Visiting the orphan with gospel hope

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Visiting a Child Development Center in Kisoro, Uganda

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27 ESV).

This coming Sunday is “Orphan Sunday.” Our church is joining churches around the country by setting apart the first Sunday in November to focus on the plight of the orphan. However, every Sunday could easily be considered “Orphan Sunday,” since we were all once fatherless until we were adopted into the Father’s family.

John Piper calls the doctrine of adoption, the “heart of the gospel.” He sees caring for orphans as an appropriate outworking of the gospel’s work in us.

I think this is what the apostle James meant when he spoke of “religion that is pure and undefiled.” James mentions religion not in the usual sense to describe it as false, but true religion, a religion that is “faith with works.” Perhaps one of the clearest expressions that the gospel has indeed done its work in us, is that we are doing the work of the Father for the fatherless.

But what does it mean to “visit” the orphan with gospel hope? The Greek word translated “visit” is ἐπισκέπτεσθαι (ep-ee-skep’tes-thai). The great Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, described it as a “common verb meaning to go to see, to inspect, to have a care for, to have the habit of going to see.”

Understanding the word, “visit,” in the context of gospel hope, implies at least three actions:

  1. We can see their affliction as God saw ours. We can open our eyes to the plight of the fatherless in our world just as God saw our affliction. According to a recent UNICEF report there are 210 million orphans in the world. Much of them in Africa where AIDS has orphaned 1 in 5 children. We must stop turning a blind eye and take notice of their need. We can look without turning away because Christ did not turn away from our distress.
  2. We can go to them as God came to us. Certainly “visiting” means not only to open our eyes to their need, but also to go and be with them. God didn’t just see us, He sent Jesus, Immanuel, to be “God with us.” Christ left the glory and riches of heaven to be with us. We must be willing to leave our place of comfort to be with them. In his book, Orphanology, my friend Tony Merida speaks of the impact of going to be with the fatherless: “A burden for orphans often develops by simple exposure to them. If you hold an orphan or visit an orphan, or watch an adopted child grow up in a loving family, then I believe your heart will be moved with compassion.”
  3. We can care for them as God has cared for us. God didn’t leave us as orphans. He made a way through faith in Christ for our adoption as His children. As Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18). We are all called to care for the orphan as Christ cares for us.

What does caring for orphans look like? It depends on how God moves your heart. But be sure of this, God’s heart is for the fatherless and when our hearts are attuned to His, our hearts will beat in rhythm. Here are a few ways you might care for the orphans in our world:

  • Consider adoption. There are 130,000 children available for adoption in the US.
  • Go to visit them with us locally. We partner with the Baptist Children’s Homes, specifically the Kennedy Hope in Kinston, NC.
  • Go to visit them with us internationally. We partner with Caroline’s Promise for our work in Guatemala. We partner with Amazing Grace Adoptions for our work in Uganda. Go with us next summer.
  • Sponsor an international child. We partner with Caroline’s Promise and Compassion to help sponsor at-risk children. For around $35 a month, you can change a child’s life.
  • Pray for the fatherless and the widow. Find out the facts. See the need. Lift up specific prayers to the Father.
  • Give to an adoption fund. Help prospective parents pay the high costs of adoption. Help us set up a fund at our church to help others adopt.

I have seen the face of the fatherless. I have looked into their eyes. They are no longer nameless and faceless. The gospel hope within me moves me to share it with them. Join us.

Let’s visit the orphan with gospel hope.

“My” church vs. “His” church thinking

WCC Ribbon Cutting Day 043011“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1 ESV).

As Americans, we are so accustomed to having things our own way that it should come as no surprise that we bring this way of thinking into the church. We tend to approach church attendance and church membership with an eye towards what will most benefit us. When we find a church that seems to meet all of our family’s needs, it’s not long before we begin to refer to it is “my church.”

Now this use of the personal possessive pronoun is not really a problem unless we forget that the church is “His church” as well as ours. For the church is not the steeple, it’s the people. It is the body of Christ of which He is the head and we are the members. So, the church is surely ours, but it is also, first of all, His.

Those who grow to understand this “both/and” thinking, that the church is both Christ’s and ours, begin to approach church differently. Here are a few marks of those with this understanding:

  • They bring their worship with them. They come prepared to give their tithes and offerings and to sing His praises and hear His Word. They are “glad” and prepared to go to His house.
  • They serve one – attend one. At WCC we offer three Sunday morning services, making it possible to attend one worship service and volunteer during another.
  • They arrive early. They don’t want to cause a disruption in the children’s classes or the adult worship, so they arrive early to worship and/or to serve in their respective ministries.
  • They leave the best parking for guests. They don’t park near the front door for their own convenience. Rather, they leave the best parking for guests.
  • They check their children into the Reel Deal and Nursery. They are aware that the children’s services are designed for children from the crib to the 5th grade. They are also aware that bringing children into the adult worship can be a distraction. They would never want to cause a seeker or guest to miss hearing the gospel because of a crying baby or disruptive toddler.
  • They take the seats down front. They want to encourage the worship band and the pastor, so they fill in the seats down front. They also want to be as close to the action as possible because they are enthusiastic for worship. (Exception: unless they have to leave early to serve in VIP or other ministries, then they sit in the back to avoid disruption.)
  • They leave the back seats for guests. They recognize that first-timers may feel nervous when they are looking for seats, so they leave the back seats for them. Members should find seats near the front and be willing to fill in the rows without taking all the aisle seats. They would never think of crawling under or taking down the back seat ropes.
  • They turn off their cell phones. They are careful to avoid disruptions, especially during the sermon.
  • They follow the “3-Minute Rule.” After the worship service, they spend at least the first 3 minutes talking to someone they don’t know before hanging out with their usual friends. They want our guests to feel welcome.
  • They make an effort to talk to our Hispanic members. They overcome the language and cultural barrier between our English and Spanish speaking members by reaching out to one another.
  • They always thank our volunteers. When they pick up their children from the nursery and Reel Deal they always thank them for taking care of their kids. They are thankful to our ushers, greeters, coffee shop workers, etc. They want their fellow WCCers to feel encouraged.
  • They hang out before leaving. They spend a little time in the foyer greeting others before rushing away.
  • They have a “Kingdom-focus” rather than a “me-focus.” They do not think of what the church should be doing to serve them better. Instead, they are constantly aware that they are the church and that they want to see God’s kingdom come, rather than their own.

These are a few of the marks of those who recognize the tension between “my church” vs. “His church” thinking. The beauty for those who put “His church” thinking first is that their own needs are not left unmet. In fact, focusing on His kingdom ahead of ours, we discover that our own needs are met along the way.

Can you think of other marks of those who recognize the church as “His” church first?

Fish symbols and generosity

6a00d83524c19a69e2011279660c7428a4-320wi“You will be glorifying God through your generous gifts. For your generosity to them will prove that you are obedient to the Good News of Christ” (2 Cor. 9:13 NLT).

Some years ago I had a conversation with my son about his job at the car wash…

“How did work go today?” I asked.

“Fine.” He replied with his usual non-specificity.

“Any tips?” I asked (He made most of his money on tips at the car wash).

“Yeah, some.” He said. “It was a decent day.”

“Who gives the best tips?” I questioned, hoping for a more inspiring dialogue.

“Well, I’ll tell you who doesn’t tip.” He answered. “People with fish symbols on their car. They rarely, if ever tip!”

“You’re kidding.” I said, hoping he was.

“Nope. If you see a car roll in with a fish symbol, you can be sure they will be the most likely to complain about a spot we missed and also the most likely to stiff you on the tip.” He stated in scientific fashion, like a researcher who had obtained disappointing results.

“That really irritates me!” I exclaimed. “People should either pull those fish off of their bumpers or start giving generously like the Lord they say they follow!”

“Yep.” My son replied, not seeing the need to add to my outburst.

While preparing for this week’s sermon, I remembered this “fish symbol” conversation. As we continue our sermon series on The Seven Habits of Growing Christians, I think it’s important to know that one of the important habits for those who would grow to maturity in Christ, is the habit of graceful giving. Generosity is a mark of a mature Christian.

Don’t you think it’s time that Christians started being known more for their giving than their grumbling? We should be the most generous “tippers” and gracious givers in the world!

So, let’s either start giving generously like Jesus or let’s “reel” those fish in from our bumpers!

 

This article is an edited version of a similar article I wrote in March 2009.

Tattoos, tribes and true community

6a00d83524c19a69e2010534afdc4e970b-320wi“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:42 (ESV)

What makes a true community?

People use the word community to describe all sorts of social groups. But what constitutes a “true” (real, authentic, fully realized) community? If we are born into the same race or family, does our membership in the same tribe equal true community? What if we wear the same colors, tattoo our bodies, endure the same initiation, does our gang become a true community? What makes a true community?

Psychologist and author, Scott Peck, says that most people have only experienced true community in accidental ways and that usually during crisis. He says that most groups that people think of as communities are really just “pseudo-communities.” He believes that true community requires going through a four stage process of deepening relationships and connection.

These four stages are:

  1. Pseudo-community: Where participants are “nice with each other”, playing-safe, and presenting what they feel is the most favourable sides of their personalities.
  2. Chaos: When people move beyond the inauthenticity of pseudo-community and feel safe enough to present their “shadow” selves.
  3. Emptiness: This stage moves beyond the attempts to fix, heal and convert of the chaos stage, when all people become capable of acknowledging their own woundedness and brokenness, common to us all as human beings. Out of this emptiness comes…
  4. True community: the process of deep respect and true listening for the needs of the other people in this community. This stage Peck believes can only be described as “glory” and reflects a deep yearning in every human soul for compassionate understanding from one’s fellows.

Peck’s description of true community as the “deep yearning in every human soul” is what drives us to tattoo ourselves and identify with tribes. We all have a deep desire for true community.

I think God made us that way. He made us relational. He made us to be in relationship with Him and with others. That’s why Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love others as ourselves. In other words, God designed us to be in true community with HIm and with HIs people.

The Bible word for this true community is “fellowship.” The Greek word is κοινωνία, koinonia, which can also be translated as “communion, participation, partnership” or literally as “what is shared in common.”

Any community that approaches the level of being “true” always seems to have certain traits in common. The first century church described in the book of Acts was certainly a “true community.” They had four traits in common. These four traits or “devotions” were the apostle’s teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

These four traits of true community might be restated as:

  1. A common belief
  2. A common identity
  3. A common practice
  4. A common dependence.

This past Wednesday I gathered with my weekly WCC Community Group. We stood in a circle holding hands and prayed over our meal. We ate together, laughing and talking about our week while nibbling away at our food. We gathered in the living room to discuss that Sunday’s sermon which was about prayer. We read the Scripture and discussed its implications and applications for each of us. After Bible study, the men headed to the dining room to pray while the women stayed in the living room to do the same.

We decided to follow the three points or “movements” of the sermon in our prayers, so each man gave three prayer requests. One was an “inward” confession of a sin or struggle. The second was an “upward” prayer, offering thanks to God for something specific in our lives. And the third was an “outward,” kingdom-come prayer for some gospel need was sensed in our world. A real sense of God’s presence was felt as we prayed.

After the men finished praying, we could still hear the women praying passionate prayers in the other room. When they finished there was a flourish of hugs and handshakes, a gathering of our things and a scurrying out the door as we said “goodbyes” and “love yous” until next week.

If true community, true fellowship, is having all things in common. Then, I think we’ve found it.

 

 

This article is an edited version of an earlier one I wrote in September 2008.

Bible memorization and business cards

6a00d83524c19a69e20111688a82d7970c-320wi“… he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law …It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees” (Deuteronomy 17:18-19 NIV).

A few years ago I had a weekly appointment with a friend for breakfast and Bible study. We decided to help each other memorize Scripture. So, week after week we enjoyed breakfast and rehearsing our Bible verses with one another.

You can buy Scripture memory cards and systems from several vendors. They’ve already done the printing for you. You just have to do the memorizing. But my friend and I decided that we should make our own. We figured that the process of making them would help in the process of remembering them as well.

I think it was Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators ministry, that used to say, “Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through the lips and the fingertips.” I agree.

We stumbled on the idea of buying perforated business card sheets for desktop printers to use for our Scripture memory cards. They come 10 to a page, so, we’d pick out ten verses we wanted to memorize and then make our own. I still have nearly a hundred of these cards “rubber-banded” together in my top desk drawer.

But more importantly, I have them in my heart.

We’re not the first to realize the importance of copying, reading, and memorizing Scripture for ourselves. God told Moses that every Israelite king was to make a copy of the entire law for himself and read it daily. That way, he could rightly govern God’s people.

I like the feel of these old business cards with Scripture written in my own hand on them. They have stains from breakfast and bent corners from handling. They remind me of God’s Word and of learning together with a friend.

 

This is an updated version of my blog from February 20, 2009.

Do you use S.O.A.P daily?

Soap“Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV).

“Daily.” There’s something about daily habits. What we do every day eventually adds up to weeks, months, years, and even a lifetime. Daily habits, while seemingly small and insignificant, add up. Our daily habits or disciplines tend to have a shaping affect on our character.

All of us have certain daily habits. We shower, brush our teeth, comb our hair, drink a cup of coffee, etc. These are the things we do to get our bodies ready for another day. We recognize the need for having clean, prepared bodies and faces before we “face” the public. We use a lot of products getting ready. One of them is soap. Whether it comes in a bar or a bottle, we use soap to help cleanse the dirt and odors of yesterday’s activity from our bodies.

Most of us learned this habit of daily cleansing from our parents. I still remember my mother saying, “Gary, come here! Let me look behind your ears!”

I always had trouble getting clean behind my ears, at least to my mother’s exacting standards. But after years of daily practice, I finally passed my mother’s scrutiny. I don’t know if all mothers are this strict, but my mother was always concerned that someone would notice her son’s dirty ears (Or underwear. Heaven forbid that you were in an accident and didn’t have on clean underwear.).

I wonder if our spiritual lives deserve the same “daily” attention? Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when He said, “Take up your cross daily.” Does taking up our cross, the instrument of dying to the old life, somehow become like the habit of using soap? Having received new life in Christ, how are we to grow up in our salvation? Does this involve certain daily disciplines?

I think it does. While developing spiritual habits or disciplines will not earn grace for us, these disciplines can cause us to grow in our desire and ability to live out of this grace, becoming more mature in our following of Christ.

With this in mind, I offer to you a daily habit of devotion that I learned from Pastor Wayne Cordeiro. He calls it S.O.A.P.

S – Scripture. Read a daily portion of the Bible, listening for God’s voice.

O – Observation. Ask questions like “who, what, where, how, when?”

A – Application. Ask “How does this apply to me?”

P – Prayer. Pray that God would help you apply His Word.

Maybe we could pray, “God, would You look behind my spiritual ears to make sure I haven’t overlooked anything. Reveal any area that I need to bring to the cross in order to find cleansing and transforming life there.”

Using spiritual S.O.A.P. makes for a great daily habit. Who knows what character might be shaped by a lifetime of such daily use?

 

This article is a reprint of my blog from 2/13/09.

The need to belong

WCC Mission Team with Iglesia Adonai members

WCC Mission Team with Iglesia Adonai members

“Now you are no longer strangers to God and foreigners to heaven, but you are members of God’s very own family, citizens of God’s country, and you belong in God’s household with every other Christian” (Ephesians 2:19 TLB).

Belonging was formally recognized as one of the most profound human needs by American psychologist, Abraham Maslow. In a 1943 paper, he described a “hierarchy of needs” that placed love and “belongingness” in its third tier of foundational importance. Only physiological and safety needs such as food, water, air and shelter were given greater importance.

Maslow’s psychological theory recognized what others had claimed for centuries, that humans have an innate need for belonging. Yet, this awareness of the need does not explain its origin. From where does our need for belonging come?

In the third century, Augustine of Hippo, said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Augustine believed that God made us with this desire for connection. He believed we were made by God, for God.

Three centuries before Augustine, Jesus prayed that this divine connection would be restored, not just between man and God, but also between believers. Jesus prayed, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:20-23 NIV).

This oneness between God and man was made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The sin that separated us from God since Adam’s fall was paid in full by Jesus. Faith in Christ’s work on the cross reconciles us to God and also gives us a message of reconciliation to others. It makes it possible for us to keep the great commandment to love God and to love others as ourselves. It fulfills our “belongingness” need to its very core.

Christ’s prayer is being answered. Those who believe in Him are being adopted into God’s family.

Yet, the three enemies of this oneness remain active. The flesh, the world and the devil, all continue to work to divide and isolate us from God and His family. Their voices are loud. They scream of hatred and racism. They point out our differences and the hypocrisies of others. They urge us to get even and never forgive. They push us to pull away, to abandon, to divorce, and even to kill.

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Gary & George

One of the most powerful parts of Christ’s prayer is that “the world might believe” because it would see our unity. That the lonely and the orphaned would see the family of God, loving and accepting one another, and be reminded of the primordial purpose of being made for fellowship with God.

Carlos & Gary

Carlos & Gary

As many of our WCC members traveled on short term mission trips to distant parts of the world this summer, we found more similarities than differences. The culture and color of the peoples in Uganda and Guatemala may have been different than ours, but their hearts were the same. And when we worked and worshiped the Lord together, our sense of belonging to one another was overwhelming. We may have been with them for only a few days, but the deepness of our belongingness can only be explained by the miracle of Christ’s prayer being fulfilled in us.

Don’t listen to the voices that urge you to push away from the table. Get connected. Get right with God and others. Jesus is saving you a seat. You don’t have to be alone anymore. You belong in God’s family with all His other children.

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!