“In Case Of Emergency…”

img_5947-002img_5947-001Whenever I fly, I try to get exit row seats. As I got on my last flight into Asia, I saw this written on the side of the plane and realized it wouldn’t really matter where I sat. If there was an emergency, I’m supposed to…do what?! The flight attendant failed to say exactly how I was to exit the plane should we plummet from the skies. No mention of any bulkhead cutting tools located under the seats next to the life jackets. No blow torches where the oxygen masks were. I had extra leg room and all the pretzels I could want for the next two hours and I’d just sit there listening to the droning engine, but if there was an emergency, it would take a miracle to escape…

I was in our second training location in this country. In the room were fifty-seven men and women actively planting churches. All of them are working in Buddhist areas. Almost 100% of the people they live among have no idea who Jesus is, and Christianity is at best thought to be a mythical belief in a nameless god.

At the end of our second day, two of our men went to a hospital to visit the family of a man from one of their villages. Three days before this man had slipped into a coma-like state and now the family just sat in the room. People came and went, brought food, sat for a few minutes or hours. Basically, you just sit and talk.

When these two men came, they took their turn sitting. They asked if they could share a true story. It was about a man named Jesus who cared about a girl who had died and cared also about her family. So they told the story of Jairus’ daughter. The oldest woman in the room said this was a nice story, but doubted it was true. If this Jesus was real, why hadn’t they heard of him before? So our two guys started telling other stories – Jesus healing a blind man, Jesus healing a lame man lying by a pool, Jesus healing a boy filled with evil spirits, Jesus healing a bleeding woman.

The two men told me that after about an hour, “They kept listening so we kept talking.” They started sharing the story of the paralyzed man lowered through the roof and how Jesus told the religious leaders he wanted to show them he had authority to forgive and also heal…”And that’s when the man in the hospital bed in the coma sat up and started shouting ‘I’m like that man! I’m like that man! I’m like that man!’…”

The hospital room went berserk! The man kept shouting and was trying to get out of bed! The family was trying to hold him down and figure out what had just happened! People in other rooms and doctors in the hallway came running in because of all the commotion! And everybody was talking all at once!

I asked my two guys what they did. “Well, there were so many people and so much noise, we just left. But we think they’ll let us visit tomorrow.”…

As I got on the plane a couple days later to leave, I saw the same instructions on the side of the bulkhead. Sitting in my exit row, I smiled. If there was to be any possible escape from this plane, it would indeed take a miracle, and I grinned thinking about the miracle of a bunch of Buddhists hearing about a Jesus they had never heard of before, a man in a coma who somehow heard all they talked about for an hour, and a God who wanted to prove to an entire hospital floor that he has the authority to forgive sins or heal or both.

Distance doesn’t matter

It was 4 AM and I heard these dreaded words. “Continue on south for 559 miles.”

Last Saturday I visited my son at his college. Forty-eight hours later I pulled in the driveway back home before my other kids left the house for school and then I went to the office. It’s been six weeks since we dropped our boy off at college. He’s in the film program and loves his editing and shooting and script writing classes. He’s not burned anything yet that I know of in the apartment. He’s doing well. There were a few hard things going on with each of us, though, and we both just needed to see each other, if for no other reason than we’re father and son.

The only thing keeping us from that was fourteen hours of monotonous interstate. Distance doesn’t change the fact that I’m his dad, even if that distance is half of the USA. When my son needs me, I’m coming to him. So I sat in the truck and headed south…

My favorite question in the Bible is in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve are in the Garden and have messed up. Sin for the first time entered the story. In an instant – like when you touch an electric fence – Adam and Eve realized a chasm has been introduced into their relationship with God where there was once closeness and intimacy. And God comes in the Garden. “Where are you?” Yeah, right, as if he didn’t know. As if he was asking for help to find them. As if he wasn’t aware of what had happened. He knew the separation was there and why.

Yet, he came to them…

In a few days I’ll be in an Asian country. In two locations I’ll get to be with former Buddhist believers who are now pastoring or starting churches in this Buddhist country. Many of them describe their previous search for peace as a long journey not knowing where or if it would end. The ultimate goal of Buddhists is nirvana, where suffering and the desires that cause suffering come to an end. It’s an impossibility, a chasm too large for most to imagine crossing. Until they reach nirvana, each man and woman goes through endless cycles of birth and rebirth.

Many of these believers I’ll be with will describe their conversion experience in words that echo God in the Garden. They realized somebody was coming to them when they couldn’t get anywhere themselves. When they realize what a holy God went through to come to them, they are astonished.

But that’s what fathers do. They go to their kids…

When I left my boy Sunday afternoon to drive through the night back home, he gave me a hug and said all I needed to hear. “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for coming.” And I teared up in happiness for our relationship. The distance wasn’t insurmountable.

Different Ways of Handling Pain

Pain management.  I was online looking up some medical stuff and saw this phrase more than once. From the very little that zipped past my eyes, I saw the words “patient-centered” quite often. I know there is a lot more to this than my grossly simplistic and naïve understanding, but those two phrases – pain management and patient-centered – stuck out to me.

When I have something that hurts or is obviously more than what a good nap and a bottle of ibuprofen can handle, I want to get rid of the pain, not manage it. I want a doctor who specializes in getting rid of these pains to do his thing that he’s good at and tell me what I need to do. In other words I want doctor directed diagnosis and treatment that I’m supposed to follow.

Again, I know the current culture marketing means you have to use words like patient-centered, so my analogy breaks down if you dig into it too much, but allow me a little analogous grace for a minute.

A couple weeks ago I got an email from an acquaintance that was several paragraphs long. It was full of phrases like “I love the Lord with an unbridled passion”, “My heart is exploding with jealousy to serve Him”, “At the end of each day I grieve and cry that I haven’t done more for my savior”, “I would without hesitation lay down literally die for my God”. Each sentence ended with one or two exclamation marks and has some words in all CAPS. As this friend reads and reflects on the scriptures, he is in pain.

Here’s the problem I had reading this. He said this has been going on for years and years and years. “Oh, I wish I could go lay down my life for those who do not know the Lord in Africa and Asia, but I am not ready. I am not worthy. I am not clean enough. I am not freed up. I am a raw diamond in the hands of a master craftsman who is cutting different faces to make it shine more and be more valuable. The diamond yells to the jeweler ‘I am ready!’ and the jeweler replies ‘I must cut you more so you are made perfect.’ Oh it hurts to wait…”

My reply to him was simple. You’ll never be perfect, so if you’re so eager and dying to go and do great things for God…go. Stop trying to manage the pain and obey the doctor’s instructions, which are pretty simple. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” His problem is that he is using a patient-centered approach to an issue that is really one of obedience.

People have tried to manage their own pain even directly with Jesus.  In Luke 9:

57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

It is hard to let pain management be simple obedience and releasing control.

We don’t know what happened with these men – did they follow, did they go home then return sometime later, did they turn away after Jesus removed their smoke screens? – but we do know right after this, Jesus sends out 72 to “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” (Luke 10:3) and gives them instructions on what to do, what to look for, how to go about following Him, like a doctor giving precise instructions to a patient.

Left to our own pain management, we would never go. Like my friend, we would think we are never going to be quite ready, quite prepared, but in reality we are simply not quite ready to obey.

The song below was in a musical review “For Heaven’s Sake” circa 1975 by Helen Kromer.

“Let the Church be…”

Three weeks ago my son called. “Dad, um, the Durango…” Ends up our faithful family transportation finally decided to blow a rod or two while hehad it at college. Not his fault, just timing of an old vehicle deciding to die. So with the Durango gone and my old Mazda pickup likely headed to university next year, we decided to replace both with one vehicle.

Fast forward to sitting down with the car dealer as we finalize the details of purchasing a good used truck. Of course he’s trying to get me to buy add-on plans. “Well, sir, with this protection plan, if you get stains on the seats or floor, just bring it over and we’ll clean them up.” “Jeff, that’s ok. I’ll pass. It’s a truck.”

“Understood. But with this plan, you know how you get those scuffs on the side when somebody’s door whacks into your car? With this plan, you bring the truck back here, we buff them out and it’s good as new.” “No thanks, Jeff. It’s a truck.”

“OK. Now, let me tell you about this plan, where we coat the exterior of the vehicle with a patented polymer sealant so that when a bird messes on it, all you have to do is hose it and it washes right off.” “Jeff, it’ll do the same with a hose and a rag. It’s a truck.” “But, you know how hard pine sap from overhanging branches is to get off a car? With this sealant, it will hose right off.” “Does the same thing with Goo-Gone, Jeff…it’s a truck.”

About a hundred years ago, a missionary stood in front of a missions conference and said something very simple. “Let the Church be the Church!” That’s been echoing in my mind the past few months as I’ve been working overseas or teaching a couple missions classes or in conversations with folks in our own church. The Church is a unique thing. Out of all that man has ever been a part of, it is the only thing given the charge of helping people connect with God.

For example, I was thinking of Matthew 24:14. Governments run countries. Businesses impact economies. Movies sway values, and technology shapes relationships. But Jesus said there is one thing that only the Church can control. Time. “And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations (peoples) will hear it, and then the end will come.” The Church is to be going to where God is not known yet – peoples, not necessarily geography – and then Jesus returns. Does this mean that everybody will hear God calling “Where are you?” and eagerly respond “Here!”?  I wish this would be true, but no. Everywhere it will be offered even if not everywhere received. Jesus’ own ministry shows this. How many hundreds of people saw the things he did that reinforced his spoken invitation and still walked away, ignored him, or turned on him, and in the end only a few embraced him?

I got an email from my Ugandan friend a couple weeks ago. “God is working. You need to come to Kanibari district next time you are here. The church is telling stories on Sunday, going into the villages they live and telling those stories. And people are saying, ‘This is good.’” People are coming to faith.

Let the Church be the Church.

A couple days ago I was in a truck I just bought. It’ll get scuffs when we load my son’s stuff in and dings from rocks kicked up and I’ll probably drop some Chic-fil-a sauce on the seat. But it’s a truck. It’s supposed to do what a truck does. I’ll take a hose and rag and get the bird poop off when we finally get home, which is another analogy we could run with, but I’ll let you do that on your own.

[un]noticed women

Think of the names of the first ten people from the Bible that come to your mind.

How many of them were women?

In Jesus’ day, just as in our time, women of many cultures are marginalized in importance of a society. That is an over-generalization, but you get the idea. In many cultures women’s tasks are assumed to be those related to the house, children, and meals.

But think of the women in the Bible who made impacts that defined cultures, altered decisions, and impacted individuals who impacted masses. God continues raising up these humble women today.

I just got an email from a pastor friend in a south Asian country. A week ago he told me he was taking five women to a coastal village to teach other women. Two of the women could read. I don’t know how many of the village women could, but from experience in this country I would be very surprised if three or four of the twenty-five women coming for the training could read at a second grade level. Starting at about age five or six, these girls have spent years patching clothes and nets and going to the market for their fishing-dependent families.

image (1)This was the first time somebody had come to specifically teach these Christ-loving women a ministry skill.

This was the first time these five women trainers had ever trained anybody else too.

In a church made of bamboo and banana leaves and elevated on bamboo poles to keep from flooding, these women spent two days together. They taught each other stories. They talked about them. They went out at night and told other women in the village as they were making meals and chasing dogs away from the pots.

In this small Buddhist village on the coast, these unnoticed women talked about Jesus. And people’s lives are different – their neighbors as well as their own.

Bush pastor seminary

What do you do when your pastors are suddenly told what they are doing is illegal?

Most of us know of the difficulties in the underground churches and what persecution believers go through. But in Kenya a new law is suddenly hamstringing the Church.

Rules are now in place requiring all pastors to submit a certificate of good conduct and have a theological degree in order to do the work of a pastor (whether as his sole job or as an unpaid pastor). (read one article here)

The new laws come from good intentions as a measure to stop the growing tide of “send me $50 and your crops will be blessed” con artist pastors (and there are a lot of them in sub-Saharan Africa). But the ripple effect wasn’t thought through.

Last month I was with our partner in the bush of Kenya. He has 200 pastors scattered in the remote parts, serving in small homesteads in the middle of nowhere. Almost all of them have not completed school and can’t read or write. Obviously none of them have theological degrees. So what does our partner do? Does he ignore the law? What about the fifty villages they are preparing to start church planting work in this year…does he not go? What about us – are we helping them break the law by training pastors who we know are going to be illegally leading churches?

Almost 300 people meet under these trees each Sunday, one of many bush churches led by unschooled pastors.

Almost 300 people meet under these trees each Sunday, one of many bush churches led by unschooled pastors.

As we sat together talking about this, we talked to Bishop James about starting a simple certification program that met the government’s requirements, but with a twist. What if we created an all story-based, no books, no handouts, no electronics, all discussion driven, modular course of study that could be done over a couple years’ time? Unschooled pastors could learn core theology, overviews of Old and New Testament, and important topics like church planting, discipleship, evangelism, and godly leadership, among other things.

This is going to take some time to develop and will definitely have some bumps along the way – we’re already seeing that – but how incredible would it be to have 200+ pastors living in the bush knowing 200 Bible stories that shape their congregations’ growth? Imagine the impact in sending new missionaries and pastors who have been raised in that from their youth and now are going into Muslim-dominant countries to the north of Kenya – Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and into the Sahara Desert. Please be praying with us for this.

One liners

(Highlights Of The Past Year series)

On top of our refrigerator is a spiral notebook.  It houses a treasure of “kid-isms”, humorous things the kids have said, like several years ago when our three kids were probably five and three years old and a glass of milk spilled and my wife said, “Quick, use your hands and dam it up,” and the kids started chanting “Dam it!  Dam it!  Dam it!…” in front of our dinner guests.  We died laughing and couldn’t get the kids to stop chanting.

Most of the things in the notebook have one phrase that makes us all start laughing whenever it’s said, but there’s of course a longer story behind each one-liner that adds more details.

Well, the other day I got a short one-liner email from one of the men that I met six weeks ago in Congo.  “Thanks pastor!we are good all of us!and we try to telle the stories fom bible and we got some one!”  I told the family and we all started saying “We GOT one!” like it was a huge fish we’d hooked.  But none of us knew the story.  So I asked my friend what happened.  In his own words… 

Hello my pastor!!!

it has been longtime!look then how i was intruduis that peoples about the story from Gad’s word ;

one day; i was from the auditoruium;i met three womens on the road bearing vegetables to sell to the market; and then i greeted them and asked them if i could them to carry what they had. when we arrived to the market i aske them to duscuss abit about God’s word;so i started telling them about one story from bible in matthew 9:27-30

He continues telling me about their conversation over this short four verse story.  He finishes with this…

i asked if they ready to receive Jesus in their life.  we are two of them said.we prayed.

then they recommended me to pass the market oftenly for teaching them Gad’s word together with their friends.

this is the story my pastor!i don’t know if have get my point,because i don’t know english only swahili.

Every good one-liner has a story behind it.

Simple

We started driving up a road that was as smooth as craters on the moon’s surface.  Our van’s shocks didn’t exist anymore.  Neither did our kidneys.

“Mzungu!  Mzungu!…” (“White skin!  White skin!…)  Kids started running after the van.  The closer we got to the feeding center in the small village, the larger the crowd of curious kids got.  Finally the parade stopped and eleven mzungu got out of the van.  “Jambo.”  (“Hi.”)  That was pretty much the extent of our Swahili abilities, which just brought giggles, a few handshakes from the braver kids, and a couple of shrieks of terror from one or two of the smaller ones, which makes sense if you’ve never seen eleven grownup mzungu before.

And then we stood there.  Waiting for the rice and beans to finish cooking.  The feeding center gives three meals a week to undernourished kids who stood waiting with their cups.  But right now, everybody just stared.  Unblinking stares.  Holding their cups ready for the rice.  And the crowd grew bigger.  Our translator was talking to one person, so the rest of us – eleven mzungu, fifty kids, and a growing crowd of adults –  were just staring at each other.  Without a translator, there’s not much else you could do. 

dirt drawExcept draw.  I squatted down and kids started spreading out in a circle jostling for closer position.  I cleared some dirt and drew a simple smiley face.  One brave kid squatted next to me, the mzungu with a stick drawing circles.  I gave him the stick and he took it, but wasn’t sure what to do.  “You draw…”  He tried.  His circle looked like a bug splattered on a windshield.  So I drew a new circle, picked up some bits of wood, rocks, grass, and started putting them in the circle.  Eyes, nose, ears.  The last to go was a smile.  I had him put it on.  He did.  The kids who could see started laughing.  The boy looked at me and grinned.  Other kids started picking up sticks and drawing bug splatter shaped smiley faces.  Amazing how something as simple as making a face in the dirt can bring joy.

Our trip to Congo had several moments like this, reminding me of the power of simple things.  Handing out rice and beans.  Sizing up children to fit into dresses and shorts made by a group of women in the US.  Giving a new pair of underwear to kids who had worn the same pair for a few years.  Sitting with women who have been victims of brutalities that have left them socially outcast and watching them make baskets that they sell.  Buying the baskets they made to help restore their self-dignity instead of just giving them money.  Bringing a suitcase of maxipads and hearing their loud joyful high-pitched “la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la…” African cry when they understood what they were for.  Being comfortable being stared at.  Simple things.

I think Jesus really liked simplicity.  Share a story. Eat a meal. Sit with people. Cry with them.  Laugh with them.  Walk beside them.  Teach them.  Take them one step closer to understanding His Father. 

No, I’m not avoiding telling you about the story training we did.  It went well.  There were fifty believers from different communities we were able to train.  This month they are going to villages, including this small village, and will let me know next  month how it has gone and who else they are teaching storying to.

Each trip I’m more convinced that storying is a simple universal language that God uses.  Almost as simple and universal as a mzungu and a Congolese village boy drawing smiley faces in a dirt road and smiling at each other.

“One thing!”

(Highlights From The Past Year series)

Friday night baseball.  Bottom of the sixth inning.  Ryan’s team has already lost this game 9-3, but that doesn’t matter at the moment.  You see, the coach has just looked over to Ryan at shortstop.  “Ryan, take the mound…”

ready

Ryan’s never pitched a game in his life.  For the past few weeks he’s been practicing in the backyard, throwing to Brady and me.  We’ve set up 2×4’s to keep him from stepping wide.  We’ve practiced holding the ball, swinging his trail leg, and following through.  And all the time we keep saying, “Ryan, you’re doing great, but none of it matters if you forget one thing – you have to hit the catcher’s glove.  One thing, just remember one thing.”

Ryan starts walking to the mound and parents start asking me, “Does Ryan know how to pitch?”  “We’ll see,” I said.  I turn to the field and yell, “HEY RY!  ONE THING!”  He grins, looks to the catcher…

Really early Thursday morning I’ll board a plane, and 32 hours later walk across the border from Rwanda into Congo. This past week we almost canceled the trip. 

You see, hard to reach places aren’t just ones with extremists or polytheistic theologies.  Some places are just bad places.  For thirty-five years there has been constant conflict in the northeast region of the Democratic Republic of IMG_2788Congo (DRC).  Guerrilla groups hold villages in fear, raping women, killing men, abducting child soldiers.  The UN has their second largest international peace keeping force in the world here (17,000 troops).  The Congolese army treats the women not much differently than the rebels.  Children depend on feeding centers for food in many villages.  And Congo is statistically a “Christian” country.

Paul’s words in Romans 15:20 constantly echo in my mind.  “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ is not known.”  During our nine days in DRC, that’s what we’ll be doing.  Jesus isn’t unknown in this region, but he is not really known.  Fear, power and domination, abuse, death, hopelessness…these are the realities that course through the villages, walk the hill paths, and envelope people’s daily lives.

We’ll be teaching pastors how to use storying in the villages.  The younger members of our team will be sharing stories with children at feeding centers that the pastors can build on.  Our ladies will be spending a couple days with women who have been victims of indescribable rape and abuse, share life stories, pray, and share stories from the Bible of women unloved by men but completely loved by God (and there are a lot in Scripture).

This trip is really about one thing.  Doing what we can with our Congolese brothers and sisters to help fearful, hurting people begin to know a God they know about but don’t know. 

Focusing on one thing can make a difference.  Ryan’s pitching?  He struck out his first batter.

Sweaty multiplication

(Highlights Of The Past Year series)

IMG_1154 cropped adjustedA couple weeks ago I got back from Africa.  It was the hardest trip I’ve done – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  Believe it or not, it was the first trip I’ve ever gotten sick on.  My host and I miscommunicated several times, effecting the training schedule.  We drove for hours, four men wedged in the back seat sitting shoulders sideways, windows down in 120o and dust blowing in.  I got back to the US and was completely drained.

But it was a good trip.  I could share about how many people came to the trainings and comments they made, but let me share a bit about four men I saw God move in during this trip.  We pray for churches to start and people to become believers in hard to reach places and those are the “cool” things to share, but notice in Matthew 9:38 that Jesus says to pray for laborers.  This has been my biggest prayer this year, shaping the trips we’re taking and how we’re making decisions – are we preparing qualified laborers who can train others?

IMG_1123We pulled up to our first training, surgically separating ourselves from each other as we climbed out of the backseat.  Eugene came up to me and I forgot about trying to get my spine realigned again.  I recognized his huge grin from last year when I was training in a different part of the country.  He gave me a huge hug!  “Pastor, it is so good to see you again!”  Last year we talked one-on-one about how storying could fit in his church.  “Let me tell you how the Lord has worked among the people of…”  Eugene had changed his preaching to a story approach, inviting interaction and asking people to share the stories with other people before the next Sunday.  Then in church they review the story, visitors ask questions and members of the church (not pastors!) stand to answer.  “Pastor, the people are talking to Muslims about Jesus without fear!”

IMG_1220Last year I had the most incredible translator I’ve ever had anywhere.  This month Obed was my translator again and basically became the fourth member of our training team.  Like I mentioned, there were several miscommunications with our host about schedule issues, which most of the time we didn’t find out until we started speaking, so I’d have to say something like, “OK, Obed, we were supposed to have two more hours, but I was just told we need to be done in thirty minutes.  Doing this with translation is going to kill us.  You’ve seen me do this part several times.  I need you to run with it.”  OK, yes, I was taking advantage of the situation to see what Obed could do.  I watched him float around to groups, answering questions, clarifying things, giving encouragement, people tracking with everything he said.  We watched a man move from being a gifted translator to passionately teaching his countrymen.

IMG_1088 IMG_1174On this trip, I took two young American men with me.  Jack is moving to Africa in the future to live among a Muslim people group and has been doing storying discipleship with the youth group he pastors.  Ben is going to an animist unreached people group in a couple years.  This was the first time they had done storying training, so I gave them plenty of opportunity to lead different parts.

On the last night in country, we sat in our room.  It had dropped to a chilly 97o and we had three fans blowing on us, which basically felt like standing in front of three hair dryers on high.  We talked about an invitation from Eugene to come to a nearby Muslim country to do training.  “Guys, I can’t do it then.  Wish I knew a small team who could.”  Then I sat back, closed my eyes, and listened to three young men – two Americans and an African who had met each other just ten days ago – talk about training church planters in a Muslim country later this year.  Even the heat didn’t seem all that bad right then.