Within the last month I caught up with an old friend, and as is always the case with an old friend, time and distance are never factors in renewing the friendship. When we spoke, the conversation picked up where it left off more than 25 years ago.
I knew Jack Wald when I was pastor of the Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, NJ. Jack was a seminary graduate and an ordained pastor who had come home to New Jersey to take over the family business. Because he knew the unique demands of parish ministry, however, he made it his ministry to be a friend and source of support to me. I valued the friendship more than I can say. We went for long runs two or three times a week, during the lunch hour, and we would talk the entire time, which is not easy to do when you’re running up and down New Jersey hills.
And then I moved, and he and I lost touch, and I hadn’t heard from him until last month.
I discovered that Jack sold the family business and returned to ministry, and for the last 17 years he has been pastor of the Rabat International Church in Rabat, Morocco.
As you can imagine, we had a great deal to talk about.
After catching up on our lives, and our families, we talked ministry – the unique challenges (and the occasional great joys) of serving an international church. Jack told me, “The last 17 years have been the best of my life.” Which is not what you might expect to hear from a Christian man who is living in a predominantly Muslim country, where proselytizing is against the law, and where up to 60 percent of the congregation turns over each year. But I knew what he was talking about.
Jack pursued a doctoral degree in the U.S. while serving the church in Rabat, and he recently turned his dissertation into a book called A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade (available on Amazon). When I finished reading the book a week or so ago, my first thought was, “He and I are pastors of the same church.”
Not literally, of course, but our experiences are very, very similar. To serve a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multicultural church in a setting that is not familiar, where the customs and habits are vastly different from everything we once knew, requires a high level of pastoral skill (and energy). I thought I served challenging churches in the U.S., but that was only because those churches in the U.S. were bigger than the International Protestant Church of Zürich – with larger staffs and budgets.
What made them far easier to lead – in retrospect – was that they were homogeneous, mono-cultural. We looked alike and thought alike and almost always knew what to expect from each other. To be fair, there is something to be said for serving a church like that. To serve a church like IPC, in contrast, requires a huge reservoir of patience and discernment and a determination to listen and understand. Our different backgrounds mean that we think differently about most things, even though we serve the same Lord, even though we speak the same language. Over two dozen nationalities are represented on any given Sunday.
That was the subject Jack and I talked about most – namely, finding common ground in a situation of so much diversity, so much theological diversity. I don’t want to diminish or understate either the importance or the difficulty of this work. Some days I still find it overwhelming. I was so taken with the experience during my first year here that I wrote a book about it, and that book will appear, I hope, early in the new year.
In Revelation 7:9, John is permitted a glimpse into heaven, and he reports seeing “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
All tribes, peoples, and languages.
Everyone who is part of IPC, the church I now serve, or part of one of the dozens of other international churches around the world, has been permitted this same glimpse. It is most visible and most remarkable on communion Sundays when we stream forward to receive the elements of communion, but of course it is visible on other occasions as well. It is a remarkable and precious thing. We take it for granted occasionally, and for that reason we may need to be reminded that we are privileged to be part of something so rare and so beautiful.
In Luke 13:29 Jesus taught his followers that “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” This is the future reality to which Jesus points us and calls us. It is not an option. It is where history is headed. This is God’s plan for us. A great banquet awaits us, and not only for people who look like us.
After my (nearly) three years at IPC, I no longer think of our life together as nice but optional, interesting but voluntary. The church, if it is faithful, must move in this direction. This is what God desires for us, his children.
But of course a church like this one is not easy. To keep moving requires generous amounts of God’s grace, steady infusions of his tender mercy. I keep praying for both.
(Note: I wrote something like this for the November-December edition of the IPC newsletter called The Update. The photo is the reading desk from St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin’s church.)