Monday, June 30, 2014

Day 1 - The right way

How do you break the cycle of hopelessness?

Today our Visiting Orphans team arose full of energy, fresh off a jet-lag-fighting long night's sleep, and ready to tackle a full day. We headed to the community of Korah to spend time with two different ministries.

The morning was spent with Embracing Hope (EH), and in the afternoon we were with Out of the Ashes (OA). There are so many people out there who are addressing the hopelessness created by the cycle of poverty, and more and more we see organizations doing it the right way. These are definitely two of them.

How? Well, briefly, EH works with single-parent families (usually mothers) to help the family move beyond the point where their only concern is survival. By providing day care, school, food, and some basic medical care for the children, they can free the parent to make a living and give the family a future. And OA - whose name is based on Psalm 113:7 - works with children who have been mired in the same cycle of hopelessness to provide education and the knowledge that they are loved by people all over the world. In both cases, they are helping those who need it most not by creating more dependency, but creating a process where dignity is a priority and the benefits can be replicated - all while sharing the love of Jesus.

It is our privilege to be a small part of the process for a very short time. And we were blessed to be with the children today. So....

We played.

We laughed.

We loved.

You can't ask for a better day than that.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gearing up...Day Zero

Day Zero In Ethiopia and already it's a good trip. No, we did not get much sleep on the plane and yes, it's been a long day. It's important to stay up after a flight like that so you can sleep through the night; somehow we did it.

So, on this day of preparation and fighting through jet lag, there were several highlights:

I got to spend the day with some awesome people and servants of Christ. I can tell already that I will be sad for this week to end.

We made an unscheduled appearance at an international church and worshipped with hundreds of other brothers and sisters in the Lord. Yes, at times it was a struggle to stay alert, but well worth the trip, as we heard a great message from Embracing Hope director Jerry Shannon about what to do when you get more than you can handle. I'm sure we'll be applying that at some point this week.

And we got to spend the day with the staff of Holy Savior Guest House. It is going to be fun working with them all week.

Well, it's on to the children tomorrow morning. Please pray for their hearts to feel the love of Jesus as we are with them. Please pray for the tireless servants of Christ who are with them 24/7/365, before and after we're here. And pray for our team: Danny, Trisha, Clark, and Chasya. Pray that we will follow the Holy Spirit's leading every step of the way.

Off to bed...big day tomorrow. Can't wait!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Ethiopia, Take 5

Well, it's that time again. I;m heading back to Ethiopia again, and I cannot wait!

As some of you know, these trips to Africa are how this blog began in the first place. I wanted a place to share what God was doing through the amazing people I've had the privilege of traveling with. And so the writing began.

So as we head out tomorrow, we covet your prayers. Pray for our team: Clark, Danny, Trisha, Chasya, and me. Pray for the children, families, and staff we are going to visit. And pray for God to move in ways we can't even imagine.

As always, if I get good wifi, you'll hear from us during the week. If it's spotty, I may be sharing after we get back. Either way, I can't wait to share about it!

So here we go...trip #5. Let's do this! Talk to you all soon....

Monday, June 23, 2014

More bread?

Jesus answered them and said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life."
- John 6:26-27, NASB

I can't say that Alabama suddenly developed a huge baseball following in the student body. For years I've been going to games, and for years the number of students at the games was just a handful. But this year, for some reason, there was a huge crowd of students in the new stands beyond the right field wall. Wow! Students are baseball fans!

Well, not exactly. I soon figured out from my twitter feed that there was a new policy. Students are now allowed to bring a cooler to the game if they will sit in those outfield stands. So, you guessed it - it was an excuse to gather in a big group, sunbathe, and drink beer. It may have looked like they were there for one thing, but it was really another.

Sunday morning, our teaching pastor Patrick Quinn walked us through John 6, which began with Jesus feeding the 5,000 and ended with him on the other side of the lake teaching about bread. When he got to the other side of the lake, the huge crowds that had been fed the day before had followed him. Obviously wanting more bread. So that's when Jesus said, basically, "I know why you're really here. You want more food."

It may have looked like they were there for one thing, but it was really another.

And Jesus then began to teach them, I can offer you much more than bread. I am the bread of life, and I can give you something that really satisfies. Something that will keep you from being hungry again. Life.

So Patrick posed this question to us: What do you want from Jesus? More bread...or more life?

Like those residents of Galilee, those of us who come to Jesus are coming to receive something. I am afraid that for me, it is too often something other than fellowship with the living God. So what do you want from Jesus?

  • Happiness?
  •  Freedom from suffering in this life?
  • An afterlife free from the fear of hell?
  • To be blessed with material prosperity?
  • The approval of your friends and family that expect you to be religious?
  • To see your loved ones in heaven?
None of these are bad things. In fact, all of them are good. But so is bread. But bread was not the best reason for the throngs to follow Jesus to the other side of the lake. If we are coming to him for any selfish reason, he says we are missing the point. Don't come because I can feed 5,000. Or make you happy. Come because I made you, I am the source of life, and I will make you everything you were created to be.

So the question remains:

More bread (in whatever form)? Or more life?

Friday, June 20, 2014

The light at the end of the hall

So this week I was walking down the hall at work, toward my office. As I looked down the hall, I thought I needed sunglasses. I saw this at the end:

Now trust me, the hall was not dark. It was well lit, at the normal level during the workday. No lights were out. But compared to the light at the end of the hall...yeah, it looks pretty dark doesn't it?

The thing about that incredibly bright area is this: Just last week, it was dark. If I had taken a picture then (I wish I had), the exposure would have probably made it look like there was nothing there. You see, there was remodeling going on at that end. It used to have a desk for a telephone operator, and they have turned it into a waiting area for executive offices. While they were doing the work, there were no lights overhead. Now, they have put in the brightest lights in the building.

And I thought just before I took the picture (always thinking about my blog), this is what it's like to put your faith in Jesus. You have been walking in darkness. But when you let him take over, he remakes you, and infuses you with the brightest light in the universe.

Light and darkness. Not exactly original on my part; there are 55 verses in the Bible where both words appear together. Almost always because it's expressing the contrast. Darkness is the absence of light, and that is life with Jesus. But he came as the Light of the world, lighting us up like the end of that hall.

Here is just one of those passages:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
- 1 Peter 2:9, NASB, emphasis mine 

What a wonderful picture! And like the hall now, he is so bright that the rest of the hall looks dark. Nothing approaches his marvelous light. Nothing.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars - thoughts, part II

Saturday night I shared some random thoughts on The Fault in Our Stars. You might say it was my review, of both the book and the movie.

I left one topic for a separate blog post though, mainly because it tied so closely to two recent posts and so I wanted it to get top billing, so to speak. That topic was a conversation between Hazel and Augustus about the afterlife. The conversation was in both the book and the movie.

Here is the context for the conversation:.

Augustus, Hazel, and Hazel's mom have traveled to Amsterdam to meet the author of a book that Hazel loves. The book about cancer and death rings true, and since Hazel has terminal cancer (not a spoiler - we know this from the first moments of the story) she wants to ask the author some questions about the ending. So, as she and Augustus are at dinner in a luxurious romantic restaurant in Amsterdam, Augustus asks her about whether she believes in an afterlife. Obviously, this is not just hypothetical speculation for them.

The conversation went something like this: Hazel thinks that forever is an incorrect concept. After a little joking, she first says a short no - no afterlife. Then she wavers, admitting she's not sure. The Augustus gives his thoughts: yes, absolutely. And then he elaborates, and this is the part I want to focus on:
Yes. Yes, absolutely. Not like a heaven where you ride unicorns, play harps, and live in a mansion made of clouds. But yes, I believe in Something with a capital S. Always have.
- The Fault in Our Stars, p. 168.

Now, I didn't expect the characters in this story to believe in a Biblical picture of heaven. It's not that kind of story. But his comments are telling.

They tell me a lot about what the world thinks a Christian view of heaven is. In summing up what he does not believe in, Augustus mentions several things that I think are the typical picture of heaven. This is the picture reinforced in movies and books such as Heaven Is for Real, and in the tendency of people to imagine their loved ones in a heaven that they have fashioned from their own minds. I don't know where the image comes from, because it's not Scripture.

So Augustus, I agree with you: The true heaven is not a place where you ride unicorns, play harps, or live in the clouds. It's also not just a place for our spirits to live forever. People do not become angels. And it's not just floating around in the light feeling happy and singing hymns.

So what is that "Something with a capital S"? This is the picture painted by Scripture: Jesus rose physically from the dead, preceding those of us who believe in him and will be raised one day. When a believer dies, he/she is in the presence of Christ right away, but that's not the end of the story. When the Messiah returns to the earth, he will redeem it, bring heaven and earth together in one reality, and we will reign over the redeemed creation with him forever. Nothing about harps. No unicorns. Just a world where man will bear the image of God forever, as we were originally intended to do. And it will be all about him, not us. It's going to be awesome!

It's soooooo much better than the images that Augustus rejects. No wonder people don't get more excited about it than they do. But if they had a true picture....oh yeah!

I love that a book like The Fault of Our Stars raises these hard questions. The skepticism of Hazel and Augustus reflects the uncertainty of our day. Stories like this make us examine life and question where our beliefs come from. Jesus came to bring us the answers to these hard questions. And that is good news.
References for further reading:
Surprised by Hope - NT Wright
Heaven - Randy Alcorn

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars - thoughts, part I

Read the book. Saw the movie.

I thought the movie was a really good adaptation of both the sprit and flow of the story. The acting was outstanding and conveyed the emotion of this powerful story. Although there were some aspects of the plot that were condensed for the sake of time, it was faithful to the story. So my thoughts are not so much about the movie or the book, but about the story itself.

For those who don't know, the story is about a pair of teenagers who have been dealt the unfortunate hand of being, as the book calls them, "cancer kids." The key characters are a guy and girl who realize they are likely terminal and their parents. It's a story which attempts to deal realistically with what it's like to try and find meaning in life with the specter of death hanging over your head.

As I read (and then watched), here are some random thoughts I had:
  • Much of the story centers around Augustus' fear of oblivion. He wants to make sure that he is remembered for something significant and that his death has meaning. This is one of many emotions in the story that rings true. I think that deep down all of us want our lives to mean something. Whether we live 18 years or 80, we want it to matter than we've been here.
  • Hazel is focused, almost obsessed, with the need to face her fate realistically. She rejects what she considers to be false hope, and either corrects or ridicules those whose language belies denial of the truth that she is going to die soon. Early on, she makes a speech to her support group that went like this:
"There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything...Maybe this time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever...And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that's what everyone else does."
To me, this speech underlies the entire theme of the book. Because if Hazel is right, all the despair and depression and pessimism about cancer and death makes sense. But if she's wrong...
  • Despite the lack of hope, there is a tremendous amount of love displayed in the story. And I don't mean the romantic love based on attraction - although it's there. The love Hazel's mom has for her; the unselfishness of Augustus in so many ways, toward Hazel but also toward his friend Isaac. I could list so many more examples and be more specific, but then the post would come with s spoiler warning. Read it or see it for yourself - you'll be moved by howe love permeates the story.
  • A word on the title: As you may recognize, it's taken from a line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where Cassius says, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." The idea of the quote being that our fate is not a matter of bad luck but rather the result of our choices. Of course, the book/movie is taking the position that having cancer is indeed a matter of fate. And it is. But like any other fate, how we respond to it is everything. I believe that in many ways the story's characters rise above their cancer, showing the title to be a lie. But in other ways they do not.
  • Dealing with grief. There was no sugarcoating on that. I remember what it's like to know someone I love is going to die soon, and the grief is as real as the grief after they're gone. And I saw that depicted as I remember it.
You know, we're all terminal. The short time we have on earth is passing by so fast. So if we're honest with ourselves, we all need to know how we are going to process our impending deaths. In that sense, The Fault in Our Stars is a story for all of us. To be fully prepared for death, I believe the resurrection of Jesus can give us the faith, hope, and love to be ready for it. What does it look like to face it with love but without faith and hope? This is it, and it's done very well.

Highly recommended for the questions it asks and a realistic picture of death as the enemy. But the premise that facing death with joy and peace is a fairy tale - that is just not true. It is for many, but it doesn't have to be. Thank God for that.

Next post: Hazel and Augustus' discussion of heaven (page 167)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What if...?

I've got a question for my fellow Christians out there. If everyone else wants to peek in, you are welcome - you may find it interesting. But for those who profess Christ, here is the question:

What would happen to your life if you suddenly changed your mind and decided there is no God?

I believe there would be two major areas that could be affected: our public and our private lives.

As for our public lives, for some us it is possible that very little would change. You would keep going to work, keep hanging out with your friends, keep watching sports, keep going to movies. In fact, you may even keep going to church, saying blessings before meals, and going along with public displays of religion. After all, you've built a pretty good life, so why rock the boat? If you are happy with your job, family, and friends, you may not even tell anyone.

But how about your private life?

  • I can't imagine that you would be praying or reading your Bible in private anymore - that would stop. What's the point?
  • How about the motives for your actions throughout the day? Instead of doing everything for God's glory, it would be all about you. Your acts of kindness and displays of religion would be motivated by wanting to be thought of as a good person. You want people to like you, so you are nice.
  • What about your thought patterns? Instead of thinking about Jesus and his love for you, you would be thinking about the mundane issues of life. Every waking thought would be about what's going on in the moment - your job, your date, the movie you're watching, the video game you're playing. No thoughts of how it fits into a bigger purpose.
Now, when I read back over that list, I have to ask myself another question: am I living like that already?
  • Do I set aside time to pray, study the Scriptures, and spend time getting to know my Creator? And if I do, is it out of obligation, or is it because I love him and can't wait to get to know him better?
  • Do I do what I do out of self-interest (including to be liked and thought of as nice)? Or do I regularly think of God's glory and how I can bring honor to him?
  • How much do I really set my mind on things above, and how much do I get caught up in the rat race?
There is a term for the person who lives like that: a functional atheist. Looking like a believer but functioning like an atheist. He professes belief in God and faith in Jesus, and his public life looks pretty darn good. But his private life shows it to be a sham. The fact that God exists makes no real difference in his life. Even though he may look like a believer, if he looks really hard at his own heart he'll see that it's empty and void.

Jesus had a word for functional atheists:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ [public displays of devotion] And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’"
- Jesus in Matthew 7: 21-23 (NASB, note in brackets mine)

That's no way to live. I think it's time for us to get in or out of the boat. A life full of meaning while serving the living God...or living for ourselves.

Your choice. My choice. Let's get to it.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Not "yet"

I have been reading the book of Isaiah lately. I started a couple of weeks ago just reading it from beginning to end, and it is a wonderful book with a great message of hope written in highly troubling times for God's people. Today, I came across the following passage from chapter 56:
For thus says the LORD,
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast to My covenant,
To them I will give in My house and within my walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off
 - Isaiah 56:4-5 (NASB), emphasis mine

Now, I've been reading a lot about singleness in the past week. A couple of friends have shared articles and blog posts about being single and how that fits into God's plan for some of us. Very encouraging articles. They talked about how we should be patient. That God can use this phase of our lives for his glory. We can draw closer to him and do great things if God has not yet brought us a spouse. All true.

But what if?

What if for some of us it's not a phase? What if God has called me to live a single life from start to finish? Does that leave me incomplete? God has not yet brought a spouse. But is the word "yet" necessary?

So I come back to the passage I read today. It uses a word we don't hear much...eunuch. What is that? I think most of us think it means a man who has been rendered physically incapable of having children. But the definition is broader than that. Wikipedia points out that in some ancient texts (like the Bible), it may also refer to a man who is "celibate, or otherwise not inclined to marry and procreate."

This is consistent with what Jesus said in Matthew 19:12, when talking to his disciples about marriage. After referring to the physical causes, he states that "there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." It's pretty clear that he is talking about a choice to forego marriage and remain celibate because God has called them to do other things with their life.

He then says not everyone can accept this. No kidding! A life of being single (and thus, for the Christian, forego sex) is not an easy one. It's no wonder that almost all the teaching for Christian singles emphasizes patience, with the idea that one day...we'll get to experience the joys of marriage.

Not only that, but in the Jewish culture of Jesus' heritage, having children was everything. Everything. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are full of long genealogies. Women were considered cursed when they could not have children. Abraham resorted to relations with a servant girl when Sarah went too long without having a son for him. On and on. "Grandchildren are the crown of old men, and the glory of sons is their fathers." (Proverbs 17:6)

So no wonder we want to say "yet."

And now (finally!) back to the passage from Isaiah. What a remarkable promise the Lord related through Isaiah. He is saying that even if we never get married, and thus never have children, he has a glorious purpose for us. If we obey him and choose to live a life pleasing to God, we will have a "name better than that of sons and daughters" and "an everlasting name which will never be cut off."

What does that mean? Isaiah (and later Jesus) turns conventional thinking on its ear. He says, it's not children that give your life meaning. It's faithfulness to the God of the universe. Be faithful, live your life the way he meant it to be lived, and your legacy will be great. You will claim a name greater than your own.

And so, if you are single like me, you don't need to fret over God's plan for you. Marriage may be (and for most of us, will be) in your future. It may be for me. But even if it isn't, we have a magnificent place in his kingdom.

And for me, that's a cool thing.

Friday, June 6, 2014


Hello? Hello? Anyone there?

It's been awhile…did anyone notice?

My last blog post was a full eleven days ago. I am pretty sure that's the longest I've gone since I started blogging in 2010. There are several reasons. First, I have been traveling for much of the last week, and did not have a ton of time to reflect and write.

But mostly, I have not had anything that needed to be said. Not that life has been boring or anything; it's just that when I would think about writing, nothing was dying to jump off my fingertips.

That's okay. Sometimes in life, we just need to take it all in. Live life, learn what God wants us to learn, and apply it on a daily basis. And a long time ago, I made a promise to my modest group of readers that I would not write just to be writing. Well, the last few days have been a marvelous opportunity to keep that promise.

Don't worry though, dear friends. Plenty of stuff is brewing, stuff that will make rich blogging material. There are some good movies out, movies that with stories that I'm sure will contain reflections of God' story. I'm reading some pretty interesting books. My friends, family, and work are always doing fun stuff. And - here's the biggie - I leave three weeks today for Ethiopia. Yep, that will mean lots of material.

So I have just enjoyed this time. A time for God to remind me that life is not about me. If I write just to be writing, then clearly I am seeking attention. It's my prayer that I will avoid that trap, and only write when I truly have something that I believe will benefit you - either by building you up in your faith, challenging your worldview, or maybe just brighten your day with a fun story. I want it to be about y'all, not me.

So that's about it. Catch ya soon…maybe.