們的數量遠超過單身的弟兄。我很想幫助他們結婚,像我們這些已婚人士一樣享受家庭生活。但他們似乎對我的婚姻預備課程不感興趣,你們認為他們不想結婚所以才單身嗎?”

泰德和芙瑞德都會心地笑了。“ 你不需為他們感到難過,” 泰德解釋說,“ 他們其實是很享受生活的一群人。但我想幾乎每個我們認識的單身者都想結婚,我們聽到過他們對婚姻的各種討論,計畫和盼望,他們也問我們各種各樣的問題。還有,我想這群單身者最值得稱讚的是他們更渴望認識上帝,他們真的想要學習聖經,瞭解上帝對他們生命的計畫,而不僅僅是他們和異性的關係。你在主日學有教導過聖經嗎,比如說《以賽亞書》或《羅馬書》?”

布懷特很驚訝泰德總是能說些他從來都沒有想到過的話,“ 但我們想要他們都結婚,難道不是嗎?”

泰德的回應很溫和,“ 我們不知道上帝對他們的計畫。他也許會把他們帶入婚姻,也許不會。但我們確實知道的是上帝想要吸引他們,向他們顯現並用聖靈,榮耀和喜樂充滿他們的生活。我想單身者最渴慕的是這些。”

布懷特突然覺得自己心裡也充滿了渴慕,他建議說:“ 泰德,你能來教會的單身主日學教導嗎?我想大家都會喜歡的,我也會。”

泰德瞪大了眼睛,無助地望著芙瑞德,說,“ 可是,布懷特,我從來沒有教過主日學啊!我不知道要說些什麼!”

布懷特搖搖頭,他一點都不相信泰德怎麼會對自己的口才和屬靈的深度毫無察覺呢?“ 泰德,那些單身者在這的時候,我能也來嗎?我很想像你一樣去瞭解他們。”

芙瑞德歡快地回答,“ 當然可以,布懷特,你想來就來,我們歡迎每一個人。”

布懷特起身離席,他在門邊和詹森一家告別,然後驅車回家。他迫不及待地想要和瑪麗分享這一切。

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週二的下午茶

盧克西婭·斯巴克享有第一浸信會“ 最好客之女主人”的盛譽。寡居十五年來,她將自己位於榆林大道上的房子裡裡外外收拾得乾乾淨淨、完美無瑕。當然,她雇傭了一位全職的維護工來負責園藝,修剪草坪,還有一位做清潔的女傭。但盧克西婭會自己烹煮,招待賓客。

她週二的下午茶很出名。第一浸信會有頭有臉的人都去喝過她週二的下午茶。或者,也許更確切的說法是,如果你沒有參加過週二的下午茶,那你一定是無名小卒。

那裡的談話能激起每個人的興趣,教會裡大大小小的事甚至教會成員的私生活都是她們的話題。有人在那宣佈自己的訂婚,也有人在那評析他人的婚禮和婚姻。在盧克西婭家度過的兩小時是一周中最為精彩的時光。

我很想知道今天要談些什麼,就讓我們一起去發現吧!噓!哈裡特·史密格正在講話。

“ 我真不明白為什麼我們找不到更多的宣教士。現如今,似乎沒有人再願意去做宣教士了,親愛的西布莉,你覺得這是為什麼呢?”

西布莉吃完嘴中的小塊乳酪蛋糕,啜飲了一小口主人預備的桃子果酒,輕輕地用帶花邊的餐巾紙擦擦嘴,然後一如即往地甜美地回應,“ 我想現在的人不願再像以前的宣教士那樣去受苦了。來回都要坐六個月的輪船,隨時面臨野蠻人的威脅,可怕的熱帶疾病…現在的人不敢去宣教工場。”

“嗯,嗯,” 哈裡特急於評論,“應該不是這個原因。上周鐘斯一家在這,他們正在去百慕大的路上。聽說從那個小島到紐約只要兩個小時,我想他們很樂意為主的事工在那裡受苦,他們說那裡到處都是沙子!”

“我認為人們不願意去宣教是因為同工的人。你們有沒有注意到在這三年裡通過我們教會去的那些人?沒有一個是從長青藤聯校畢業的,都是中西部或南部的基督教學院的。一直和這種人同工怕是很難吧!” 莫瑞塔·史路坡是週二下午茶的常客了,她很自信其他人都會迫不及待地同意她的話,而事實證明確實如此。瑪塔·菲爾浦斯拾起話頭又把它推進了一步,“你總是對的,莫瑞塔,” 她不加思索地繼續說,“我想現在最緊急的是我們不光缺宣教士,我們還有單身的弟兄在申請去宣教。”

“不!”好幾個人同時發出了恐懼的驚歎,有幾個還沒來得及吭聲,她們正在吞咽乳酪蛋糕或是桃子果酒,但從她們的表情上來看,聽完瑪塔的話她們也有同樣的反應。

瑪塔卻絲毫沒有注意到大家的反應,她繼續說,“牧師說最近有三個單身的弟兄找到了他來談論關於他們未來宣教的事工。”

“難道他們沒有看到聖經上說單身不好嗎?”特麗婭·法克勒喜歡引用聖經,她背誦了好多經文。

瑪塔停頓了一小會,以回應特麗婭的話。“牧師對每個人都引用了這節經文,有兩個當即就放下了宣教的話題,但還有一個居然敢引用使徒保羅的例子!”

莫瑞塔立即對這個大膽的年青人作了她最後的評判,“從這種態度來看,我們就知道他不適合做宣教士!” 大家都表示贊同。這時瑪塔決定要從敘述轉為闡述的風格了,就說,“我完全同意牧師的觀點,如果已婚的宣教士都有可能墮落犯姦淫,我們怎麼能期待單身的弟兄來抵制誘惑呢?”

辛蒂是下午茶的新成員,她猶豫了一會,想到了一個自認為安全的話題:“ 男性為什麼會犯姦淫呢?”莫瑞塔立即將這視為另一個良機來發表她寶貴的意見,“男性被女性所吸引,他們追逐女性,而最糟糕的結局就是-他們和自己的妻子離婚,娶了第三者。”

辛蒂覺得自己還可以問下去,“如果我們派出了單身的弟兄去宣教,會怎麼樣呢?”

莫瑞塔很高興自己能一下回答兩個問題。她說,“這樣,單身的弟兄就會被當地的女人迷住,然後……”她停頓了一下,這可是以前沒有過的。

辛蒂以為自己能幫上忙,就說,“然後就會娶他所喜愛的那個當地女人?”

莫瑞塔沉思片刻,理清了她的思路,“對,親愛的辛蒂,可這將會是個悲劇。我們不能讓我們單身的弟兄去到宣教工場在那裡結婚生子。”

這時,特麗婭覺得她該引用另外一節聖經經文了,因此說道:“男不近女倒好。”當她回到座位上為自己將時機把握得恰到好處而沾沾自喜時,她看到其他人也嚴肅地點頭表示贊許。

瑪塔這會兒一直在擔心大夥兒可能忘了這是她提起的話薦兒,此刻她趕緊收回神來繼續說:“牧師說宣教士經常需要給出輔導建議,誰聽說過單身的人輔導已婚的人呢?他又怎樣去輔導姐妹呢?”

辛蒂失聲說出了心裡想的,問:“那他能輔導弟兄嗎?”

莫瑞塔很得意自己能將這些事看得透徹,回答說,“如果弟兄們按聖經上所說的去做,結婚娶妻,那單身的弟兄唯一需要幫助的是如何結婚娶妻,以及單身的宣教士在這種情況下如何能説明到他們。至於需要輔導的已婚弟兄,讓他們去找已婚的輔導員好了!”

瑪塔很不喜歡被人打斷,所以她立刻又將眾人的注意力拉回到自己身上,“我贊同牧師的聖經立場。在我們教會,他不接受單身的弟兄成為宣教士候選人。看看那些偉大的宣教士們:戴德生·泰勒是結過婚的,詹姆斯·弗雷澤是結過婚的。我們有這些偉大的先例,那些年青的弟兄以為自己是誰,可以單身到宣教工場去?”她停頓了一會-這可是極少見的,其實主要是為了讓大家充分感受到這些話語的份量。辛蒂環視了一圈,看有沒有人來指出瑪塔在引述歷史時所犯的明顯錯誤,最後她鼓起勇氣說,“我想泰勒和弗雷澤去宣教時都還是單身,他們在宣教工場才結婚的?”

莫瑞塔開始後悔不該讓辛蒂參加下午茶,並在心裡記下要告訴盧克西婭不再邀請這位年輕的女士。“這就是我們一直在論證的觀點,好了,親愛的,我們達成了一致意見:他們都是結過婚的。”

瑪塔見無望再回到她的話題,起身去拿桃子果酒;辛蒂也決定不再說話,加入到鋼琴邊的一群年輕女孩子中間去。莫瑞塔悄步走向門邊,很高興她再一次為小組討論帶來了深度和秩序。盧克西婭大聲宣佈說:“姐妹們,下周的主題是‘法國的浪漫’。今天,我度過了最為愉快的一個上午!”

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聯絡宣教士

“湯姆,我上線了;你把話筒都聯接好了嗎?”

“好了,彼得,你可以和宣教士視頻聊天了。”

彼得坐在教會禮堂的後排,點擊了電腦螢幕上一個小小的綠色通話按鈕,撥號的聲音立即通過教會的擴音系統大聲響了起來。三聲鈴響後,片刻的沉寂,然後一個熟悉的聲音接起了電話,

“喂?”

“我是美國田納西州諾克斯維爾市信心浸信會的彼得,請問您是弗蘭克·華茲華斯嗎?”

“我就是弗蘭克,晚上好?”

彼得瞥了一眼窗外夏日陽光明媚的早晨,想用一塊夾心巧克力來壓低聲音,“呃,晚上好,弗蘭克。” 穿過教會大廳,湯姆在另一頭喊道,“這裡聽得很清楚,彼得,我想一切運行良好。”

彼得明白了他的意思,開始掌握通話的主動權,“弗蘭克,我們這是早上十點差一刻,這個視頻電話是想確認我們可以撥通聯繫到你。現在我要掛電話了,然後在十一點二十再打給你⋯我們這的十一點二十哦。”

弗蘭克聽起來似乎在微笑,“好的!澳大利亞這裡也是十點差一刻,但是是晚上。不管怎樣,你晚會再打給我時我會準備好的。”

彼得點擊一個紅色按鈕結束了通話,然後和湯姆一起離開了教會禮拜堂,去找他們正在教堂側樓主日學的妻子們。

那天早上,教堂的敬拜準時在十一點開始,形式和往常一樣:敬拜的鐘聲響起、唱聖詩、開場的禱告、信仰宣告、牧師致開場白。不過,牧師接下來的話讓會眾都大吃一驚:“今天早上我們為大家準備了一份特別的禮物,我們將和遠在澳州的宣教士弗蘭克·華茲華斯進行對話。工作人員已經設置好擴音系統,通過將麥克風與電腦相連接,我們能聽到弗蘭克向大家問好並和我們分享他的事工報告,大家也可以提問。彼得,都準備好了嗎?”

當即,彼得點擊了通話按鈕,整個會眾都聽到了撥號聲和鈴音。隨後,當他們聽到弗蘭克問候的聲音時,一些人倒吸了一口氣。

牧師開始對著麥克風說話:“弗蘭克,我是裡奇德牧師。我們正在田納西州諾克斯維爾市信心浸信會舉行主日崇拜,你能簡單地和我們分享一下你的事工嗎?”

話筒裡傳來弗蘭克的聲音,“牧師,真不敢相信此刻我能和你們一起進行主日敬拜,兩年前我還和你們大家都在一起呢!在過去的這一年半裡我常常想起你們。我們在大學的事工進展順利,有三十個學生參加我們週二晚上的聖經研讀,還有一些學生在週六晚來我家學習。在門徒培養中我負責跟蹤七個人,還在我所在的教會學校和職業課程中授課。謝謝你們一直為我們禱告,支持我們的工作。”

“我們的工作?” 裡奇德牧師眼中閃過一絲光芒,“弗蘭克·華茲華斯什麼時候成家啦?”

“哦,我還是單身一個人,牧師。但這項大學外展事工並不是我一個人的工作,它是主的工作,也是這裡珀斯教會的一個外展事工。”

牧師和藹地笑了,他說,“我和你開玩笑呢,弗蘭克!但你結婚的時候一定要告訴我們。” 然後他轉換頻道望著會眾說,“關於弗蘭克的事工,有沒有人想提問呢?”

一個八歲的小男孩舉起了手,在牧師的點頭示意下走向一個麥克風。男孩踮起腳來,將麥克風調整到合適的高度,會眾們議論紛紛。“現在是禮拜的時間,你怎麼不在你的教會呢?”他問道。

弗蘭克回答說,“我們這裡早了十二個小時,所以這裡已經是晚上十一點半了。牧師給我發過郵件,來確保你們和我通話的時侯我不在教會服侍,也沒有其他的事工。現在這個時刻對我來說正合適。”

那個男孩四周看看,又向上望了一眼麥克風,然後回到了他的座位上。

一位元中年男子走向另一個麥克風,問道,“種族隔離制度結束後,現在那邊情形怎樣了?”

這時突然一片寂靜,彼得不安地看了眼電腦螢幕以確定連接正常,然後弗蘭克的聲音讓他輕鬆了下來。“我相信南非自從種族隔離制度結束後改變很大,但我在澳大利亞,這裡沒有種族隔離。”

當這位男子走回他的座位時,一個十來歲的女孩走向之前那個八歲男孩用過的麥克風。她笨拙地摸索了一會,好把麥克風調整到她嘴巴的高度,然後問道,“你為什麼不結婚呢?”

“聖經上說單身也很好,我正在用單身的時間來服侍主。如果我結婚了,我就會有不一樣的服侍。但現在我正在以單身的人能有效事奉的方式服侍主。”

小女孩似乎對這個答案並不太滿意,但她也不知道要再說點什麼,於是就回到了座位上。看到沒有人再起身,牧師就通過自己的麥克風說,“我還有最後一個問題,弗蘭克:現在是暑假期間,你有參與什麼樣的事工嗎?暑假學校有沒有學生?”

弗蘭克立即回答說,“澳洲現在是冬天。我正忙於之前提到的那些事工。這裡學年始於二月份,持續到十二月份,然後大家準備過聖誕和暑假。在暑假期間,我專注於教會學院和主日學職業課程的服侍,還有那些在澳洲其他地方求學現在回到珀斯家中的大學生。”

於是,牧師向弗蘭克致謝,彼得掛了電話,敬拜又像往常一樣進行下去。

禮拜完,當彼得驅車回家時,妻子特薇拉問他,“你喜歡今早我們給弗蘭克打的那個電話嗎?”

彼得想了一會,含糊地說,“呃,還行吧!”

特薇拉皺起了眉頭,“可是我想在電話中我們還不夠瞭解他。我是說,這不像他就在我們中間,和我們一起吃飯,一起在教會。”

彼得聳聳肩,“視頻通話原本也不是要代替個人親自的登門造訪,但它是一種免費的即時聯絡方式,如果需要我們還可以再向他提問。 特薇拉吃了一驚,“你是說你以後還要這麼做?” 彼得這回加快了語速,“當然還會的。但我想如果會眾提前提交他們的問題,不再問什麼種族隔離的事,效果會更好。”他一邊左右看著交通,一邊在心裡暗自嘲笑那天早上有人提出的問題。“今天早上還行,但隨著時間的流逝我們會使視頻通話成為一種有效的方式來和我們的宣教士保持聯繫。”

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上下铺

八岁的杰瑞米翻了个身,向下铺十二岁的哥哥吉姆望去,问他:“哥,你喜欢今晚那个宣教士吗?我觉得他不错!”

吉姆听起来有些疲倦,“嗯,还行吧,我觉得他没什么特别的。”

杰瑞米却很兴奋,说,“我喜欢他从非洲带回来的玩具,我也喜欢听他讲吃猴脑的那些事!”

“这些都没什么,”吉姆说,“但他好像没莎莱描述的那么好。我不知道他在信里对她说了些什么,但她从上个月开始就开口闭口都是他。”然后他开始模仿十几岁的姐姐的口吻喊到:“拉尔夫就要来啦!他还有几周就到啦!”

杰瑞米听了,“咯咯”笑地直翻身,他说,“莎莱多盼望他来!但你有没有注意到,今晚他可没和她多说什么话。我是说,他和我们每个孩子都说了话,当然和莎莱说的比和我们说的多,但他和爸爸说的最多!”

吉姆沉思着回答,“对。大人们总是和莎莱说的更多,因为她大一些;而拉尔夫对她好像也很平常,就像他们之间没什么特殊关系一样。”

杰瑞米又翻过身来,看着下面的哥哥问:“你觉得莎莱真的把拉尔夫当成了她男朋友吗?”

这个问题太幼稚了,吉姆不禁有些生气。“不,他们又没有约会。只是她这一年里经常给他写信,所以我猜她可能希望当他回来的时候,他能告诉她他对自己的真实感受,把自己的高中毕业戒指或什么的送给她。”

“那他有这样做吗?”杰瑞米显然很好奇。

“没有!睡觉吧你!”吉姆更生气了。“他都没有单独和她在一块,而且就像我先前说的,他根本就没和她说多少话!”

杰瑞米安静了一会,好收拢他的思绪,然后他决定采用一个不同的策略。他问吉姆:“莎莱从拉尔夫那里总共收到了几封信?”

吉姆想了一会才回答说,“大概有三四封吧!信件从非洲往返要花很长时间,一年也只能写三四回。”

杰瑞米不知道该说点什么了,过了一会儿他评论说,“他看起来好老。我觉得他看上去几乎和爸爸一样大,我爸多大了?”

“他没爸爸大,”吉姆纠正说,“爸爸已经36了,我想他大概29岁左右。”

杰瑞米不喜欢自己总是被纠正,因此说,“但他本人看上去真的比照片上要老。”

“那是当然,”吉姆说,“你没注意到所有的宣教士本人都比他们照片上看起来老吗?他们在老早以前还年轻的时候就照了这些照片,等他们去了宣教工场有了皱纹和白发才来到我们教会。真是误导人啊。”

杰瑞米觉得自己可能想到了这个问题的解决方法,提议说,“那他们晚一点在自己看上去就很老的时候照照片,然后当他们来我们教会的时候,不就看上去和照片上一样了?”

这个问题让吉姆感到困惑,再说,他也不想再聊了,就说,“你的意思是他们40岁的时侯照照片,然后用在35岁的时候?杰瑞米,这怎么可能!”

杰瑞米不知道要如何回答,因此他另辟蹊径问:“如果一个宣教士不想娶一个女孩子,他为什么还要给她写信?”

吉姆沉默了一会,然后如实说:“我不知道,我也对这个问题感到困惑呢。你有收到过大人的来信吗?”

“奶奶给我写过生日卡片。”杰瑞米努力想帮上忙。

“不是生日卡片--是信件。”吉姆强调说。

杰瑞米只好承认说:“那没有,我不记得有收到过大人的来信。

“就是嘛,所以我觉得奇怪的是拉尔夫给莎莱写了那些信,然后他一回来又忽略她。”

杰瑞米陷入了沉思,然后他问道:“使徒保罗不也写信吗?”

“那是写给整个教会的,”吉姆解释说,“不是写给个人的。”

“但他给提摩太和提多写过信,不是吗?”杰瑞米继续道,“还有腓利门。”

吉姆想了一会问:“那他给他们写了些什么?”

杰瑞米也不知道,“我没读过,你读过吗?”

“没,”吉姆有点局促不安地向弟弟承认了这个事实。“但经过了莎莱和拉尔夫这个不愉快的经历,我要读读这些书信看看里面到底写了些什么。”

两个男孩都安静下来,但就在吉姆快要睡着时,杰瑞米那稚气的声音又一次打破了沉寂。

“你还记得去年在我们教会发表讲话的那个女宣教士吗?你觉得我应不应该给她写封信?”

“睡觉了,杰瑞米!”吉姆这次语气很坚定。“你不能给她写信!你还太小了,不能结婚!”

-- 完 --

Back to Top

边跑边聊

做完拉伸活动后,詹森和瑞奇开始了他们每周五英里的长跑。

“你最近都还好?”詹森总是会这样问。

“嗯,没什么特别的,就是有两个孩子感冒了。你呢?”

詹森跑了几步才回答说,“上个主日那个宣教士的分享让我非常感动。这个星期以来我都在琢磨他的话:站到自己的宣教士身后!”

两个人都沉默地跑了数步,然后詹森继续说,“每次宣教士回来,我都印象深刻。他们总是有好消息要报告,我也总会被他们身上所展现出来的属灵价值观所触动。”

瑞奇对詹森足够了解,他知道自己不必对此作出回应詹森也会继续说下去。果然,如他所料,詹森又说,“我很想告诉教会的宣教士,我在他们身后,但我不知道要做点什么。”

瑞奇抬头看了一眼詹森,想知道自己是否该开始说话,还是他要等詹森再提出一个更明确的问题。他立即就有了答案,因为詹森问他,“你觉得我应不应写封信,然后通过电子邮件发送给我们所有的宣教士?”

瑞奇试图谨慎地回答这个问题,“你就给他们写这一次还是在将来会持续给他们写信?”

“我还没想那么远呢。”詹森有些不好意思地承认。

瑞奇决定给他个建议:“要不你写信给某一个宣教士弟兄,引用一两个他在最近的代祷信中所提到的细节,告诉他你认可他所做的工作?然后你等待看他是否给你回信。不管他回不回,一个月后你可以再给他写封信,并一直这样做下去。”

詹森抬头望着瑞奇,问他,“为什么是写给宣教士‘弟兄’,而不是宣教士夫妇?”

瑞奇笑着回答说,“我试过给宣教士夫妇写信,是在拉丁美洲的一对夫妇,你猜是谁回的信-他妻子。所以现在,都是我妻子给他们写信了。”

詹森看了一下表,这时他们正围着消防站在跑,“我们比上周慢了二十秒,”他注意到,“我们要加快点速度。”

瑞奇迈大了步伐来跟上詹森,然后又把注意力转回到刚才的话题上。

“我来说说我是怎样做的?”他望着詹森,等他点头同意。“几年前,在教会礼拜结束后,我有机会和一位宣教士交谈并决定要持续地为他祷告。我也这样做了,虽然不是每天但几乎是天天为他的工作祷告。”

詹森感兴趣地问,“那你是不是就祷告说‘求主帮助某某弟兄’这些?”

瑞奇注视着前面高低不平的路面,说:“不是。我想着我所看到的自己的需要,祷告主来满足他生活中同样的需要。比如说,经营好婚姻,为孩子们作明智的决策,和同工相处愉快等等。我想如果我面临着这些挑战,那他可能也会面临着同样的挑战。收到他的代祷信后,我会特别为信中提到的事项祷告。他的代祷信提醒我给他写信,在写信时我特意地称呼他的名字并签署我自己的名字,好让他知道这信只是在我们俩之间。我也会提到他代祷信中的一些具体事项,告诉他那个时候我在做些什么。这几年来,他的回应也改变了。”

詹森更感兴趣了,问道:“怎样改变了?”

瑞奇接着说,“一开始,宣教士只是写些一般的事项,把在代祷信里提到的事项作进一步说明。但现在,我注意到他会写些代祷信里没有的内容,那些你不想公布在教会墙上的内容。我想他知道我在为他祷告,所以哪怕是惧怕担忧和个人问题,他也能毫无拘束地和我分享。”

詹森很爱听瑞奇讲的这些,他评论说,“你们之间的关系很特别。”

这时两个人都沉默了,他们专注在跑步的步伐上,试图再跑快一点儿。

“那他有没有向你提过钱的问题?”这个问题一直萦绕在詹森的脑海里使他不吐不快。“没,一次都没。事实上,是我问他我们可以怎样帮上忙。”瑞奇很快地回答说。

詹森很惊讶,“你为什么要问?”

“因为我在他后面啊。”瑞奇的回答很简单。

詹森原以为很了解自己的跑步伙伴,可是瑞奇的回答过于简单,他没听明白。他等了一会,心想也许瑞奇需要喘口气再接着说。可是接下来瑞奇一直默不作声,他只好自己问,“你这样说是什么意思?”

瑞奇仿佛不知道怎样用言语来表达自己,他有些茫然地说,“我是说,如果我在宣教士身后,我就应该用自己力所能及的各种方式来采取主动,好让他真知道并感受到我在他身后帮助他,支持他。我也不知道要怎么说明白这事。”

詹森还是不太理解,但他想自己后面会再好好回味一下瑞奇的话。“所以如果我选了一位宣教士,署名给他写信,常常为他祷告-特别是在那些我自己有需要的方面为他代祷,每月都给他写信或者至少是在收到他的代祷信后给他回信,主动找方法来帮助和支持他,我就真的能显示出我在他身后。你真的认为我不应该写封电子邮件给教会所有的宣教士吗?”瑞奇不太确定要怎样回答他,“嗯,我不是说不应该,而是你知道宣教士的代祷信不是写给个人的,如果你回一封也不是针对他个人的信,那你们之间的关系就停留在那里了。”

他们来到了五英里长跑的最后一程,因此詹森决定问最后一个问题,“要是宣教士一直不回信怎么办?”

瑞奇笑着说,“是有这个可能性。但想想你自己,你会经常收到想要帮助你的人写给你个人的信吗?而且这个人一直给你写信。我看不出宣教士为什么会不回信。”

他们来到了行程的终点,两个人都慢慢停了下来,开始做往常的拉伸活动。

“嘿,瑞奇,”詹森提高了嗓门却没有转过身去看着自己的朋友说,“谢谢你的建议,你提到了一些很特别的事。”

-- 完 --

Back to Top

宣教士的车

“嗨,乔!”马丁一边走进餐厅大门,一边朝朋友挥着手,“再次见到你真是太好了!”

他走到乔身边,热情地握住乔的手。“自从上次周际午餐之后,我们差不多一个月没见啦,对吧?你过的还好吗?”

“很好,”乔飞快地回答,然后对引座的服务生说:“我们能坐在窗戶边吗?”

点餐完毕,两个人都放松下来,注目观看窗外过往的行人和车辆。

“乔,听说最近你在你们教会的布道事工中做了很多事,讲来我听听。”马丁决定先听听乔的故事。

“我们教会的布道事工进展很顺利。你知道吗,去年我们为全球布道事工捐献了一百二十万美元。最近,我所主持的布道委员会正在开展好几个项目,所以我没法每周一次和你吃午饭。在过去几个月,我们为波多黎各的一家孤儿院募集了衣服,为一位要去法国的宣教士筹办了家居用品,组建了一个工作小组去阿根廷建造教堂,还为新加坡的一位宣教士购置了一张小汽车。”

马丁很喜欢乔,但乔强大的领导力有时让他感到畏缩,他很想知道自己可以怎样在这方面向乔学习。他暗示了这种学习意愿对乔说,“你在这些事工中发挥了很大的作用。说到我们教会的事工,我都有点不好意思。我们最近也在关注新加坡的一位宣教士和他所提及的需要。山姆唐纳利,不知道你有没有听说过他?”

乔听了,兴高采烈地说,“原来你们教会也在支持山姆!我们一直在为他筹款,刚寄给他一张三万五千美金的支票,好帮他买张车。我们教会乐意慷慨地为宣教士做些事。”

马丁伸手去拿他的茶杯并很快地喝了一小口。他并不渴,只是想借机掩盖一下自己的面部表情并争取更多的反应时间,然后他问道,“乔,山姆不是说他需要一辆摩托车吗?”“对,他信上是这么写的。但我们喜欢大手笔,所以我们决定走在他前面给他买张车,而且我们寄给他的钱足夠他买张不错的小汽车了。”乔在回答的时候,似乎永远都不用停下来咀嚼一下口中的食物。难道是因为他每一口吃得更少?马丁总是惊叹于乔所能做到的那些事。

“那你们有没有上网查一下小汽车在新加坡的售价?”马丁知道乔所带领的布道委员会中都是些很能干的人。“那里一张普通配置的汽车至少也要五万美元。”

乔停了下来,叉子举在半空中。“你开玩笑吧?新加坡那么小,开车一小时就能横穿整个国家。那里的车应该比其他地方更便宜才是,因为一年也开不了多少里程。”

马丁不太确定要怎样将谈话继续下去,只好说,“我自己也没去调查这事。但山姆需要钱来买摩托车的原因是他没指望能筹集到十多万块钱买小汽车,而且他需要出行的距离都很短,在新加坡那样的热带国家也从不结冰下雪。”

乔的思绪越过了马丁的话,它跑的更远。“如果像你所说,一张小汽车要五万,那我们只寄给他了三万五,还不够他买车。”

马丁点点头,说,“还有,那里的油价比这里的高,加上税啊,停车费啊,车辆的维修保养费啊什么的都比摩托车的高。”

“那山姆为什么没在信件中把这些都说清楚呢?”乔试图为自己帮山姆买小汽车找个理由。

马丁低下头看着自己的盘子说,“山姆没说小汽车,他只说他需要一辆摩托车。”

“那你是怎样知道这些细节的?”乔问道。

“我们给他写过信。”马丁坦白说,“他回信告诉我们说这几年他都是使用公共交通,但如果有张摩托车,他就能节省时间。从一个住宅区到另一个住宅区有时需要转公交车,有时要走很远一段路才能到主路上打车。至于摩托车,山姆说在那温暖的气候里他一年四季都能骑,而且不用出高昂的油费和停车费。我们表达了对他骑摩托车人身安全的顾虑,但他说那里骑车的人都遵守交通规则,很安全,所以他并不担心出事故。”

乔接下来问了一个不答自明的问题,“那你的意思是如果我们按他所说的去购买摩托车,我们教会原本可以省下三万块钱?”

马丁再次伸手拿起杯子,看着浮在茶水上的冰块。

“那现在我应该怎么做呢?”乔问。

马丁耸耸肩,看着盘子说,“或许你可以给他写封信,解释一下你们的所做所为。如果车价下降了,或是有其他人也为这个事捐款,或者他可以买辆二手车⋯应该总有一个办法,他能用掉那些钱。只是他要知道所有的事实和可能性。”

乔瞪大了眼睛,沉默了一会。马丁挥手叫服务生来买单。

在出餐厅的路上,乔再次握住了马丁的手,说:“我一直想着和你一起吃午餐。每当我们见面时,我总能从你那学到些东西。”然后他匆忙地向门口走去,和往常一样快。留下马丁站在那里,有些怀疑自己是不是听错了。

-- 完 --

Back to Top

Tuesday Tea

Lucretia Sparks had developed the reputation as the most hospitable lady of the First Baptist Church. Widowed for 15 years, she kept her Elm St. mansion in perfect condition--both outside and inside--by employing a full-time maintenance man, who also served as her gardener and mowed her lawn, and a cleaning lady. Lucretia, however, did her own cooking and entertaining.

Her Tuesday Tea was famous. Anyone who was anybody at First Baptist Church attended Lucretia's Tuesday Tea. Or, maybe it should be said, if you didn't attend Tuesday Tea, you weren't anybody.

Conversation caught everyone up on the gossip on at church and in the personal lives of the members. Engagements were announced, weddings analyzed, and marriages evaluated. The two hours spent at Lucretia's house were the most exciting two hours of the week.

I wonder what the talk is today. Let's find out. Sh, Harriet Smigs is speaking.

"Why can't we find more missionaries is just beyond me. It seems as if no one wants to be a missionary these days. What do you think are the reasons, Cybele dear?"

Cybele finished chewing her small bite of cheesecake, sipped Lucretia's peach punch, tapped her lips gently with a napkin of Ghent lace and responded sweetly . . .as always, "I think people just aren't willing to suffer like the missionaries of the past. Six months on a steamer each way, threats from wild savages, tropical diseases--I think people today are too afraid to go to the mission field."

"Now, now," Harriet hurried to comment, "It couldn't be that reason. The Jones family were here last week on their way to Bermuda. I think they were very willing to suffer for the cause on that little island two hours from New York. They say sand is everywhere!"

"Well, I think people don't go into missions because of who you have to work with. Have you noticed the ones that have come through our church in the past three years? Not a one has a degree from an Ivy League school. All went to some Christian college somewhere--usually in the Midwest or in the South. I think it would be hard having to work with people like that all the time," Murrieta Slopes was a long-time member of the Tuesday Tea and felt quite confident others would chime in with their agreements to what she said, and she was right. Myrtle Phelps picked up the thread and moved it on further . . . "You're right, as usual, Murrieta," Myrtle didn't pause at all before saying, "What I think is so urgent is that now we not only have the problem of a lack of missionaries, we have single men applying."

"No!" Several ladies chorused their horror at the suggestion. Some couldn't say anything because they were still swallowing Lucretia's cheesecake or punch, but from their expressions you could tell they were equally affected by Myrtle's revelation.

Myrtle hadn't paused to notice their response. "Pastor said three single men have approached him recently about their future mission work"

"Haven't they read it isn't good for a man to be alone?" Telicia Faulkner liked to quote Scriptures and she had quite a battery of them memorized.

Myrtle paused ever so slightly to incorporate Telicia's comment. "Pastor used that verse with each one, and two dropped the topic at once, but one was impudent enough to mention Paul's example!"

Murrieta immediately gave her final judgment on this young man, "From that attitude, you can see he isn't fit to be a missionary" All agreed.

Myrtle decided it was time to change from narrative to explication: "I agree fully with Pastor's philosophy that if married missionary men are falling right and left to adultery, how can we expect a single man to withstand the temptation?"

Cindy, a new member of the Tea and a bit hesitant to speak, managed a question that she felt was safe: "Why do the men commit adultery?" Murrieta saw this as another chance to share her valued opinion, "They are attracted to women there, and pursue them, and then the worst results--they divorce their wives and marry the girlfriend."

Cindy thought she dared to ask one more question, "What would happen if we sent a single man?"

Murrieta was pleased to be able to hit a double play. She began, "Why, the single man would be attracted to a woman there and . . . ," she paused . . . no one had ever remembered Murrieta pausing before.

Cindy thought she would help out . . ."and might marry the woman he was attracted to?"

Murrieta thought for a moment and then saw her way clear, "Yes, Cindy, my love, and that would be tragic. We couldn't have our single men going to the field and marrying anyone there."

Telicia thought it was time for another Bible verse, so she said, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman." While she sat back and beamed at her timing, she saw the other ladies nodding gravely.

Myrtle had been a bit worried that the others might have forgotten this was her topic, and she picked up her thought and continued, "Pastor says missionaries are often in counseling situations and who heard of a single man counseling a married couple? And how could he counsel a woman?"

Cindy wondered out loud, "Could he counsel men?"

Murrieta loved how she could see things so clearly, "If the men are doing what scripture says and are marrying, the only help a single man would need is how to marry, and how would a single missionary be able to help in that way. Of course, if the married men needed counsel, they would ask a married counselor!"

Myrtle really didn't like to be interrupted, so she hurriedly pulled everyone's attention back to herself. "I like Pastor's biblical stance. He won't accept any single men as missionary candidates at our church. Look at the great missionaries: Hudson Taylor was married; James Fraser was married. Who do these young men think they are to go to the mission field single when we have such great examples to follow?" She paused, a rare occurrence, to let the impact of her words fall on the group. Cindy looked around at the circle to see whether anyone would respond to the obvious error in Myrtle's relation of history. And then she ventured, "I thought both Taylor and Fraser went to the field single and then married there?"

Murrieta was beginning to regret Cindy's presence at the group and made a mental note to tell Lucretia not to invite this young lady again. "That's the point we've been trying to say and we are quite agree upon, dearie, the men were married."

Myrtle saw there was no hope of reviving her topic, so she stepped away to get more punch. Cindy decided not to make any more comments and moved to a group of younger women gathered around the piano. Murrieta glided over to the door happy that she had brought depth and clarity to the group once again. Lucretia announced, "Ladies, next week the theme is French Romantic. I have the most delightful morning planned!"

Back to Top

Missionary Connection

"Tom, I'm online now; do you have the mikes hooked up?"

"Yes, Peter, I think it's all ready. Go ahead and Skype the missionary."

At the back of the church sanctuary, Peter clicked a small green phone icon on his computer screen. Dialing sounds came loudly over the church public address system. After three rings, there was silence and then a familiar voice answered, "Hello?"

"This is Peter from Faith Baptist Church in Knoxville, TN. Is this Frank Wordsworth?"

"Yes, this is Frank. How are you this evening?" Peter glanced out the window at the sunny summer morning, and through a stifled snicker he replied, "Uh, good evening to you too, Frank." From across the room Tom shouted, "Sounds great here, Peter, I think it's going to work fine."

Peter took his cue to take charge, "Frank, it's 9:45 a.m. here and we just wanted to make sure the connection worked. We'll hang up now and call you back at 11:20 . . . I mean our time 11:20."

Frank's voice sounded like he was smiling, "Great! It's 9:45 here in Australia too, but it's already evening. Anyway, I'll be ready at 11:20 when you ring me again."

Peter clicked a red icon to end the call and then left the sanctuary with Tom to join their wives in the church education wing for Sunday school.

That morning the worship service began punctually at 11:00 in the familiar way: Call to Worship, a hymn, an opening prayer, announcements, and pastoral greeting. However, the pastor surprised everyone by saying: "This morning we have a treat for everyone. We are going to talk to our missionary in Australia Frank Wordsworth. The men have set up the public address system and some microphones to connect to the internet so we can let Frank greet us and share about his work and we can even ask him questions. Peter, are things ready?"

Right at that moment, Peter clicked on the phone icon, the whole congregation heard dialing and ringing sounds, and then, a few people gasped when they heard Frank's voice say, "Hello?"

The pastor spoke into his microphone, "Frank, this is Pastor Richland. We're here in our Sunday morning service at Faith Baptist Church in Knoxville, TN. Would you give us a short report about your ministry?"

"Pastor," Frank began, "I can't believe I'm joining you for your Sunday service. It was only two years ago when I was there with all of you. Now during this past year and a half in Australia I have often thought of you. Our university ministry is going well. Thirty students attend our Tuesday evening Bible study. A few guys come to my flat each Saturday evening. I follow up on seven of the guys in discipleship studies, and I teach the college and career class at my church. Thank you for continuing to pray for us here and support our work."

"Our work?" Pastor Richland had a gleam in his eye, "When did Frank Wordsworth become a 'we'?"

"Oh, pastor, I'm still single, but this college outreach is not just mine, I also view it as the Lord's work and an outreach from my church here in Perth, Australia."

The pastor laughed kindly, "I'm just teasing you, Frank, but you let us know when you become a twosome." At that point the pastor changed gears by looking up at the congregation and saying, "Are there any people that would like to ask Frank any questions about his ministry?"

An eight-year-old boy raised his hand and at the pastor's nod walked up to a microphone. There were loud noises as he reached up and tipped the microphone down toward his face. "It's church time. Why aren't you in church right now?" He asked.

Frank responded, "We're twelve hours ahead of you, so it's already 11:30 at night here. When the pastor emailed me, he made sure that you contacted me at a time when I wouldn't be in a church service or be involved in a ministry responsibility. This turned out to be a great time for me."

The boy looked around, looked up at the microphone, and then walked back to his seat.

A middle-aged man walked up to another microphone. "How are things now that apartheid is over?"

There was a pause, and Peter looked at the computer screen to make sure the connection was still ok. Then Frank's voice put him at ease, "I'm sure that South Africa has changed a lot since the end of apartheid, but I'm in Australia, and we have not had apartheid here."

As the man turned to walk back to his seat, a younger teen-aged girl walked up to the microphone that the eight-year-old had used. She fumbled with it to get it at the right height for her mouth, and then she asked, "Why aren't you married?"

"The Bible says singleness is good," Frank began, "and I'm using my time of singleness to serve the Lord. If I were married, I would serve the Lord differently, but now I minister in the ways that a single person can minister effectively."

The teenager didn't quite seem satisfied with the answer, but neither did she know what else to ask, so she went back to her seat. Since no one else was moving, the pastor spoke into his microphone, "I have one last question: now that it's summer vacation, what kinds of ministry are you involved with? Are there students in summer school?"

Frank answered right away, "It's winter in Australia now. I am busy with the activities I mentioned in my report a few minutes ago. The school year begins in February and runs to December when everyone gets off for Christmas and summertime. During our summer, I focus on our college and career Sunday School class, and the university students who are home from their courses at universities in other parts of Australia."

Pastor then thanked Frank, Peter disconnected the call, and the service proceeded as usual.

After church, as Peter was driving his family home, his wife Twila asked, "Did you like that call to Frank this morning?"

Peter thought a moment and then muttered, "Yeah, it was fine."

Twila frowned. "I just don't think we got to know him well in it. I mean, it just wasn't like having him here, eating in our home, being in our church."

Peter shrugged, "It wasn't meant to take the place of a personal visit, but it was immediate contact, completely free of charge, and we even had the chance to ask him a question if we wanted."

Twila was puzzled, "You mean you would want to do it again?"

"Sure," Peter spoke a little faster, "I think it would be better if people could submit their questions ahead of time so we don't ask any more people about apartheid!" He turned his head both ways to check the traffic as he laughed at the question submitted earlier that morning. "This morning worked fine, but with time we could make the conversations a very effective way to keep up with our missionaries."

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Bunkbed Banter

Eight-year-old Jeremy rolled over and looked down on his 12-year-old brother Jim on the lower bunk. "Did you like that missionary tonight? I did!"

Jim sounded tired as he managed, "Yeah, he was OK. I didn't think him too special."

Jeremy's excitement was quite obvious, "I liked his toys he brought from Africa, and I liked hearing about eating monkey brains!"

"That was all right," Jim continued, "But he didn't seem to measure up to Sarah's description of him. I don't know what he said in those letters to her but she hasn't talked about much else for the past month." Jim imitated his teenaged sister's voice, "Ralph is going to come! Ralph is coming in just a few weeks!"

Jeremy giggled as he rolled over on his back. "Sarah really looked forward to Ralph's coming. But did you notice that he didn't say that much to her? I mean, he talked to all of us kids, and more to her than to the rest of us, but I think he talked to Dad the most."

Jim was pensive. "You're right. Adults always talk to Sarah more because she's older, and he seemed to treat her normally, as if there weren't any special relationship between him and her."

Jeremy rolled back over to look down at his brother. "You think Sarah really believes Ralph's her boyfriend?"

Jim was a little annoyed by the immaturity of Jeremy's question. "No, they aren't dating, but she's been writing him back and forth for a year, so I think she hoped that when he came, he would want to tell her how he truly felt about her and would want to give her his high school graduation ring or something like that."

"Did he?" Jeremy was obviously curious.

"No! Go to sleep!" Jim was even more annoyed. He didn't spend any time alone with her, and, as I said, didn't talk to her much at all."

Jeremy paused a little to gather his thoughts. He finally decided on a different approach. "How many letters did Sarah get from Ralph?"

Jim thought and then said, "I think about three or four. It takes a long time for letters to get to Africa and back. In the course of a year three or four times is about all you can write."

Jeremy didn't quite know what to say but then commented. "He looked really old. I mean, he looked almost as old as Dad. How old is Dad anyway?"

"No, he isn't as old as Dad," Jim corrected. "Dad's already 36. I would think he was 29 or so."

Jeremy didn't like always being corrected, so he said, "But he sure did look a lot older than his picture."

"Of course, he did," Jim set the record straight. "Haven't you noticed that all missionaries look older than their pictures? They take those pictures way back when they are young and then they come to our church after they go to the mission field and get grey hair and wrinkles. They're really misleading."

Jeremy thought he might have hit on a solution. "Do you think they could take the pictures later on when they looked older and then when they came to our churches they wouldn't have to look as old as their pictures?"

Jim was confused by the question and was getting tired of the conversation. "Do you mean they would take the picture when they were 40 and use it when they're 35? Jeremy, that's impossible!"

Jeremy didn't know how to cover his tracks so he took another tack. "Why would a missionary write a girl if he weren't interested in marrying her?"

Jim was silent and then said, "I don't know. I have puzzled about that too. Do you ever get letters from adults?"

"Grandma wrote me a birthday card," Jeremy tried to be helpful.

"Not a birthday card--a letter." Jim emphasized.

"No, I don't remember ever getting a letter from an adult," Jeremy admitted.

"Yeah, that puzzles me that Ralph would write all those letters to Sarah and then ignore her once he got here."

Jeremy was lost in thought, and then he queried, "Didn't the apostle Paul write letters?"

"That was to whole churches," Jim explained, "Not to individual people."

"But he wrote Timothy and Titus, didn't he?" Jeremy went on, "and even Philemon."

Jim thought a minute and asked, "What did he say to them?"

Jeremy had no idea. "I haven't read them, have you?"

"No," Jim was a bit sheepish as he admitted this fact to his brother. "But now after Sarah's bad experience with Ralph, I'm going to read them to find out."

Both boys were quite for a while, and Jim was just about to fall asleep when Jeremy's boyish voice broke the silence one last time.

"Remember that lady missionary who spoke at our church last year? Do you think I should write her a letter?"

"Go to sleep, Jeremy!" Jim was firm this time. "You can't write her! You're too young to get married!"

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Five Mile Run

Jason and Rich had finished their stretching and started their weekly five-mile run.

"Things going fine with you?" Jason fell into his habitual question.

"Oh, nothing's too out of the ordinary. A couple of the kids have colds is all. How about with you?"

Jason didn't answer for a few paces and then said, "I was really moved by that missionary presentation last Sunday. All week long I've kept coming back to what he said: Get behind your missionary.!"

Both men were silent a few paces before Jason continued, "I'm always impressed when our missionaries come back. They always have good things to report, and I'm always impressed by the spiritual values they exemplify."

Rich knew Jason well enough that he didn't feel the need to give a lot of feedback to encourage him to keep talking. As he expected, Jason continued, "I really want to show our church's missionaries I'm behind them, but I don't know what I should do."

Rich looked over at Jason and wondered if this were a cue for him to start speaking or whether he should wait for a direct question. Jason solved the problem by asking, "Do you think I should type up a letter and email it to all the missionaries?"

Rich tried to be careful in his response. "Would you write them once or would you write again in the future?"

"I hadn't thought that far," Jason admitted wryly.

Rich decided to make a suggestion, "What if you wrote one of the men and let him know you believed in what he did, citing a specific detail or two from a recent prayer letter. You could wait and see if he wrote you back. Whether he did or not, you could write again a month later, and keep up the same rhythm indefinitely.

Jason looked over at Rich, "Why did you say to write 'one of the men'? Why not write the couple?"

Rich smiled, "I tried that. I wrote a couple in Latin America, and guess who wrote back--the wife. So, now my wife writes them."

Jason checked his watch as they rounded the fire station, "We're twenty seconds behind last week," he noted. "We need to pick up the pace a bit."

Rich lengthened his stride to comply with his pace-setter and then turned his concentration back to the topic at hand.

"Can I tell you what I do?" he looked over and waited for Jason to nod. "A few years ago I got to talking with one of the missionaries after church and decided I would pray for him consistently. And I have. I won't say I have prayed every day for his work, but almost."

Jason was interested, "Do you just say, 'Help brother so-and-so?'"

Rich kept his gaze on the uneven pavement in front of him. "No, I think about the needs I see that I have and pray that the Lord will meet the same needs in his life--you know, developing a good marriage, making decisions concerning the kids, getting along with co-workers. I figure if I'm facing it, he is likley facing the same thing. Then when his prayer letter comes, I pray especially for the details he mentions. I let his prayer letter remind me to write him, and I specifically adress my letter to him by name and sign it with just my name so he knows the letter is just between us, and I refer to certain specifics of his prayer letter and tell him what kinds of things I'm doing at the time. Over the years, his responses have changed."

Jason was obviously interested, "How so?"

Rich continued, "In the beginning the missionary just wrote general stuff back--you know, expanding on what he had put in his prayer letter. But now, I notice he writes me stuff that he doesn't put in the prayer letter, stuff that you just wouldn't want posted up on the back wall of a church. I think he knows I pray for him, and so he feels free to share even his fears and personal concerns with me."

Jason really liked what Rich was saying, "That's a special relationship you have."

They both paused as they focused on their pace again and tried to pick it up a bit.

"Does he hit you for money?" Jason decided to as the question lingering in the back of his mind.

Rich was quick to reply, "No, not at all. Actually, I ask him for ideas of ways we can help."

"Why do you ask him?" Jason was surprised.

"I'm behind him," Rich said simply.

Jason thought he knew his running partner well, but Rich's one-sentence answer seemed incomplete. He waited a few paces in case Rich were just catching his breath before continuing. When no more words came, Jason asked for more explanation, "What do you mean by that?"

Rich felt at a loss for words, "I just mean that if I'm behind the missionary, I should be taking the initiative in whatever way I can so that he knows and feels I am really behind him. I don't really know how else to say it."

Jason still didn't understand, but he thought he would review what he had heard Rich say. "So if I choose a missionary and write him by name and pray often for him--especially in the areas I find myself having needs--and I write him monthly or at least as often as I get a prayer letter from him and take the initiative to find out how I can be a support and help to him, I could really show him I am behind him. You really think I shouldn't write an email to all of them?"

Rich didn't quite know what to say. "Oh, I'm not saying not to, but you know how impersonal missionary prayer letters are. If you write an impersonal letter back, I think your relationship will stay that way."

They were coming to the last stretch before their five miles would be done, so Jason decided to ask one last question, "What if the missionary doesn't write back?"

Rich smiled, "There is that possiblity. But think yourself, how often do you get a personal letter from a man that is aimed at helping you? And if the same man kept writing . . . I don't know how the missionary could resist replying."

Both slowed down as they came to the end of their course and began their regular stretches.

"Hey, Rich," Jason raised his voice instead of turning around to look at his friend. "Thanks for the tips. I think you've hit on something special."

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A Car for a Missionary

"Hey, Joe," Martin waved at his friend coming in the restaurant door. "It's great to see you again!"

Martin walked up to Joe and shook his hand warmly. "It's been about a month, hasn't it, since our last 'weekly' lunch! How have you been doing?"

"Doing great," he answered quickly before he said to the waiter seating them, "Could we sit over by the window?"

After they ordered, they both relaxed and gazed outside at the cars passing by.

"You've been doing a lot for your church's missions program lately, Joe. Tell me more about that," Martin let Joe have the floor first.

"My church really has a great missions program. Do you know we gave 1.2 million dollars to world missions last year? It's because the missions committee that I chair has been spearheading several projects that I haven't been able to meet you for lunch recently. I think we have accomplished a lot in the past few months�Xclothes drive for an orphanage in Puerto Rico, crating up the household goods of a missionary on his way to France, a work team going to Argentina to build a church building, and buying a car for a missionary in Singapore."

Martin liked Joe a lot, but sometimes felt intimidated by Joe's strong leadership abilities and wondered how he could learn from his friend in this area. He hinted at this attitude by saying, "You are really helping in a lot of ways. I'm a bit embarrassed to mention my small church's efforts. We've been focusing recently on a missionary in Singapore also and the needs he recently mentioned. I don't know whether you have heard of Sam Donnelly."

Joe's face lit up. "Does your church support Sam too! He's the missionary we have been raising funds for also. We just sent him a check for $35,000 so he could get a nice car. Our church likes to do things for missionaries in a big way."

Martin reached for his glass of tea and put it to his lips quickly. He really wasn't thirsty, but he was trying to hide his facial expression and borrow time before responding. "Joe, didn't Sam say he needed a motorcycle?"

"Yeah, that's what his letter said. We like large projects, so we decided to go ahead and buy him a car, and we sent an amount that could surely get him a good one." Joe seemed never to have to stop and chew before answering. Was it because he took smaller bites? Martin was always amazed by what Joe could do.

"Did you go online and check what cars cost in Singapore?" Martin knew that Joe led a fine missions committee of very capable people. "Even just a standard car can cost upwards of $50,000."

Joe paused. He held his fork in mid-air. "You can't be serious. That country is so small, you can drive across it in an hour. Cars should be cheaper there than in other places because you don't need to put as many miles on them a year as you would in other locations."

Martin wasn't sure how to proceed. "I haven't researched it myself, but the reason Sam requested funds for a motorcycle is that he didn't expect to be able to raise tens of thousands of dollars for a car, especially since the distances he needs to travel are short, and it never snows or gets icy in that tropical country."

Joe's mind raced on beyond what Martin had said, "If you are right, that a car costs $50,000, and we sent him only $35,000, he still won't be able to buy a car with that amount of money."

Martin nodded. "And then, their gas prices are higher than ours, and taxes, parking fees, and car upkeep are much higher than for a motorcycle."

"Then why didn't Sam explain all of this in his letter?" Joe was trying to find a way to justify his helping Sam buy a car.

Martin looked down at his plate, "Sam didn't mention a car; he mentioned his need for a motorcycle."

"Then how do you know all of these details?" Joe demanded.

"We wrote him," Martin confessed. "He told us that he had been using public transportation for a few years and thought he could save time by using a motorcycle. From one housing area to another there isn't always a direct bus, and sometimes you have to walk quite a distance to get to a main road to hail a cab. As for a motorcycle, Sam explained that he could ride it all year long in the warm weather there, and he wouldn't have high gas or parking expenses. We expressed to him our concern for his physical safety on a motorcycle, but he explained that the drivers there are quite law-abiding and safe, so he didn't worry about having an accident."

Joe then said the obvious, "You mean our church could have saved $30,000 if we had bought him what he mentioned?"

Martin reached for his glass again, and looked down at the ice cubes floating on top of his tea.

"So what should I do now?" Joe asked.

Martin shrugged and looked at his plate. "Maybe you could write him and explain what you have done. If prices have come down, or if other people sent money for the same project, or if he can buy a used car . . . there may be a way he can use that money anyway. Only he would know all the facts and possibilities."

Joe's eyes got big, and he fell silent for a while. Martin raised his hand for the waiter to bring the check.

On their way out, Joe shook Martin's hand again. "I've missed seeing you at lunch. I always learn something from you when we meet." Joe then hurried out the door at his usual pace, and Martin stood still for a moment wondering if he had just heard Joe correctly.

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Judah's Story

(This story is best read aloud.)

My name is Judah. My father's name is Jacob--that is, Israel. My mother's name is Leah, my father's FIRST wife. I have five brothers and a sister that all grew up in my mother's tent, two brothers by her serving girl, and then four other brothers from my father's second wife Rachel and her serving girl. But, enough about them.

I want to introduce my three older brothers--fine men. Reuben, he's all right, there's that time he seduced Rachel's serving girl. My dad was pretty angry, I don't see why. She's just a serving girl.

Simeon and Levi are pretty smart. I remember the time they convinced the men of Shechem to be circumcised. While they were still hurting, Simeon and Levi seized the opportunity and killed them all! I never did understand why my father was angry about that too. It seemed to me that they were just dealing with the people of the land in a wise way.

I'm next in line. Sometimes I think that I should be the firstborn because I think my ideas are pretty good. At least, they're better than the ones my brothers come up with. But my mother's sons are really OK after all--they're not like those sons of my father's second wife--Joseph and Benjamin. Benjamin, he's still pretty small. But that Joseph, none of us can stand him.

Why, do you know what he says? He says he has these dreams from God, dreams that we brothers are binding sheaves in the field--and our sheaves bowing down to his sheaf. The worst was a dream he had of the sun, moon, and eleven stars all bowing down to him. Our father Jacob couldn't take that one. He scolded him good. "Shall your mother and I and your brothers bow ourselves down on the ground to you?" Crazy seventeen-year-old! He needs to grow up.

He doesn't fit in with the rest of us. I mean, one time he didn't like what the rest of us were doing, and he ran off and told our father about it. Our father had no reason to know what we were doing. He was mad about it, but that Joseph should have joined in with the rest of us rather than thinking he was better and telling our father what we were doing. (It sounds like my father gets mad a lot at what we do, doesn't it? Aw, he's just old-fashioned. We know better than he does.'

What really makes me mad--it makes us all mad--is that our father really likes our eleventh brother Joseph. He treats him differently from the rest of us, even giving him a special coat that was of many colors. I hate Joseph. All of us do. Every time I see him, I get angry just thinking about what he has done and the way our father treats him. Why doesn't our father realize Joseph is the son of the SECOND wife. Six of us are sons of the FIRST wife, and two more by her serving girl. And Joseph is number eleven. Eleven! I need to stop talking about this or I'll get too angry to think straight.

Well, one day we had our chance. I couldn't believe it, it was just too good. The ten of us men--Joseph is such a boy, home with our father--the ten of us men were away from home with the sheep, and our father had sent Joseph to visit us. Joseph found us near Dothan with the sheep. I was exited. Here was our chance. If we killed him now, we could pretend he had never made it to us but that a wild animal had killed him. All ten of us men were pretty much in agreement--we all hated him so much--that we had about agreed to do it, except weak-willed Reuben, our oldest brother, wouldn't let us kill him right away. He said to throw Joseph in an empty hole nearby and just let him die slowly. We went along with his plan. I don't like Reuben's ideas sometimes.

Reuben went away for something, and then our chance came. We saw some businessmen on their way to Egypt. I told our brothers, "Let's not kill him--after all, he is our brother--but let's sell him to these businessmen and make some money." Everyone liked that idea because they knew that killing him wouldn't help us in any way. The money would come in handy. I look on it as I saved Joseph's life. Reuben, he wasn't too happy when he came back. Sometimes he acts just like our father Jacob.

We took that coat of his, the one of many colors and dipped it in the blood of a goat we killed that day and later showed it to our father. It convinced him that we hadn't done anything to Joseph, so he wasn't angry with us. But he was really sad about not seeing Joseph again. Really sad. Really sad.

I was glad not to see the dreamer anymore!

Well, I couldn't concern myself with my father's sadness; I needed to get on with my own life. So, I moved to Adullam, and started my own family. I know--my great-grandfather made sure his son married someone from outside Canaan. My grandfather was mad that my uncle married women of the land--Hittites and Ishmaelites--and my father married my mother Leah (and her sister) outside of Canaan. I decided I wouldn't follow the example of my ancestors--I would marry a girl from nearby--a Canaanite. And we had a son. A son! I called him Er! And then we had a second son Onan and a third son Shelah. I was really proud to have these sons. As soon as I could, I found a wife for Er--her name was Tamar. . . nice girl.

And then Er died. God killed him.

It's proper for the second son to marry the first son's widow, so I arranged for Onan to marry Tamar. He didn't . . . I mean . . .he had his own ideas about things . . .I don't know why he didn't go through with it. God killed him too.

Then I had just one one little boy left--Shelah. I didn't want to rush things, you know, with both of his brothers . . .dead. I told Tamar to go live in her father's house, and later I would arrange a marriage to Shelah.

Tragedy hit my family again--my dear wife died. My two sons; my wife. Well, I went to Timnah with the worker-what would keep me at home?

You know, along the road, I saw the most interesting woman. She covered her face like a harlot . . .and my wife is dead . . .so it wouldn't be adultery . . .and I'm away from home so there won't be any consequences, you know what I mean. She was attractive, but she drove a hard bargain. She wanted me to give her a small goat, but I didn't have one with me, so I gave her my seal and my staff and my cord to prove I would get the goat to her later. And I did try to send a goat to her, but no one could find her.

I don't know what happened. Everything seems to go wrong for me. How was I to know? Later, I noticed that Tamar--who was supposed to marry my third son--was pregnant. I was furious! "Burn her!" I said.

Then something happened that I think changed my life forever. She showed me things given to her by the father of the child: my seal, my staff, my cord. I was the one who had slept with a married woman.

She was more righteous than I. I should have arranged the marriage to little Shelah. I didn't. Now she was pregnant with my child--actually twins--so children. She had done less wrong than I had. I had tried to live by my own plans, and now here I am, my wife is dead, two sons are dead, my third son cannot marry the first son's wife because she is now pregnant with my children, but I cannot marry her because she is my daughter-in-law. What a mess I have brought on myself.

And I wonder what is happening to Joseph? Is he in Egypt? Is he all right? How did my suggestion to sell him end up?

And my father? Can I go back and face him? He is probably still very sad.

Well, life has its realities. We have to work because we have to eat. And the weather changed. We just ran out of food. There was nothing to eat. But we heard that in Egypt there was food!

My father urged us to go to Egypt, and the ten of us brothers did. Of course, Benjamin, son of my father's second wife, stayed home with him. He wouldn't want anything to happen to him.

In Egypt, we were foreigners. I didn't quite understand all that was going on there. We didn't get to see Pharaoh, but we were taken to see another man. A very harsh man. He accused us of being spies. Really, we didn't do anything out of the ordinary. And no matter what we said, he still called us spies. Somehow we tried to defend ourselves by talking about our family, but that was a mistake. He said we had to prove our words by bringing our youngest brother with us the next time we came. Why? I couldn't understand that.

And then, to make sure we would come again, he put all of us in jail and said one of us had to go back home and bring Benjamin. Those were three horrible days. Finally, he let us out and said he would keep only Simeon and the rest of us could go home, but we had to bring Benjamin back. I didn't know what we would do.

We talked pretty freely among ourselves even in front of the Egyptians because we knew they couldn't understand our language. Reuben reminded us of how Joseph had begged us not to sell him to Egypt. I wish now that we hadn't. I think all these things are happening to me because of our--my--sinful plan.

And it got worse. When we were on our way home, we looked in our sacks, and found the money that we had brought to pay for the food. Oh no. Now the Egyptians would call us thieves.

My father is sad. Very sad.
My wife is dead.
My two sons are dead.
One brother is in Egypt in jail.
Joseph--is gone.

A very harsh man says that if we want to buy more food, we have to bring Benjamin on this very dangerous journey. And now he will be angry with us because he didn't get our money.

What is God doing to us? What is God doing to me?

My father took it as I expected. "Joseph is gone; Simeon is gone; now you want Benjamin too?"

Reuben offered to kill his own two sons if Benjamin didn't make it back alive. My father was not moved.

We tried to wait as long as we could not to go back to Egypt. We couldn't convince my father to let us take Benjamin. Finally, I said, "If I don't bring Benjamin back, you can kill me." What else could I say?

We were worried about the attitude of that harsh man--so my father gave us gifts to give to him--the best things of the land. And we took double the money--the money we had found in our sacks and then what the food would cost. And our father prayed that God would deliver Simeon and protect Benjamin to come home safely.

This time was different. The harsh man met us one place and then acted strangely. He then told us to meet him at his house. We were worried that the man would attack us there because he was angry that we hadn't paid any money the first time. We quickly told the harsh man's manager that we had found the money and were glad to pay it. We didn't want any trouble, you know. The funny thing was the manager said he had already gotten our money. I don't know--we were confused.

At the house, the servants washed our feet and fed our animals--we were treated like guests. It was strange! And then Simeon came in--it was great to see him! And then the harsh man came and said very odd things:

How is your father? Is this your brother?

And then he ran from the room! We couldn't understand what was going on. We waited quite a while until he came back and then we ate together. I mean, we ate at the same time. Egyptians don't like to eat with us, so they ate at one table and we ate at another. Someone told us where to sit, and they had us sit in the exact order of our birth. Ten brothers--how did they know the order of our birth? And Benjamin--he was given five times as much food as we were! Unbelievable!

We didn't know whether to be happy or sad. This treatment was too good to be true so we just kept waiting for the ax to fall.

And it did.

We left the next morning very early, and along the way some horsemen caught up with us and accused us of stealing the harsh man's silver cup. I was mad. All of us were. We had tried so hard to return the money that we had found in our sacks; we had brought money to pay for this second purchase of food; why would we steal one silver cup?

"If you find it, the man whose sack it is in will die, and the rest of us will be your servants!" We knew no one of us had stolen the cup!

They started with Reuben, the oldest's, bag and checked all of ours. And then they found the cup . . . in Benjamin's bag. We were lost. We were lost! What could we do!

We all went back to the harsh man's office and he scolded us and scolded us. I didn't know what to say. I finally took the opportunity to explain how our father loves Benjamin the most and that I had promised with my life to protect Benjamin no matter what. I begged and begged.

I didn't dare look up at the harsh man's face, but then I heard him shout something in Egyptian. It was strange that all the Egyptians then left the room. And he was alone with the eleven of us. He cried and cried--really loudly. I didn't know what to think. And then I heard in our language--Hebrew--in our dialect--the words "I am Joseph." I didn't understand what he was saying. "How is our father? I am Joseph that you sold into Egypt." It didn-t make sense. One minute we were afraid of death because of a silver cup, and now we were seeing someone claiming to be Joseph--the person we had sold into Egypt--now in the second most powerful position in Egypt. I couldn't say a word. What would Joseph do to us now? What revenge would he take? What were we to do?

What was God doing in my life?

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John – Apostle of Glory

(This story is best read aloud.)

I'm John, fisherman's son from Galilee. I didn't have a lot of education growing up, just the standard Hebrew education in the synagogue. But we did pick up some Greek so we could get by with the Roman soldiers and other people living in Palestine. Remember, just across the Sea of Galilee in the Decapolis, the people spoke Greek. Still, I may not sound as eloquent as some others might.

I want to talk to you today about life--not life as a fisherman or your lives here but the truth of what life really is. You see, this life was from the beginning, but this life appeared to me; I saw it; I heard it. In fact, these rough hands touched it. That's the life I want to tell you about--I want to tell everyone. Because this life was with God the Father Himself I believe if I tell you this you will have joy abounding.

When we heard of another man named John preaching in the wilderness of Judea and baptizing the people who repented from their sin, we became his disciples. But the core of his teaching was always that someone would come after him that would be greater than he was. You can know we looked forward very eagerly for the appearance of this man. One day John said something that was different from anything he had preached before: he noticed a man from Galilee--from Nazareth, a town not too far from where we lived--and announced, "Look, here is the lamb of God that will take away the sins of the world." We took note of this man and kept track of what he was doing.

We heard that he had taught in the synagogue with such authority that everyone was amazed. If the teachers of the law were so unsure about the meaning of Bible passages, how could this Nazarene--a carpenter from not too far away, in fact--be so confident about what it said?

My business partner, another fisherman named Peter, told me one day that his wife's mother had gotten sick with a high fever. This Nazarene, named Jesus, went to Peter's house and leaned over her and said only a few words and then the fever was gone. Peter was especially happy that Jesus had healed her right away. Since it was the Sabbath, no other doctors would have come until the sun had set.

The next time we saw Jesus, he had a whole crowd following him. He approached Peter because he already knew him and asked to let him use his fishing boat so he could preach to the crowd. Since sound travels well over water and there was a natural rise to the land from the water's edge, it was better than a stone amphitheatre. Peter was only too glad to lend him the boat since he had been fishing all night but had caught nothing.

Yes, I'm a businessman. I wondered whether Jesus would give Peter any money for the use of the boat, but he didn't. From where I was, his voice carried easily to me over the water when he said to Peter, "Go out to the deep water and put down your nets." Peter protested that all of us had been fishing all night but had caught nothing. Still, he did what Jesus asked. In no time, Peter was shouting for me and my brother James to come help. There were so many fish that the nets were breaking! We hurried over and took on as many fish as we could, but had to stop when we saw our ships were starting to sink from the weight of the fish! This was the greatest payment any fisherman has ever received for the temporary use of his boat! Jesus looked at each of us and said, "Don't be afraid. From now on you will catch men."

I walked away from my boats and nets--so did James. We followed Jesus. And we--well, my brother James died quite a while ago--I still follow him. And I always will.

May I tell you about this man? I listened to him preach for hours--often telling parables that referred to simple things in our lives--sheep, a net, a coin--often telling stories that were outside of our experience--a pearl of great price, a rich lord going away on a journey, a thirsty man in Hades--I thought I didn't understand his teaching because I'm uneducated. But the other men--like Peter, James, and others that joined our group later on didn't understand either. Very often after teaching the crowds, Jesus would take the time to sit down and explain his stories to us. I listened to him for more than three years and learned to love his voice. I yearn even today to hear it again.

I would love that voice, even if it rebuked me.

Jesus puzzled us when he heard that his dear friend Lazarus was sick but he didn't go immediately to heal him. He had healed all sorts of people--quickly, and without any effort--but he purposely waited days before going to Bethany. The sisters of Lazarus were mourning his death, but Jesus spoke to them gruffly, "Your brother will rise again. Didn't I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God." He seemed doctrinaire and unfeeling. But then I remember his commanding shout, "Lazarus, come out!" You should have seen the eyes of the Pharisees bug out of their head! You should have heard the cries of Mary and Martha, overjoyed to be with their brother again!

I remember the way he rebuked us when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We were tired from a busy week and had just had a large meal at Passover time. It was very late at night, and Jesus wanted to pray. Peter and James and I wanted to sleep. Jesus asked us to pray with him--and if I could do it over, I would pray with him--but while he prayed, we slept. He came twice to wake us, and rebuked us for not staying awake with him. Only later, when the soldiers came to arrest him could we see by the light of their torches that Jesus was really worked up and worn out. I wish I could have been with him to encourage him at this crisis point of his life.

I remember that night in the storm on the Sea of Galilee when we saw what looked like a ghost walking on the water. I'm ashamed to admit that we were all terrified. But, Peter was brave and shouted, "Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water." I can still remember the single word he shouted above the waves and through the roaring wind--"Come!"

As I stand here, I can remember the smells I associate with him. Because the twelve of us often slept together with him, I can remember waking in a room with the smell of thirteen men hanging in the air. I can remember waking out of doors and smelling the morning freshness through the dust of the ground we had slept on. I remember greeting him with a kiss and tasting on his lips the wine he had just drunk and smelling the warm dank odor of his sweat.

Many a time as we traveled, Jesus gripped my arm or laid his hand on my shoulder or embraced me. When we sat in a boat, his muscular body jostled against my own. When we reclined at a meal, he might be behind me, so I could lean back against his hard chest to make a private comment.

I remember walking on one of our many trips between Galilee and Jerusalem, I don't remember which direction we were going, but I reached out to touch his arm to catch his attention, and my hand slipped on his sweaty skin. I glanced over and saw that a small crumb of bread was caught in his beard. But when he turned toward me, the wind blew, and as the beard waved in the breeze, the crumb flew away. I looked straight into his eyes. His look made me feel loved, loved more by him than by anyone else I knew.

Another time we were at someone's house to eat--I forget whose--and, as usual we sat down so that a servant could come wash the dust off our feet. I was seated beside him that day, and noticed the servant unbind Jesus' sandals and place his foot in the basin of water. I noted that the clear water turned dark from the dust, but the skin turned darker too now that the dust was washed off. With the grey dust off, the black hair on his legs accented his skin color.

May I tell you something else about my friend? He was the closest of all of my friends. Yes, he was my teacher--and more than a teacher--he was someone I considered my lord. I did whatever he told me to, because he deserved that authority over me. But he was also the person I considered to be my loving friend, the best friend I have ever had.

I remember the shock, the pain I felt when he was arrested that night in the garden. What could the three of us with him do when armed men came with some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees? Jesus had said that he knew something important--so important that it was going to fulfill Scripture--was going to happen, and he asked how many weapons we had. Among us, we had two swords, and he said that was enough. When the soldiers came, should we have defended him with those swords? Peter drew his and ended up chopping off the ear of the high priest's servant, but that didn't do any good. Jesus even reached down and picked up the bloody ear and put it back on the servant's head. It didn't seem to make sense.

Peter and I followed the soldiers as they took Jesus to the house of the high priest. The girl at the door wouldn't let Peter into the courtyard, but because I had connections there, she let me in. I took a look first to see what was happening and then I went back and said a few words to the girl at the door and she let Peter in.

Do you know what it is like to watch the person you love most suffer painful, shameful, unfair, inhuman treatment? I watched the high priest question Jesus. One of the officials reached over and slapped Jesus for one of his answers.

They took Jesus to see Caiaphas and then to see Pontius Pilate and then to see Herod. Pilate had Jesus flogged, and the soldiers put a crown of thorns on his head, and then Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified. That was a very long walk to Golgotha. Some women that followed Jesus walked along the way, and I followed too.

I stood at the foot of Jesus' cross and watched him hang there in agony, the nails in his hands and feet, blood coming down his face from the wounds and from the crown of thorns on his head. He writhed and gasped even to breathe. What could we do when our own Jewish leaders had teamed up with the hated Romans to put to death one of our own community who had broken no law?

The man who had preached authoritatively for hours now gasped short bursts of words. "Woman, here is your son," he said to Mary. To me he said, "Here is your mother." I knew he was putting her into my care. Of course, I would do anything for him.

And then I watched the man I loved most in the world . . . die. Have you watched one of your friends die? His breathing stopped. His body slumped down; his head dangled awkwardly down over his chest. It was the most offensively distasteful scene imaginable.

From very young, I have heard Moses read in the synagogues. We read through the whole Torah--the law--every year. I would watch as a boy as the men would turn the scroll slowly throughout the year. I remember what some might call the high point of the whole Torah. Moses was on Sinai and he was receiving the Law from God and he said to God, "Show me your glory." God said Moses wouldn't be able to see it and live, so God put Moses in a crevasse in the rock and God put his hand over the rock and then passed by so Moses could see only his back. What a change in Moses! When he came down the mountain, Moses' face shone so brightly, the people had to cover it with a veil.

Show me your glory--the high point of Moses' life.

God said that he didn't use dreams and visions with Moses, the way he spoke to other prophets. With Moses, he spoke face to face. And Moses saw God's glory.

I remember one day, Jesus took Peter, James, and me with him, and we hiked up a rather high mountain. At the top, something happened that caught the three of us by surprise. Jesus' body changed. His face shone brightly. Even his clothes turned completely white, whiter than I have ever seen any clothes. A booming voice came from heaven declaring, "This is my son whom I love. I am pleased with him. Listen to him."

Yes, we believed already that Jesus is the Son of God. Peter had already confessed to him that he knew Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Andrew had recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah--the Christ--even before he introduced Peter--my business partner--to Jesus. Philip had recognized Jesus as the coming one promised by Moses and the prophets and told Nathanael, and Nathanael right away declared that Jesus is the Son of God.

But that day on the mountain, we saw his glory, the glory of the only Begotten, the One and Only from the Father.

Immediately we noticed two men standing with Jesus--one was Moses, the other was Elijah. With complete clarity, we saw from the presence of these two men that Jesus was the Christ that Moses and the prophets had foretold for centuries. Every Sabbath in the synagogue we had heard Messiah prophesied. Now we could see with our own eyes that Moses and Elijah were affirming and confirming that Jesus was the one they had been talking about. And we saw Jesus in his glory.

The next thing we knew we felt Jesus touching us to wake us. "Get up," he said, "Don't be afraid." Only Jesus was there--Moses and Elijah were gone; Jesus' face and clothes were back to normal. Had I only dreamt the glorious events that were still a clear memory in my mind? No, I hadn't, because Jesus said, "Don't talk about these things until I have risen from the dead." I understood the first part of his sentence--Jesus didn't want us to tell others what happened. But I couldn't understand what Jesus meant about rising from the dead.

But later I did.

After Jesus died, I didn't know what to do. I ended up being with Peter--my old business partner--and talked with him about what he had seen and done. Peter the rash, John the son of Thunder--we were now two helpless men, emasculated by the key leaders of our society.

On Sunday morning Mary Magdalene came running to see Peter and me. She was all excited about something and said many things that didn't add up or make any sense. We could only figure out that she was saying someone had stolen the body of Jesus from the tomb. Couldn't they leave him alone in death? The Jewish leaders had bullied Jesus for three years while he had taught what Moses had taught. Then they framed him and put him to death in a horrible way. Now they had to drag his corpse away somewhere. Peter and I felt some of our old energy and we ran to the tomb.

Sure enough, the soldiers were lying at the side of the tomb. The stone was rolled back. I couldn't go in but stayed at the doorway. Peter caught up with me and then hurried in. When I walked in afterwards, I saw strips of linen there and I saw the cloth that had bound Jesus' head folded up at the side. No one stealing a body would leave things this way. Jesus had to be risen! He had risen from the dead.

Remember, he had raised Jairus' daughter--only Peter, James and I had seen it. He had raised the son of that widow in Nain. He had raised Lazarus! Of course, he could rise again too!

How happy I was for the next forty days. Jesus appeared to us from time to time--in a locked room, by the Sea of Galilee, on the sides of a mountain. I was thrilled to hear his familiar voice, to see his face, to grip his body, and talk to him. Suddenly, one day without any forewarning, he rose up to heaven again, and we were told he would come again. We waited many years, many decades without seeing him.

But I saw him again. Yes, not too long ago.

Here, on the Island of Patmos, in the westernmost part of Asia, on one Sunday I suddenly heard a commanding voice--"Write down what you see!" I turned around and saw seven golden lampstands and in the middle of them, I saw Jesus.

He was glorious!
How do I express it . . . a long robe, a golden belt,
Hair a brilliant white, eyes blazing like fire
A booming voice, a shining face
Seven stars in his hand, a sword coming from his mouth

With joy. . .
With fear . . .
In full worship I fell at his glowing feet.

Then I felt him touch my shoulder as he had on the mountain that time. "Don't be afraid. I was dead, but now I am alive . . .forever. I have authority over death and Hades."

I obeyed.

And then he showed me more of his glory: He took me up to heaven, and I saw wonderful living creatures and twenty four elders praising the Most High. They watched as Jesus walked out and took the scroll that no one else had the authority to open, and he ripped open each seal. He looked like a lamb, one that had been killed--and it reminded me of what the other John--the one who baptized so many people--had called him--the Lamb of God. And then the wonderful living creatures and the twenty-four elders bowed down before Jesus and praised him saying, "You are worthy! You bought mankind with your blood! You made them to be royal priests!"

And then angels . . . . literally millions of them chorused in a thundering voice proclaiming, "You are worthy! You died! Now you are worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, praise!"

And then everyone--everything that God created--joined in with the angels and sang together "Praise and honor and glory and power to the Most High and to Jesus the Lamb!"

Then there gathered a crowd of people--more than anyone could count--from every country, every ethnic group, every language and they shouted loudly, "Salvation is God's and the Lamb's!"

And afterward, I heard what resembled loud peals of thunder announcing, "The Lamb's wedding! The bride is ready!"

And then I saw the groom--Jesus, whose eyes blazed like fire, under a forehead ringed with many crowns riding on a white horse and wielding from his mouth a victorious sharp sword to destroy his enemies. His white robe was emblazoned with King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

And then, a great white throne exalted and ominous. And Jesus seated there to judge all that had died.

And then a glimpse of heaven . . . a glorious place that had no temple. But there wasn't a need for a temple. The Lamb is the temple.

And then the vision was over, and I was back here on Patmos in Asia. But the memory stays with me. I know my time here on earth isn't long anymore. And when I leave here, I will see Jesus again, as I saw him in the vision.

And I can't wait to see him.

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Singles' Pastor

The Christmas party had been a failure . . . at least, in Bret's opinion. Out of 40 single adults on the church membership rolls, only 10 had shown up. Bret felt bad that his wife Mary had spent three days baking the cakes, cookies and other snacks and even preparing party sandwiches and all kinds of finger food, only to have it barely touched by the small group that had come. Why hadn't all 40 come? Why hadn't they brought dates or friends? He had purposely phoned each person and found out which date in December everyone had free for a party, and he had invited each of them personally to come to the party. What was he doing wrong?

He picked up his well-worn Guide to Singles Ministry that he had read three times all the way through and had referred back to countless times. He immediately found the familiar page that had informed him,

The three Black-letter dates on a single's calendar are Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas. Be sure to plan activities for your singles group at these times.

That's what he had tried to do! On the second Saturday in February they always had their snow weekend. The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a big barbecue at his house. And, this year the Christmas party had been on December 13th, an inconvenient time for him and his wife, but it had fit the schedule of all of the singles. For the past five years he had given of himself in every way he knew to help the singles of the church, but he seemed to be further from them now than the first few weeks after his arrival.

He looked at the calendar on his desk. Just looking at all the special programs through the Christmas seasons discouraged him: Christian school programs that his children were in, the Christmas party for the Sunday school class of married people his age, the church's Christmas outreach program, the choir's cantata. He felt like running away but knew he had to have a heart of service and go to all of these. And then there was the singles' New Year's party. After all the work he and Mary would put into it, would the singles come to it?

He decided he needed to work some more on the Singles Sunday School lesson and reached for his Bible. His spirits rose a little because he really liked the series he was going through: Preparing for Marriage. This week the module was on "Meeting the other person's needs." Bret liked this topic because it was something he could speak on from his experience. He paused to look up at Mary's large picture on his desk. Yes, she was a wonderful wife.

Sunday morning, as Bret stood at the front of the classroom arranging his notes, he heard a small commotion outside the classroom. Betty, a woman Bret considered to be rather abrasively outspoken, was voicing her opinion quite loudly to a group of women about to enter the room.

"The teacher of the Homebuilders class wouldn't let me stay and study Galatians with them. I told him that I was sick of 'Preparing for Marriage' but he wouldn't let me stay. We had this in high school and again in college and career days. Why do we have to listen to this again? I mean, why don't they have me teach the married women a class in 'Preparing for Singleness' since a lot of them will be widowed one day?"

There were some embarrassed giggles as the ladies moved into the classroom, and Betty followed them and found a seat in the back of the classroom, her sour expression betraying her total disappointment at being in Bret's class.

Bret found that his eloquence was muted that morning. Even though he passionately believed that marriage was a wonderful gift of God, he felt as if he were speaking to stones. He wished he could teach the singles how to think of the other person and meet that person's needs. If they could learn this lesson now, their marriages would be happier and richer. He surprised himself by finishing early and dismissing the class to go to the sanctuary for the morning service.

At lunch that day, he found great encouragement as his son Bobby excitedly talked about his junior-high Sunday school class's part in the upcoming Christmas Outreach Program. Sarah, his eight-year-old quoted the three Bible verses she was going to say in the Christian school program. He couldn't help thinking, If only the singles in his group could have the chance to be married and have children like this. He wanted so much to be God's instrument in bringing this kind of joy to them.

Sunday evening after church, he heard Jason Stark, one of his singles, shouting across the church lobby to another single man, "Pete, I'll see you at the Johnsons'." Bret immediately asked Jason, "What's happening at the Johnsons'?"

Jason looked blankly at Bret as if even he didn't know the answer to that question, "I don't know, we're just going over there to hang out." With that, he turned and walked out the door.

Bret knew the Johnsons, a couple whose grown children had all moved out of the community. They were faithful members of the congregation not known for any special talents, but they seemed always to have guests in their home--oftentimes invited, and oftentimes uninvited. Bret wondered why Jason and Pete--and likely others--would be going over to the Johnsons' house even though there was nothing planned.

Monday morning, Bret attended the 8:00 staff meeting that included all five of the pastors of the church, the full-time maintenance man, and three secretaries. The senior pastor seemed to be in a hurry as he began, "I'm going to try to keep this short today because we all have a lot to do at this busy time. The main thing I wanted to bring up is Chet's idea to have a Family Ski Outing at New Year's. There's still time to inform everyone. What do you think?"

Everyone nodded except for Bret. "We always have a singles' party on New Year's Eve," he protested.

The senior pastor was energetically positive as usual, "Bring them along! Young people love to ski. We can all leave from the church on the morning of the 31st and will come back on the evening of the 2nd."

Bret looked carefully at the senior pastor's few gray hairs and thought of many in the singles group that were older than he. Why did the pastor refer to the singles as "young people"?

It seemed all settled. Bret acquiesced to the group's decision, and made a mental note to change what he had written on his calendar.

Wednesday evening when the congregation split up to pray and the singles gathered in their Sunday school room, Bret announced that the singles New Year's Party would be replaced by the Family Ski Outing. A deadness settled immediately over the room. He tried to liven things up a bit, "Jason, you like to ski don't you? And Pete, didn't you win some kind of ski competition when you were a teenager?" Jason looked dazed as he responded, "Why are they replacing a singles activity with a family one? Why don't they want us to have a party?"

Bret didn't quite understand Jason's question, "They are inviting you along because they thought you would enjoy skiing. It's an outing for the whole church. Why don't you come along?"

Jason still had that dazed look in his eyes, "But it's an outing for families. They don't mean for us to come." He turned around and asked the woman behind him, "You think the Johnsons would let us come over to their house that night? I don't think they'll go skiing, do you?"

Bret was dumbfounded. He had planned a party for the singles; the senior pastor had invited the singles to come on a ski trip; and a healthy, athletic man would rather go hang out at the Johnsons' house? Why were singles so hard to understand?

The Christmas season flew by in a whirl. Bret loved the season with its emphasis on family and savored the special times he got to spend with Mary and the kids. He loved all of the songs that spoke of being home for Christmas and sharing in the joys of the season with family. Mary encouraged him by pointing out that a third of the choir on the Cantata night were single people. She pointed out that some of the single women from his Sunday school class taught in the Christian school and had done a fine job of preparing their students for the Christmas program. She reminded him that for this program they had likely spent many hours outside of class beyond their preparation for teaching. As he had come out of the school program, he had been surprised to find Jason and Pete in the parking lot. They had agreed to direct traffic and do parking lot guard duty during the program since they didn't have any kids. He felt proud of his singles. And, as he thought about the canceled New Year's Party, he was happy that Mary didn't have to do all the usual preparation for it, and he could relax and just go on the ski trip with everyone else. But would the singles come?

December 31, he got on the bus and looked over the group. The only singles that came were some college kids whose parents came on the trip also. Disappointment and frustration filled his mind. Here was a great activity that singles could participate in, but they didn't show up.

As he and Mary rode the ski lift on New Year's Day, he asked her, "What do you think the singles are doing today?"

Mary replied, "Didn't Jason say something about going to the Johnsons' house?"

"Yeah," Bret suddenly remembered. "Why do you think they always go over there? You and I plan great activities for them, and hardly anyone shows up, but they seem to love to go to the Johnsons'. What can we do to get them to stop going there and start coming to our activities?"

Mary gave a simple suggestion, "Why don't we go over to the Johnsons' too. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" Her laugh rang out through the still cold air.

Bret was shocked at her suggestion. But he couldn't think of a reason to disagree. Maybe he could stop by the Johnsons and just ask them what they believed they were doing right.

On the Saturday after New Year's Bret phoned the Johnsons. "Hi, Ted, this is Bret. I was wondering whether you might be free sometime this weekend that I could stop by to visit you."

"Sure, Bret, come over anytime." Bret was amazed at the way Ted's voice sounded encouraging and yet not pushy. "You could come right now if you want. We aren't doing anything special."

Bret said he would be right over and went straight to his car. The ten-minute trip made Bret more and more nervous until he broke out into a sweat in spite of the cold temperature outside, and he knocked on the Johnsons' door.

When Ted opened the door, Bret went inside and went through the normal pleasantries with him and his wife Frieda. He couldn't help feeling a twinge of jealousy when he saw two of his singles in the Johnsons' den watching a video. He tried to think of more friendly conversation, but he couldn't, so he burst out with the direct question, "How do you do it?"

Ted and Frieda said nothing, waiting for Bret to explain his question. Bret thought a minute and realized what he had said and then explained, "I notice that the singles really like coming over to your house. They like to come here after church; some come here for holidays; and I see now two are here on a Saturday. What do you do to encourage them to come?"

Ted and Frieda looked at each other and then Ted replied, "We don't do anything. They just come. I guess we have invited them over for ice cream so many times that now they invite themselves over." Frieda smiled. "Some come just because they feel lonely in their apartments, and others come because they want to watch a video that we have. We don't plan anything for them--after all, they are all adults and very resourceful. Did you know that Jason can quote poetry?"

Bret was surprised. Athletic Jason knew poetry?

Frieda laughed and reminisced, "Jason doesn't know any serious poetry, just silly rhymes. He has us all in stitches with the one about the purple cow!" She lowered her voice and imitated Jason's voice, "I can tell you anyhow, I'd rather see than be one." Ted and Frieda both laughed out loud.

"Did any of the singles come over on New Year's Day?" Bret tried to mask his disappointment and jealousy.

Ted didn't seem surprised by the question at all. "Oh yes, quite a few came. They were in and out all day long. Maybe a total of 20 or so of them showed up at some time in the day. They said there was nothing planned at church except for families, so they said they wanted to come over."

A burst of anger shot through Bret. "Nothing planned!" How could the singles say that? He stayed silent until the anger subsided, and then he asked, "Didn't they know about the ski outing?"

Ted explained calmly, "They told me the ski outing was for families, so they didn't feel welcome."

Bret was annoyed. "No, the outing was for the whole church. We welcomed everyone. I specifically invited the singles. I don't see why they thought they weren't welcome."

"In church we heard it was a Family Ski Outing. Maybe that's why the singles didn't feel welcome," Ted offered.

Finally Bret understood. The singles had been turned off by the name of the outing. No matter how directly and repeatedly he might have invited them, they would have balked at the activity being called a "Family" outing.

"We meant it for the whole church," Bret complained, "that's why we called it a'family' outing. We meant that it was for every age group. What else could we call an activity if we meant it to be for the whole church?"

Frieda looked at Ted and then suggested, "What if you called it a Church outing?"

Bret was stunned at the simplicity of Frieda's suggestion. The singles had thought a'family' outing was for families. Maybe if future activities were called 'church' activities, the singles would feel included.

Bret sudden understanding made him feel unusually open, "May I share something with you? I am quite discouraged about the singles ministry. I plan all kinds of activities for the singles, and then they don't come. What do you think I could do differently?"

Ted seemed a bit hesitant to say anything, but then he said something that shocked Bret, "What some of them were talking about is that they wish you would plan activities for holidays that are celebrated as families--like Thanksgiving and Christmas--or for the day they like least every year--Valentine's Day." Bret wanted to get really angry, but he realized that Ted was not criticizing him, "But I DO plan activities for them on those exact three holidays. I try to look out for them and their interests and go to a lot of planning and work to do so!"

Ted was a bit surprised at Bret's energetic remark and looked at Frieda before continuing. "Did you have something on Christmas day? The singles that came over here that day said there was nothing planned."

Bret shook his head in disgust. "I planned a special Christmas activity for them on December 13. I made sure everyone had that day free--and that was hard to do. And my wife cooked for three days. And then very few people showed up!"

Ted looked confused. "So you didn't have anything on Christmas day, but you had a Christmas activity for them December 13. Why didn't you have the Christmas activity for them on Christmas day?"

Bret thought his answer was too obvious to have to say, but he forced the words out anyway, "I spent Christmas day with my family."

Ted paused, began to say something and then hesitated. Then he took a breath and said what he was thinking, "What if next time you celebrated with your family on another day, and held an activity on Christmas day itself? You could do the same on Valentine's Day itself and on Thanksgiving day?"

Bret sat there for a bit, letting Ted's words sink in. He thought back on his Guide to Singles Ministry and realized he had been misinterpreting it whole time. The singles didn't need him to hold a Christmas party--they were adults that could plan their own. What they needed was someplace to go on Christmas day so they wouldn't be homesick for their families far away.

Bret was feeling more and more admiration for Ted and Frieda and their effectiveness among the singles. He decided to venture one more question, "I really feel for these single people--they don't have spouses to care for them, and I feel much more sorry for the women because of the unequal ratio of men to women. I really want to help them get married and enjoy the families that we married people have. But they just don't seem interested in my lessons on preparing for marriage. Do you think they are single because they don't want to be married?"

Ted and Frieda both smiled knowingly, "I don't think you need to feel sorry for them," Ted began to explain. "They are a great bunch of people that enjoy life a lot. But I think almost every one of the singles we know would really like to be married. We hear all kinds of discussion about their ideas and plans and wishes regarding marriage. They ask us all kinds of questions too. But, what we think is really great about this bunch of singles is that they have an even stronger desire to know God. They really want to learn the Bible and know what God has to say about their whole lives, not just their relationship with the opposite sex. Have you ever taught a book of the Bible in Sunday School . . . like Isaiah, or Romans?"

Bret was taken back that Ted could keep saying such surprising things. "But we want them to get married, don't we?"

Ted was gentle in his response, "We don't know what God's plan for them is. He may lead them to marriage; He may not. What we know is that God wants to draw them to Himself and reveal Himself to them and fill their lives with His spirit, His glory, and His joy. I think the singles hunger most for that."

Bret felt a yearning in his own heart and suggested, "Ted, would you consider teaching a series in our singles Sunday school class? I think they would love it, and I would too."

Ted's eyes grew big, and he looked helplessly at Frieda. "But Bret--Sunday school--I've never taught that. I wouldn't know what to say!"

Bret shook his head in total disbelief. How could Ted be totally unaware of his own eloquence and spiritual depth? "Ted, would it be all right if I came over sometimes when the singles hang out here? I would really like to get to know them the way you do."

Frieda spoke up cheerily, "Bret, come anytime. We welcome everyone."

Bret rose to leave, said his goodbyes at the door, and drove home. He couldn't wait to tell Mary what he had learned from the Johnsons.

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