My Favourite Day Yet

Today was a very special day.

I began visiting the Ranfurly Homes for Children a little over 2 years ago, shortly after my arrival in Nassau. It began with a basketball game in which I was greatly outmatched by a group of emerging basketball stars and where I learned what it feels like to be dunked over (a bit frightening). I quickly discerned that I needed another venue to connect with the Ranfurly youth—realizing that my aging body wouldn’t hold up playing ball against these boys. I began to regularly take a few boys from Ranfurly to breakfast at McDonalds on Saturday mornings. Relationships were forged, and I began formally mentoring one of the boys. Over time, they began to ask more and more questions about the Kirk and about Christianity. Eventually, I am told, that many of the youth requested to the Ranfurly Administrator that they be allowed to attend services at the Kirk. Shortly thereafter, a bus was procured by Ranfurly and was used to transport most of their youth to the Kirk each Sunday.

Those who know me well, know that I resist titles. I’d rather you not call me Reverend MacPhail or Pastor MacPhail. “Just call me Bryn” has been my mantra during my 15 years in ministry. These youth, however, only refer to me as “Pastor Bryn” (pronounced “Pasta Bryn!”). I must admit, that I’ve grown to like that address. Not because I like being addressed according to what I do, but because of what I think they intend by the phrase. To many of the youth at Ranfurly Home, they see me as their pastor. This theory was confirmed when I inquired as to whether some of them were interested in taking Bible classes with me, with a view to joining the Kirk as members. The children were surveyed, and 7 signed up for the 6-week course.

When I showed up at Ranfurly to teach the first class, 17 showed up! For 6 weeks we studied together, what I termed, “the essentials of the Christian faith”. To my delight, some of the leaders from the Kirk showed up each Tuesday to audit the class and to build relationships with these children. The youth at Ranfurly enthusiastically engaged in the process. They were eager to read Scripture, ask questions, and dialogue about what it means to be a Christian living in Nassau in the 21st Century.

As the course drew to a close, it dawned on me that there might be a couple youth who have not yet been baptized. I asked them to put up their hand if they needed baptism. 11 of the 17 raised their hand.

This morning, at St. Andrew’s Kirk, 17 youth from Ranfurly professed their faith in Jesus Christ and became members of the church. 11 of the 17 were first baptized.

It is difficult to put into words how I felt. I tried not to think too much about what was happening for fear that I might be overwhelmed by emotion and not be able to proceed effectively. I could see people in my periphery wiping tears from their eyes. I think everyone in the room fully understood how huge this moment was–first, for these 17 youth, secondly, for this 202 year-old congregation, and thirdly (most importantly) for the kingdom of God. Young lives are being transformed and these baptisms and professions of faith were marking this profound change for us.

After the professions of faith, I proceeded to hand out Bibles to the youth, along with a hand written note for each of them. When the formalities were done, someone yelled (uncharacteristically!) from the congregation, “Amen!”. Moments later the congregation broke out into spontaneous applause.

I recognize that not every Sunday service is a memorable one for those that gather. Today was different. I suspect that everyone present at the Kirk today will remember what they saw, and will give thanks to God for it.

After lunch, I took a couple of visitors to Nassau on a tour of Ranfurly. When we went into the boys dormitory we immediately realized that we had awakened one of the boys from a nap. It was one of the boys who had professed his faith in Jesus earlier in the day. I was moved by what I saw–this boy awoke, not clutching his pillow, but clutching the Bible which was given to him a few hours ago.

I will forever thank God for allowing me the privilege to participate in His plan to draw young men and women to Himself. What a blessing.

Yes, today was a very special day.

A Big Mac For Thanksgiving

McDonald's Big MacMy Canadian friends celebrated Thanksgiving more than a month ago. My American friends celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday. In The Bahamas, Thanksgiving is not an official holiday, but many here recognized and celebrated the day.

I was among those who celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday, but I did not celebrate in the traditional manner.  I didn’t watch NFL football. I didn’t travel to visit family. I didn’t eat a big turkey dinner. I had a Big Mac for dinner.

I had a Big Mac for Thanksgiving dinner and it closed off one of the most special Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve ever been a part of.

The day began packing a massive amount of canned and boxed food items into 42 large bags.

The food was donated by members and adherents at St. Andrew’s Kirk as a part of an initiative to distribute groceries to the neediest of families who live in one of the more impoverished communities in Nassau, Bain & Grant’s Town.

Because of the strong partnership that the Kirk has with the Bain & Grant’s Town Urban Renewal Centre, myself, along with another Kirk member, were driven through the neighbourhood to homes that were selected by the URC staff as housing particularly vulnerable individuals. Most were senior citizens; many were disabled persons; all were appreciative recipients of our offering of groceries.

I don’t feel comfortable describing in print some of the conditions that we came across. But I can tell you that it is a heart-wrenching experience. And while it is a delight to us, and an encouragement to those we visited, to deliver some food items, I’m acutely aware of the fact that the ongoing need massively exceeds what a bag of groceries can supply.

Once the grocery delivery was done, I traveled back to the Kirk to prepare to receive 100 children from the Bain & Grant’s Town and Farm Road Urban Renewal Centres. We were hosting Thanksgiving Dinner—McDonald’s—thanks to a generous donor.

In a few short minutes our Kirk Hall filled with 100 excited children. A few minutes later, an additional bus load arrived. McDonald’s quickly adapted and ordered 50 more meals to be delivered to accommodate a crowd that was now close to 140. McDonald’s didn’t simply drop the food off—they sent along staff to serve each child their meal. McDonald’s even provided an entertainer—an energetic man, along with his sidekick, “Charlie”, and a few hundred pieces of candy to delight the hearts of these beautiful children.

There are few sights more precious than seeing 100+ smiling children. This was a dinner I won’t soon forget. And I suspect it will be for these children a Thanksgiving to be remembered.

As I reflected this morning on the day, a verse immediately came to mind: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

First, let me say that I don’t regard my “works” to have been all that special. I did not supply the dinner for the children. The groceries came from several dozen donors. My role was little more than delivery boy during the day and custodian during the evening.

The reason why I think this verse is relevant is because I’m not sure the command to “let your let shine” is aimed at individual behaviour. In this passage, Jesus is speaking amid a very large crowd. Matthew makes a point of telling us that Jesus spoke directly to His disciples…”Let your (plural) light shine…that they may see your (plural) good works and glorify your (plural) Father who is in heaven.

Yesterday, in a community just over the hill, beyond downtown Nassau, St. Andrew’s Kirk shone a light. The good works of a particular community of people who follow Jesus made an impact.

And do you know what was the most gratifying part for me? Not too many of the recipients said, “Thank you”. Instead, what we more commonly heard was “God is good” and “To God be the glory”.

I was reminded yesterday—by the Scriptures, and by the people of Bain & Grant’s Town—that we don’t serve others in order to be thanked. We do good deeds, we serve others, with the hope that those we serve might turn and glorify their Father who is in heaven.

I was privileged to witness that happen yesterday.

I had a Big Mac for Thanksgiving dinner and it closed off one of the most special Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve ever been a part of.

The Mission Is Huge

The island of New Providence is just a shade under 80 square miles, and while it is one of the smaller islands in the Bahamas it is the largest (by far) in terms of population. I have only lived here for two and a half months, but with each passing week I am gaining a greater sense of the need of the people here—it is massive.

Last week I was able to meaningfully connect with two of the missions on this island. On Thursday, I drove out to the All Saints Aids Camp to tour their facilities and to meet those ministering to the people there. One volunteer described the camp as “a modern day leper colony”—a group of people that society doesn’t know how to cope with. These people are not unwell enough to require hospitalization, but they are not healthy enough to reasonably care for themselves. The camp is in a fairly remote area of the island and cannot be seen from a main road. I might have never heard of the Aids Camp if it weren’t for the fact that a bus load of U.S. volunteers working at the camp showed up at the Kirk a few Sundays ago.

A ministry from the United States, Next Step Ministries, has been sending down teams of volunteers all summer long. These groups have built two new cabins, repaired the “bath house”, and have rebuilt one of the concrete walkways. In addition to the very practical assistance Next Step has provided, these missionaries have also been a loving and caring presence to a group of people with emotional and spiritual needs.

As the summer season closes out, the work of the Aids Camp is largely left to a U.S. missionary couple, and a few paid administrators. I understand that the Aids Camp already has a couple of connections to local congregations, but I’m hoping and praying that at least one more connection can be made.

This past Saturday I had my second visit to Ranfurly Homes—a residence that provides a safe, structured environment for children who have been orphaned, abused, neglected or abandoned. I’m just getting to know the children there, but my intention is for my support to be long term. On Saturday, we mostly played basketball—what a delight it was to do this, and to see how playing sports can offer a boost to a child’s joy and self-esteem. The age of the boys playing ranged from 10 to 18, so this old pastor thought it made sense to try and cover the 18 year-old. Turns out that I chose poorly as this “kid” is a bit of a phenom. He dunked over me once, which was one part impressive and one part terrifying.

I recognize that my effectiveness in these contexts is diminished unless I make myself a regular an reliable presence in these children’s lives. I want to do that. I recall that James says in his letter, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

God cares about the most vulnerable, and so should I. But I also realize that I ought not to act alone. I need to think about meaningful ways to enlist and equip others to share in this work. The mission is huge, but this means that our potential for Gospel impact is also huge.

I am encouraged by the words of Jesus who recognized the immensity of the task at hand when He said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2).

I will be praying for this. I will be praying for a new generation of Christ followers to come alongside the most vulnerable, and to offer them the love of Christ and the eternal blessing of His Gospel.

City of Contrasts

The islands of New Providence and Paradise Island have provided me with a very unique experience thus far. There is an opulence here that surpasses anything I ever witnessed in Toronto. But there is also widespread poverty here that is startling and heart-wrenching.

And, incredibly, these two contexts exist almost side by side.

Just last week I had the opportunity to visit Atlantis Resort with my family. Atlantis is one of the most highly regarded resorts on the planet. Everything about this resort is 1st Class. Within Atlantis there is absolutely no sign of poverty, and so it is easy to forget the desperation that is nearby.

This is not my experience when I am at my office at the Kirk. It is often the case that when I look out my office window I see a man sleeping on the shaded porch in front of our church doors. The man who sleeps here is known to us, and we welcome him. I don’t yet know “his story”, but I know that he is often hungry and that he is often in desperate need. I have provided meals for him, and he now owns some of my t-shirts, and yet I realize that I’ve done little to change his predicament. Today I “caught” my friend washing my vehicle…I was humbled by his thoughtfulness. I pray that as I get to know this man better, we might begin to talk about more personal things, and that I might have opportunity to share the Gospel with him.

Last evening I had the privilege of playing tennis at the prestigious Ocean Club on Paradise Island. Again, not the slightest hint of poverty anywhere nearby (For that matter, not the slightest hint of the middle class!). Playing tennis here once a week with one of the Kirk’s members has become a recent custom for me which I enjoy very much. I am mindful, however, that this experience is exceptional rather than normative.

Tomorrow morning I will be visiting a place for the first time called Ranfurly Homes, which is a residence for children who have been orphaned, abused, neglected, or abandoned. I don’t know what the visit will hold, but I suspect it will further remind me how profoundly varied the living conditions are for the residents of New Providence/Paradise Island.

One approach might be to shun the “high life”, and focus my time and energy on those who have little or nothing. Another approach might be to shrug my shoulders at the impoverished conditions and say, “It is what it is”, and then go hit some tennis balls.

I have a different resolve. Rich or poor, we perish apart from Christ (John 3:16-18). The Lord has placed me in a context where I have the opportunity to live among people with vastly different personal situations. All of these people, however, share a single need: Jesus.

As I continue to become accustomed to this city of contrasts, my resolve is, and will continue to be, to love all people and to preach Jesus.

Crumby Sundays Make Me Happy

One of my weekly routines is to set out the chairs for The Well. I realize that I haven’t been called to be a seating engineer, but I do enjoy the solitude that comes with this set-up in an environment that I adore.

The last couple of set-ups in particular have made me smile. As I unstack the chairs I see that a great many of them are covered with cookie crumbs. This makes me smile because I’m reminded of the blessing that comes from having children as a part of the worship service (Although I do concede that some of the mess might also be the result of sloppy adults!). And I recognize that, in some congregations, cookie eating would be frowned upon, and leaving a crumby mess would be intolerable. But for me, crumby Sundays make me happy.

From a very early age my daughter Anya has always been told that church should be enjoyable. We used to tell her that Wednesday night catechism and sports was “Party at the church night.” Now I realize, of course, that the grand purpose of church is not to feed stomachs and to entertain fancies. The grand purpose of Sunday worship (and life) is to celebrate the supremacy of Jesus Christ. I’m just not convinced that celebrating Christ’s supremacy needs to come at the expense of enjoying oneself.

You might remember Jesus had to rebuke His disciples for attempting to keep the children at arm’s length,

Let the children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Matthew 19:14)

I know far too many congregations that do not have any programs for children. And my fear is that we have subtly “hindered” the children from coming to Jesus by encouraging environments that are unduly formal and serious.

As an interim moderator (someone who assists congregations that do not have a pastor), I have often noted a disconnect between a congregation’s desire and their actions. Every congregation I have ever been associated with will tell you that they eagerly desire children and youth to attend. But what eventually becomes apparent is that the adults want to welcome children and youth on their terms. They want the children and youth to fit into their structures. I don’t mean to sound unkind when I say that there is a lot of self-sabotage going on in when it comes to congregations and children’s ministries.

I assure you that children and youth will not frequent our services, programs, and events just because we say that we want them to. They will more likely attend, however, if we can meaningfully demonstrate that we genuinely want them here, and that the designs of these initiatives had them in mind.

I’m not suggesting that all you need to do is serve juice and cookies and everything will be fine. But I would challenge congregations to think about the environments from which they are presenting Jesus to children. Is there anything that your congregation is doing, or not doing, which might be “hindering” children from meeting Jesus?

How we serve our children is a big deal.

I delight in the presence of children Sunday by Sunday—even if it makes for a crumby Sunday, I’m happy.