I have just returned from a four-week speaking tour of the United States. I’m normally glad to be home after that length of time away – and I am. But I’ve also returned with some sadness. I spoke predominantly on Resurrection Year, and the response was overwhelming. I also made some new friends, returned with some exciting new projects, and saw, tasted and experienced some of America’s finest offerings. While I’ve been to the US before, this was my longest visit. It was hard to leave.
A trip to another country always teaches you something. In no particular order, here are a few things this Australian-Brit learnt from his trip across the pond.
1. God particularly likes Pennsylvania
OK, he probably likes New York State too. And maybe Colorado. But if you ever get to, drive through Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Forest in Autumn like Merryn and I did. Then you’ll see how much God likes Pennsylvania.
2. A multicultural church is a beautiful church
My first speaking stop was at Celebration Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. This large and lively church has many qualities, but one stood out. As I stood to speak it was overwhelming to see African American, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian faces looking back at me – a beautiful thing to see. And in true southern style my sermon was a collaborative experience – the audience contributing as much by their enthusiastic encouragement as I did in content.
3. Seeing yourself on the big screen is a surreal experience
As you may know, the Day of Discovery team have produced a short film on the Resurrection Year story (making-of shots here and now available in full here!). During a full and brilliant week with the RBC Ministries team, that film was premiered at a small cinema in Grand Rapids. The feedback was excellent, but it sure was strange for Merryn and me seeing ourselves on the silver screen. Sometimes you just don’t what God has in store, right? A Journey Through Broken Dreams will air on TV networks around the world this year.
4. RBC Ministries have touched more lives than you know
If you don’t already subscribe to RBC Ministries’ famous Our Daily Bread daily devotional, or the 20-and-30-somethings version which I write for, Our Daily Journey, you should. My week in Grand Rapids included speaking at RBC’s conference, Merryn and me participating in radio interviews and webinars, and getting to meet in person people I’ve collaborated with via email for years, like ODJ editors Tom Felten and Cindy Casper (above, and joined by my doppelganger Benedict Cumberbatch below). 50 million people read Our Daily Bread each day, and the office gets over 20,000 letters a day! This organisation has touched so many lives, yet you’ve probably never heard of its name.
5. Doing media is just plain fun
Merryn doesn’t think so, even though she’s brilliant at it. But I do. Here we are with Moira Brown on Canada’s 100 Huntley Street, preparing for a live webinar with Tim Jackson and RBC Ministries’ Help for My Life crew, and with Stephanie Riggs on 94.7 KRKS Denver.
6. No other nation is more proud of its flag
As an Australian-Brit visiting the US it’s hard not to notice this. An American flag can be found virtually every hundred meters from wherever you are, flown from homes, churches, airports, restaurants, hotels, businesses, cars and bicycles. I don’t think non-Americans fully grasp the depth of pride felt over this flag, the symbol of all that Americans hold dear. As one person told me, ‘When I pray with my kids before bed each night, we thank God that we’re American.’
7. But beware the idol of nationalism
A love for country is one thing; ultimate allegiance to it is another. One Grand Rapids church leader recounted to me an event he observed in a church he served as interim pastor. One Independence Day the worship leader called the congregation to stand before the American flag and recite together the Pledge of Allegiance. ‘That disturbed me,’ the pastor said. ‘Nationalism can become an idol. As Christians we may serve our country, but ultimate alliance is pledged to no one other than Jesus.’
8. According to some, America is a nation under threat
I listened to a lot of radio during my month in America, and watched various TV news channels. And it seemed to me the loudest commentators, on both the political left and right, viewed the nation as perpetually under threat. The threat may be Ebola, ISIS, immigrants crossing the Mexico border, ‘greedy’ Republicans or ‘socialist’ Democrats. But in each case America’s cherished freedoms were perilously at stake.
This theme continued on many talk-oriented Christian radio programs too, where the threat became rampant immorality (gay marriage and abortion were frequent concerns), the imminent Islamisation of the country, or the secular attack on Christianity (reflected by a variety of ministries dedicated to ‘defending biblical truth’ and ‘contending for the faith’). I heard more sermons broadcast on the books of Revelation and Daniel than I’ve heard in decades. I guess when you’re under attack, end times prophecy offers a sense of security that all will be well in the end.
9. Question all stereotypes
While in Pennsylvania Merryn and I visited Gettysburg, where the decisive battle in the American civil war was fought and Abraham Lincoln gave his historic speech. There I was surprised to learn that the Democrats were originally pro-slavery and the Republican Party was formed specifically to end it. While in Chicago I heard a politically-left talkshow host speak with as much vehemence and alarm as any right-wing shock jock I’ve heard, and one Illinois Democrat senate candidate ran a TV ad campaign solely on the basis that he was ‘pro-choice and pro- gay marriage’. So much for abortion and gay marriage being ‘right wing’ concerns and racial equality the domain of the ‘left’. It’s good to have your stereotypes messed up a bit.
10. Don’t ridicule ‘Christian’ America
In places like Colorado, Grand Rapids and North Carolina I could hardly go anywhere without bumping into Christians. I visited a little league baseball game and found myself sitting next to a Christian mom homeschooling her kids. In Grand Rapids my hotel staff were committed Christians, guests said grace over breakfast, and the waitress at the local diner told me about her Baptist church. Driving across Ohio and Indiana I lost count of the billboards reminding me that ‘Jesus Saves’ and encouraging me to read my Bible. Stopping at a service station someone had left a small card on my urinal leading me through the Sinner’s Prayer.
This is all rich material for standup comics and cynical bloggers, of course. And I have to admit I recoiled at much of what I heard and saw (the giant billboard denouncing evolution as a lie may be doing more harm than good). But was it a coincidence that in the most ‘Christian’ parts of America I felt the most welcomed and met the friendliest people? I met many beautiful folks in these areas loving their neighbours well. And they were the most generous people I’ve met too.
11. Donald Miller has a lot of fans
While in Chicago I attended Donald Miller’s Storyline conference. Don, Tim and the team ran an exceptional couple of days filled with excellent speakers in an atmosphere of fun, insight and vulnerability. Some of us also took part in the launch of Don’s new book Scary Close, complete with silly masks. (The book formally releases February 3.) I was struck by the twitter stream emanating from the 1700 conference attendees. All tweets were positive with barely any push back or disagreement on anything said from the stage. I’m not sure that would happen at a similar British or Australian event. Don Miller’s fans love him. Or maybe us Aussies and Brits are just grumpy :).
12. Houghton College students are brilliant
Mainly because they laughed at all my jokes, although they have been recognised as amongst the top students in the US. I loved speaking for them. (This photo is from Houghton’s website. I was too busy chatting to students to remember to get a picture.)
13. I have family all around the world
And you do, too. That’s the thing about being in the family of faith – you can meet someone you don’t know yet find yourself quickly bonding because you have the same Father, follow the same Christ, and share the same Spirit. For instance, in Grand Rapids I met author and documentary producer David McCasland (his book Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God has been in print for over 20 years). Over breakfast I mentioned I’d be in Colorado Springs during my trip. ‘I live in Colorado Springs,’ he said. ‘You must come and visit.’ Soon Dave was arranging a tour for me around Glen Eyrie castle and letting me stay in his home while he and wife Luann were away. ‘Oh, and if you’re interested,’ he added, ‘there’s this ranch I could take you to…’
14. You haven’t lived until you’ve ridden a horse at sunset
That ranch turned out to be Lost Valley Ranch, about an hour and half out of Colorado Springs. The landscape is surreal: 500 years of forest growth was destroyed in the Hayman Fire of 2002 but Lost Valley was miraculously saved. Think spurs, hay bails, cowboy hats and worship songs sung country style. I got to ride ‘Tico’ through the foothills of the Rockies, do some trap shooting, and read the latest edition of American Cowboy magazine. A treat.
15. Everybody hurts
‘This year I lost my husband, and then my children left home. I don’t know who I am anymore…’
‘We’ve had four years of counselling but I don’t think the marriage will survive…’
‘My broken dream is the same as yours – we’ve never been able to have a child…’
‘Today I was finally able to lay down a broken dream I’ve been carrying for years…’
‘God spoke to me today…’
American, British, Australian, whatever… Whenever I speak on the topic of broken dreams I hear the same kind of things in response. And I’m always amazed at God’s willingness to help people start again.