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Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?

Over the past 4 years, mission teams from our church have helped with the Houses of Hope Project building homes for widows in Kenya, Africa. On one of those first trips, our team built a house for a widow named Irene who has 9 children. As a sacrifice of thanks to our team for building her a house, she sacrificed her only chicken to feed them. Our team responded by giving her back seven-fold, delivering seven new chickens from the market the next day. God used her sacrifice to spark their generosity. She responded again before we sent another team the next year by donating a piece of her land to build a church. You can read a full account of the ways that her one chicken led to a church and so much more here. You can also read her story in the book Spiritually Shrewd? By Dr. Greg Mathis, and you can purchase a copy here.

In October 2016, I was privileged to join another team from Mud Creek to Kenya where we visited Irene. On that Sunday, we worshipped with her and her family at Ombaka Baptist Church, the church built on the land she donated. As soon as we arrived, our team coordinator on the ground, Shem Okello, told us that Ombaka Baptist has already had to expand its walls because of how rapidly the church is growing. He also excitedly shared with us that Irene has now started two home Bible studies which are thriving (the first became Ombaka Baptist), and she is working on a third! After the worship service, we drove her to her home. As we gathered to fellowship, neighborhood children, parents, and curious onlookers gathered around. Our Missions Pastor, Jack Givens, presented the gospel and 22 more responded to the message of Jesus that day. I stood back and watched in amazed silence as tears formed in my eyes at the hand of God at work in this small village near Kisumu, Kenya.

Before the worship service began, we joyously presented Irene with a copy of Spiritually Shrewd? Dr. Mathis wrote the book in part to tell how God had used her faithfulness to inspire Mud Creek in missions and sacrificial giving. The book cover has a picture of her on it. Her eyes dropped to the ground as we gave her the book and took a photo of her receiving it. She slipped around to the back away from the hustle of all the church activities. As we praised God for her faithfulness during the service, her eyes again went to the ground diverting away from the attention. When she spoke to the church and team after service, her voice was soft and her words few.

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Before we arrived, Shem Okello met with her to hear what God was doing in her village. He rejoiced in amazement at the two active Bible studies and the third one she was beginning. He praised her part in God’s work. She replied, “Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?” She clearly doesn’t believe she is the center of this story. Irene has heard the words of God and obeyed them. She isn’t seeking fanfare. She doesn’t want an audience. She isn’t trying to grow a following. She simply has heard the words of God and is obeying them.

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20

Irene hasn’t merely memorized the words of Jesus in His Great Commission. She hasn’t just liked them or shared them on Facebook. She hasn’t settled to highlight them in her Bible or underline the most important words. She is doing them. She is making disciples. She is faithfully serving and obeying God where she lives. Irene does God’s work of disciple-making by simply inviting her neighbors, friends, and family members to be with her in church. She is telling others what Jesus has done for her. She is making her home a place for believers to gather to hear God’s Word and learn God’s ways.

A chicken became a church. A widow became a witness. A down-and-out woman became a disciple-maker. All of these miracles have taken place because one person in Kenya, Africa, took the Words of God seriously and applied them obediently.

What about you? Are you obeying God’s words? Are you fulfilling His commands? Are you becoming His disciple? Are you helping others become disciples?

In my 30+ years in church, I don’t believe I have ever heard a more pointed or convicting message than the one from Irene’s lips that day. “Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?” Yes it is. Are you doing it?

Jesus Is in the Boat!

In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus was sleeping through a storm that threatened to sink the boat He and his disciples were taking across the Sea of Galilee. In what likely rivaled His most dramatic of miracles, Jesus simply stood up and said to the tempest, “Peace! Be still.” Instantly, all was calm.  The raging fear of certain death plaguing the disciples caused by that storm changed to marvel, awe, and fear of the One with authority to still the raging weather with only His voice. The whole passage fascinates me, but I have found myself pondering the similarities between the disciples lack of faith in the presence of Jesus to my own far-too-often weak kneed doubting of Jesus’ power and authority today. While digging into that text, I ran across a sermon preached on these same verses 100 years ago. Charles Jefferson, pastor of Broadway Tabernacle in New York City uttered these eerily prophetic yet deeply comforting words on the heels of the first World War.

This scene…is interesting because it is a picture of our own situation. The sea is rough and the waves are beating into the boat, and God seems to be asleep. All through the World War He seemed to be asleep. He allowed ten million boys to be butchered and never opened His eyes. He allowed hundreds of thousands of women to starve to death and tens of thousands of children to be blown to pieces by pitless guns and did not seem to know what was going on. He seems to be asleep yet. It looks as though He were asleep in Asia, for millions of people are starving to death and mothers are eating the emaciated bodies of their dead children.

He seems to be asleep in England, for in England there are over a million men out of work. They have been out of work for years. There is now no work for them to do. The tragedy of poverty has saddened the eyes of the women and you can see the marks of it on the faces of little children, and God does nothing. He seems to be asleep in the United States for our largest American cities are the victims of bandits, some of them low-downs, vulgar thugs and some of them officials in high positions. God seems to be asleep. The waves are beating into the boat.

The criticism against the church is ferocious. The opposition to Christianity is fierce. The attack on religion is violent and venomous…Many Christians are alarmed. Some of them are almost indignant that Christ should allow the church to get into such a predicament. They ought to listen for a voice coming out of the storm, “How is it that you have no faith?…Don’t you know that in every generation brilliant men have written against the church, but the boat has not gone down?” There is no cause for alarm. The waves are beating into the boat, but the boat is not going down. It is not going down because Jesus is in the boat!

20 Centuries of Great Preaching, vol. 7 (Waco: TX, 1976), p. 67-68.

In our day, as we lament the political turmoil of the coming elections, we may be tempted to think that Jesus is asleep and the boat is sinking. As bathrooms become battlegrounds for liberal rights risking the innocence of our wives, mothers, and children, we may be tempted to think that Jesus is resting somewhere unaware. As death grips the most innocent of our day through the death-plague of abortion, we may think that the boat is about to go down. As our Christian brothers and sisters face persecution and death under the Muslim regime in numerous parts of the world, we may be tempted to believe that the ship is going under while Jesus keeps His eyes shut. As cancer ravages the body of a loved one and your prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, you may think Jesus has not wakened to your plight and you are about to drown. But oh beloved, let me remind you and me! Let me encourage you and me! Let me exhort you and me! In the words of Charles Jefferson 100 years ago, “The ship is not going down because Jesus is in the boat!”

Do You See?

My family was blessed to serve in Honduras twice last year on short term mission trips. Both times, we worked from Las Lajas, Honduras, ministering in nearby villages. In the village of El Divisio, a young blind boy named Jeffery greeted us. Jeffery might have been blind, but that didn’t stop us from seeing the presence of God on his countenance. His face beamed with joy. As we played in the yard of the church, he sat calmly taking in all the sounds around with interest. He almost looked as if he was praying. When we moved inside the church to worship, Jeffery made his way to the keyboard. His fingers began to play and his voice led us in song, but it wasn’t really his talent that we saw. It was his worship. This young boy with no sight worshipped God in freedom and joy I have rarely observed.

Jeffery couldn’t see us. His eyes hadn’t clued him in to our skin differences, physical imperfections, heights, or sizes. He didn’t notice if we were wearing our “Sunday best.” He couldn’t see who was singing or who wasn’t. He didn’t know if there were only 10 in attendance or 50. He had his mind’s eye on only One, Jesus who he was worshipping.  

Since I have returned from Honduras, I have often wondered, “Perhaps Jeffery sees better than me.” Because my physical eyes see, I can get lost in the many activities to take in during worship. As an assistant pastor, I often find myself reviewing the order of worship, checking up on a ministry need, or watching the congregation. My eyes let me see so many good sights during worship like children caught up with one another or adults singing, hands raised and tears streaming. Often, my eyes have teared up looking on those who come forward to get right with God, and sometimes, tears of pain have fallen from my eyes for those pleading for God’s healing, strength, or grace. I see people gather to learn more more about God, receive relief from the press of daily life, and joyously fellowship with one another. But, my eyes, too often, can distract me from just “seeing” God alone during worship. To be honest, my eyes also see new toys to covet. They see behaviors to judge. They see irritations to dwell upon. They see messes left to be cleaned up. It’s through my eyes that devilish temptations to jealousy, lust, envy, and selfishness so often enter the eyes of my soul distracting me from looking intently upon the only One who matters, Jesus.

But Jeffery doesn’t see any of that. He only sees God when he worships. He sees Jesus distraction free. And perhaps, because of that, he sees better than me. Jeffery’s worship perfectly captures the meaning of the hymn, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in his wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of his glory and grace

By the way, the hymn writer of that song, Helen Lemmel, had lost her sight before she wrote this great hymn. Maybe that’s it. We must become blind to our distractions, our distortions, and our disenchantments before we can see.
Jeffery sees. So did Helen. What about you? Do you see?

Heaven’s Questions

I was speaking to a friend the other day who is getting up in years. As we talked, he turned the conversation toward his death, making the statement, “I know when I get to heaven, I will have some questions!” His words stuck with me because I have often considered what I would want to ask God when I get there myself.  

God, how exactly did you part the Red Sea?

What did Joshua’s face look like when you appeared before him as Captain of the Lord’s Hosts?

How fast was David’s heart pounding when he stepped onto the battlefield against Goliath?

How did you direct the great fish to swallow Jonah then spit him out?

What were Peter, James, and John thinking on the Mount of Transfiguration with you and Moses and Elijah?

I will tell you what I am hoping. With all of earth’s technological advances, I am pulling for heaven to be outfitted with a celestial DVR displayed on a supernatural IMAX pumping out angelic surround sound. As I ask God these questions, I can picture in my mind his voice say, “Pull back the curtains. Roll the video.” Then I am there, taking in the plague of flies in Egypt, watching in slow motion the collapsing walls of Jericho, overlooking Daniel in the lion’s den, or shaking with Paul and Silas in the earthquake in the Philippian jail. 

At least that’s what I think I will do. More likely, I will bow. Fall down in adoration. Worship. On this side, I think I will have questions. On that side, I am sure I will have all the answers that matter. On this side, longing. On that side, satisfaction. On this side, restlessness. On that side, eternal peace.  

If we have questions then, I am sure he will have answers. What I believe with confidence: we will certainly have the most important and central answer, Jesus himself. And while I like to think we may get to watch heavenly recordings of the miracles of old, I know we will be grateful for the miracle of being there, in his presence. And that may well be all the answer we need.

You Don’t Understand

I visited with a family recently who just lost a dear loved one. The wife of over 50 years kept saying to those of us who tried to comfort her, “You don’t understand.” She was right. None of us understood. How could we? She lost her husband, her friend, her life partner of more than half a century. How could I understand? How could anyone understand?

Death is one of the most ugly realities of life. It rips us from one another. It hurts. But it’s not only death that may make us want to scream out, “You don’t understand!” It could be the resurfacing of a past hurt, the hidden scars of an abusive spouse, the crushing sense of inadequacy with a wayward child, or the swirling cocktail of emotions following serious medical diagnosis. You’ve probably been there at some point yourself: the brokenness that hurt more deeply than you felt safe admitting, the dulling of your emotions after trying, and failing, again to reach the lost sheep, or the distance from close friends created by rapid life change such as the birth of a child or a career promotion. The truth is, we intuitively understand that others can’t always understand.

I am encouraged as I read the Bible, because I am not sure God ever places understanding on our shoulders.

 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:2

“Bear one another’s burdens” means to relate, empathize, and love. It means to come alongside of. It means to share the load. It means to encourage. I am drawn to the freedom God gives in these words. We are to support, not solve. We are to assist, not fix. Our care, concern, and love should gradually and intentionally usher others toward the only One who can understand, the only One who can solve, the only One who can fix. Jesus understands us because He designed us to think, feel, and act just like we do. In His sovereign wisdom, He placed us on this planet just when He did and where He did. He came to live like us and experience emotion like us. He knows what it feels like to be loved, protected, cared for, emulated, hurt, misunderstood, betrayed, doubted, forgotten (even murdered), and countless other experiences this human existence throws our way. In fact, He designed our human existence to be able to feel each experience we have faced. Not only did He make us just so, He is the Healer, the Great Physician, and the Mender of souls. He longs to reach down to His creation and fix what’s broken, bandage what’s wounded, restore what’s been taken, and save what’s been lost.  

So, the next time someone says, “You don’t understand.” It’s ok to say, “You’re right, I don’t. But I know the One who does.” Then, take them to meet Him.

De-Scrooged

Scrooge. That old, selfish, stingy hoarder. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the miserly man kept everything to himself to the point of pushing everyone away until a series of ghostly encounters ripped his false security from him. He changed. He gave. And quite magically, everyone wanted to be around him. The taker became a giver. The hoarder released his vice grip. Scrooge got de-Scrooged.

I don’t like to admit it, but I can be a lot like Scrooge, setting my peace on what I have rather than what I give. Enter my six year old son Joseph. He just had a birthday and racked up. Kind friends and family gave him lots of toys and lots of cash. A couple weeks after his birthday, the piggy bank sat at $103.00.

As we entered the Christmas season, our family decided to give gifts to some children who have less than most through a local ministry. Joseph told us after we had already purchased everything for two children that he sensed God wanted us to get gifts for one more child. His mom, Diana, and I talked with him that day about him investing some of his birthday money toward this other child. He recoiled. We left it alone. Three days later, he again said we should provide Christmas for another child. We asked him, a second time, to think about putting some of his money towards it (Now, I was thinking $10 or at most $15). We were hoping he would want to have some of his own “skin in the game” so to speak. As we talked it over this second time, he began to think and pray about what to give. I can still see his face as his eyes got big and a little frightened. He looked at us and said, “I think God’s saying for me to keep just $1.” Diana and I looked at each other instantly smiling, crying a bit, and rejoicing inside at what he had said. Frankly, it sounded like something God would say. Seconds later, he began backtracking. He started arguing, and we weren’t even saying anything! We wanted him to wrestle through this on his own. As we neared bedtime, he had retracted his offer of everything but a dollar. We encouraged him to sleep and pray on it.

The next morning, he got up and was readying himself for school. We asked him again what he felt like he was supposed to do. He dropped his head again and whispered, “God wants everything but a dollar.” $102.00 of $103.00! That morning I saw what sacrificial giving looks like on the face of a six year old. I also saw what it looks like to be de-Scrooged. The fix for taking is giving. The fix for hoarding is letting go. The way to de-Scrooge yourself is to do what Scrooge wouldn’t till it was from frightened from him. Give! Give generously! Give sacrificially!

My wife and I are so proud of our son’s sensitivity to obey God and give so generously. We haven’t stopped bragging on him and to him. As I have looked at my son and back at myself since his generosity, Scrooge’s hold on my own resources became much easier to see. So you know what I did? I went to the checkbook prying that old miser’s grip on my own money. Do you know, it sure did feel good in that moment to be de-Scrooged! And I have a little generous giver by the name of Joseph to thank.

Mercy Raindrops?

“What if your mercies come through raindrops.” That’s a question Laura Story asks in her popular song, “Blessings.” Sometimes God’s blessings take on unique forms. I was out driving the other night, in the pouring rain, and my car quit working. Stopped. Died in the middle of the road. As I was getting in touch with AAA, a kind Good Samaritan stopped and helped me get the car off the road and also managed to help get it started again. Then, he followed me while I drove it down to a local auto repair shop. As I was pulling in, it died again. The nice guy proceeded to take me home.

A number of things went wrong. But so many more could have. My family could have been in the car with me when it died, but they weren’t. It could have locked up on me while on the interstate, very likely causing an accident, but it didn’t. It could have happened hours away from home on a trip, but it happened only minutes away. A car could have been right behind me when my car cut off, causing a wreck, but no one was there immediately behind me. The passerby who helped me could have passed on by, but he stopped. The car could have quit on me again in the road rather than the repair shop, but it got me just there.

Turns out, I got a little wet in the rain and the Good Samaritan got home a bit later than usual. And the car? A battery bracket worked loose and shorted the battery out. What I was thinking could be a rather extensive and expensive repair only ended up requiring a tightened bolt and a new battery.

It occurred to me: if my car hadn’t quit, I never would have realized all those bad outcomes that could have happened or experienced the good ones that did. “Mercy raindrops”? God sends those. Dead car deliverances? God’s in that business too. He’s also been known to tamper with battery brackets. Keep your eyes open. God may just send you your very own, specially designed strange blessing. And if he does, why don’t you thank him for it.