Do you remember as a kid being in a serious situation where it was inappropriate to laugh, but everything seemed to be suddenly hysterical? I remember in my early teens sitting with my friends during a service and the pew would start to shake as a result of trying everything not to laugh, including trying to think of anything else, taking long, slow breaths and even sweating. As a kid, the worst was the embarrassment of the sound of suppressed laughter somehow leaking out, usually through one’s nose, and the somber faces of the adults turning your direction. Well, things suddenly got funny for a while as we interacted for the first time with some of the church family, that had me riding the “struggle bus” of trying to hold it together.
It all started as Mark drove toward the East Hill church building the Wednesday night of our first visit, and I was in the back of the van bouncing off the potholes in the dark as if on a trampoline, scrambling on my laptop to finish typing as quickly as I could a 100 churches entry, and because we were already running a little late when we pulled into the parking lot, I had no time left to change out of the navy blue T-shirt I’d purchased at a shop in Fredrick, Maryland that had a yellow screen print of a wild-eyed screaming cat, standing on its back two legs playing the electric guitar. I threw my black coat over it, lest someone think I come from the “Keep It Weird” Portland, Oregon area (which I do), and zipped it up all the way, so I could keep said cat on the downlow. Except half-way through our Bible class I started to sweat. And then I started to sweat some more, so, as discreetly as I could, I removed my coat, planning to put it back on after class, but I never cooled down enough to not sweat bullets, so I decided rather than trying to fit in, I’d just have to assume I’d be given a little grace, and I was.
After class we met another married couple about our age also named Mark and Cindy who (as perhaps most “Cindys” would) suggested a picture of the four of us together (five including the T-shirt I planned no one would see) and we started laughing about starting an exclusive “Mark and Cindy” club (which a Google search reveals has A LOT of comedy potential, but obviously NEVER happening). When I looked down at the picture of the four of us on our phone, I've no idea what is going through Mark's mind, but his face looked like he was either watching aliens walk out of a spaceship, or perhaps it was that look of a man who’d just lost his one chance to put his best foot forward during this visit because his wife was wearing a T-shirt with a cat playing an electric guitar.
When I went to show Mark the picture to ask him what he was thinking, I met Ian Rice and his wife Keri, but then things stayed funny when after Mark and I suggested that an easy way to remember our names is to think of “Mork and Mindy” which rhymes with “Mark and Cindy”, and Ian replied an easy way to remember his name is what a new coworker, decades ago, thought his boss had said Ian’s name was when he introduced Ian to a couple dozen other guys also working at the tire store. “He’s called Eatin’ Rice?!” his new coworker asked in confusion. The name stuck at the tire shop and I’m certain it’s going to stick in my head as well!
On a more serious note, it was great to see at East Hill the couple that had told us about this congregation, Dale and Terry Frech, whom we’d met in Monticello, Florida last year. I learned then that Dale loves to share God at every opportunity with the people she meets, so I’d gifted to her a stack of Fresh Starts to hand out as opportunities surface. It just so happened that when I introduced myself to one of the new members at East Hill, she recognized my name as being the author of the copy of Your Fresh Start that Dale had gifted her, and requested a stack as well, so that she also could disperse copies to the weary souls she encounters.
Sometimes when we first walk into a congregation, as I look around at all the new faces, I’ll notice someone who, for one reason or another, seems to me could perhaps use my prayers, and will silently ask God in that moment a specific and special request on behalf of that unknown soul. I’ll not say more about the specifics in this case, but just know you never know who might be praying for you. As it turned out, we ended up returning Sunday morning and again Sunday evening to enjoy some meals and deeper conversations with these kind and hospitable brethren, and in the course of doing so, learned of answered prayers a few months back in what had looked like a hopeless situation in the healing of a beloved baby granddaughter. These souls believe in the power of prayer and that God can change for the better the things that we cannot.
One thing the East Hill congregation had been especially prayerful about the month before our visit, was Ian’s trip with his brother-in-law to Kenya in an effort to reach open hearts with the transforming power of the word of God. This trip was one of the reasons we also wanted to return on Sunday to worship with this congregation, because Ian was planning both morning and evening, to present a PowerPoint presentation, explaining many of the details of the Bible studies he’d taught in Kenya.
As this presentation commenced, Ian told us how his journey unfolded day by day. I was especially inspired by the beauty in the character of the people that Ian described in Kenya and the virtues he witnessed in not only their work ethic, but also their remarkably high level of contentment, even in their humble means, especially in comparison with the discontent often witnessed in our own nation. Especially admirable was the seriousness with which these souls approached their relationship with God, and a beautiful eagerness to investigate spiritual matters and to get their Bible questions answered, even if it meant dropping everything they were doing in the moment to take whatever time was necessary to hear the truth.
It was evident that the local preacher in Kenya, as well as some of the Christians in the congregation, had prepared for their arrival by setting up an ambitious schedule of going house to house. Upon their arrival, in Acts 10 fashion, many of the houses they entered were filled with friends and family of the homeowners.
I’ve always wondered when I’ve heard about this kind of work, what kinds of topics are selected with such limited time. In many of the Bible studies, they would simply begin with whatever challenges were on the minds of the various individuals they encountered, with a focus on what God says in the scriptures around those specific challenges. Once souls begin to realize how relevant and practical the answers in the Bible are for whatever they are facing, then these hearts often begin to open up to God with a greater appreciation for His wisdom and His overall plan for mankind.
The topics Ian said they often discussed included what God says one must do to be saved, what Christ said His desire is for all believers, the need for unity of faith and understanding, and using the Bible as the standard of that unity in the kingdom of God. The titles of some of the sermons preached said a lot about the beautiful foundations that were being laid for the souls in Kenya: “The Truth Shall Make You Free”, “Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Raised to Walk in Newness of Life” “What is So Special About the Church?” “According To The Pattern” “Lord I Believe, Help My Unbelief”
At one study with a woman and her adult daughter, when the mother felt she’d heard enough, she dismissed the men, but before the men left, one of the preachers reminded the mother that though she felt like she was finished learning, that since salvation is an individual matter for every soul, and her daughter was accountable to God for her own response to the gospel, that they wanted to check with her first to see if there was anything else they could do to help her spiritually. In the end, because they asked, she was among those who ended up baptized into Christ.
This was not the only case in which, as conversations took place, the ones who sometimes benefitted most were those on the sidelines listening in on someone else’s questions being answered. One key element of their success was thoughtfully observing the body language both of those they were teaching, as well as those who were listening in. In some cases, this even served to calm down any negative emotions that would surface from time to time. That being said, the preachers involved in this effort were assertive when working through any initial excuses. They often followed up and double checked when an opportunity appeared to have perhaps evaporated. For example, one man initially dismissed them because he said that too much of his mind at present was under the strain of oppressive monetary debt. But instead of immediately leaving, they reminded him of how his greatest debt was in fact sin, but that Jesus had paid that debt in full for all those who obey the gospel. This man not only was baptized, but for the remainder of the week joined the teachers as they went house to house, sometimes even leading the way on the dirt paths the group of preachers hiked to take the truth to others. This new convert to Christ was manifesting the kind of boldness that often comes along when there’s an acute awareness that “we're not just selling encyclopedias here”. They interacted with the souls around them with respect, yet with perhaps a little less fear of running people off than we are accustomed to in the West, and as a result more souls were baptized into Christ --- six during the time Ian was there, as well as the renewed commitment of a sister who had drifted away from the Lord --- a spiritual return that resulted in even more Bible studies with the souls she knew.
Several times during Ian’s presentation, there were moments when he was obviously moved by what he had witnessed, which in turn moved us. He was deeply grateful both to those in Kenya who had, for example, worked all day to put a meal on the table for him, as well as those at home in Pensacola that contributed the means that allowed him to be a part of such a fulfilling quest.
I know to some degree what it feels like to try to explain what a grand pursuit feels like, and how any attempt to do so sort of feels like trying to cover the Grand Canyon by tossing a little blanket over it. When you’ve poured yourself into such an overwhelming pursuit that every moment has filled your senses and then your heart as you watched precious lives transform one by one before your eyes --- there’s just no short way to explain what just happened. You had to be there.
East Hill church of Christ
2078 East Nine Mile Road
Pensacola, FL 32514