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Leaving space for God to work
What’s the right formula for detailed, advanced planning versus spontaneous, “go with the flow of the Spirit” when it comes to ministry? I certainly don’t know, but I do know when both dovetail harmoniously, breathtaking things happen.
Last Sunday, our outreach team held our quarterly “First Lunch at First Pres” event. It’s an event open to all visitors who wish to meet the pastors and learn more about our congregation’s vision. It’s a well-planned and low-key social time meant to make newcomers feel welcome.
I announced the invitation for lunch from the pulpit and after the service a young couple rushed over to me. This couple are both fairly new believers—her background is Iranian-Muslim, his is non-religious—but now they are both members of our fellowship. They were excited to hear about the lunch because this was exactly the day they had brought their sister-in-law, a young Muslim mother from Morocco, who recently told them she wanted to learn more about Jesus.
Could they bring her to the lunch, they asked. She is most welcome, I replied with joy. But, they said, her Muslim father is also here with us today. We’re not sure he would want to come, but could we bring him if he’s willing? Absolutely, I responded.
Breaking bread together
As I headed downstairs to the luncheon, I wondered what God might be up to. The father, Mustafa, which means “chosen” in Arabic, had traveled over 5000 miles from Rabat to Edmond, OK to be with his daughter and new grandchild. Now, here in our church, all three members of their family were about to be surrounded by a room full of Christians, eager to extend the love of God to them. No one planned for this! How might these Muslims respond to our message and friendship?
After lunch, we always have a time of round robin sharing. As one of the pastors, I usually share a bit of my own testimony and then something about our ministry vision. It just so happens that I come from a Muslim background and grew up in Saudi Arabia, and had the opportunity to experience many different Middle Eastern and Eastern worldviews before finally meeting Jesus in a way that rocked my world at age 20. As I began, I greeted Mustafa and Salma (whose name means “peaceful or safe”) in Arabic, and we exchanged some pleasantries, as his eyes grew large and his smile spread from ear to ear. They listened intently as I shared about the Lord and how He showed Himself greater than all other claimants to glory and authority.
As our service ended, I turned to our members and wondered how our new friends perceived their time in our contemporary worship service, which definitely was outside their experience as Muslims. You see, in Islam, music is never intertwined with a worship service – that would be an affront to God since music is in the realm of entertainment and pleasure, and has no place in the sober world of God’s presence. Yet our contemporary service is suffused with music, which many Christians see as a creative gift from God meant to express beauty, joy, love, and devotion as it becomes a vehicle for our worship of God in vocal prayer and praise.
So we asked our new friends how they would compare their experience among us with that in the mosque. Mustafa answered in broken English, “Christian better than Muslim,” he said with hand over his heart. Why, I asked. He then pointed to the faces of the Christians gathered and said,
“People in church happy before God. Not in mosque.”
He then turned to Salma and said a few things in Arabic, so she interpreted, “My father says that in the mosque prayers everyone is lined up and serious. No joy. It’s like rows and rows of people waiting to appear before God’s judgment.”
His presence in the midst of our planning
It’s hard to explain the bonding that took place in our hearts last Sunday over lunch. It’s impossible in this space to share all the deep truths conveyed in our conversations. But one thing I know, what we had expected from our planning for this event, and what God chose to do with what we had planned were exponentially different! Isn’t that the way it always is when God shows up in sovereign action?
I have no idea how the Lord will carry our His purposes in Mustafa, who leaves Edmond to return to Morocco later this week. But I do know that now I have a gentle, smiling face in my mind and heart for whom God has placed on my intercession list. And what about Salma and her baby and her recalcitrant husband? As we parted ways, I said to her, “I do hope we get the chance to see you again.” “Oh, don’t worry,” she replied, “I’ll be back next week.”
I’m convinced that Spirit-led planning for ministry is an important mark of good stewardship. Yet, all our plans in the end achieve nothing of lasting value unless God shows up and graces our plans with His presence and purpose. When this happens, our plans are transformed beyond our dreams and hopes, and the Lord stands glorified in ways that feed our faith and change lives for eternity!
Join me, won’t you, in praying for Mustafa and his family? People you may meet one day in heaven because of an innocuously planned luncheon where God decided to take over!