The day we drove our van about seven hours from Zion National Park to Long Beach, California, we’d just begun the twenty-third month of our beautiful nomadic life. In the front passenger seat, I was writing as fast as my fingers could fly and made great progress writing the transcripts for my live internet program Older Women Likewise and podcasts for Nomads You And I. Even still, upon our arrival to our spot at an inner city RV Park in Long Beach, I remained buried enough in written work that we refrained from venturing out much, except to ebike along the boardwalk in the early evening to grab dinner, check out the lighthouse colorfully glowing in the harbor, and to snap a few photos of a very special British Transatlantic ocean liner that was sleeping in the harbor --- The Queen Mary.
Sunday morning, on the way to worship, we were burning the most expensive diesel we’d ever purchased --- almost three times the amount we had paid in South Dakota just two years and one presidency ago. The beautiful canopies of vibrant purple flowered trees were a welcome distraction. We learned later these were Jacaranda and that nearly 7000 of these gorgeous trees have been planted in and around Long Beach.
We arrived at the Studebaker place of worship, and after a warm welcome I took my seat somewhat toward the back of the building. I was handed for the first time a Spanish hymn book by a Hispanic sister and clumsily, but happily sang my first hymn alongside her in Spanish. We’d visited congregations where English speaking brethren shared a building with Spanish speaking brethren by alternating their times of worship, but this was my first time worshiping with a bilingual congregation in one service. One thing that I especially appreciated during the service was that often a bilingual Hispanic brother would lead a portion of the worship in English, as well as the reverse --- many non-Hispanic brothers led Spanish prayers, songs and readings of Scriptures. This seemed to bring a cohesion to their worship, beautifully meshing together all the ethnicities present into one lovely church family. The sermon was the only moment of worship when the Spanish interpreter and the Spanish speaking members left the auditorium so that they could watch in another room on a monitor the sermon in English while hearing an audible translation.
After worship, a bilingual Hispanic sister told me with great detail her fascinating story about how, for many years, she had seen all over the world various cultures practicing their own versions of Catholicism, some of which she found to be shockingly showy in it’s carnality and other times excessively glorifying not to God, but rather to those holding positions of power that the worshipers would bow down to kissing the ring on their hand. She explained how, in contrast, she was very much enjoying being in a family of God whose focus is on glorifying Him and expressing their love and dedication to Him in the ways He has instructed, free of all gaudy, man-made pageantry. In fact, not knowing that our mission, like hers, is to do what we can to restore New Testament Christianity, she personally wanted assurance that as we visit congregations around the country, we were on the same page. I appreciated very much her inquisitiveness and forthrightness on the matter, after all, for all she knew, our mission may have been to introduce manmade teachings and I could tell that if that had indeed been our mission, she was the type that would have been instrumental in setting us back on the narrow way. In fact, the good sermon that JD Espinoza had fed our souls with that morning was about just that, and began with this passage that laid the foundation for everything that followed:
“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” Colossian 1:13-20.
The sermon was about the church that God had been planning since before Creation. It was about that same body of Christ that had cost the Father the blood of His Son --- that kingdom in which the citizens are being reconciled to Him for His glory, and is composed of souls that adore Him and are in the world, but not of the world (John 17:14-16).
The sermon explored this incredibly important question: What are we to do when one of the members of our spiritual family goes back into sin, especially given the undeniable reality that sin separates us from God, hides His face from us, causes Him to no longer hear our prayers (Isaiah 59:2) and that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Such a situation is dire, for when a Christian returns to his or her sinful life, God says he or she is crucifying the Son of God all over again (Hebrews 6:6), and is trampling the Son of God underfoot. God says they are treating as unholy the blood of the covenant that sanctified them and they are insulting the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:26-31). In fact, this ultimate betrayal after all God has done for His child is so disgusting to God that He compares it to a washed pig returning to roll in mud and a dog going back to eat its own vomit (2 Peter 2:20-22).
So what is God’s plan in the scriptures for keeping the church pure so that in eternity she can be reunited with Christ like a Bride dressed in the white garments of righteousness (Rev. 19:8) prepared to join her Bridegroom for all eternity? (Rev. 19:7;Eph. 5)
Most of what God has given us to keep the church pure is of course preventative. In fact, without exception, every act of worship and every act of spiritual service has a preventative element to it that encourages us to remain faithful to God. Sermons do that of course, but so do the prayers we say for one another. Many of our songs of worship, our one on one conversations, and the material we write and share is at its heart encouragement to pursue holiness, for it is this pursuit of holiness that God uses to lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Mt. 6:13).
When sin is not prevented, of course, sin must be corrected, for ignoring sin in a church member’s life can inadvertently cause the sin committed by one member to grow and spread as quickly as yeast in unbaked bread in the lives of the other members (1 Corinthians 5:6-7). So what specifically is God’s plan for helping Christians get out of sin? What is God’s prescribed cure? In Galatians 6:1 God tells us, not only His plan, but the humble attitude with which God’s plan is to be carried out, when it says, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” In James 5:19-20 God reminds us of the unparalleled value of these efforts when He says “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” James 5:19-20)
Obviously, not all correction is taken to heart in the precious souls we’ve attempted to “snatch from the fire” Jude 1:23). When a Christian in sin still refuses to repent, even after being corrected, what's a congregation to do? God's answer is about as counter-culture as the scriptures get and will shock many Americans deeply ingrained in our present society’s pressure to be tolerant under just about any and every circumstance. Without apology, here’s what God says a faithful congregation in such a situation must do: “...it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private [note the minimizing of shame God solution offers here] ; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. [Case closed. Not mentioning it to others is to treat others how you’d like to be treated, and frees you from the penalty of being a gossip.] But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.[Note that this situation is built on facts alone --- facts that have been witnessed] If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Matthew 18:14-17)
“Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”? What might that look like, and not look like? 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 helps bring some clarification to that question when it says, “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” “Shame” is very much not en vogue at present, but God’s wisdom says there are situations in which there is much utility in it--- utility to the degree that a soul is restored and an eternal destiny altered. Obviously, our love for those who abandon God never fails (1 Cor. 13:8), but our only association with this beloved brother or sister is to be limited to occasions in which they are open to conversations that include our patient admonishment (2 Timothy 4:2). And for those who repent and come back to God, we are told to not only forgive them, but also to comfort them by reaffirming our love for them, that they not be “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow”, regardless of the horrific damage and excruciating hurt they have caused during their period of unfaithfulness. What high expectations God has of us, as we imitate how He Himself has forgiven us! No wonder a church that is conscientious in practicing God’s plan for keeping the church pure is said to be “faithful in all things” (2 Corinthians 2:9). “Faithful in all things” is quite a compliment from our Lord!!
Again, all this is quite counterculture in a world where Satan would prefer correcting one another to remain a social faux pas. After all, if He can deceive people into thinking it is wrong to say someone is doing something wrong, fewer people’s sins get "diagnosed" and fewer people’s sins are "cured" through repentance. And yet, perhaps you’ve found as I have, that it’s the people willing to be inconvenienced enough to tell me what I need to hear who are the ones who love me most and deserve to be thanked for being kind hearted enough to take a risk to lend me a hand. Simply put, it’s what real love does.
After worshiping with the congregation at Studebaker road, a hospitable couple, Del and Ruth Scott treated us to lunch, and others joined us. I was encouraged to hear more about the congregation, especially how they hand out free Bibles, offer Bible studies and give out information about their congregation on a regular basis at a rented table at a local swap meet. This congregation very much enjoyed one another’s company, so much so that we were again invited after evening worship to join about 10 more members at a fast food restaurant for more meaningful conversations that, among other advantages, opened up the opportunity for Mark to share his online Biblical study resources as an option to supplement their diligent efforts to reach out to the souls in their community who are looking for answers.
The church at Studebaker Road has a reputation for loving each other well. In fact, when my friend John Elliott heard I had visited them, he said, “I’ve always enjoyed worshiping with that group!! It moves me to tears to see the love and concern to translate for one another!” Perhaps other congregations in ethnically diverse communities will be inspired by their good example of how to overcome language barriers to enjoy within one congregation a very special oneness in Christ (Gal. 3:28).
Studebaker Road Church of Christ
3433 Studebaker Road
Long Beach, California 90808
(562) 420-2363 (English)