Friday, May 15, 2015

Humbled in Honduras

Our mission team spent a week or so every year working in various locales in the country of Honduras. We built new and rehabbed old buildings, using mostly low quality cinder blocks and whatever wood we could get our hands on.

Many of the team members were skilled carpenters or bricklayers. I was not counted amongst that group, serving as a “go-fer,” fetching supplies for the more skilled laborers on the team. The days were long and arduous, but the rewards were often uplifting. None more so than a particular afternoon in the fall of 1997...

We began that day shooing away the dozen or so area children that had gathered around as we unloaded our tools and supplies for the day’s labor. Their little eyes were drawn to our backpacks, knowing they often concealed sugary treats that their impoverishment would not afford. But the children's presence in the work site was unsafe, so we always promised them something at the end of the day in exchange for them staying out of the way. Diligently, they would stand watch a safe distance away for hours to receive that prized piece of candy.

On this day, our task was to make much needed improvements to a one-room, cinder block church. The rectangular, dirt-floored building had two window openings on each side, and a large opening for the doorway. But without a proper door or window enclosures, the church had no protection from the frequent tropical winds and rains, not to mention vandals who often pilfered anything of value.

Because only half of our team was sent to work on the little church, I was pressed into the service of more skilled labor, helping build frames for the window shutters and door openings. Each frame was then anchored to the cinder blocks of the church, a rather daunting task given the low quality of the material.

Working on anchoring the door frame, I grew more and more annoyed at my inabilities to properly secure it. Compounding my frustration was having to move out of the way of women from the village. For some odd reason, the women had decided this was the most advantageous time to gather in the front of the church, albeit through the very doorway in which I worked. I grumbled to myself at the passing of each barefooted-villager, but tried not to let my aggravation show.

As drops of sweat poured down upon the dirt floor, I plodded onward at the task that totally consumed me. The more I tried to get the doorframe adequately attached, the more transparent my lack of carpentry skills became. Pridefully, I resisted asking for assistance, not wanting to expose my incompetence. All the while, I continued to have to scooch and crawl out the way of the steady flow of the village women. At the height of my frustration, I was brought back to reality by a gentle hand on my shoulder.

"What is it?!?"

My head whirled around to see one of my co-workers standing over me, his eyes moist with tears. A peaceful calm had fallen over the church. Looking around, I saw all my coworkers standing and gazing toward front of the church.

Slowly raising myself up from my agitated state, I stood to see those ladies of the village, now kneeling in unison at their dirt altar. They prayed and they wept in thanksgiving for the laborers the Lord had sent to their simple, but cherished church. Bowing my head, my indignant frustration was now awash in quiet humility as tears intermingled with sweat.

Suddenly the task seemed less daunting, but the reward so magnified.

“For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”
Romans 11:36 (NKJV)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sergio's Stand

We sat out on a dirt street of Masaya, Nicaragua. Sergio had relented to talk with me, but not inside his house. He squirmed back and forth in one of the white plastic chairs he’d carried from inside as I shared the Gospel. His wife, Marta, sat off to the side, quietly listening and watching her husband’s reaction to the Good News. What she witnessed, no one could’ve predicted. 

Sergio leaned forward in apparent interest as I explained to him man’s dilemma: that we’re all sinners and our sin has separated us from God...but God has provided the remedy. Through Jesus’ death on the Cross, we’ve been offered payment for our sin, an incredible gift if only we’d reach out and take it. Many that I’ve spoken with over the years acquiesce at that point, realizing that they indeed need forgiveness and salvation...but not Sergio.

His powerful shoulders thrust back in his chair, as his dark eyes turned skyward. Sergio’s nostrils flared slightly and the muscles in his jaws tightened, his teeth clenching stubbornly. I sensed this was a journey that Sergio had been on previously, perhaps many times, but had never completed.

I leaned forward to speak to him softly, hoping to cool the rage that was building inside the man. Just then, God gave me a thought...

“Sergio, I’m going to tell you something that I’ve told no one else in Nicaragua. I didn’t really want to come here. I wanted to stay home, but my wife prayed about this trip and told me she felt God was wanting me to come. Sergio, I believe God sent me to talk to you, that you’ve run from Him long enough.”

My gentle touch on back of his clenched fist was like a spark hitting a powder keg, and the fury he’d been holding back erupted. Sergio forcefully raised himself up, momentarily standing over me. Knocking back the chair, Sergio whirled about and stormed into his house without saying a word.

The distant squeals of children playing penetrated the awkward silence of the situation. Sergio retreated into the confines of his darkness, a silhouetted figure pacing back and forth like a caged animal. 

“Dear Lord, stay after him,” I whispered, as I sat watching a man under the conviction only the Holy Spirit can administer. 

“You have pricked his heart of stone, I believe,” Marta said of her husband. 

“No, not me, but I do believe God has...”

We sat a while longer. Occasionally, the pacing would cease, as Sergio glared out at me from his lair. Respecting the boundaries that he’d initially set, I resisted the urge to go in after him. After a few minutes more, I reluctantly said my goodbyes to Marta. It certainly wasn’t the ending I had desired for our visit.

I began a dejected trudge down that dusty road – so very close.

There was no reason to turn around, but I did. His thick forearms crossed in defiance, there stood Sergio in the middle of the street, gazing my direction. Our eyes locked briefly. I invited him with one hand to come forward. At that point, the head that had once been reared back in pride, slowly bowed in brokenness. As Sergio put one foot in front of the other, his shoulders slumped and he began sobbing in repentance. 

“You listened to your wife and came to Nicaragua to see me. I need to listen to mine, and come to God.”

Brushing away a tear or two of my own, Sergio’s words reminded me how prideful I had been by resisting God’s will about Nicaragua. We knelt together in the dirt as Sergio called upon the name of the Lord, and received his salvation.

Addressing the church on the last night of the crusade, I asked for a show of hands from those present who’d given their hearts to Jesus during the week. All over the room, hands shot upward, as God had moved mightily throughout the crusade...but one man stood up.

No, a mere raising of the hand was not enough for Sergio. He wanted to stand in front of his community as a new man, now overflowing with the pride of the Gospel within him.

“But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ...”
Galatians 6:14 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Blue Flowers

At seven, she dwelt in the depths of the Great Depression. With five older brothers and two younger sisters, Juanita had been born into hopeless despair. Her father had deserted the family, succumbing to the blistering drought, insects, and hot winds that ravaged their Kansas farmland.

Her mother went callously about the business of scratching out an existence on the remnants of useable land she and the older sons toiled over. Juanita helped as well, up before the sunrise gathering eggs and toting water from the well. In the dimness of the kitchen, her mother began a breakfast of cornmeal mush and biscuits. The sole exchange between mother and daughter was a slight nod as she took the pail from her and poured the water into the tin basin on the table.

"Go git ready for school, Skeeter"

Juanita drew warmth from the nickname, passing through the dingy sheets hanging in the doorway that led to the backroom of the house. Often she would pretend to be a princess readying for the ball, while slipping on her faded, handmade blue-flowered dress...

At seventeen, she’d grown bitter at the depths of her poverty. Juanita managed to finish high school, despite the taunting she endured from classmates who looked upon her as a poor, dirty outcast from the farm. Her mother watched through empty eyes as her daughter slowly packed a grip one night and walked out with nary a departing word. Juanita never turned back, and the threadbare relationship she held with her mother grew even thinner.

But the world proved to be harsher than she had imagined. Juanita skipped from one nickel and dime job to another, often sobbing herself to sleep in her one-room flat, as insects and rodents scurried about. Perhaps she’d judged her mother too harshly, but she clung to her prideful determination to carve out a life on her own. She drifted off to sleep, gazing emptily at the shabby blue-flowered wallpaper...

At twenty-seven, Juanita’s husband found more regular railroad work in Missouri. The young family was allowed to ride on the back platform of a caboose to their new hometown. Juanita allowed herself a slight smile of hope, perched atop suitcases and other belongings with her two older children. She tightly clutched her newborn, as the brisk autumn air blew through Juanita’s blue-flowered scarf...

At thirty-seven, her life nearly ended as a careless driver ran a stop sign, while browsing through photographs he just picked up at the drugstore. Juanita lay dazed on the floorboard of the family station wagon, unable to move a shattered knee. As paramedics eased her gurney into the back of an ambulance, Juanita took great solace at the little voices from the curb.

"We’re ok, momma. We love you!"

Juanita turned to see her children, standing together along the curbside. She whispered a prayer of thanks and slowly faded into unconsciousness as the attendants warmed her with a soft, blue-flowered blanket...

At fifty-seven, she wiped away a tear, sitting alone in the back of the limousine that had carried the family to her mother’s graveside services. Though she’d spent the last few years dutifully caring for her elderly mother, Juanita still felt the anguished twinge of a relationship so torn by the times. She softly dabbed at her eyes and gazed out at the blue-flowered arrangement sitting beside her mother’s grave...

At seventy-seven, she stood over an open casket, saying goodbye to a man with whom she had found true romance. Gazing at the only man she’d ever loved, Juanita gently reached in and touched the hands that had held hers for nearly 60 years. She softly murmured a few parting words, turned away, and reached in her handbag for a blue-flowered kerchief...

At eight-seven, her life's song in its final stanzas, Juanita’s days are taken up by caregivers and the routine of assisted living. Although many memories have been robbed by the evil wretches of dementia, her eyes still twinkle when she sees her baby boy come for a visit.

 We sit eating ice cream, watching the old black and white westerns that she loves, until she’s ready for her afternoon nap. Helping her into her bed, I wonder how many more times I’ll get to tuck her in, like she must have done for me so many years ago. I kiss her gently on the cheek, pulling the blue-flowered quilt over her shoulders...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Beth's Affliction

Beth was a vivacious young girl. Together, we shared the warmth and love of our parents’ home. She grew into a bright, beautiful young woman, with an ambitiousness beyond any of our peers. She both intimidated and captured the eye of many a young man. As her older brother, I saw no suitor worthy of her attention. But she had no need for my overseeing, as Beth exuded confidence and grace...until the affliction.

For the first few weeks, I knew nothing of her nemesis. She and Mother often whispered in the dark corners of the house, sheltering some sort of secret. Beth often sobbed endlessly and trembled with fear. Father seemed unattached and distant. I awoke early one day to find him in a quiet moment of contemplation.

“What is burdening you so, Father?” He drew in a large volume of the cool morning air, then slowly exhaled.

“Beth...she has some sort of illness. It’s a woman issue. Her – her bleeding has not stopped as it should and she’s remains unclean...unclean.

Father’s voice trailed off in despair, his massive, calloused hands cradling his head.
We sat in silence for a few moments.“Doctors, they must know something, Father.”

“She’s been to three already. No answers.”

Thus, my dear sister’s long journey began. We helplessly witnessed our beautiful vision of vitality slowly deteriorate into a picture of ashen gauntness. Through hushed tones, our community assumed it was Beth’s own sin, or possibly a family offense, that had brought about her situation. We were often the target of a scornful sneer.

A shelter for the unclean had been designated beyond our locality. Leaders from the temple insisted that Beth be sent there, deeming her no longer fit to be in our vicinity. I faithfully made trips to this dark, stench-filled area. At first it was a frightening experience, but I grew accustomed to it, delivering rations and fresh linens to my beloved sister.

Twelve long years passed, with Beth’s situation unchanged. Father died a broken man, having failed to return his beautiful daughter back to her loving home. We pursued any glimmer of hope that we could for Beth, desperately seeking out the services of others who were revealed to be charlatans and frauds. They rid her of nothing but our money, often subjecting her to humiliating treatments and worsening her condition.

One afternoon as I was returning from the marketplace, a large throng approached. They were following a man walking beside one of the rulers of the synagogue. It was unusual to see a ruler out walking with the commoners. I asked one of the crowd what the commotion was about.

“Jairus’ daughter is dying! He’s pleaded with this great teacher to heal her.”

I’d heard talk of a new teacher in our area. Even Beth had spoken of him, as someone had shared the teacher’s words and deeds with her. She held great hope that this man was from God and could somehow remedy her situation. I feared those hopes would once again be dashed.

Racing ahead of the crowd, I climbed atop a small porch to get a better look at this man walking with Jairus. His appearance was unremarkable, with well-worn sandals and a tasseled robe that was rather tattered and frayed. The crowd swarmed around them as they continued their determined walk.

Suddenly the teacher whirled about as though something had struck him from behind...

“Who touched me?” (1)

One man looked at him incredulously and said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” (2)

“Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” (3)

In an instant, the crowd retreated from a weeping woman, her head bowed and covered. Through her sobs, she admitted she had sought his healing power, believing he was a true man of God.

The woman lifted her head and I saw my sister’s radiant face, now restored to her former beauty. Through sheer determination and faith, Beth had somehow eluded her confinement and fought her way through the crowd to reach this man...just to touch the back of his garment.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” (4)

As we struggled through the crowd to reach one another, Beth paused and looked back, her beautiful eyes following the steps of her Savior...and mine.

1 Luke 8:45 (NIV)
2 Luke 8:45 (NIV)
3 Luke 8:46 (NIV)
4 Luke 8:48 (NIV)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bottom's Up

The poverty-stricken area of Guayaquil, Ecuador was like nothing I’d ever seen. My mission travels have taken me to areas of the poor that most people will never witness...but this was on another level of impoverishment.

It surpassed comprehension that people actually dwelled in the run-down shanties that had been built over a city garbage dump.

We’d walked the streets all day, sharing the Gospel at some pre-arranged appointments or, occasionally, with folks we just happened to meet. Fatigue was setting in as we came to five young men sitting on a street corner. My initial thought was to just move on. But the pastor of the small church we’d been working with made a straight line for them.

My eyes scanned over the group. Five young street thugs, complete with dyed, spiked hair, gold chains, piercings...what was the use? They greeted my mission partner Mel and me sneeringly, and, though I couldn’t understand their Spanish, the tone dripped with disdain and mockery. I nodded and winked at Mel.

“Your turn,” I chuckled quietly, hopping up to sit on a concrete ledge with the Pastor.

As Mel began to share through our interpreter, I decided to use the time to rest a spell. But, hearing muffled snickers coming from the group, I began praying that Mel, a newcomer in the mission field, would have the courage to continue despite the group’s apparent disdain for his message.

Mel began wearing down as the gang’s resistence started getting the better of him. I couldn’t blame him. After all, I’d bailed out at the beginning. But then, I got an odd feeling – quite literally. It jarred me and I jumped up, out of my comfortable rest. I found I’d sat in a puddle of cold, muddy water, and the seat of my trousers were soaked and stained.

I grumbled at my predicament. But instantly, God flashed an illustration through my mind, and undeniably distinct directions:

“Take a shot.”

I strolled over to the group. Mel had somewhat penetrated their initial barriers and I wanted a crack at them with what God had just laid on my heart...and elsewhere.

“Any of you ever make a mistake? Ever really mess up?”

The group looked at each other reluctantly. These cocky street thugs admitted they indeed had made mistakes in their young lives. They chuckled and nodded in agreement.

“Well, I just screwed up big time,” I confessed as I bent over, pointing my rear end in their direction. The young men burst out in laughter at my situation as I sensed the chill between us beginning to thaw.

“Let me ask you this: any of you ever commit a sin?”

Stillness filled the air as five sets of eyes cast downward. Shoulders, once erect in pride, now drooped in self-awareness.

“Yes, I have plenty of sin in my life, too. In fact, the Bible says we all have sinned. You know fellas, I can take these pants and wash them and that stain will come out. But, while I can get my pants clean, I can’t clean the stain of sin from my heart. Only the Blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, cleans that stain.”

“Take a shot.”

“I’m gonna ask you to do something brave today. I’m gonna ask you, in front of your friends here, to admit you’re a sinner and need Christ in your life, for your salvation.” Four pairs of eyes rose up at me in prideful rejection...but Juan’s remained cast downward.

“Take a shot.”

“I’m gonna ask you to stand up in front of God and your friends and receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior.”

Without hesitation, Juan raised himself up. Suddenly he appeared childlike, his once prideful eyes welling with tears as he stumbled forward in my direction.

I took Juan aside with Mel, and we prayed with him as he asked Christ to forgive his sins and reside in his heart. Mel looked him in the eye and praised his courage.

“Juan, standing up in front of your friends was about the manliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. But there was great irony in the moment as well. You see, Juan had demonstrated that becoming like a little child.

...“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Old Soldier Still Marched...

Having procured his merchandise, the old timer shuffled away from the cashier, behind his WalMart cart.  I didn't pay Him much mind as I turned to grab one of the empty carts and he headed my direction.

As the old gentleman neared though, the writing on his hat seized my attention, and I straightened up in a gesture of respect...and reflection. "WWII VETERAN" his hat announced proudly, and I stepped aside quietly out of appreciation for his duty to our country as he slowly made his way toward me.

No doubt my own father’s service in World War II makes me even more appreciative of this fading generation of heroes. I felt a lump 
in my throat as the man passed by, thinking of dad, now gone these past ten years. But I was quickly jolted from my moment of sentiment as the man raised up in a moment of realization that something was amiss in his shopping cart.

Like the proud soldier he once was, the old vet did an about-face
and marched directly back to the cash register. Suddenly those once shuffling feet began to lift, right-left-right, in a straight line that would make Gen. Patton proud. I stood and curiously watched, then meandered over where I could hear what could have riled up the man so. I surmised that he must’ve realized that he been overcharged, or perhaps been short-changed.

I saw him reach down in his cart and pick up his cane and begin waving it at the cashier, though I still wasn’t close enough to hear what he was saying. He was obviously distressed over something, and honestly, I thought I might have to come to the cashier’s rescue...

Proverbs 2:7 tells us:
                   He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
                   He is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
Integrity might be a dying characteristic in the world we live in today, but I’m thankful when I see integrity put into action, as I did that day in WalMart...

"No, ma’am, I don’t think you did," I heard the old vet say with a strong voice to the cashier, handing her his receipt with one hand, the partially raised cane in the other. 

The young woman's eyes quickly scanned the receipt. Giving it a thorough once over, she looked up from the paper, with a sense of realization of her own...

"Yes sir, you’re right.   I didn’t charge you for your new cane." Then, jokingly she added, "But you coulda just kept going, no one would’ve even known!"

"No, ma’am...I would’ve known," the old veteran replied, "And that just wouldn’t set well with me."

I walked on into the store and smiled to myself, grateful to have witnessed that simple act of integrity...I smiled again as I passed the $7.95 canes on display just beyond the cashier’s line.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Nothing New About New Age

For some time, there has been in our midst a movement commonly known as New Age. It is a conglomeration of several beliefs that have stemmed from mankind’s desire to reach ultimate oneness with the Almighty, circumventing truths espoused by traditional beliefs, namely Christianity. It’s far from harmless, as the movement leads directly away from Christ and to the ultimately destructive belief that salvation is achievable through eclectic means.

According to New Agers, man is divine by nature. Thus, as divine or god-like in nature, one can create his own version of reality. In other words, you can be like God. Further, you have the capacity to be your own god.

Now, New Agers have tolerance for nearly every belief under the sun, with the exception of Christianity. Christians know that we are sinners, saved only by the Blood of Christ shed on the Cross of Calvary. And, as Roman 10:13 plainly states, "whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Salvation is gifted through God’s grace and only God’s grace. New Age believers can’t tolerate this simple doctrine because they refuse to see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. What’s ironic about New Age thinking is there’s nothing "new" about it at all. It’s a deception that has its roots in the beginning.

In the garden of Eden, Satan tempted Eve with the forbidden fruit with these words:

" For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and
you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
Genesis 3:5 - (emphasis mine)

You will be like God, the serpent said. And here we are, so many centuries later with a "new"
movement that will be like God.

Lest you think this cult movement isn’t gaining traction, last week in Portland, Oregon an evangelical Christian organization came under fire from a group of organized parents called Protect Portland Children. They speak out against the evangelical group’s message and influence parents not to allow their children to attend its events. The message they found so offensive? Each person is a sinner in need of the Savior. Protect Portland’s Children uses a poster of a sweet looking, pig-tailed girl holding up a sign stating, "I am not a sinner."

Let’s face it, if we’re not sinners, we have no need for a Savior...we can save will be like God New Age thinking reminds one of another passage of scripture, from Ecclesiastes 1: 9...

"...there is nothing new under the sun."
(emphasis mine)