The second congregation we visited on our quest to visit 100 churches was a small band of believers called the Leeward church of Christ on the Island of Oahu. It was December 2019 and we were in Hawaii for the first time, celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary. We would be on the islands a total of seventeen days, and a few months previously, it had been a pretty easy sell, talking some besties from our home congregation into join us for the first half of our trip. The four of us had spent the first Monday through Saturday on the little remote island of Molokai because the couple travelling with us had a colleague in the medical field who owned a condo he was willing to rent to us for a screamin’ deal. The breezy little loft condo even came with the use of a beat up old car we’d named “Edna”, that was parked among all the other cars in an open field near the tiny airport. She wasn’t good at first impressions, having introduced herself to us bearing a flat tire we had to immediately fix, but, surprisingly enough, once we’d dealt with that, she’d not let us down. Now, though, we were back on Oahu and were renting a convertible we named “Tina Louise” who was herself a whole different animal, and had spent a night in Kaneohe, so we could worship with these Christians in “paradise”. Paradise. --- Not an easy undertaking this pursuing of holiness in a culture where the more natural thing is to pursue the pleasures all around, but we had already met one young couple a few months back who were doing just that, and had extended to us an offer of hospitality housing us several nights, and now we were eager to meet the rest of our dear family in this delightful locale.
We were the first to arrive so we chatted at the bottom of the humble little steps enjoying the tropical breeze and feeling especially grateful given the fact that back home in Oregon, it was closer to 40 than 80 degrees. The first member to arrive was a Filipino brother, a few years older than any of us, quiet, but very welcoming as he told us a little bit about himself and his congregation. And as more and more brethren arrived, it was a delight to see how many in the congregation were also Filipino, as well as many other races who had all come together to become a spiritual family.
The building was older, but well kept, tidy, and tended to. We enjoyed the slated glass windows that allowed the breeze to blow through and the local lizards clinging occasionally to the screens as if participating. “Sit anywhere. I’ll let you know if you’re sitting in a place that belongs to an "Auntie” the young preacher from Indiana jested, doing what he could to help us not disappoint any sweet, elderly Filipino woman, but instead to stay “in favor” and build rapport. This preacher’s smile seemed to take up the entire bottom half of his face when he started Bible class with an enthusiastic, heartfelt “Aloha church! Can I get a smile?!”
It was a good class where I was reminded that when we are expressing our earnest desires to God in prayer, He already knows what is best in the eternal scheme of all that is, that we need not tell him how to answer, but rather leave that up to His great mercy and omniscience. It was a reminder I took to heart. As the class went on, latecomers arrived, and they got just as genuine a smile and an equally enthusiastic "Good morning, Guys! Happy Lord's Day!” and the class continued with good participation, just a few inside jokes and plenty of useful, Biblical teaching.
The order of services was posted, which was handy. And then when worship service was about to commence, something unique was announced by one of the men volunteering to open the service, so unique, that I thought, “What a difference this could make for good!” I can’t remember the exact words, but they were very close to this: “We often end the sermon with an invitation for anyone in the assembly to be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of their sins or for those already a Christian to ask for prayers if an individual needs to publically restore their relationship with God. Today I want to offer that invitation first so that if anyone is here with either of these needs, you can today joyfully participate in worship and partake of the Lord’s Supper with a clean conscience and a new life.” “Hmm”, I thought, “Brilliant!”
I’ve always appreciated that during the highlight of our gathering, those volunteering to serve on the Lord’s Table are allowed to speak freely, unscripted, their own heartfelt thoughts about how the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ has touched our lives and changed everything. The Filipino man servicing us took his time emphasizing how holy a moment we were about to experience. “Am I right?” he’d ask every few minutes, humbly looking around looking to be entirely open to anyone who might be able to state a truth with even more precision. I appreciated his vulnerability.
In fact, vulnerability is what I loved best about this congregation. Initially, I could see it in the preacher by the fact he had both a question box into which anyone could place any written Bible question and (even scarier!) a suggestion box. Yikes. If THAT doesn’t scream “go ahead and criticize me or anything else, if it means we a chance we could do better”, I don’t know what does. They recognized that vulnerability truly is the birthplace of everything we long for…intimacy, faith, creativity, joy, peace, and more. In fact, I’d agree with the one author’s statement “Don't call it faith if there's no vulnerability in it” (B.Brown). I’m so grateful for the quiet kind of boldness that that little box represented, and how it gives opportunity for annoyances to be remedied before they turn into resentment, as well as offering everyone a voice so that the best ideas get heard, no matter their source.
As it turns out, the sermon itself was based on the Bible questions members and visitors had put into the box the previous weeks. (There’s one way to know your sermon is relevant, when it is customized to the stated need at present!) “Good question!” the preacher would communicate in one way or another in honor of the asker, no matter how foundation the question he just read. As he moved question to question, as a visual aid, he preached standing beside a power point screen, so that he could physically touch the words within the text of scripture he wanted to emphasize--- the exact words that God uses to answer the asker’s question. Bible answers for Bible questions!? Hallelujah. That’s how we roll.
The preacher was not the only one who “did vulnerability”. A teenager on the Lord’s Supper said in his prayer about Jesus, “You are our EVERYTHING.” Well. I guess the world knows where this young man stands. And the older Filipino man we had met outside the building before services, showed his willingness to be vulnerable by heading up weekly a local radio program (kndi.com) where he speaks truth to the Filipino population after the preacher does so in English.
This same man had written a prayer a few years ago that he read at some point during worship, that was so meaningful, I asked, and he allowed me, to photograph it. He had clearly taken to heart the weighty and awesome reality that he was actually leading us toward the presence of the Creator’s throne with what we REALLY needed even more than “safely reaching our destinations” and such.
While we were singing after the sermon, someone with a heavy heart went to the front to request prayers over the burden she could no longer carry alone. She whispered her situation with some detail to the preacher, then as we were finishing the song, went and sat back down in the back. “Good for her”, I thought, for being vulnerable enough to know when she needs help and to understand that she could go sit back down to watch the compassion in the body language of an empathetic congregation, instead of herself feeling eyes behind her on the front row. As a congregation we prayed for her, and then she and I ended up talking extensively and praying together deeply about her burden during the course of our visits, often being among the last to leave.
By the time we left, we had bonded so much with the Leeward church of Christ that it seemed we’d been there longer than we had, and a few expressed their desire that we’d stay forever and that they would miss us. Most touching was when, upon my our departure, a Filipino brother, as he shook my husband’s hand to say “Goodbye” gently pulled him in until they were forehead to forehead, explaining warmly, “In our culture, this means I respect you.”