“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” (Robert Frost) Well, there are many who only know me as an adult. There is a comfort in this. There is a secret delight in knowing that folks have not seen you in your youthful arrogance, embarrassing, problematic, and altogether uncouth or unrefined days of development. When there is this lack of knowledge on the part of others, we would like to think that we will be taken more seriously. However, the truth is that we are, none of us, entirely finished being refined, embarrassed, or in need of some humiliation. The truth is that when you are surrounded by those people, that family of faith, that so knows you as to remember raising you and being raised with you, the community is one of true empathy. This family creates a place where you are released from some pedestal and seen for what you are, or at least what I am, and that is a simple servant of God, just trying to be faithful, and truly in need of as much support, prayer, guidance, and grace as anybody. In many ways Cleveland First Church of the Nazarene is that family to me. It was good to be home with those who raised and were raised with me this past Sunday morning.
We were greeted by Pastor BJ Miller when we arrived Sunday morning, but very soon after joined the praise team on the platform for prayer. Immediately my folks began to try and tell all their favorite stories about me! The people on this platform, BJ, Selena, Janet, Joey, Jeremy, Kendra, and others know all the stories. Perhaps, knowing all the stories is what it means to be family. We joked and jeered the way you only can in a context of rootedness, where you know that, not in spite of, but because of all of your shortcomings and awkward childhood messes you are taken in, you are received again as family, no matter the occasion or lapse. After prayer we welcomed so many to worship, including many of my own relatives who still call Cleveland home. Many of the people were from Cleveland New Hope. This was where my father pastored, where I lead worship, joined the Church of the Nazarene, and preached a handful of my first sermons. The service began even as I continued to greet and chat.
How can I explain what it is like to share your heart and your calling from the same platform (well almost) as your first pastor, your youth pastor, your father, the evangelists who shaped your faith? How can I explain the incredible responsibility and holy occasion it was to speak from that spot where I was dedicated to Christ as an infant, where I quoted my first scripture verses, where I gave testimony of my salvation, and where my own mother and father were united in a love that led to my creation? I will simply say that it was gift enough for me just to look into the face of my first Sunday school teacher who taught me that all hearts, of all people, of all color, of all culture, no matter how different, were made to be given away to Jesus, “so we can all be happy children of Christ together.” (Sis. Keys) It was gift enough to look at my pre-teen Sunday school teacher who taught me what it meant to be hungry to discover God in the pages of scripture and gave me my first study bible. (Zana Napier) It was gift enough to look upon Pastor BJ who once said to me in the front seat of a big blue van coming home late from a district youth retreat, “Joshua, I know you don’t think much of yourself but everybody else is just waiting to see what crazy things God is going to use you for. It’s gonna be great.” I could literally fill pages upon pages with the stories, the names, and the ways that the people in that sanctuary have shaped me and prepared me for a life of service. How can I explain the depth of that gift? I cannot. What a wonderful gift to be invited home, so that I can be supported again, shown again, what it means to follow Christ.
In the introduction to the book of Bulgarian folktales, Wild Tales, by Nikolai Haitov we are told by the translator that, “Commitment has to be sustained to be of any real value and sustained commitment demands constant sacrifice.” When Brenda O’Neal got up to introduce the opportunity to support us with prayer and giving, she said, “When they go a piece of us goes with them.” That is sustained commitment. It is commitment to the work of Christ in and through my life. I do not know how to express my gratitude for the sustained commitment that the people of Cleveland First Church of the Nazarene have shown me. I cannot repay it. I would not cheapen it by trying, but I am grateful because I know the real value of that kind of treasure, and I know it only comes by sacrifice. It is the sacrificial commitment of this church, and so many others like it that we have built relationships and partnerships with over our time on deputation, that make it possible for us to even be missionaries, to even have an open door to do ministry in Bulgaria. What a treasure this sustained commitment is.
We left Cleveland First after a wonderful lunch provided by the church and headed to Southview Community Church in Kingsport, TN. I remember making this same trek for bible quiz meets when I was a child. It is a beautiful drive. We were greeted by Pastor Bill Willis and James Kramer as we arrived. James and I attended TNU together and even shared a suite for a year. It immediately felt like home. The service was handed over to Katie and I and we reflected later that it felt like sitting down to a causal, yet incredibly meaningful, conversation with family and friends about what God is up to in our lives. The people of Southview Community are a treasure. At the conclusion of our time of sharing James and Laura Kramer, who served with Korea Nazarene University, prayed a blessing over us that we will not soon forget. Laura’s concluding words rang in our ears as we drove home, “Lord, we know that you will use their beautiful children to melt the walls around people’s hearts, so they can pour the love of Christ in.” What a prayer! What a blessing! We believe that God will be using our children every bit as much as he is using Katie and I to bring people to Christ. After all, we can only inherit the Kingdom if we do so like a child.
Before we left a lady approached me and began to ask questions about the missionary family that preceded us, about the work in Bulgaria, and in Sofia in particular. She knew as much or more about the situation in Sofia than I did! I was fascinated as she began to tell me how she had once been the NMI president and how she had closely followed the ministries and updates of several of the Nazarene missionaries who had served in Bulgaria. I looked at this incredible saint who so embodied this sustained commitment to the work of Christ in Bulgaria through the missions efforts of the Church of the Nazarene and I said, “You know don’t you that it is because of your passion and support that the way has been paved and that we will reap a harvest we have not sown, and build on foundations we did not set?” She answered with the typical humility of a faithful servant.
As we pulled away, I noted to Katie that Southview Community Church is way out on the fringes of the East Tennessee District of the Church of the Nazarene. One might think that they are isolated, that they would not be connected to other churches, and/or that this distance and placement might negatively affect the ministry and vitality of the church in Kingsport. None of this is the case. Katie and I have been friends for years with many of the wonderful people who were present for that evening service. There is an obvious and inspiring passion and purpose for God’s particular calling that can be felt at Southview Community. There are no fringes in the Kingdom of God. We are all family in the Kingdom of God, and especially the Church of the Nazarene, that means the unspeakable value of sustained commitment to one another and to the Mission of God that we are all working together for. As we drove home, we discussed heritage, inheritance, and legacy and what a gift and responsibility it is. It is our prayer that we will be people of sustained sacrificial commitment in Sofia, Bulgaria, and that this same characteristic found in East Tennessee will be rewarded with a great harvest around the world!