Pardon me for borrowing Mr. Dickens' title. It was too tempting.
Since January we have done a bit of traveling. We have travelled into the lovely Andes mountains, where the clouds and the snow seemed to kiss the mountains around us. It was a welcome change from the unchanging, constant drone of cars and buses that buzz by our house each day. The large flocks of livestock--sheep and cattle--dotting the hillsides were a welcome sight to the masses of people that plod up and down our roads in this city. The occasional pig tied out by the side of the road was an interesting diversion for our eyes.
The unkempt mountain roads were hardly a welcome thing for us. We had only made half our trip when one of the sharp, jagged stones pierce the tread on one tire and left us on the side of the road to change it out. With so many miles left to travel, and with the lack of tire places to get the hole fixed, it was an unwelcome prospect. But God is good, and we made it.
Our task was a pleasant one. Both my wife and I were participants in a leadership conference. We were going to do what we most love: teach and preach the Word of God to hungry souls. There were over 300 gathered for this great meeting, which lasted from a Tuesday through a Friday in early January. How invigorating to see the men eat up the teaching like a starving man at a Baptist dinner on the grounds. How exciting to hear my wife speak of the enthusiasm of the ladies she taught.
It was more impacting when we learned that many of these participants had travelled for hours in a rickety, poorly-cared-for bus. Some of those had also walked another several hours just to be able to catch the bus. And it is the rainy season in that part of the mountains. They walked along muddy trails, in some cases, to be able to catch the bus. When was the last time you were that interested in the Word of God?
Less than a month later we found ourselves rumbling down the runway, heading via air to a city south of here; it was for an annual business meeting of the Baptists in this country. What a change from the previous meeting. The former meeting was inspiring; this one, well, tedious. Everyone who had an opinion felt compelled to share it. Many of us looked for reasons to be called out of the meetings. I was excited each time my cell phone vibrated in my pocket. In fact, I was excited each time someone else's phone rang. As another opinion reverberated in the room in which we had gathered, my eyes would follow the person whose phone had rung. I yearned to go with him to see if I could help him answer the phone.
Why such a contrast? Why such a difference? In the former meeting--the January meeting--men and women had approached the meeting with deep prayer. The coordinators had enlisted hundreds to pray for that meeting. God showed up in power. Once, as I led the men to gather in groups and pray for the lost in their communities, the presence of God was palpable. My wife would say the same about the ladies' meetings.
In the latter meeting, it was not prayer that marked our meeting, but politics. Yes, politics. Oh, we prayed, to be sure. But we were so interested in who would be president, who would be in this role or that role, that when the Bible studies rolled around, we hardly perceived that the Lord was speaking to us.
In the former meeting, men and women met with God first. In the latter, we saw little to say we were meeting with God.
As Dickens said, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...."
Give me a meeting where people want to hear God speak any day of the week. Yes, we need to tend to business; but business does not have to be unspiritual in nature. It does not have to be calculating and void of God's presence. We have, I fear, so very much to learn about how God wants things to be handled in this old world.