When I applied for the position as pastor at Antwerp International Protestant Church, I sent in my Curriculum Vitae, which is like an expanded resume. It had all my strong points on it, of course. In my inaugural sermon here I preached on a passage in 2 Corinthians 12, where the Apostle Paul says “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” Those things open the door to God’s power and grace. So in my first sermon here I shared a CV of my weaknesses. Particularly after this last year of uncertainty and loss, I am more aware than ever of my weaknesses. (The video of this sermon and others can be found on the church website, by the way).
I appreciated the fact that Peter was mentioned in the service in which I was installed as pastor. I was moved by the prayers of the congregation. One woman had the kids of the church make cards for our family. In our weakness we were welcomed with grace.
Our first month in Antwerp has been busy, but it has been goed bezig (“good busy”) as the Flemish say, or lekker bezig (“sweet/nice/tasty busy”) as the Dutch say. Busy with what?
- Rearranging the house
- Renovating the office
- Getting the kids started in school
- Figuring out where things are
- Getting lost in city traffic and construction
- Getting to know my excellent assistant pastor Jan (pronounce it like “yawn” – it’s the equivalent of John)
- Building teams for various ministries
- Meeting with dozens of people from the church
In meeting with church members, I have heard stories of people who were atheists, agnostics, and Muslims; I have heard stories of people who grew up in stiflingly religious forms of Christianity, in which ten out of five hundred people would take communion when offered – the rest were too terrified and unsure of their election; I have heard stories of some who grew up knowing and loving the Lord. There are no more than a handful from any given country. I think we have five continents represented. What do all these people have in common? All have discovered the grace of God.
There are some here who hope to someday return to their home countries. Others hope to never return. One young couple from the Middle East said that if they are denied asylum and forced to return to their country, they will be killed. Under Sharia law the punishment law for their apostasy is death. Europeans and Americans commonly think that Muslims should adopt a more moderate form of their religion. The people I have met here who come from Muslim backgrounds say they have never encountered moderate Islam. Westerners wish the stream of immigrants and refugees would become like them: non-religious. But secularism doesn’t tell a very compelling story. We are seeing a number embrace Jesus as Lord.
Belgium, like most of Europe, is nearly complete in its secularization. In Belgium, a historically Catholic country, the artifacts are still in place – cathedrals and chapels are everywhere – but hardly anyone practices Catholic faith. I thought at first that perhaps this lack of exposure presented the possibility of people encountering the vibrancy of the gospel, church, and mission for the first time. I am afraid that the teaching of religion in the state schools, however, effectively inoculates people against Christianity. The metaphor of a vaccination is precise: in inoculating people against a disease, a tiny amount of the actual disease is injected into the blood stream. The body creates antibodies, preventing infection. A small exposure to a watered down, insipid version of religion leaves people feeling like they are familiar with Christianity. In reality, they have only been exposed to Europe’s new religion, secular humanism, but dressed in Christian terminology. Isaac’s religion teacher told the class, “There is no heaven or hell. Heaven is when something good happens to you, and hell is when something bad happens.” Our son Peter died in May. He faced death without fear because he believed in the real heaven – the presence of God, who loved us and gave himself up for us.
I have found the Belgian people to be somewhat reserved, as we were warned. Greetings are rarely given on the street. But our neighbors have been wonderfully friendly, as have been other parents from the school. With some people we inevitably talk about faith because they ask what I do for work. Some are blunt: “we have outgrown religion.” Others say in essence, “We don’t really believe anything, but we still baptize our children and have them take their first communion because of tradition.” There are a few who identify themselves as practicing Catholics.
An unexpected request came to the church soon after I arrived. A young man was asking for help, as he felt trapped by evil. His intense story was met with skepticism everywhere he turned. Desperate for help, he sent emails to 20 churches. “Those things don’t happen,” he was told. Apparently even many churches in Europe are secular. The short story: we are handling the case with prayer and love. After his first Sunday at our worship service (a long drive for him to attend), he said, “I felt something today that I’ve never felt before.”
In addition to a clear explanation of the gospel with reasons to believe it’s true, people also need to encounter the gospel. The power of the Spirit is one way. A sense of love from God’s people is another. Power and love is a great combination. Include unity in diversity and you have a picture of the kind of church we already are and will grow into even more.
Several people have asked if there is a way they can financially support the church here. I have told people that the church is self-supporting, but extra gifts are always appreciated. Here’s how you can give:
US dollar checks can be written out to International Church Services, Inc, with AIPC written on the memo line. These donations are US income tax deductible. Send them to:
International Church Services, Inc
802 Carriage Court
Augusta, GA 30909
Bank transfers are also possible. For this please contact the church treasurer Jart Essink at firstname.lastname@example.org.
People have also asked about our home address. Here you go:
2180 Ekeren (Antwerp)
I plan to write again soon with more of an update on our experience in a new land and family activities. And some photos, of course.