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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Paris: The Conference

We attended a conference last week held annually for pastors and spouses from churches belonging to the Association of International Churches in Europe and the Middle East.  A friend who serves in Nairobi, Kenya joined the fun as well.  The American Church in Paris served as our hosts. 
The spire of the American Church to the left sits in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower along the shores of the Seine.
This gathering is a treasured gathering for us as it connects us with friends and colleagues who are serving in churches similar to our own.  We have forged deep friendships and enjoyed a great time of learning, sharing and growing together.  Doug and I are among the longest standing members of the group now, having served in the same ministry for 13 consecutive years.  Only one other couple at the conference was in the same position and they too attended their first conference in Cairo, Egypt, just like us back in 1999.  While each conference is unique, this one was amazing because of the combination of excellence that spewed forth.  First of all you have Paris as the backdrop so you know that even if everything else stinks, the city itself will dazzle.  Second you have the American Church in Paris which is an amazing, diverse, large, bustling congregation with a wonderful building that they used in delightful ways to feed us literally and figuratively!
The beautiful sanctuary of the American Church in Paris
The volunteer corps from the church spent months preparing for our arrival and then put on amazing meals in beautifully decorated rooms and surrounded us with embracing hospitality.  Third, the time with colleagues was treasured and heartfelt.  We connected with old friends who we love to see year after year and met some new folks who were a great encouragement to us as well.  Rich, meaningful conversations abounded as we shared around the table, in the sessions and around town.  But the capstone of the entire week was the speaker, Dr. Mark Labberton, from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.  Mark is one of the most gifted speakers I've ever encountered, speaking in a conversational yet layered style that never ceased to amaze me.  His content was powerful, full of stories and challenge from a lifetime of ministry and I found myself having a hard time soaking it all up.  Most remarkably of all, he shared for hours on end without using a single note, allowing him to truly connect with his audience in a very personal way.  His wife Janet was with him and they were generous with their time, hanging out with us throughout the conference, getting to know us, sharing in our laughter and lives.  It was a very special time together.
Mark has written two books: The Dangerous Act of Worship and The Dangerous Act of Loving your Neighbor.  The core challenges were these: He urged us to make our worship a whole life event, not merely a Sunday morning gathering focused mainly on getting our personal needs met.  He also challenged us to consider what it means to more fully follow Jesus especially through the dangerous act of loving our neighbors, even our enemies. He spoke of keeping first order priorities our real priorities instead of getting bogged down in the minutia of life and ministry that sometimes demands our attention yet zaps all our energy.  We were confronted with the difference between sight and vision and in the end, he reminded us that following Jesus means living a life that is radically different than those who do not follow Jesus.  I have never come away from a learning experience feeling more resonance with what a speaker said yet wondering on a deep level if I can apply what I've learned.  Very challenging in many personal ways.  If you are interested in more, get his books and chew on them.  They are hard to swallow but quite satisfying if you can digest it!  The first day ended with a boat ride on the Seine.
 
Yes, that is Notre Dame in the background.
As I floated past the amazing sites of Paris, at sunset with my sweet man, surrounded by dear friends, I just knew that the week ahead was going to be remarkable.