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So that you will know that I am God

Every Monday night, there is a group of Christians that meet in Jorge’s house in Jocotenango.  We meet together with the specific purpose of developing a greater understanding of the Bible and through that, developing a deeper relationship with God so we can share God with others.

Our group started out studying about God and who He is and some of the things that make God, God.  We have continued on with a study of the Old Testament.  As we study the Old Testament, we don’t want to just learn stories about specific people.  We can learn specific things from studying specific people, but if we stop there, we miss the point.  For example, we learn a lot about faith from Abraham.  We can learn about obedience from Noah.  We learn about forgiveness and integrity from Joseph.  I think God wants us to learn these specific things, but there is a bigger picture that we have to grasp.  In all of these stories, there are two sides.  There is what is happening in that persons life, but there is also how God is working through those things to show the world more about Him and His purposes.  In other words, we can learn how to be more faithful, more obedient, more forgiving, or how to be men and women with more integrity, but we also need to see how we can learn more about God and who He is and how He deals with people to accomplish His purposes. 

Recently, we have been studying the book of Exodus.  It’s the story of God liberating the descendants of Jacob (Israel) from the slavery of Egypt.  The story continues as the Israelites wander around in the desert.  Again, there are specific teachings we can pick up from this time period in the history of the nation of Israel, but there is one theme that keeps showing up. 

It comes from a phrase that is repeated over and over and over in the first few books of the Bible, see if you can pick it out from the following references.

Exodus 6:7, Exodus 7:4-5, Exodus 7:17, Exodus 8:22, Exodus 10:2, Exodus 14:4, Exodus 16:12. 

Did you see it?  It has to do with people knowing that God is God and that He is with the Israelites.  God said this over and over.  He doesn’t waste His words.  He doesn’t talk just because He likes the sound of His voice.  Apparently, this is a concept that He really wanted His people to grasp.  Apparently, this is a concept that He wants us to grasp. 

God knew that Canaan, the land that He was going to give to the Israelites was full false gods and people who worshipped them.  He knew that His people, the Israelites, would be tempted to follow those other gods.  God started to prepare them for this battle early. 

This same lesson shouldn’t be lost on us.  If we haven’t learned anything about the Old Testament, we should learn this:  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who rescued His people from Egypt, who led them across the Red Sea, who led them through the desert, who gave them the “promised land”, He is God.  No one or no other thing can take His place.  He is all powerful.  He is loving.  He is just.  He is the provider.  He sent His Son to pay the price for your sins and for my sins on the cross of Calvary. 

This fact that God is God, is applicable in every single part of our lives.  Let me ask some questions.  Where does the roof over your head come from?  We have a roof over our head because God provides it.  Did you eat today?  Who provided the food?  God did.  Where does our health come from?  It comes from God.  How about our relationships where do they come from? We have our friends, our spouses, because God has provided us with them. 

Why does God provide all of these things?  He does it because He loves us, but that’s only part of the picture.  The other part is because He wants us to know that He is God.  Sometimes we want to take the glory for these provisions away from God.  Sometimes we start to think that we have our house, because we have such a good job. Sometimes we start to think that we have such a good job, because we are so talented.  Sometimes we start to think that we have our food because we are such good providers.  Sometimes we think we have the relationships we have because we are so much fun to be with or because we are so good looking.  That’s all wrong.  We have all of these things because God has provided us with them. 

God recently provided a new vehicle for our ministry here in Guatemala.  Who provided it? God did.  Did He provide it so that we can cruise around Jocotenango with the radio blasting and our hats on backwards so that everyone will know how cool we are?  No, God provided a vehicle to show how great He is.  That vehicle is to be used for His glory, not ours. 

In the example of a new van, we have to be careful to put the emphasis on God, not on the vehicle.  In the other examples, if we have food, we have to make sure that the emphasis is on God not the food.  If we have a place to call home, we have to make sure the emphasis is put on God, not on the shelter.   When we get this wrong, it can be as if Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt for a trip to the sea because they all needed a vacation.  (They had been working really hard.) They would see the beauty and power of the sea and not see the power of the God who created it.  They would see the sea being held back as they crossed through but not see the power of God holding it back.

Israel’s purpose was to show the glory of God.  Only He had the power to deliver.  He had the power to provide.  He had the power to protect.  Our purpose is to show the glory of God.  He has the power to deliver us from whatever we need delivered from.  When He does, we should give God the glory.  God alone has the power to provide for us, and when He does, we should give God the glory. 

This is an important part of our lives that we shouldn’t neglect.  God knows that the land we live in now, whether it is Jocotenango, or the United States, or wherever, is full of false gods.  He wrote these words in the Bible for us to read them today, because He knows that if we don’t make a conscious effort to recognize His hand in our lives, we will be tempted to live like He doesn’t exist.  We will be tempted to give the glory that belongs only to God to people or things.  We will be tempted to take the glory that belongs to God for ourselves.  (Romans 1:18-23)

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Light Bulbs and Worship

Do you know how many lightbulbs there are in your house?  I didn’t know how many were in my house until I counted them this week.  I counted 85, that’s more than I thought I would have and I probably missed a few.  (If anyone in my house reads this, they will probably go through the house and count them accurately and let me know exactly how many there are in our house, but don’t wait for an update because probably nobody in my house will read this.) I can’t imagine how many lightbulbs we had in our house in Indiana.  I would guess we had at least double that amount. 

Last week, I took Jorge and Julia to Villa Nueva for one of Julia’s cancer doctor appointments.  Jorge asked if we could run in to Wal Mart to buy some fluorescent light bulbs.  You see, we had stopped there a month ago and picked up two new light bulbs and Jorge said they had cut his electric bill down significantly.  He wanted to replace the rest of his light bulbs with fluorescents, we bought four more.  That was enough for every light in his house. 

Allow me to do some math here.  Jorge has 4 people who live in his house and 6 light bulbs.  That’s 1.5 light bulbs per person.  I have 9 people who live in my house.  That makes a little more than 9 lightbulbs per person.  At this point, you are probably thinking “big deal”.  I think this is important, though.  It illustrates a point for me that has been in the back of my mind for some time.  It illustrates that Jorge and I are different.  This isn’t a surprise to me.  It’s probably not a surprise to you.  We come from different cultural backgrounds.  We come from different social backgrounds.  We come from different family backgrounds.  We come from different economic backgrounds.  (He likes to point out, though, that we are all American’s.)  There are so many ways that we are different.  These differences are a part of what makes us who we are, they make us individuals.  Really, these differences are what make us good and useful to God.  We are all different tools in God’s hands.  (God doesn’t need 200,000,000 hammers.) 

The thing is, sometimes when our differences meet, they cause discomfort or awkwardness.  I’m not saying they have to cause discomfort or awkwardness, or even that they should.  I’m just laying out there what I have felt and seen.  Here’s an example of a specific place where some of our differences meet.  Because of my background, I have in my mind the way “church” looks.  Jorge has in his mind the way “church” looks.  That specific look for each of us comes from the different worlds that we grew up in.  It comes from the way I have been experiencing church for the last 40 or so years.  It comes from the specific way that he has experienced church for the last 20 or so years.  I come from what I consider to be a fairly conservative background.  In my church in Indiana, when we worship together, it is pretty calm.  Sometimes we clap, but not often.  Jorge comes from a world where a worship service looks quite different.  In his world, here in Guatemala, they don’t clap sometimes, they clap all the time.  (Sometimes people even dance.)  I admit sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. 

The most awesome thing, though, is that it doesn’t really matter either way.  When we come together to worship, we come together through the same gate, the narrow one.  (Matthew 7:13-14)  When we come together to worship, we come with the same purpose.  We come together to bring honor and glory to God.  When we worship together, all of the differences don’t matter.  When we pull away all of the external things, when we look at our hearts, we are exactly the same.  We are both sinners saved by the grace and mercy of God. My sins and his sins have been paid for by Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross.  Underneath that umbrella, it doesn’t matter how many light bulbs we have.  It doesn’t matter what I do with my hands or what someone else does with their hands. 

Our worship shouldn’t start in our hands and work it’s way in.  It should happen the other way, worship starts in our souls and works it’s way out.  What happens on the outside with me isn’t any better or worse than what happens on the outside with Jorge.  Our light bulb to person ratio doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that in that moment of worship, our God to person ratio is 1:1.  Our other differences don’t matter.  One form isn’t any better or any worse than the other it is just different, that’s how God designed it.  (Wait until I tell Jorge about LED bulbs!)

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The testing of Job and of Julia

Today was one of those early morning trips into Guatemala City.  Without traffic, it’s less than an hour by car.  With traffic . . . it’s an eternity.  It normally takes an hour to get from our house to the city, but in the mornings, if I leave at 6:30, I arrive at 9:30.  If I leave at 6:00, I arrive at 9:30.  If I leave at 8:00, I arrive at 9:30.  You get the picture?  We usually leave at 4:00-4:30 depending on the day and we usually arrive around 5:00-5:30.

Today I brought Jorge and Julia into the hospital for Julia’s cancer treatment.  I usually drop them off at the cancer building (today we were there at about 5:00) then I go find a place in the hospital complex to park and sleep for a while.  Usually around 6:30 I get chased away by taxi drivers or people wanting to sell tortillas on the sidewalk I am parking in front of, so I head over to McDonald’s which opens at 6:00.  There, I can study and prepare for the weeks Bible studies.

Today, as I sit at McDonalds, I can’t get the story of Job out of my head. God’s intent with Job was to bring honor and glory to Himself.  Satan’s intent with Job was to steal from God the honor and glory that belongs only to Him.  I find it interesting to see that God is the one who brought Job up, not Satan.  God is a great strategist.  God knew before Job was ever born that the day of his testing would come, and He gave it to Job because He knew that Job would be better because of it.  God knew how Job would react when tested.  God knew that in the end He would get the honor from the life of Job and that Satan would once again be defeated.  If you haven’t read the story of Job lately, I encourage you to take some time and read it. 

Today, as I sit at McDonalds, I can’t get the story of Jorge and Julia out of my head.  I see parallels between the testing of Job and the testing of Julia.  Jorge and Julia are “upright”.  Their lives are bringing honor and glory to God.  They are fulfilling the commands to love God, love your neighbor and make disciples.  I don’t think Satan likes what’s happening in Jocotenango.

I picture God having a conversation with Satan kind of like He did in Job 1, and it might go something like this. “Have you seen my servants Jorge and Julia?  They are doing some good work down there in Jocotenango.  My name and my Son are being honored because of them.”  Satan might reply, “Yes, but only because you provide for them and protect them, if you ‘stretched out your hand against them,’ they would curse you and turn their backs on you.”  God might reply, “Okay then, go for it.” 

That day Julia finds a tumor in her breast.  A week later Julia’s pregnancy test comes back positive.  A few weeks later, breast cancer is confirmed,  after that, a miscarriage.  They are being tested. 

The decorations in their house are sparse.  There is a faded picture of their family printed on an inkjet printer on one wall.  There is a wooden cross and a wooden Star of David that were made by Julia’s dad.  There are two handwritten pieces of paper taped to the wall.  Those papers,julia note however, are more declaration than decoration.  They are verses and a little bit of commentary, the verse in the picture here (the other is at the end of this blog) is from the story of Lazarus.  John 11:40.   That verse talks about seeing the glory of God.  That’s really all they are after.  Of course Julia wants to live, but if you talk to her, you will become acutely aware that her life has a higher purpose than just… living.  That purpose is to bring honor and glory to God, whatever the circumstances.  As an example, one time when I picked them up from the hospital, I asked how things went.  They said it was great!  What I meant by my question was I wanted to know what the doctors said.  They said it was great because they had the opportunity to pray and comfort other people in the waiting rooms at the hospital.  When they looked at a waiting room full of people, they didn’t see the people as obstacles between them and the doctor (like I probably would have).  They saw a room full of people in need and they took the opportunity to meet those needs.    

In the story of Job, Satan thought he was being clever.  He thought he would experience a victory through the testing of Job.  Like I said before, God is a great “strategist” (I am sure “being omniscient” helps with that.)  We can read the end of the book of Job and see that God was glorified through the whole thing. 

In the story of Julia, I am sure that Satan thinks he is being clever with Julia.  He thinks he will experience a victory through her testing.  He thinks God will be dishonored.  He thinks their ministry won’t be able to survive this.  Satan’s plan will be thwarted.  God’s plan will prevail and whatever happens to Julia, God will be glorified through the whole thing.  Keep Jorge, Julia, Keren, and Claudio (their kids) in your prayers.  The test is just beginning.

Are there lessons we could learn from this? 

  • Its better to leave early than to fight traffic.
  • God doesn’t allow bad things because it amuses Him.  He allows things that we might perceive  to be bad because He knows what is best for us (better than we do).
  • People are never obstacles (except in traffic).
  • julia note 2

The scriptures on the paper above are Isaiah 41:13, Isaiah 55:11, and Isaiah 65:24.

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Love Your Neighbor

(This post is an edited version of a message I preached while filling in for our pastor at our English speaking church here in Guatemala.  It’s kind of long.)

To provide some background, it was the fourth message in a series about love.  The first in the series was “I love my enemies”, the second was “I love the church”, the third was “I love God”, and my message was “I love my neighbor”. 

The word “love” is such a powerful word.  It has a lot of emotions, memories, and hopes attached to it.  The word “love” can mean so many things, it can be easily misunderstood and it can be easily misused.  Because of all of this, I think it’s important for us to start out with some sort of definition of “love” so that we can all start out on the same page.

Love is not an easy word to define, so for a little help, I will turn to CS Lewis.  He is one of my favorite “thinkers” and authors.  He wrote a book called “The Four Loves”.  In his book, he describes four different ways the word “love” can be used.  (I have read other authors who say love can mean five different things, or six, or seven… but we are going to stick with this for today.)

-Love can be a romantic kind of love between two people where there is a type of “hunger” for each other.  I might say to Jodi, “I love you.”  And she might respond, “I love you.”

-Love can be a love between friends where we work shoulder to shoulder to accomplish a common goal.  Where I could walk up to my friend and put my arm around his shoulder and say, “I love you brother.”  When I say I love my friend, I mean it differently than when I say that I love Jodi. 

-Love can be an affection for an object, like I have for my yellow t-shirt that is soft and comfortable that my wife wants to throw away.  I could say, “I love that t-shirt”.  Obviously, my love for my T-shirt is different than my love for my friends or my love for Jodi. 

-Love can be a love characterized by sacrifice in the pursuit of another person’s good.  For an example of this, let’s look to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

John Piper, who has been influenced by CS Lewis wrote a book called, “Desiring God”.  In it, he gives us a definition of love that goes along with, and supports the definition we just talked about.  He says, “Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others”.  Piper, especially in this book, is very much about the concept that God intends for our lives to be joyful.  That is, a joy that comes from our love for God.  The Christian life is not to be a series of tasks that are completed begrudgingly.  Sometimes the tasks we need to accomplish aren’t fun, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have joy while doing them.

This is the kind of love we want to focus on today.  Love that is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others.  This is the love your neighbor as yourself kind of love. 

Love is a topic that permeates the Bible, from the beginning to the end.  For today, I want us to focus on one main scripture, Matthew 22:34-40.  34 Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. 35 And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

We are talking about loving our neighbor, but before we start talking about that, we have to first talk about the context that command is found in.  Here in these verses the command to love our neighbor is built on a foundation and that foundation is another command.  If we look at the context of Jesus’ words here, He is asked what is the greatest commandment.  The greatest commandment is not to love your neighbor, it is to love God.   In fact, it is to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our mind.  That is pretty all encompassing.  Loving God is the foundation that our love for anything and anyone is built on.  It is like the first part of our definition of love.  Love is the overflow of joy in God… I can’t stress enough the fact that I can’t love my neighbor as myself without first loving God with all of my heart, soul, and mind.

Now Jesus says, loving our neighbor is secondary to loving God, but it’s still really important.  The fact that Jesus even included it in his answer to the pharisees is important.  He could have stopped with “Love God”.  He didn’t have to include “love your neighbor” in his answer.  Including it went above and beyond the scope of the question.  Apparently Jesus thought loving our neighbor was not only important enough to include here, but he kind of attached it to our love for God when he said that all of the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

Now, I want to step aside from our main topic and point out something important.  Notice that Jesus didn’t go into a lot of detail talking about what it looks like to love God and your neighbor, but he did go into a lot of detail through the example he lived and gave to us.  I think that is something we can learn from.  It is kind of a cliche, but it is something we can’t overlook,  people learn more about our love by what we do, than by what we say.  Jesus clearly lived this.  When we look at what Jesus did with his life, when we look at some of the main lessons that he wanted to leave with his disciples, one of the things that Jesus emphasized over and over again was that loving people meant serving them.  The son of man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  (Mark 10:45)

1 Corinthians 13 gives us a list of what love looks like and what it doesn’t look like.  Love is patient and kind and it rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  Love is not envious, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t puffed up, it isn’t rude, it isn’t self serving it isn’t easily angered, it isn’t resentful and it isn’t glad about injustice. 

We should be able to look at ourselves  and see ourselves in the good parts of this list and not in the bad parts.  The problem is that we can do things that look like we love God and actually not love God with all of our heart and soul and mind.  The same thing is true concerning our love for our neighbor.  We can do things that look like we love our neighbor and still not really love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  This is what the Pharisees (who Jesus was answering in Matthew 22) excelled at.  They loved the laws and they kept them incredibly well, but they lacked love.  What Jesus did here in Matthew 22 and what Paul did in 1 Corinthians was to take the laws and replace them with principles that would include these laws, but go deeper.  For example, Love God with all your heart, mind and soul.  That obviously would encompass all of the laws regarding God that the Pharisees were keeping, but it adds an extra measure to it.  It moves “loving God” from an external “keep the law” or “do this do that” kind of relationship to an internal heart matter.  Paul does the same thing.  Instead of saying, “don’t lie” he said love “rejoices in the truth.”  Do you see the difference?  This adds an extra measure.  It is no longer this external list of things that I can fake.   

Let’s go back to Matthew 22.  When dealing with my neighbor, Jesus said to love my neighbor as myself. I don’t know where I heard it first, but a phrase that has stuck with me throughout the years is that we could say that loving my neighbor as I love myself means with the same intensity that I love myself.  Here is an example. I wouldn’t steal from my neighbor.  I wouldn’t steal their clothes or their house, but what if they are cold and they don’t have warm clothes or a warm house? This is a reality for many people here in Guatemala.  If I have the means to make them warm, what should do I do?  Should I sacrifice my standard of living to ensure that they are warm?  What if they are hungry, do I sacrifice my standard of living provide them with food?  This takes us back to loving our neighbor with the same intensity that I love myself.  If I was cold I would want clothing and shelter.  How about this?  If I, or my kids, or my wife, or my parents were hungry, I would want food and I would want my family to have food.  I should want the same for my neighbor.  What we would do for ourselves or even for our own children is now the standard that Jesus put in place. 

(Bear in mind that this was preached to a specific audience primarily composed of missionaries, but please keep reading) 

Now, I know my audience today.  Let’s step back and take a moment to talk specifically about Journey Church.  I am going to ask a rhetorical question here:  How many people who attend Journey are daily involved in loving your neighbor?  How many of us preach the gospel out of concern for the souls of our neighbors?  How many of us build houses to keep “our neighbors” warm?  How many of us feed “our neighbors”?  How many of us clothe “our neighbors”?  How many of us educate “our neighbors”?  How many of us provide jobs for “our neighbors”?  I would venture to say that the vast majority of the families here make these things our daily focus.  If you are visiting on a team, you are here to show love to the people of Guatemala.  You (Journey Church) are loving your neighbor.  So, why do you need to hear a sermon on loving your neighbor?  It’s one of the things that we here at Journey are really good at.  It almost seems as ridiculous as going to the Denver Broncos and telling them it’s important not to fumble the football or not to throw interceptions.  They know it.  They are some of the best people in the world at what they do.  I think it’s the same here at Journey.  You might not be world champion football players, but you are some of the best people in the world at loving your neighbor.

So why, why talk about it?

One time, about 1950 years ago, there was another church.  It was made up of the people of a city called Ephesus.  Jesus sent them a message.  We can read that message in Revelation 2:1-7.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars his right hand and walks among the seven golden lamp stands:  I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance.  I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.  You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 

Yet I hold this against you:  You have forsaken your first love.  Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first.  If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from it’s place.  But you have this in your favor:  You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. 

They seemed to be doing the right things.  They were working hard, they were persevering, they were making sure that what was preached was the truth.  They endured many hardships for the name of Jesus.  They did not grow weary in their works.

That part sounds a lot like Journey Church.  We work hard to love our neighbor.  When things get tough, we keep going.  We have given up a lot of worldly things to be here doing what we do.  We do our best to make sure that what is spoken in our ministries is the truth. 

Good Job. 

Here’s what I hope, though.  I hope that the second part of that passage doesn’t sound like Journey Church.  I hope that we haven’t given up, forsaken, our first love.  I hope that all of the “things” we do are done with  pure motives.  Remember when Jesus said that the Pharisees were like whitewashed tombs.  They were clean and white on the outside and from the outside everything looked good.  The problem was that on the inside they were full of rotten, decomposing flesh and bones. They were busy doing all of the things that the religious law required, but their actions were not motivated by a heart, soul, and mind love for God.  Their actions didn’t come from an overflow of their love for God.  We could easily fall into the same trap of doing, but not loving God.  We could easily build houses, feed people, clothe people, educate people, give people jobs, even preach the gospel, but instead of doing it out of a love for them that is deeply rooted in our love for God, we could be doing it because it makes us feel good.  We could be doing it because it makes us look good.  We could be doing it because it’s what people expect of us.  We could be doing it because when we first moved to Guatemala, that love was genuine.  When we first moved to Guatemala, we really did love our neighbor as ourselves, that’s what got us going in the morning.  But maybe over time, it’s become a job.  It’s become just something we do because, well, that’s what we do

That is not what God wants.  He says in Revelation, “remember your first love”.  He wants us to love Him completely.  He wants us to love our neighbor with the same intensity that we love ourselves.  If you find yourself busy doing, but not really loving, it’s never too late to change, until it is too late to change.  The time for introspection is now.  The time for repentance, if needed, is now.  The time for forgiveness from God and restoration with God if we need it is now

I don’t say these things because I see that we here at Journey have “lost our first love”.  My purpose is not to point out something bad here at Journey that I have noticed.  I just know human nature.  I just know how my own life is.  Sometimes I get tired.  Sometimes I get jaded.  Sometimes I get used to seeing people live lives that I wouldn’t want for me and my kids.  Sometimes I need a little reminder, sometimes I need a correction in my course.  Maybe it’s not huge.  Maybe just a degree or two here or there to get back on course.  That’s what today is.  It’s a reminder, to remember the reason why we do what we do.  In case you’ve forgotten, we love our neighbor because we love God. 

Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others. 

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WHY?

There were multiple reasons why we decided to uproot our family and move to Guatemala.  “Uproot” may seem like kind of a harsh word, I mean picture grabbing a plant by the stem and pulling it up out of the ground.  We all know that those roots that come out of the ground are where the plant gets its nourishment and without the roots being in contact with the ground, the plant will die.

That is actually a pretty good picture of what we did to our family.  When I look back on it, it was physically and psychologically hard on all of us.  Our roots ran deep in Indiana.  We had built a house on the family farm that I grew up on and that my dad grew up on before me.  My parents lived at the other end of a trail that ran through our woods.  My kids had, what now seems like an unlimited amount of safe space to play outside.  My wife’s parents lived 20 minutes away.  We were actively involved in our church.  We spent time with friends we had known virtually our whole life.  Our kids had friends they had known their whole life.  Our life was very comfortable.  We pulled them out of that environment and we didn’t really know what the environment was like where we were transplanting them.  What we did know, though, was that God was telling us to do it and we had to obey.  Following God will probably not be easy, it wasn’t for us, but easy rarely = best.

Our why starts with the way that God was working on my heart in the years before we moved.  As I read the Bible and as I read other books, I began to realize that my life, and the life that I was leading our family in, lined up pretty well with the current view of how our culture defines a Christian life, but it didn’t really line up with the Biblical definition of a Christian life.  (Please, please, please, please, don’t take offense at this.  This is not a condemnation of your life.  This is not a condemnation of the United States or capitalism. This is not me, saying that what we are doing would be the right path for you, or that the path you are on is wrong.  That is entirely between you and God, just as this was entirely between us and God.  You have to have those conversations with God.  I would never presume to have them for you.  This is in no way a judgement on you or your church or my church.  This is just my why.

So, what is a Biblical definition of a “Christian” life?  Of course, the Bible is where we get that definition.  If I had to pick one passage, I think a passage that can define our Christian life would be Matthew 22:35-40 “Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together.  And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Love God. Don’t just say you love Him, but lovehim with all your heart, with all your soul, and with al your mind.”  When that happens, our lives will show it because it is all encompassing.  When we love God, we will love what God loves, we will want what God wants.  Our main job as Christians is to bring glory to God.  That happens when our lives show Godliness through things like grace, mercy, justice…  Do you love God with all your heart, mind, and soul? 

Love your neighbor.  If that ended there, it would be kind of easy.  The problem is, though, that verse doesn’t say to just love your neighbor, but it says to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  I love myself a lot.  I want to be safe, I want to be comfortable, I want to be successful, I want to be healthy.  I don’t have a really hard time extending those feelings to my wife and kids.  I want the same things for them.  What about my neighbor?  Do I want the same things for him or her?  How do we define who our neighbor is?  Is it only the person who lives directly next to me, or is some little kid or some mom or dad in a village in Guatemala my neighbor (they are my actual neighbors now)?  Do I hunger for their safety, comfort, success and health the same way I hunger for that of me and my family?  These are all questions we had to answer.  These are questions we should all answer, no matter where we live. 

Other books and people, have helped me process and put into practice what I read in the Bible and were instrumental in shaping our why.  Two of my favorite books are “Desiring God” by John Piper, and “Radical” by David Platt.  My copy of Desiring God was given to me by my in-laws  and it has helped me put into perspective and practice the idea of loving God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind.  I highly recommend it.  As far as Radical, I think I was introduced to that book by my good friend Mark Kelly.  I was going through that book with a group of 5-6 guys and while we were reading it, one of them said, (this is not an exact quote) “We are all reading this book, and talking about it, but who is really going to do it?”  It was like somebody hit me between the eyes with a baseball bat.  The things that David Platt was talking about were things that were in the Bible.  He wasn’t making them up, he was helping us focus.  If I wasn’t willing to make the changes to bring my life more in line with what the Bible says, then my Christianity was fake.  My example was leading my family astray.  Instead of moving my family toward a life of loving God and loving their neighbor, I wasn’t moving them anywhere.  Instead of leading them toward real security, happiness and success, I was leading them to work for their security, happiness, and success from material things.  I was teaching them to succeed in what doesn’t really matter and to fail in what really does matter.  That Bible study in Chris and Kelee’s living room was a turning point for me. The guy who made the comment probably doesn’t even know what he did, but God used him to bring about a change in my life.  Aside from that guy, there were other people who were a positive influence.  There were people who we watched leave comfort, roots, and security to follow God.  Their example, prodded us.  (People are always watching, believers and unbelievers.)

So, that’s our why.  In the end, it came down to God speaking to Jodi and I through His word, through other books, through other people.  When we really listened, there was no other choice for us.  We will always miss that familiar ground our roots were in back in Indiana, but God has planted us here in Guatemala and it is from this ground God is nourishing us for now.

Now, I have just one question for you.  Why are you where you are doing what you are doing?  You should have a why.

Below are a few of my favorite quotes some from of my favorite authors.  If you haven’t read “The Holy Bible”,  “Desiring God”, “Radical”, and “Crazy Love”, I highly recommend them. 

Paul (the apostle) Ephesians 3:20-21:  Now glory be to God, who by his mighty power at work within us is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of—infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, or hopes.  May he be given glory forever and ever through endless ages because of his master plan of salvation for the Church through Jesus Christ.

CS Lewis (by way of John Piper):  “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

David Platt:  We don’t have time to play games with our lives, and we don’t have time to play games in the church.  We do not have time to waste our lives on a nice, comfortable, Christian spin on the American dream.”

Francis Chan:  Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”

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The beauty around us

The beauty around us

The ugliness when we look up close.

Living here in Guatemala, we often post pictures of the beauty around us. We live in a valley surrounded by volcano’s. Our temperature is almost always 70-75 degrees. We live an hour from the Pacific ocean with it’s palm trees, black sand, and blue water. There are ruins of old Spanish churches all around us. A coffee plantation is growing up out of the side of the “hill” that rises up right behind our house. Many of the people around us dress in beautiful hand embroidered, colorful clothes. Guatemala really is a beautiful place to live. The thing is, when you look closer, there is a lot of ugliness. Most of the pictures we post are taken of something beautiful in the distance, while there is something really ugly right in front of us. Sometimes it is the other way around, taken uptrash dump close with something really ugly behind what we are photographing. There is always ugliness just around the corner.  One day this week, I went on a bike ride around our little town of Jocotenango. I went with the purpose of seeing the ugliness of where we live. I didn’t have to go far. There is trash everywhere. There are skinny sick dogs everywhere. There is crime everywhere. There are always drunk men staggering down the street or passed out on the sidewalk. The pictures that I included with this blog were all taken within just a few blocks of where we live. They are just pictures of things I usually point my camera over or around.
drunk guy

Here’s my point. The pictures we take and post on Facebook and in our blog often show people what we want Guatemala to be, but it’s not. We want to see the beauty but we are called to see the ugliness. When I wanted to take these pictures, I actually had to make myself look to see the trash. It is so common that it just seems normal now. I would ride past something and notice it, but not really notice it. Then I would stop and back up and ask myself how I could possibly have not noticed what I just saw. Living here in Guatemala, our job is to see the ugliness and do something about it. I’m not talking about the trash in the streets and the rivers anymore. The ugliness we are here to see and do something about is ignorance of the true Gospel. It’s not knowing, not understanding, trashy rivernot having a true relationship with the God who created us. The symptoms are alcoholism (another friend died in March), drug abuse, pride, selfishness…trash. These all grow out of the ugliness of not KNOWING God. That’s the real ugliness that we often overlook.

I guess there is a personal application here as well. The image that we project to those around us is often the person we want to be, not the person we really are. Often we view the church we are a part of as we want it to be, not as it really is. We see our children as little angels when they really aren’t. We see the people around us as we want them to be, when really, they are in pain and need and want help.  When we overlook and hide the ugliness and trash in our lives, in our organizations, in those around us, it never gets fixed. Sometimes, like we get used to the trash in the river, we get used to the ugliness around us. We go right past it in our daily lives without noticing it. We have to get in close. We are called to get in close. The problem with getting in close, is that when we see ugliness and we decide to do something about it, it’s going to cost us. You can’t pull the trash out of the river without getting wet. It might cost time, or money, or emotional capital. The cool thing about it all though, is that no matter how great the cost, the benefit will be even greater.

Guatemala will never be perfect, there will always be some ugliness right outside of the picture frame.  It is just like there will always be some kind of trash in our lives, our families, our organizations, and the people around us. The thing is, though, the more the light of the truth of the Gospel shines on all of it, the better everything will be. That’s why we are here.

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So, I was at our Bible study the other night…

and I was looking around while we were singing some songs. There were about 35 people there and I had one of “those” moments. We were singing “Cuan Grande es Dios” (How Great is Our God) and I was amazed at the group that God has brought together here in Jocotenango. (You can click Here to see some pictures on our Facebook page.)

I thought you might like to know a little more about the lives of some of the people who were there.  (I have purposely not included most of the names, but there are a lot of Carlos and Jorge’s).

–  There was Jorge, who was at one time in his life a thief and an alcoholic.  Now he is a pastor.
–  There was a new guy there who is battling an alcohol addiction.
–  That guy was sitting next to another guy who  is about 27 years old, separated from his wife and daughter and he has an alcohol problem.
–  Next to him was a guy that came in late and left early, I never got his name.  He seemed to know the songs we were singing, but he looked like his life has been hard lately.
–  Next to that guy was a young man who had his arm around that guy and was praying with him.  This young man is about 25, he is recently converted from Catholicism and is soaking up the Bible whenever he can.
–  The young man’s brother  was on the other side of the room with his 6 year old son.  He and his wife are separated.  His son lives with his wife.  He struggles with alcohol and depression.
–  Next to “the brother” was a girl who was about 18 years old, single, and struggling to support her 3 year old daughter and 1 year old baby.
–  Next to her was a man who is probably in his 60’s, sometimes it’s hard to tell here.  He has 3 adult daughters who are active in our Bible studies. He seems to be a pretty good dad and grandfather.  He has a hard time finding consistent work.
–  He was sitting next to a single mom with two daughters.  One of her daughters just a week before “hurt” both of her hips.  The story I heard was that they were both broken, but she was walking tonight, slowly.  I never got a straight story on what exactly happened.  This family lives up a pretty steep hill.  Her mom usually comes with her but she wasn’t there because she was taking care of her grandaughter so she could come to the Bible study.
–  Speaking of injuries, another woman from our Bible study broke her leg the same day and wasn’t there that evening.
–  Next to me was a guy who I have helped move his family from one place to live to another probably 6 times in the last year.  Everything they own fits in the back part of my suburban, (just the part where there aren’t any seats, not the whole suburban) except for the one mattress that he shares with his wife and their son Joshua.  He has a hard time finding work.
–  Another woman was there, and she is a probably 60 something year old (sometimes it’s hard to tell), single, grandmother who is the primary caregiver for her 10 year old grandson.  She never has consistent work, but she cleans some houses and does some cooking to provide for her and her grandson.

There were more people there, (I I know this is a lot of scrolling on your little phone screen so I am not going to list each and every person.)  and each person and their story is important, but the stories start to repeat over and over.  There are a lot of people struggling with alcohol. Few people have jobs.  Few people have marriages that have lasted. They all struggle with putting food on the table. There are a lot of satanic influences on these families.  This is life for most people in Jocotenango.

So, just so you know.

These are the people you all are helping.  Please, continue to keep them, and us, in your prayers.

PS

No matter what obstacles we face, or where we have grown up, or where we live, we can always find someone who has an easier life, or a harder life. (Well, except for that one person in the world who has it better than everybody else and that oneperson who has it worse than everybody else.)  Really, it all comes down to one thing at the end of our life. The Bible says – All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  It also says, Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.  That name is Jesus and He is always the answer, no matter what obstacles we face.
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My first trip

 

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Do you remember your first long trip, alone?  It doesn’t matter whether it was on an airplane or in a car, or even a bicycle for that matter.  I remember mine, it was in my car.  It was my second semester in college and I was now permitted to have a car on campus.  I was excited.  I had made the trip from Indiana to Pensacola quite a few times with my parents,  but when I was with my mom and dad, we didn’t need a map, they knew the way.  (This was pre cell phones and GPS)

I felt excited, but a little apprehensive.  What if I make a wrong turn?  What if I fall asleep?  What if my car breaks down?  There were a million “what if’s” running through my head, but my car and I both made it in one piece.  I was 18. By the way, it was awesome having a car on campus.

I am writing this on Dec. 26.  It is a tradition in our family to read the Christmas story from Luke chapter 2 on Christmas morning.  My dad read it for us and now I read it with my kids.  Hopefully they will read it with their kids.  So, yesterday I read the Christmas story from Luke 2 to my kids.

I like to try to put myself in stories I read in the Bible as much as possible.  I want to know what the people were feeling.  I want to know what things were like for them.  As I was reading Luke 2 to my family, I was reminded of my first long car trip by myself.  I was struck by the fact that Joseph and Mary were quite young and probably quite inexperienced in life (Joseph could have been as young as 15 and Mary as young as 13).   Joseph may have made the trip to Bethlehem (85 miles?) before this, but probably never alone.  This time he had to navigate.  There were probably no road signs that told him where to turn.  He didn’t have a cell phone with Waze (that’s an incredibly valuable phone app we use to find our way around Guatemala.)

Surely he had never made the trip with a young, very pregnant girl.  That changes things.  He had responsibility now.  He couldn’t just pull over and sleep on the side of the road.  If someone wanted to rob them, he couldn’t just run away, he had to protect Mary and her unborn child.  He had to provide food for her.  He had to make sure she wasn’t overdoing it.  He was responsible.  When they got to Bethlehem, she went into labor,  maybe labor started on the way. Then, to make matters worse, there were no rooms, no beds available for them in Bethlehem.  This was not a vacation.

God knew what He was doing sending this young couple on this hard trip.  He knew the trials they would face not only on this trip, but also throughout their lives.  Their son was the Messiah.  He came to save the world, not from Roman oppression, but from sin and death.  His mom knew what was happening to him when he was on trial.  She knew what the sentence was.  She watched him die a horrible death, knowing he was innocent.  God had started preparing Mary for that day in Jerusalem, 30 some years earlier on that night in Bethlehem.  God is perfect in His love, God is perfect in His timing.  God is perfect in His actions. God knew that Mary needed a savior just as much as you and I.  God knew that her, and our, only hope was her Son.

So, I have two lessons from all of this and one little reminder.  The first is that when we are going through tough times, God is still in control.  He did not waste Joseph and Mary’s tough trip.  He does not waste our trials.  There is always purpose.  That purpose might seem so far away at the moment of our trial, but in light of eternity, it’s just around the corner.

The second is that no matter who we are, we all need a savior.  It doesn’t matter if we are the Emperor of Rome or a shepherd.  We all have the same problem. It is that our sin separates us from God and there is nothing we can do about it.  We all need a savior.  God provided our Savior that night in Bethlehem.

Finally, as we continue to celebrate the Christmas season, have fun celebrating, enjoy your times with families and friends, but never let our celebration overshadow the reason for our celebration.

 

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Carlos

This is Carlos.  He comes to our Saturday night Bible studies almost every week.  He’s never on time, but if he doesn’t show up, I get worried about him.  He always has on the same clothes.  Usually his hair is messcarlosed up.  I have a hard time understanding him when he talks because he is missing quite a few teeth.  I could say a lot of things about Carlos, but let’s just say that he’s a unique guy.

He used to come to our Saturday night Bible studies and sit by the wall, so that he could lean up against it, and sleep.  Which is ok, because if he needs a safe place to crash for a while, why not with us?

Sometimes someone’s growth just kind of sneaks up on you.  That happened to me this week with Carlos.  When he came in this week, his clothes were the same, but his hair was combed.  He listened to Jorge’s message.  He answered questions.  He hugged a girl who was celebrating her birthday.  He contributed to the offering.

I hate to even point that out, but that’s what got to me the most.  I mean, this guy, who doesn’t really have anything to give, gave.  That all by itself is remarkable.   The thing that means the most to me, though, is that Carlos has been a part of us for a long time and he is finally figuring out that he belongs.

We all come to God with baggage.  Some of us come with just a carry-on.  Some of us with a carry-on, a personal item, and 27 checked bags.  The differences between the two might seem like a lot to us, but to God, there is no difference.

We all start out the same way but the path to God is the same for everyone.  In the Bible, Colossians says,  “It was through what his Son did that God cleared a path for everything to come to him—all things in heaven and on earth—for Christ’s death on the cross has made peace with God for all by his blood.  This includes you who were once so far away from God. You were his enemies and hated him and were separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions, yet now he has brought you back as his friends.  He has done this through the death on the cross of his own human body, and now as a result Christ has brought you into the very presence of God, and you are standing there before him with nothing left against you—nothing left that he could even chide you for;  the only condition is that you fully believe the Truth, standing in it steadfast and firm, strong in the Lord, convinced of the Good News that Jesus died for you, and never shifting from trusting him to save you. This is the wonderful news that came to each of you and is now spreading all over the world.”