Faithful

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:23)

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Like many boys his age, Hermann loved to climb trees. The lively eight-year-old was confident. He strove to mimic the effortless skills of the Guatemalan Howler Monkey native to his country’s forests. During one climb he reached for a higher hold. Hermann lost his grip, slipped, and fell nine feet head first onto the pavement. Doctors offered little hope for the unconscious boy who was rushed into their care.

Lord, I asked you for a son and now you will take him away? No!

Even so, his mother kept a prayerful vigil at his bedside. After several days without improvement, the neurologist told her that Hermann would not make it. Even if he did, the doctor claimed that Hermann would be brain damaged. But his mother would not give up. Hermann’s uncle repeated the doctor’s words to her and said, “Be ready for the Lord to take him home.” He was preparing her for the worst, but it only made her dig in deeper. She was angry at God until her sister came to pray with her and said, “Give your son to the Lord.” She heard the wisdom in that counsel and finally surrendered praying, “I live for the glory of God. If Hermann lives, Lord, let him live for your glory. If not, he is yours.” Her son woke up the next morning as though nothing happened. There was no neurological damage at all, save a slight cast in his right eye.

Guat kidsGuatemala is less than half the size of Oregon. Sitting astride the Ring of Fire, it has 37 volcanoes, some of which still plume. When Spanish Conquistadors arrived, they drove most of the Mayan people into the mountains seizing the region’s fertile plains. They enslave others and imposed Catholicism on everyone. Today, most of Guatemala’s 50 million people are nominally Catholic but retain some belief in their ancestral gods.

Hermann grew up in a family with a rich legacy of faith, the oldest of five siblings. And they are very poor. Most villages lack electricity or running water. Those with homes live in bamboo shacks and adobe homes. Poverty was something shared by most Guatemalans. Ever mindful of his people’s physical and spiritual needs, Hermann’s grandfather was the pastor of a church in the city who often went to plant churches in remote Mayan villages. Hermann’s mother, a teacher, was a leader in Granddad’s church. His father opted for a career in firefighting, risking his life for people he did not know. Both gifted Hermann with a legacy of service.

Guat HomeHermann recalls a time after high school when he and a group of youth from his church took a bus ride for about two hours to a remote village. They got off in the middle of nowhere, then hiked into the mountains for another hour through snake-infested jungles. Arriving at their destination, they began inviting people to gather under a nearby tree and hear about God. After several weeks of powerful meetings, the villagers became more hospitable. They offered to share water with them. This was no small courtesy since villagers hiked an hour to their water source. As Hermann took the glass offered to him, he thought, “Should I drink this?” Water-borne diseases were a major problem in these villages. And then he remembered what Jesus had said, “…these signs will accompany those who believe… if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them…”

Hermann drank the brown, untreated water and never got sick. Had God made it holy?

As their stay came to an end and they were leaving the village, a lady stopped them, “Please come and pray for my daughter. She is feverish with vomiting and diarrhea.” The group was in a hurry to catch the last bus home, but Hermann still went with the woman and prayed for her daughter. He recalls praying the fastest, most uninspiring prayer he had ever prayed. He had to finish fast so he could catch the bus.

When Hermann returned with his family the following Sunday, the mother stood up in the service. She declared, “Twenty minutes after you left, my daughter was completely healed.” Hermann remembers that the church in this village began on that day. Every one of those villagers had seen the power of God and they responded in faith.

Sitting at a table, enjoying the alluring aroma of Guatemalan coffee rising from his cup, Dr. Alb shares how the Lord led him to become a missionary doctor to his country.

Hermann had a front row seat to miraculous happenings throughout his teen years. But he felt the tide of his life pulling him from ministry and in a different direction. He recalls his uncle, a physician, saying to him, “Hermann, become a doctor. It‘s a money tree.” Determined to rise above the poverty of his childhood, he resolved to do so and worked hard to earn his MD. Along the way, he married Linda, a teacher, who he had met at a Christian youth conference. They looked forward to a good life filled with good things. And, of course, he planned to use his wealth to serve God.

As he finished medical school, his pastor invited him to help him with medical clinics in rural villages. He saw many patients and many healings, both medical and miraculous. Besides the care they provided, the team shared the Gospel in every village. Hermann was again impressed by the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. As he was driving the team’s van back to Guatemala City on one particular trip, the others were singing worship songs. Without warning, God said to him, “My son, I have chosen you as a pioneer. What you have seen these days is nothing compared to what you will see. Serve me and I will bless you and prosper you.” Weeping with joy, Hermann pulled the van to the side of the road. When he told Linda about it, she said, “If the Lord said so, let’s do it.” With that, the course of their lives changed. Hermann thought he knew why he wanted to be a physician – so that he would not be poor. Now he understood why God wanted him to be a physician – to bring the word of God to the people of Guatemala. But there would be no money tree.

And so there were challenges. As they began, a benefactor gave them a wrecked 1977 Toyota. They had to pay $400 to fix it. But they trusted God and he met their needs in small and unexpected ways. Hermann began crisscrossing Guatemala, healing people and sharing God’s love. He and Linda teetered on the edge of poverty but they kept recalling God’s words. They were certain that he would take care of their family as they focused on his work.

They remained frugal and were finally able to set aside a little money each month for a house. They were getting close to their financial goal when God said to Hermann, “Give the money you saved to your pastor.” He shared that with his wife, sure she would balk. Linda said yet again, “If the Lord says so, then let’s do it.” Far from suffering lack after giving away their savings, God began to bless them. Medical teams from the U.S. started to contribute, providing resources for their missions. The ministry Hermann and Linda founded began to grow in reach and influence, as the fragrance of God’s work among them spread ever farther.

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Hermann, Linda and me

Every morning when Dr. Hermann Alb wakes up, he sees a cross-eyed face looking back from the bathroom mirror while he shaves. His skewed eye is a memento of God’s miraculous hand on his life. He has thought about having surgery to fix it but always relented. He likes the reminder of the faithfulness into which he was born, and of the faithful God who can do anything.

 

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Deployed

“… and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Fourteen hours of flying in the economy section. Not something I was looking forward to when I boarded the Emirates flight to Dubai. The span of my shoulders is 2 inches wider than the standard airplane seat. At least I had a seat on the aisle, so I could lean outwards and not intrude on the space of the person who was unfortunate enough to have the middle seat. While waiting to board, I saw another wide-shouldered guy in line behind me and considered the odds that he would be next to me in the middle seat. No way! Yep, he was.

DeployedWe joked about our misfit for these seats as he sat down. Gary was on his way to Afghanistan. He retired from the military two years ago and is now an intelligence contractor.  He was home with his family for a few weeks over Christmas break and now on his way to a nine-month deployment. When I told him I was a pastor, he asked me, “so will you give me a biblical, theological answer to the question of war?” He had given up on faith on his first deployment.

What unfolded over the next hour was a transparent and soulful search for answers. Gary grew up Catholic. He got involved in an evangelical youth group when he was fourteen and he was all in. He studied the Bible. He felt called to be a youth pastor. He met the girl he would one day marry in a church group. Then he went to war. The carnage he saw blew up everything he believed about this world and the God who created it. To him, the evidence no longer added up to what he thought he knew of God.

Gary’s wife was still a strong believer, has a Bible study group, and prays for him to come back to faith. And here he was crammed on a plane on a fourteen-hour flight next to a pastor. I remembered reading of a man who said, “I don’t believe in God anymore… but I miss Him.” Everything in me said that Gary was like that man. The longing was there, but the obstacles were seemingly insurmountable.

So, doubt by doubt, obstacle by obstacle, we explored the questions that remained unanswered of the God he knew in his youth. I took my Bible out and we searched the Scriptures for things that spoke to his doubts—precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little. I sensed the powerful presence of the Spirit during our conversation. As we wound down our discussion, Gary thanked me.  He said I gave him some answers and some things that he would be considering as he explored the possibility of a renewed faith. I encouraged him to get a Bible again and open His heart to a God who would speak to him in the midst of the doubts that vexed him.  He asked me to pray over him. So, at 38,000 feet over northern Canada, I was able to pray for a man whose journey was surprised by an encounter he didn’t expect.

Gary was deployed to serve the military. His role in signal intelligence was complimented by others who worked on other kinds of intelligence. He spent most of his time pouring through details in order to find anything that could shed light on the situation in the field. We are both collaborators.  I was on my way to Nepal— deployed by my church to work with a Christian school that is giving children a hope to be something more than an indentured servant for life, a certain fate for most of them. Or maybe I was deployed by the faithful prayers of his wife to collaborate with Gary on a long flight. Or both. Praise God.

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Worship

Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! (Psalm 150:6)

nepal“In Nepal, we all look like we’re about to go somewhere,” Sheila laughed. We were meeting in the home of Dave and Sheila,* our friends in Nepal, and were all bundled up in gloves, scarves and jackets. Though the weather in Kathmandu typically ranges from upper 30s to lower 50s at this time of year, homes aren’t heated. You simply dress for cold when you wake up in the morning and go about your day.  It’s like being at an elk camp in Eastern Oregon, only with a whole nation.

Last week a few of us had the privilege of visiting a Kathmandu school. The school was in need of teacher training for their new teachers, many of whom haven’t had much experience. The school administrators are working to change the school environment from rote learning to participative learning. I was with a group of experienced teachers, so we rolled up our sleeves to help out.

Dave and Sheila have been in this city for many years. They run a couple of boarding homes and have rescued hundreds of children from the streets and from trafficking.  Until they began purchased the current school, the kids had to be farmed out to local schools. Dave and Sheila prayed for years that they would be granted authorization to start a K-12 school, but the Hindu community where they live would not let them do so. But this school, registered in their district, was offered for sale because of financial distress and they were able to buy it. Now there are hundreds of students enrolled at the school.

A bit more about Dave and Sheila. They have adopted a large family. They have four Nepali daughters, one American daughter, one Filipino daughter, two sons-in-law, three grandchildren, and an assortment of other folks who are like spiritual offspring to them. They are collectors in the best way! A family tradition in their home is to have Sunday night worship together. We were invited to join them. There are no adequate words to describe the night we shared, but it was moving. We sat in a large circle (in our winter coats) while Dave and one of his daughters led worship with guitars. I joked later that a requirement of being adopted into the family was to have a voice like an angel, because we were surrounded by the most angelic harmonies I could imagine. We got lost in the worship. There were occasional times when the instruments would play quietly while the members of the family would share Scripture or a word from God or a prayer. This is their family tradition since the kids were little and all of their now adult children try to be there. Even when there have been trials and strains in family dynamics over the years, this was the time of peace no one wanted to miss. Family worship. Intimate, life-giving, full…. beautiful. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. I wish it didn’t have to end. We could have gone on for hours.

When the evening was over, we retired to our rooms in the guest house and crawled between layers of cold blankets waiting for body heat to warm them up, grateful to be serving in this place. Please pray for Dave and Sheila and all of those who minister faithfully in Nepal.

*Names were changed to protect anonymity

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Dancin’

Dancin 1I don’t know the name of the ant that I encountered in the jungle here. It turns out that there are 1,393 species of ants in Papua New Guinea. ​This ravenous carnivour is just under a centimeter in length. What they lack in size they make up in numbers and ferocity.

 

Dancin 2We had come to this area to teach a group of jungle villagers about how to filter the unsafe river water they were drinking. ​ I found a spot to take a few pictures of Pastor Magi Goro teaching the villagers. ​Little did I know I was standing on an ant hill.  I didn’t notice the stealth army at first. I was dressed in sandals, loose fitting safari pants and a loose fitting shirt. ​The ants were undaunted. By the time I was aware they were on me they had already invaded every available space.

Dancin 3The only way to deal with them was to move. I was dancin’. Dance moves and Mark Nicklas have never occupied the same sentence – but I gotta tell you – I found moves that would make a hip hop dance look lame. ​The locals ran to my aid and swatted at the ants while I leapt and shook and gyrated in every possible way to get them off me. ​I am glad my compatriot, Jim, didn’t have the camera pointed my way.

Dancin 4After the ants were mostly gone (a few crept out of clothing and pockets for the next 20 minutes keeping me hyper-alert)​, I was able to enjoy the faces of people drinking clean filtered water from the river.

The impact of the water ministry here is astounding. Villages that had dysentery and typhoid and cholera, particularly affecting children, are ​drinking clean safe water. 1,000s of people have been touched already, due significantly to the resources of Beaverton Foursquare. Please pray for Jim and I – no more encounters with “wild animals” – just a fruitful, Gospel-centered clean water mission.

Dancin 5
From down under….
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Eclipse

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:12)

In the zone of totality, a phenomenon that cannot adequately be described happened at 10:18AM on Monday, September 21. The only other celestial display that holds a candle to it is a night sky awash with the Northern Lights.

EclipseAs we sat in an open field, it got dark and cool… and still. The air felt electric. We watched through NASA-approved glasses as the moon cut its path across the sun. An orange globe became a narrower and narrower crescent until all at once – in a surreal moment – the glasses went dark. We removed them and looked again. The moon had obscured the sun. Its light was concealed. But the corona of the sun exploded into the sky, revealed in all its cosmic glory. We could even gaze on it with naked eyes. It is hard to describe the feeling, though everyone in the path of totality knows it. It was brief, but so awe-inspiring that those who saw it attest, “it was worth it.” Worth the early drive, the wait, and the traffic home. If I can ever see another, I will not miss it.

A number of people who live within a stone’s throw of totality said things like, “it’ll get dark here, too,” or “it’s only two minutes long,” or “hey, we have 96% coverage so we’ll see the same thing.” But they didn’t. Not even close. Those who did experience it are not going to be able to adequately describe it. We are an exclusive club defined by the undefinable. It would be like trying to describe diving into Caribbean water to someone who has not done so. No matter how good the explanation, it cannot suffice for full immersion.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)

When I first began to respond to the invitation of the Holy Spirit… when I moved hesitantly but hopefully towards Jesus… it was like the watching of the eclipse with those glasses. I was beginning to see something. I could tell that more was about to happen and was compelled to press in. I learned about Jesus. I read the Word. I began to identify with things that might have seemed difficult to me before. But I’m glad I didn’t stop short of full immersion. Because when He finally fully revealed Himself in the most indescribable encounter imaginable, the scales fell off my eyes. Like that eclipse moment, a world I had not known came to light and the power and presence of God became personal. I could hear His voice. He was with me (still is). The world would never look the same. And I became part of a community defined by the undefinable. I don’t say that as a point of arrogance as though I have figured out something exclusive. Far from it. It wasn’t by cleverness that I responded, but by His loving invitation. Pride is one of the things you give up when you surrender to Jesus. There are only humble people in Heaven living in the presence of a humble God. His hand is outstretched to anyone who would seek Him.

… seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29)

So, to my friends who believe and want to know Him more, seek Him with all of your heart. Press in and know Him. Read His word until it saturates your very being. Total eclipse. Full immersion.

 

 

 

 

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Dots

Search me, O God, and know my heart!

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalms 139:23-24)

On Friday, August 11, a few hundred white supremacists assembled in Charlottesville, VA, to express their hatred for Americans who are not like them. Under the veneer of outrage over the statue of Robert E. Lee being removed from the campus of the University of Virginia, a blatant display of racist attitudes and hatred spewed forth from the protestors. At 1:42PM, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer. This is evil. It is so obvious that I cannot even imagine anyone standing on the side of such hateful people. Many leaders were quick to respond with unequivocal condemnation as soon as the news got around.

In the midst of hearing this tragic news and being horrified by the display of hatred, I was puzzled by something. This quickly became a referendum regarding the white church. There were demands that we publicly condemn and denounce this. Of course! Why is that even a question? What is it about a racist display by a few hundred people in Virginia that connects to the church? Was the church – any church – leading or participating in it? Were Christians standing on the side of these people? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that Christians would have been standing with the counter-demonstrators. Frankly, I couldn’t connect the dots. It just wasn’t clear to me how one begat the other.

DotsNonetheless, there was a line that people were drawing between the supremacists in Virginia and the white church. I’m a linear thinker so I have to see things that connect in order to gain a bigger picture. I’m also naively committed to the idea that the people of Jesus don’t want to have anything to do with the kinds of things being said by those white nationalists. After all, to the Christian, love is central to our very being. Jesus demonstrated the love of God towards everyone with an invitation to join His family – where repentant sinners could live with an otherworldly affection for one another. But people of color who I know and respect were making the connection and I wanted to see it, as well.

An African American friend of mine simply said, “I hurt.” What was fomented in a few moments of violence and is easily condemned by most people, is suffered in silence by many of our friends and neighbors in other ways. I remember something I heard a few years back by an African America woman. She was responding to the “surprise” among white people that non-white people were being victimized by an incident of systemic racism. “I call that Tuesday,” she said. For me, Tuesday is just Tuesday. It is not right that people I love should have Tuesdays of which I am unaware.

I am an older white American who grew up in the heartland of this nation. It was not a racially diverse environment. It did not lend itself to cultural understanding because there were few cultural lines to cross. The race stuff happened “somewhere out there.” Many of us had a conditioned insensitivity to the injustices suffered by fellow Americans of color. It just didn’t touch our world. I admit this to my shame. But I don’t want to go through life ignorant about race relations in America and the impact it has on my friends. Time and again black friends have shown me what I could not see through my eyes and I was deeply moved.  One of them described a situation where he was in a restaurant with a couple of white friends. He went to the restroom and was followed in by two big men who threatened him and tried to provoke him to fight. He is not a big man and is certainly no fighter. He was sure he was going to be beaten to a pulp and it frightened him. But he prayed silently and the two assaulters grew impatient and left. Upon hearing the story I asked him what his white friends said when he told them. He said, “I didn’t tell them. I was too embarrassed.” He has the same desire we all have – to belong – but there are times in American life, like this, where he is reminded that he really doesn’t belong.

In order to connect the dots, I read article after article about the event, each of which tried to explain the connection between Virginia and the white church. Political, socioeconomic, psychological, and academic explanations laid out cases for the church being part of the problem that lead to what happened. While I found some of the articles frustrating and their arguments tortured, I did begin to understand how many people see the dots connecting. As another friend said, “first seek understanding, not agreement.”

Now I get sensitive about the church being blamed for injustice, because the pure church – the one God intended – cannot be a participant in injustice. However, it is undeniable that the church in America has not always stood on the right side of justice.  Furthermore, my friend hurts. If we love Jesus and want to be reconcilers, we, the white America church, need to submit ourselves to the revelation of the Holy Spirit (Psalms 139:23-24) so we can correct flaws in our very character. So I can argue about the connections of which I disagree. But it is better for me to be open to considering how the dots get connected by my brothers and sisters. Which of the dots that were being connected are ones I stand on – even if tepidly so? Some things that we should ask ourselves:

  • Am I insensitive to what my brothers and sisters live with every day?
  • Do I get angry at injustice and respond with words and action? Or do I dismiss it.
  • Do black lives really matter to me? For instance, when a young black man is killed in a part of the city where I don’t go, is he nothing more than a statistic from “out there?” Or do I get on my knees (my pants should have holes in them by now).
  • When a court decision is rendered that leaves my black friends to question the equality of justice in America, do I sit in silence? Do I even know the impact this has on them? Have I asked?
  • Do I make excuses for the inconsistency and the ultimate trajectory of political positions I hold?
  • Do I see children of color in America as our American children, or do I have dividing lines?
  • Am I trying to understand how dots get connected or am I connecting different dots and standing in opposition?
  • Do I love like Jesus loves?

I don’t like being exposed, but these recent events reminded me of an insipid form of racism for which I bear responsibility – insensitivity. Galatians 6:2 says that we are to bear one another’s burdens. How am I to bear burdens if I don’t hear the cry of my brother when he says, “I hurt.”  There is a straight line connection between dots I cannot deny.

Dots 2

Am I willing to be crushed in the crucible of truth? Do I see my complicity? The good news of Jesus condemns racism in no uncertain terms. We need to listen. I need to listen.

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Genuine

So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year, they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. (Acts 11:25-26 ESV)

genuineIt is a normal impulse to check something for its genuineness. We look at brand names with a different expectation than a lesser brand or a knockoff. Sports equipment, furniture, craft, art, mechanics, electronics – we don’t part with our dollars without some assurance that we are buying the real thing – that it is what it purports to be. Genuineness matters because over time the quality of the product will be tested. A product is known by its brand – its name. We want it to deliver. We want it to last.

So, what do we do with this word Christian? Churchgoers use it. Jesus-followers use it. People who hold a non-biblical view of Jesus use it. Charlatans use it. Non-westerners describe our culture by using it. Atheists even use one of its symbols (though the fish goes through a few transformations along the way). The word Christian encompasses a crowded field. What does the brand describe? What is it supposed to describe? Does it need to be abandoned as some suggest? Or can it be redeemed? Does anything need to change at all?

Christian is a word that comes from Greek and means “like the Messiah” or “followers of the Messiah (Jesus).” It is mentioned in Acts 11:26; 26:28; and 1Peter 4:16 and was first used in Antioch. Another widely used name was those belonging to The Way. It is likely based on Jesus’ own self-description as “the Way” (John 14:6). It is used repeatedly by Luke, the author of Acts (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 24:14; and 24:22). Paul even referred to himself as a follower of the Way when he came before Governor Felix (who knew a lot about the Way) and was accused by the Jerusalem leaders of inciting riots…

But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. (Acts 24:14-15 ESV)

Paul was doing nothing more than living like Jesus. Living thus will draw the attention of the world around you. Sometimes that attention will be good and sometimes it will be bad, but it will get noticed. It is radically counter-cultural. It is Christian.

The word Christian suggests a lifestyle that is different — a transformed life that is evident to those around.  In the Bible, people who lived according to “the Way” were known for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV). These things are called in Scripture the fruit of the Spirit, which “against such things there is no law.”  They stand in stark contrast to a world that is self-loving, angry, cantankerous, in a hurry, unkind, self-serving, disloyal, rude and out-of-control. Yes, it is a normal impulse to check something for its genuineness. Rather than abandon the word or try to contend with other definitions, perhaps those of us who long for a genuine expression of Christianity should simply rise to its implications — humbly — because over time the integrity of the claim will be tested.

So, let’s not abandon it. Let’s redeem it.

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