Friday, September 2, 2011

To Care for Tucumcari

Each time I've visited Bartlesville, I'm always entranced by the vibrant beauty of the foliage.  I can't imagine Eden looking any prettier.  Even your average fixer-upper seems to have what would be a golf course quality lawn where I come from.  They even have beautiful bodies of water called "ponds" just sitting all along the roads (not to mention the Caney River).  And yet, it's also surprising how the locals don't seem to appreciate it.  Some even complain about lack of rain!  (Come to Arizona and I'll show you lack of rain!)  Just driving down the road in Bartlesville is a worship experience for me.  How can these Okies be so oblivious?

This set me to musing about the dangers of living in the midst of greenery and the benefits of living in the desert.

Perhaps it's not just coincidence that Abraham and Moses and the Children of Israel and John the Baptist and Jesus all spent some serious time in the desert.  (Not to mention the unnamed heroes at the end of Hebrews 11.)

In deserts...
  • The ground is browner but the sky is bluer.
  • Distant objects appear more clearly.
  • It is easier to remember those who are suffering.  (People suffer just as much in North Korea whether I am in Arizona or Oklahoma.  But I can remember them more easily in Arizona.)  
  • Little time is wasted on preserving beauty.
  • Water is treasured.

Deserts are dangerous, but they're not a distraction.

And on the way back to Arizona, we encountered a living demonstration of the value of the desert:  Immanuel Baptist Church.

Sunday morning, June 6, after a simple, warm breakfast with Dale and Joanne, we left Bartlesville for home.

ready to leave -- Bonnie tries to break my camera!
We stopped for fuel at a rather dingy station outside OKC.  In the equally dingy men's room, for the first time in my (sheltered?) life I saw a coin-operated condom dispenser.  I was appalled.  The Lord opened the door (and my mouth) to give a tract to the cashier and speak to him briefly (about eternity, not about condoms).  It turned out his name was Ram and he was from Nepal!  He speaks several languages, and he must be rather intelligent or from a well-off family to have made it all the way to the US.  I pray that Jesus saves him.

Eating lunch in the shade of a deceased restaurant in Shamrock, TX
Bonnie, Lu, and I had been invited to speak about the persecuted church at the Sunday evening service of  Immanuel Baptist Church in Tucumcari, New Mexico. 

We knew that Tucumcari had seen better days and that the church was probably small and poor.  Pastor Gordan Runyan's driving directions were all the proof we needed for that!
"If you get on Tucumcari Boulevard (the main street running East/West here, the one with actual stoplights) the church is one block behind the Fina gas station, which is easy to see."
Our tag-team presentation seemed to go well.  Bonnie grabbed attention with statistics and overview of the global persecuted church; I (in my orange jail suit and handcuffs, which caused me no problems this time) shared about God's purposes for persecution from Romans 8, and Lu passionately poured out a couple true stories and explained how to get personally involved.

Then the tables turned and we became the learners.  Everyone went in the fellowship hall for some snacks and we met our listeners.

A soft-spoken middle aged single guy named James started peppering me with questions.  Really good, serious questions.  It seems that Jesus has grabbed his heart in the last few years and now he has a hunger for God that is not often found, even among people half his age.  He had just joined the church that morning.  He is something of a compulsive reader these days, among them books by John Owen and A. W. Tozer.  When he told me he'd read a book by Jerry Bridges, I asked if he'd read The Gospel for Real Life.  He hadn't, but when I told him it was good, he got a sort of helpless look on his face and pulled out a piece of paper to write down the title.  He said something like, "Oh no, I'm going to buy another book!"  Apparently a good chunk of his Social Security check goes to support his "habit"!

Then I met Bill, whose first career was working for the Navy on a nuclear submarine, but wound up in his post-military days in Tucumcari, which is about as far from a submarine as you can get!  (It turns out that Pastor Runyan was also on a Navy sub!)  He explained how the town of Tucumcari had been killed by I-40, or more accurately, by their failure to adapt to I-40.  Unlike other Route 66 towns bypassed by the interstate which have adjusted to the "new reality", Tucumcari's leadership has made a series of bad decisions, failing to respond with vision and unity.  As a result the town has been dying for the last 40 years.  The population has declined from 14,000 to about 5300.  The buildings are run-down.  A lot of the community is on welfare, and drugs and crime are up.

Barb and Andy were hosted for the night by Bill and his wife.  And Don and Connie took Lu, Bonnie, and I to their home.  But first, Connie guided us through the old, once beautiful downtown district and brought it to life with her childhood memories of Tucumcari's glory days.  She had grown up there, and now in their "retirement" years, God called Don and Connie back.  She took us by a beautiful old Spanish mission that they have purchased, repaired, and turned into a Christian daycare for a few of the (many) children from unstable homes.  Other Christians have come alongside to repair other buildings.  A Christian artist has decorated a number of downtown walls with beautiful murals of important scenes from Tucumcari's past. 

At first it seems that this expenditure of so much effort and money on a dying town is a prodigious waste. 

We arrived at their simple adobe farmhouse, which had belonged to her grandparents, fallen into terrible disrepair, and now has been painstakingly recovered by Don and Connie.

As they shared more about their lives and heart for their community, I began to see that these external, expensive renovations of old buildings were symbolic expressions of a much deeper (and more costly) spiritual renovation that is apparently beginning in Tucumcari.  God seems to be doing something there, although it is much too early to see what the end will be.  You have Christians who could be (and have been) living in "greener pastures" deliberately returning to live in a ramshackle desert town, simply to please Jesus and serve sin-soaked people.  Nazareth probably felt a lot like Tucumcari.

Pastor Gordan is seeking to lead his flock away from the "fast food" of gimmicks and traditions and fluffy sermons to the solid nourishment of Biblical doctrine.  In a town the size of Tucumcari, this requires real faith.  The temptation is strong to bail out and move to a church in a larger city, or mix entertainment or some human attraction with the Word to get people in the door (and dollars in the plate).  Because the church is too small to support a full time pastor, Gordan works full time for the post office.

Gordan and I
The next morning a bunch of our new friends (probably half the church!) came over to Don and Connie's and ate breakfast with us all.  Don got up at 5 AM to start cooking it. 

Don and Connie

I asked Pastor Runyan what books had most influenced him.  I am a book worm myself, (although perhaps not as compulsively as James!), so I love to get to know people by finding out about their favorite books. He rattled off a string of solid books... Luther's Bondage of the Will, Tozer's Pursuit of God, Sproul's Holiness of God, Horton's Christless Christianity...

Then when we got in the car to go they gathered around and Gordan prayed for us.  The scene reminded me a bit of the sendoff the church in Tyre gave Paul in Acts 21:5.

I think I left a piece of my heart in Tucumcari.  And found a piece of God's.  In the desert.

And there was still one more miracle waiting for us.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Daniel, reading this post has made me nostalgic! That was a really good time in the Lord.

    You should know that as a mailman, I personally deliver a large batch of VOM literature every month to people here who signed up in response to y'all's visit. And, the persecuted church has often come up during our Sunday School classes, etc.

    And personally, God has really used the thank you card you gave me in a manner that seems quite out-of-proportion to what it was. I mean, just a little hand-written note of encouragement...but our gracious Lord has used it on several occassions to bolster my faith and resolve as we continue to try and exhibit the perseverance of the saints here in the desert.

    I hope you know you have an open invitation to stop in and share God's grace with us anytime you find yourself traversing I-40 in our direction.

    Yours in Christ,
    Gordan Runyan