Taking time to celebrate

Delmi had a birthday cake for Tripp and I

Delmi and Carlos had a birthday cake for Tripp and I

“It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32 ESV).

In the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother complains to his father about the party that’s being planned to celebrate the return of his younger brother. His killjoy spirit reminds me of the way Judas responded to the extravagant gift that Mary gave Jesus, when she anointed his feet with a pound of pure nard and wiped them with her hair.

Both the older brother and Judas were party-poopers!

Or maybe there was something more going on in these men. Both of them revealed a kind of bitterness and bankruptcy of the soul. They questioned extravagance in anything: Extravagant giving, extravagant celebration, extravagant forgiveness… extravagance seemed wasteful to them.

Yet, God takes the time to celebrate. He took a day off on the seventh day of creation. He certainly wasn’t tired, so perhaps he just wanted to take the time to celebrate. He looked over everything he had made and said, “Good job! It’s good.” And he taught us to do the same. He made it one of his top ten: “Remember the Sabbath.” Set it apart. Make it a day when you rest from your labors to celebrate God’s good gifts.

We recently took a team on mission to Guatemala. Our going to Guatemala was a kind of celebration. We were putting Christ’s call to go to the nations ahead of our own concerns. Pulling away from our own stuff and our own effort, we went to Guatemala. True celebration, true worship always involves pulling one’s affections off their own stuff and putting them on God.

While we were in Guatemala they had a birthday party for me and another team member. They had a cake with candles, they sang, they even put off firecrackers. They took the time to celebrate with us. We felt special and loved. The Guatemalans may not be as wealthy as Americans, but they are very rich in knowing how to celebrate.

Taking time to celebrate may seem extravagant. Some would say it’s a waste of time and money. Yet, God desires it. He has given us many gifts, but certainly the most extravagant is Jesus. When we take time to worship Jesus, we are expressing our love and thanks to God.

Celebrating God’s Son we join in heaven’s joy. We admit our dependence on God and our inability to save ourselves. For we were once dead and now we are alive. We were once lost but now are found. We cannot add to this through our own effort. But we can take time to celebrate it.

Here is a video report of our Guatemala Mission Trip. We offer it as a kind of celebration for the extravagant joy that we have in serving Christ and carrying his gospel to the nations.

The worth of having nothing

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“Those things were important to me, but now I think they are worth nothing because of Christ. Not only those things, but I think that all things are worth nothing compared with the greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8 NCV).

We just returned from ten days in Guatemala. Ten days of having no home of our own, no car, no computer, no control over our own schedule, no TV, no Facebook, no email, no Spanish (I was dependent on a translator), and no ice (You’d miss it too!). And perhaps more challenging than any of these, it appeared there would be no cheesecake for me and no Dr. Pepper for our teammate, Eddie, until these important sustenances of life were discovered late in the trip.

At first the lack of these things combined with the lack of sleep took its toll on us. The fleshly voice in my head cried out in childish whimpers, “Please don’t take this away from me too.” Yet, after a while, there is a certain liberty in living out of a suitcase and focusing only on relationships and mission. An acute sense of God’s presence and joy seemed to increase as our comforts and control decreased.

Perhaps we all need to purge our lives of its accumulated trappings from time to time to realize what really matters. Going on a short term mission trip will certainly help with this. But it’s only a temporary fix, unless we determine to make it our new normal.

Now that we’re back in the States it’s tempting to dive back into our former routines. But what if we decide to see ourselves on mission here too? What if we choose to become like Paul who counted all things as “worth nothing” compared to knowing Christ?

Carlos, Gary, and Julio

Carlos, Gary, and Julio

Going to Guatemala we discovered the worth of having nothing. Having “nothing,” we realized that what is left is really the “something” that is most needed. What is left is what will last. What is left is relationships… with Christ, with His people and with those He is calling us to reach.

God at work in Guatemala

pastors“Jesus gave them this answer: ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does’” (John 5:19 NIV).

This is my first visit to Guatemala. Since this is the third year our church has sent  a team here, I thought it was finally time to see for myself what the Lord was doing. We have been partnering with Caroline’s Promise, based in Kernersville, North Carolina, and Iglesia Adonai, a church in Guatemala City to make these trips possible.

Whether in our hometown of Wilson, North Carolina or in other parts of the world, it has been our desire to look for where God is already working and to join Him there. We don’t go out as those who claim to have all the resources and answers to the world’s problems, but humbly, as those who only want to join the Father in His work. With this philosophy in mind, we look for local believers that we can partner with for the sake of the gospel.

I pray that we have found such a partnership in Guatemala. Pastor Carlos and Delmi lead the church as well as the Casita Adonai Christian school. I sense an alignment of vision between us. We both want to fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations and to follow His strategy of reaching “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). A mission this huge requires partnerships!

It is not our desire to send out short-term mission teams to do “Christian tourism.” We don’t want them to just to see the sights, give away some food and clothing, do some construction work, and then go home feeling better about themselves. No. We want to invest in local churches and help encourage and equip them to do the work themselves. They live there. They know the language and culture. We don’t.

And we don’t seek one-way relationships. We pray for partnerships that result in win-win relationships. How can we learn from each other? How can the international churches that we partner with form long-term relationships that cause both to prosper in doing God’s will? These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves as we answer God’s call to go and make disciples of all nations.

Before coming to Guatemala, I asked if there were pastors here in need of training. Pastor Carlos advised that this was sorely needed. So we planned to bring pastors together for a leadership conference on this year’s trip. Because I didn’t want to just assume what teaching was needed, I asked if I could visit the pastors in their own settings before the conference. I wanted to see their churches, their towns and interview them about their challenges before leading the conference. I came to see and hear what the Father was already doing before asking Him what He wanted me to teach.

Six members of our nineteen member mission team came down two days early to help accomplish our respective tasks. Four members of our team bought supplies and prepared for the arrival of the rest of our members while Nixa Rose and I traveled to see the pastors. Nixa went along as my Spanish translator as we joined Pastor Carlos and his son-in-law, Julio, on a four-hour trip out of the city to the countryside surrounding Lake Atitlan to visit the churches.

After only about three hours sleep, we left Guatemala City at 4:00 A.M. We left early to avoid a transportation workers demonstration that threatened to close the city’s streets. Poor Nixa said, “I was hoping for a little rest on the drive, but Pastor Gary and Pastor Carlos talked the whole way. And I had to translate every word both of them said!”

It was an intense trip. Our first stop was to see Pastor Diego. He is very sick and unable to care for his family and his church. His home was very humble. I felt a great sense of inadequacy as we prayed for his health, his family and his church. I’m glad we can call on Jesus for help. Otherwise this first visit of the day would have left me in despair.

We visited pastors in the mountains surrounding Lake Atitlan all day. We sat in their churches and talked with them about their families and the challenges they faced as pastors.

“How long have you been a pastor? Tell me about your church. What are the greatest challenges that you and your church face?” I would ask and Nixa would faithfully translate.

Nearly all of the pastors responded, “Our people are very poor and uneducated. We need training in how to lead our churches, about financial stewardship and how to overcome the discouragement that we often feel.”

This was exactly the kind of information I needed. I knew I had to take some time to pray and rethink the kind of training that I had already prepared. But before I could even begin to reevaluate, one of the pastors, Pastor Jose-Maria, asked if I would preach at his church that night.

“Is it possible?” I asked Pastor Carlos, making sure our schedule allowed for it.

Si. We still have three more churches to visit, but we can do it.” He replied through Nixa’s translation.

We visited churches until 5:00 P.M. before checking into a small hotel in San Juan La Laguna. I fell onto my bed knowing we were leaving in one hour for a quick meal before preaching at 7:00 P.M. I asked the Lord to give me something to preach and to please let me have it quickly. With the challenges I had heard all day from the pastors, I felt called to preach from Joshua 1:1-9, “How to Be Strong and Courageous.” And fortunately, the hotel had internet so I could use Google Translate to plan my sermon points in Spanish!

That night, both Pastor Carlos and Pastor Jose-Maria expressed their thanks for the sermon. Pastor Carlos asked, “What are you preaching at my church this Sunday? Because I think you should preach that same sermon again.” But then after a few minutes he changed his mind, saying with a smile, “No. Don’t preach it again. Because I’m going to preach it to my church when you leave. And I’m not going to tell them I heard it from you!” Pastor Carlos was always making jokes.

This is how the whole time went. We humbly tried to watch and listen to see where God was already at work in Guatemala. When the rest of our team arrived, they worked long days digging footers, making concrete forms out of rebar, and shoveling dirt. They joined the work at Casita Adonai to enlarge the school’s capacity. As concrete blocks were laid, our team put pieces of paper with Scriptures written on them inside the blocks. When we told Pastor Carlos about this, he said, “I will always remind my church about La Palabra de Dios that the gringos put in our walls. I will never let them forget this.”

Today, as I write this, the pastor’s conference is finished and our team is wrapping up their construction work at the school. As the pastors left this morning, each of them had to hug me and thank me for bringing them the leadership teachings based on the Word of God. We agreed to pray for one another that our churches would be healthy and fulfill the mission that Christ has given us.

There are still a few more days left for our team here in Guatemala. I am sure that there is much more for us to experience. But I am already sure of this: God is at work in Guatemala. And I am glad that our team could be here to join His work!

 

Let the children come

10422566_10152298380233246_6144976007977306568_n“But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God’” (Luke 18:16 ESV).

We met this past Tuesday to debrief our KidzFest event. The results were amazing. God is really blessing our church. He is trusting us with young families and their children. And when we see God blessing something, we want to make sure that we join Him. And when God sends us children, we want to make sure that we do nothing to hinder them from coming to Jesus.

During our five-night KidzFest event last week, we had 210 children attend. Not every child came every night, but we still averaged around 180 children. We promoted this event as an outreach to families who don’t attend our church. We extended invitations to the local day care facilities and the Wilson youth center called “The Spot.” As a result of our prayers and promotion, over 63% of the children that attended our event were not WCC attenders. This is a huge result because we want to be a blessing to our city, not just to our members. And God allowed us to see this happen!

Another amazing statistic was the number of WCC volunteers that showed up every night to serve. We counted around 103 volunteers that worked every night. Especially impressive was how many youth and men showed up to help. We’re not diminishing our women’s contribution; they are always the most faithful in working with children. But it was awesome to see our WCC men working with the kids. Many of the children were especially attracted to the men because they have no fathers in their homes. This was a powerful learning. We need more men in the children’s ministry, especially to make sure that little boys are not “hindered” from coming to Jesus.

Perhaps the most profound outcome of last week’s KidFest was the number of families that visited our church on Sunday for the first time. We invited them to come and watch their children perform the song that we taught them during the week. We gave out invite cards to everyone on the last two nights of the event. So when Sunday came, we were blown away by the number of first-time guests. We had the largest Sunday children’s ministry attendance in our church’s history. It was awesome. Both Sunday services were packed, especially the 11:00 AM service.

When we looked at the connection cards for all of these first-timers, we noticed a trend. Nearly all of them were in the 23-30 year old age group with at least two young children. No wonder our 3-4 year old class was packed!

As your pastor, I want to give praise and thanks to God for trusting us with these young families and their children. What a blessing! I am also thankful to God for our WCC members who really showed up during this event to serve. It is so awesome to be your pastor knowing that you really get the vision of reaching our community for Jesus. I love being your pastor!

But there is one problem. We need to do something about making room for all of these kids and young families! We’re out of room! Will you join me in prayer about this? We don’t want the size of our facility or our number of services to “hinder” the children that God is sending our way.

We want to be a church that always makes room to “Let the children come.”

Raising better than good kids

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Chief Mugatu (Eddie Gonzalez) and me.

Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring.” (Malachi 2:15 ESV).

We have been working hard every night this week on WCC’s outreach event called “KidzFest 2014: Fire Island.” We decorated the whole church in an island theme. We wrote songs and Bible studies. We came up with activities and games to deepen the children’s understanding of the Bible stories we taught. Our adults and youth have dressed in islander themed outfits and labored every evening from 4:30 to 8:30 PM to inspire and teach the children about God and the Bible.

Why are we working so hard to reach out to the children of our city?

Kingdom KidsIt’s because we feel specifically called and gifted to make reaching children with the gospel a priority at our church. We also feel called to partner with parents to help them raise their children to be like Jesus. We recognize that God has called parents to be the primary ones responsible for this, so we offered KidzFest to help the parents train their kids. And now, starting this coming Sunday, we’re launching a 4-week sermon series entitled “Kingdom Kids: Raising Kids to Be Better Than Just Good” to train the parents at parenting God’s way.

We’re thankful to God for giving us this vision for reaching the next generation with the gospel. He has trusted us with 205 children in attendance through the first four nights of KidzFest. Now, we’re praying for a large turnout for our Sunday services, with many new guests coming to hear their children sing the KidzFest theme song, “God of Fire,” written by Stephen Combs and led by our WCC worship team, StedFast.

We’re especially thankful that God would trust us with helping parents raise their children to be better than just good, but to be godly, children who grow to maturity in Christlikeness.

Thankful for gospel partnerships

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3-6 ESV).

Like Paul, I am thankful for our gospel partners too. It took many of them to send our team to Uganda. Partners that prayed, gave financially and commissioned us to go. Without them, we would not have been able to answer God’s call to go to Uganda.

I am also thankful for the growing partnership that we see developing between our church and the churches in Kisoro, Uganda that Pastor George Mbonye has planted. Of course, this partnership would not be possible without partnering with Donnas and Johnny Kinton of Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care. The Kintons and Steve “Woody” Woodard of AGA really did all of the heavy-lifting to make this trip possible.

It is with thanksgiving in my heart that I offer this video to report on our Uganda mission trip to our church and to our many partners. As Paul did, I pray with joy and thanksgiving as I consider what God has done and will do through our gospel partnership.

Please join me in joyful thanksgiving and praise as you watch this video report!

Surrendering to Yesu

Pastor George Mbonye and Gary preaching at Kisoro, Uganda

Pastor George Mbonye and Gary preaching at Kisoro, Uganda

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV).

Today began with dark rooms and cold showers as the electricity was knocked out yesterday by a storm that left our hotel without power for nearly a day. It also began with much activity because many of us had to surrender our rooms in the new part of the hotel, pack our things and move to the old section, so that the hotel could accommodate visiting dignitaries. We could have refused, but we are working to build a relationship with the hotel manager that allows us to further share the gospel with him and his staff. The manager was in a bind. He had overbooked the hotel, so we offered to help. We are learning that surrendering to Jesus, or as the Ugandans say, “Yesu,” sometimes means surrendering your new room for an old one.

At breakfast we laughed about the cold showers and using flashlights to find our things. I heard no grumbling, just the flexible adjustment to changing circumstances that we are learning together here. We did discover that two of our team members weren’t feeling well, so we prayed for them and encouraged them to stay at the hotel and rest, while the other members went out for another day of training and teaching. They would rather have been teaching with us, but sometimes surrender means we have to rest when we’d rather be working.

After breakfast, we loaded up the vehicles and traveled to Kashinge Baptist Church and Child Development Center. It was a short, but bumpy ride as the road is barely passable. As we arrived on the Kashinge campus, and the children gathered on the lawn to greet us. They brought out plastic chairs for our team to sit while facing the children who sat on the ground. The children welcomed us with poems and songs. One poem was about the terrible scourge of AIDS, while the songs were songs of welcome.

They sang, “We welcome you visitor. We are so very happy you are here. Thank you for coming. We love you very much.”

After introductions were made, we gathered in the church for hymns and instruction from Pastor George Mbonye for the day. The team scattered to teach the children, while Monte and I taught the adults in the church. Monte preached from Luke 19 on Zacchaeus and the importance of a life transformed by salvation. I preached from Exodus on Moses and how God overcame his five excuses.  Monte had 7 people raise their hands indicating that they had prayed with him to surrender their lives to Jesus.

In my sermon on Moses I used five words from their own language that all started with the letter “K.” I had taught the pastors the previous week at the Pastor’s Conference that their sermon points should be accurate, simple and memorable, so I didn’t want them to think I didn’t practice what I had taught them. I had bought a English-Rufumbira Dictionary here, so I wanted to surprise them by using their language in my sermon.

When I began using their language for my sermon points, they laughed at my feeble efforts to pronounce their tribal tongue. But it was good natured laughter. I think they really appreciated my attempt.

Their favorite sermon point was number five, “kurekura,” which means “surrender” in Rufumbira. After my closing prayer, Pastor George further explained the time of decision to them. Pastor George has been my interpreter at every session. When he was finished talking, I was surprised and overwhelmed to see everyone in the room raise both hands in surrender and shout “kurekura!” and “Yesu!” which meant that they were surrendering their whole lives to Jesus.

After this, George had the men go to another room for prayer and the women stayed in the church to pray together. Robin and Pastor George’s wife, Robinah, prayed for the women. I went with our team of men to pray for the Ugandan men. We had each man sit in a chair in the center of the room as our team prayed for each of them individually.  This was a powerful time.

Afterwards the church served us a hardy lunch of rice, beans, goat and matoke (made from plantain). During lunch, Pastor Joseph (George’s brother, who pastors this church) was very gracious. He wanted all our emails and promised to keep in contact with us and pray for us.

We returned to the hotel and headed to the local Kisoro coffee shop called “The Coffee Pot.” I ordered a cappuccino and internet. Of course, the internet was down again.

Apparently, surrendering to Jesus sometimes means unpredictable internet service too.

Written from Kisoro, Uganda on June 19, 2014

Come over to Uganda

A Ugandan pastor and his family head to church on his "bota-bota."

A Ugandan pastor and his family head to church on his “bota-bota.”

“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” (Acts 16:9 ESV).

We’re leaving for Uganda tomorrow. Robin and I are joining several WCCers and members from other churches to respond to Ugandan Pastor George Mbonye’s call to “Come over and help us.” We’re doing this in partnership with Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care, a non profit based out of Raleigh, North Carolina that has been working with Pastor George for several years.

We’ve had our shots, taken our malaria meds, sprayed our clothes with insect repellent and packed our bags. We’ve prayed and prepared our Bible lessons and prayed some more. Now it’s time to go.

So, please keep us in your prayers as we promise to pray for you too. Pray for the 50 African pastors that I’ve been asked to train in leadership and preaching. Pray for the pastor’s wives that Robin has been asked to teach. Pray for the teachers and students that our team will be teaching. Pray for our health and effectiveness.

We’re thankful to our church and to our many partners who have made it possible for us to answer Pastor George’s call for help. And we’re especially thankful to God who has made it possible for us to obey Christ’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

One other thing, I hear that Pastor George has a “bota-bota” (motorcycle) too. Maybe he’ll let me take it for a spin.

Have you learned the secret of contentment?

IMG_7345I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NIV).

Webster defines contentment as “the state of being happy and satisfied.” Everyone wants to live in this state. But unfortunately, this kind of contentment is based on favorable circumstances. Happiness is based on something good “happening.” And as we all know, sometimes bad stuff happens. But what if there were a higher level of contentment? One that wasn’t based on happenings?

The apostle Paul spoke of such a higher level of contentment. In his letter to the Philippians he wrote of having “learned the secret of being content” no matter the circumstance. This contentment that Paul had learned was not dependent on the external world of constantly changing circumstances, but on an inner spiritual relationship and dependence on the eternal One, Jesus Christ.

So, how do we learn Paul’s “secret,” especially in this crazy and chaotic world today that constantly seeks to steal our joy and peace? In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he offered…

… three keys to unlocking the secret to true contentment.

  1. Learn to turn your worries into prayers. Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Worry is self-talk. Prayer is talking to God. Why not take the same energy you’re using to worry and turn it into prayer?
  2. Learn to refocus your thinking from stressings to blessings. Paul said, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). This is more than positive thinking. This is moving your state of mind from the temporal things of this world to the eternal things of God. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Set your minds on things above” (Col.3:2). Decide to rejoice in the Lord. Say, “I’m too blessed to be stressed!” Focus on your blessings in Christ and set your mind on them.
  3. Learn the practice of depending on God’s power and provision. Paul wrote, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). Paul had learned to depend on Christ for strength. In Christ, he learned that he could “accept all things” (Phil. 4:11), “do all things” (Phil. 4:13), and “have all things” (Phil. 4:18). Therefore, everything he needed, he found in Christ.

Christ was the secret of Paul’s contentment.

Christ was the one who lay sleeping in the bow of the boat while the storm on the Sea of Galilee threatened to sink the disciples. He was the one whom the “winds and the waves” obeyed. Paul learned that when you have Christ in your life, no matter the storms, you can find rest and contentment in him.

Have you yet learned the secret of contentment?

 

The sincere faith of my mother and grandmother

Wilda and Ettie. My mother and grandmother.

Wilda and Ettie. My mother and grandmother.

“I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5 NIV).

The church of my youth had annual revival services. We would often have an evangelist come and share how God had miraculously saved him from a life of sin. He would preach with fiery enthusiasm and through tears about how God had taken a former drunkard, (or addict, thief, murderer, etc.) and saved him.

These “Damascus Road” testimonies were amazing to me. I was envious of their certainty and passion. As a boy, I often doubted my salvation because I hadn’t had such an awesome conversion. I had no flash of light, no voice of God. At age eight, I had just decided to give my life to Jesus the way my mother and grandmother had taught me.

As I grew in my faith, I no longer doubted my salvation, but I still sometimes wished that my testimony was more exciting. Why couldn’t I have a testimony more like the apostle Paul’s?

Maybe that’s what Timothy was feeling when Paul wrote him that second letter. Paul was so fearless and certain when he testified of his faith, but Timothy was a little timid. When he compared himself to his mentor he just didn’t feel like he measured up.

Paul would have none of that. He reminded Timothy of the spiritual legacy that his mother and grandmother had given him. Timothy had been spared the suffering and sorrow of Paul’s many mistakes before coming to Christ. Paul reminded Timothy that the “sincere faith” which had “lived” in his mother and grandmother, now “lived” in him.

As a grown man, I’m glad that I have a “Timothy testimony.” The two most influential people in my spiritual development were women. They were my grandmother Ettie and my mother Wilda. They didn’t have the same names as “Eunice and Lois”, but they did have the same “sincere faith” living in them.

Sincere faith. The kind that is more than religion, more than rules and ritual. These women loved and lived for their Lord in such a sincere way that what they passed on to me was more caught than taught.

My mother and her mother are with Jesus now, but their sincere faith still lives here in me.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(This is a reprint of my blog from May 2010.)