As most of you know, a little over a week and half ago Pastor Matt and I left for Athens, Greece to teach the leaders of a migrant Romanian church. This group of men had been learning from the curriculum and teachers of Training Leaders International (TLI) for the past three years. They’ve been on a long journey and have worked really hard. In fact, they, along with other migrant people groups in Athens, were the first group ever to complete the TLI program and graduate. It was an honor to watch each of them receive their diplomas and I was deeply encouraged by the work God appears to be doing in Athens. Pastor Matt went on to Romania, but I am now home and have been asked to write a short post reflecting upon my personal experience.
1) The Men of Athens
My greatest take away from the trip became evident within the first day—my view of the Church is too small. The Romanian church is pretty well established, so it wasn’t a complete culture shock. However, there was enough difference to know I wasn’t home anymore. It was amazing to watch this little church worship Christ, especially in the midst of a tumultuous and politically unstable culture.
Two things stood out about the men we taught. First, I was encouraged and convicted by their work effort. Almost every one of them worked some type of construction to support their families. In fact, when I shook some of their hands, not only would mine be completely swallowed up, but it felt like they were wearing gloves made of sand-paper. They worked hard, physical jobs, so by the end of the night, not only were they physically fatigued, but mentally as well. The stuff we were teaching was not easy, but they were not afraid to work. We taught from 6:00pm-10:00pm, and as such, many of them came straight from their jobs and skipped dinner. We usually took about a 15 minute break from 8:00-8:15 and one of the wives would bring some amazing food item. The plate would be empty within a matter of minutes.
There was a poignant moment during one of the breaks when I looked over at one of the men. He was leaning against the wall and it looked like he was just trying to keep himself in the up-right position. He had enormous bags under his red eyes. I felt bad for him, but he was also one of the hardest workers in the class. He didn’t speak much, but his eyes were always down in the text and his pencil and highlighters regularly moved with vigor. Whenever we spoke as teachers, he offered nothing but full attention. He was the kind of student teachers (and pastors) dream of. He listened with precision, care, and thoughtfulness. He never argued and submitted himself to every aspect of the class. My private prayer was that God would use him mightily for the sake of the Gospel and the spread of the mission in Athens. So may his reward be great! All of the students did well and their willingness to work hard was the reason.
The second thing (or person) that stood out to me was the pastor of the Romanian church. Much of what I know about the pastorate is shaped more by a Western lens then I know. In an age of celebrity-culture and the rock-star mentality, here is this humble, quiet man serving a small, migrant people on the other side of the world. He’ll never write a book, never Pastor a large church, and never be asked to speak at a conference, but he’s also the kind of man who could care less. And it was wonderful to watch. He loves his people and desires to grow them in faithfulness with respect to Christ.
After that first Sunday evening service, the pastor, as well as another church leader, invited us over to the pastor’s home for a meal. After we ate, we chatted until midnight hearing of the hardships the church was suffering. The net effect of these hardships is the pastor is being forced to move back to Romania in a few months just so he can support his family. It is such a sad situation and in that moment my heart was given to this church. It could not be more evident how much the pastor loved his people and the people loved their pastor. It was like watching a family being forced to separate. It was heart-breaking. I walked away from the pastor’s home that night wondering why God would allow his people to go without a shepherd. It was difficult not to let my mind wander on what God could be doing in and among this situation. It was hard not to feel the burden of these people, especially after getting to know them. But in the end, I had to remind myself of God’s faithfulness. I was driven to prayer and resolved that I must keep praying for this little church. God is at work in Athens and I hope the Romanians will be used as a mighty tool.
2) I walked where Paul walked
Words are a gift from God and are among the most powerful tools for art, description, and change, but when it comes to communicating my experience, they utterly fail. In short, Greece is beautiful. I can’t describe it so I’m not even going to try. We got some pictures and videos, but they all fall short. Nothing beats the experience of standing before the towering Acropolis, or hiking to the top of the Acrocorinth to look down over the ancient city of Corinth, where Apollo’s temple looks like a spec and you can see for miles out over the port. Pastor Matt and I plan to give a presentation of our trip to the church when he returns. We’re going to try and pool our pictures together to give a glimpse of our experience. Hopefully that will be fun.
An amazing part of this trip is that I got to walk where Paul walked. After spending my life growing up in the Church and sitting for four years in a classroom, I finally got leave the books and touch the marble pillars. Standing on Mars Hill was emotional. It’s been almost 10 years since I truly came to understand saving grace. In those first moments of understanding why the term “Gospel” literally means “good news,” the weight of the Gospel contemporaneously landed with a fresh desire to do nothing other than preach this good news to a dying world for the rest of my life. Two years later, this desire was confirmed when Pastor Matt preached a sermon from Acts 17 in an evening serviced entitled, “Go, Observe, Engage, and Proclaim.” Afterwards, I resolved in my own heart to preach the good news of the Creator God in any capacity He would let me. It was the first time I was introduced to that passage, and so after hearing of how Paul heralded God as Creator and Sustainer on Mars Hill, I remembered praying that evening on my drive back to school in Milwaukee that if my preaching of Christ for the rest of my life took place in an office or job site, “Let me be effective!” However, I remember telling God that if He would be pleased to allow me to make much of Christ from the pulpit, I was ready and willing—even though the prospect was (and in many ways still is) terrifying.
Anyway, that Pastor Matt preached the same sermon a week before we left for Athens got me excited. It brought me back to nearly a decade ago when I prayed that night to God. As such, when we got to Athens and stood on Mars Hill, I was thanking God almost the entire time. When we walked back down those shiny, worn marble steps that Paul would have walked down after preaching about the “God Who does not dwell in temples made with hands,” I re-prayed that prayer re-resolved to God that I would preach Christ with boldness. I was doubly glad to have experienced it with the man from whose mouth I was first introduced to Mars Hill and I hope to return with my wife one day.
3) The Gospel is global
In short, my eyes were opened. The world is big, but God is bigger. He is grander and more marvelous than any Systematic volume could ever portray. This trip made me realize I have no idea how vast God is in saving a people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. I’m passionate about missions, but this ignited the flame. My perception of the Church is more global and historical than ever before. I am convinced we must be a people passionate about people. More than that, we must be a people passionate about the God of all people. The Gospel we preach is not an American Gospel. It is a transcendent, global, historical Gospel that carries with it much power. Over the past four years the Spirit has helped me to understand this through books, but now, He’s made me feel it through this trip. I’m deeply thankful for the men I was privileged to meet and teach. I hope to see them again, but if I don’t, I’m hopeful the work that was done will remain. May God be exalted in the hearts these men, and may the people of Athens come to know him through these TLI graduates!
Let all the peoples praise you,
Let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy;
For you will judge the peoples with uprightness
And guide the nations on the earth.
Let the peoples praise you,
Let all the peoples praise you.