Mission Mahahual Part 2 – What are we doing here?

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Except that in Mahahual, everyone already knows how to fish, and many of them are tired of it. I heard a story while down there that some of the people who live on the beach eat so much lobster that they’ll gladly trade a bunch of them for a frozen chicken.

But one skill essential for improving a person’s situation in Mahahual is English. The main industry of the entire area is tourism, and for nine months out of the year there are cruise ships every day bringing in tourists. Many of these tourists speak English, either as their first language or their second.

The best paying jobs in town are at the port, where the ability to communicate in English is almost a requirement. Because many people in Mahahual don’t speak English, the port brings in people from Belize and other larger Mexican cities to fill its 1,000+ positions. The next best jobs are those that put people in direct communication with tourists – restaurants, beach clubs, hotels, dive shops, and souvenir stands. Once again, speaking English is a leg up in getting these jobs.

Many children in town, especially in the poorer parts of town, don’t even have access to regular schooling. And even if they are able to go to school, the schools in town do not do much in the way of English education. We saw this as an opportunity for the mission to connect with the community in a meaningful way. If we could help them develop English skills, they would have access to jobs that would not only give them a brighter future individually, but would keep more money in Mahahual and strengthen the overall economy.

The goal of every mission is to share the Gospel of Jesus with people who need to hear it. But take for example Jesus’ response to the paralyzed man who was brought to him – yes, he gave him forgiveness and eternal hope, but he also gave him physical healing. Jesus did the same with countless others. We follow his call to meet both earthly and eternal needs.

We pulled together a program where we would gather kids at the church every day of the week for four weeks and teach them Bible stories in Spanish and then teach them English skills. We recruited two awesome young women (shout out to Taylor Weber and Brittany Brassow!) as lead teachers, and organized teams to come down and provide support.

As plans often do, this one morphed to include so much more than originally intended. There was an art camp, we worked with the local community center, we played soccer with kids, took them on a field trip to the port, helped clean up trash in the streets of the community, distributed clothing and hygiene supplies, and knocked out a painting project on part of the fence around the church. As of today, the team there this week is helping with clean up after Tropical Storm Franklin rolled through.

No matter the work, our goal is to represent Christ in all we do. The name of the mission is Cruz de Cristo, in English, “Cross of Christ.” Whether we were picking up trash, or holding a kid’s hand walking through the port, or teaching kids English at the community center, we were putting in front of everyone we met those three simple words – Cross of Christ. A reminder that there is something bigger than all of us, bigger than our trials, bigger than our sins. A reminder that there is a love that is greater than anyone on this earth can ever show.

And by loving the people, we were sending the message that the love Jesus, the love that drove him to the cross, inspires his followers to care for others. Even when we don’t speak the language very well. Even when we don’t always understand the culture. As a member of the church there often says, “Love isn’t limited to speaking the same language.”

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Mission Mahahual – Part 1

Mahahual, Mexico – palms waving in the ocean breeze, restaurants on the beach, rich sights under the waves for snorkelers, and every souvenir imaginable. Also, broken brick houses, children living in poverty, heat and humidity and bugs. Also, friendly greetings for locals and visitors alike, kids playing soccer and basketball in the evening, tacos on the street for only a dozen pesos, and a few dozen places to get a drink for less than a bottle of water.

Cruz de Cristo, the Lutheran mission in Mahahual – perhaps the only place in town, other than your own home, where a person can hear about Jesus every week. Also, a place where children are not only welcomed, they are picked up in vans and brought to the mission so that they can hear about Jesus. Also, a place where the needy are welcomed every Friday for a bowl of soup or a sandwich, feeding their bodies as well as their souls.

It is a joy to worship and serve alongside the brothers and sisters in the faith in Mahahual. This summer, we put together a program to bring Bible stories and English classes to the children. With dedicated volunteers from Minnesota and Wisconsin serving on rotating teams over four weeks (and two rock star college age teachers serving for the duration), we ended up adding to that an art camp, sports down at the community center, garbage cleanup on the streets of the town, and donations of clothing and hygiene and educational supplies.

What we came here to give, however, is only one side of the coin. Equally valuable is that which we received. It is impossible to do mission work in a place like Mahahual and not be changed by it. It’s not always easy to put words to what that means, but there’s no doubt we feel the changes worked in us.

But why are we doing this? What is the point, and what good is it accomplishing? Why this project in this place? As I look at the paragraphs above, I feel like they already answer those questions, at least in part. But over the next couple weeks I will be sharing about our experiences, what we’ve seen and done, the good we hoped to do and the evidence of what God has done through it.

Looking for a Sign

“Lord, just give me a sign…”

“Teacher, we want to see a sign…”

“No sign with be given, except…”

“I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes…”

I’ve been thinking a lot about signs in the last week or so. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been looking for signs. Wishing for a sign.

It’s Holy Week, a week for focusing on the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A week to be thinking about my mortality, my weakness, my sinfulness, and the awesome gift of grace found in Jesus. A week to stand before the cross and empty tomb and listen to my Savior speaking peace to me.

But…

A week before Palm Sunday I was asked by another church to join their ministry team. I have a few weeks in which to gather information, seek advice, and make a decision that will affect my ministry, my family, and both congregations for years to come. Funny timing. Humbling that God and these church leaders would put such a decision in my hands.

So, Lord, could you just give me a sign what the best thing to do is?

Have you ever felt that way? Ever had a big decision to make, and wished for some divine graffiti to tell you what to do? Ever prayed, “Lord, just give me a sign”?

Here’s some more funny timing – this week, my teaching plan for a religion class I teach on Thursdays to a group of 8th graders had us looking at Jonah 2. In the materials for this class, materials I wrote four years ago, we are led to Matthew 12:38-41 –

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.” Ouch. Did you put that there for me, Lord?

I don’t think Jesus is trying to heap guilt on people for asking God to give them some direction. He’s addressing the sinful motives of the Pharisees, who are essentially saying, “We refuse to believe that you are from God, and refuse to believe anything you say, unless you can prove to us in a way that satisfies our arrogance that you truly are who you say you are.” In many ways, this is no different than people today who insist that faith in God is foolishness if you can’t produce evidence of his existence. “Show us a sign that your God really exists,” they say, and Jesus answer to them is, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.”

But there is a warning for believers in this as well. Many want to hear God’s voice whispering to their ears or hearts. Many want to see some kind of miraculous evidence that God is at work. The warning is not too look too hard for God to speak apart from his Word. What does Jesus point to? He points to the Scriptures, to the story of Jonah, and says, “This is the sign to look for. This was a foreshadowing of what will happen to me, and when it happens, then you will know that I am the Lord.”

And it did happen. And we have the testimony of the people who were there to see it. Today is Good Friday, and in just a few short days we will celebrate together the only sign Jesus says we should look for. Jesus died and came to life again. What greater sign do we need? This is where we get our confidence. This gives us every reassurance we need. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is the Lord and God he claimed to be. The salvation he said he would bring is real. Nothing in this life can separate us from his love. Jesus is Lord, and we are his. What greater sign do we need?

If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is Lord wherever I go to serve. If Jesus rose from the dead, the choice to serve and the promise of blessings in either place is certain. If Jesus rose from the dead, I can’t make a wrong decision between serve him here or serve him there. If Jesus rose from the dead, it really isn’t that big of a decision, because in the end, he’ll use either choice to build his kingdom.

The same can be said of your big decisions. Jesus rose from the dead. That is the sign that he is Lord, and everything he said about your life and his promises is true. Are you wrestling with a job decision? Jesus is Lord and will bless either choice. Trying to decide if now is the time to work toward marriage? Jesus loves marriage and will be your strength. Deciding on a big purchase? Jesus is the giver of all good things, so if this is a good time for this, then take hold and enjoy with thanksgiving.

In the end, the decisions of this life are but a sliver of what is to come. We have eternity to look forward to – because Jesus rose from the dead. So while these decisions may feel very big today, when we pass on to glory, we won’t look back with regret. No need to worry, Jesus has this. Because he rose from the dead.

Now, I won’t say that God never gives us a nudge here or there. Sometimes everything falls into place and you just have to grin. It’s just that he doesn’t promise he will always work that way, and he doesn’t want us to get decision paralysis while we wait for him to convince us of something.

The empty tomb is the only sign we need. Would it be nice to have extra direction once in a while? Maybe. But it doesn’t really change anything. Jesus is Lord. That is enough.

The Election is Over – What Now?

For the last several months we’ve been scrolling through political posts on Facebook, sighing through political ads on TV, and throwing our phones through our windows after political arguments and conversations with our friends and family. Now that the election is past and we know who our president and other leaders will be, what will we do to pass the time?

Well, we could get right back on social media and express our outrage/triumph/ambivalence. We could drown ourselves in drink or chocolate or ice cream (or all three!) and feel sorry for ourselves. We could assign blame to groups of people or toxic attitudes or the media or demonic forces (I wouldn’t discount that last one) and feel better about ourselves. We could celebrate and pump our fists in the faces of our opponents, or take the streets in protest and break a lot of stuff. We could curl up in a fetal position and contemplate staying that way for the next four years.

But none of that would be all that helpful.

We could take the slightly more constructive approach of reposting memes reminding us all to try and get along, or articles asking us to be introspective and consider that the problems with our country might start with ourselves. I happen to agree with many of these sentiments, by the way, but I think we can do even better. Because if an election proves anything, it’s that we’re very good at polarizing ourselves, and not very good at considering the possibility that the people on the “other side” might have very valid and justifiable reasons for believing and voting the way they do. And I believe that the way to move past an election is to do more than just play nice or look inward. We need to be intentional about drawing together as a people, and those of us who have been called by grace should be leading that charge.

So I’m offering some suggestions for what we can do, and they all stem from the pen of Jesus’ best friend, John:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. – 1 John 3:16-18

  • Trust the love of Christ. Jesus laid down his life for us. He’s not going to let the people he bought with his own blood suffer needlessly. His grace is with you.
  • Reach out to a friend, family member, coworker or neighbor who voted differently than you did. Affirm the positives of that relationship. Let them know you care about them.
  • Help someone nearby you who is in need. Let them see that the love of Christ is in you. Even a small act can have a big impact.
  • Repent of angry words and feelings against people on “the other side” of the issues from you. We’re all sinners. None of us have this completely right. Ask forgiveness, and then show forgiveness.
  • Be salt and light. This election put the dark sides of humanity on display in some pretty powerful ways, and exposed our culture’s sicknesses. Show that we have the cure by living as a redeemed child of God.
  • Share Jesus with someone. The Gospel is the power that changes hearts and lives. Use that power.

While it doesn’t come from anything John said, here or otherwise, I would also advise taking the time to read and digest Mr. Trump’s policies and plans. Whether you’re happy with the election or not, these are the plans that will set the direction for our country, so become familiar with them. Understand the goods from the bads, and decide what you need to do with your life to work within what is to come. I’ve seen a lot of fear about what Mr. Trump will do, and it’s hard to love from a position of fear. But it’s easy to fear what you don’t understand. Fight fear with knowledge, and trust it all to the God who holds the nations in his hands. He’s got this.

Election 2016 Commentary

Elections are intense, and they capture the attention of the whole nation. I kept a running commentary on Facebook of my thoughts on the whole process over the last 36 hours or so, but if you didn’t catch that, here it is in handy one-post form.


Monday, 11/7/2016, 9:52 PM: Tomorrow we elect an earthly ruler. Whether or not our country makes the “right” choice is a question for the historian. The theologian knows that the heavenly ruler remains, and that he is good. Rest at peace, my friends. Tomorrow is not such a big day after all.

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Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 7:21 AM: Went for a good hard run to start the day. Who knows, maybe we people of God will need our practice doing so. Thought about how Abraham, father of the promise, got his wife’s maidservant pregnant (at his wife’s insistence!), but then when his wife got pregnant, sent the maidservant and her child off into the desert to die. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 8:10 AM: Just cast my vote. It’s out of my hands now! Thinking about Abraham’s grandson Jacob, a guy so slick his name actually means “Deceiver.” But his uncle tricked him into marrying two women, and swindled 14 years of labor out of him for it. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

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This might be favorite moment of the whole day.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 9:06 AM: What can get a whole group of nuns into a Lutheran Church? Voting! Thinking about how God used Moses to lead his people out of slavery, even though he killed a guy and ran away, and later on literally broke God’s Law – smashed the two tablets to bits because he was angry. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 11:10 AM: What if today doesn’t go “your way”? I’m not actually sure that any way it can go is all that great. But there are bigger things at work than political machinations. I was just thinking about Samson – blessed by God with super-strength, but he slept around, married a couple different women, and was brought low by a woman’s feminine wiles. Scandalous! But God used Samson, and Jesus still came.

 

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 1:51 PM: RealClearPolitics is currently predicting a Clinton win by only 6 electoral votes, while ElectionProjection is predicting a Clinton win by 20. But news sources are also saying that these results could swing wildly as the day progresses. My Facebook news feed is just SWIMMING in goofy memes and people wearing their “I Voted” stickers. I’m thinking about King David. Here’s a guy who had multiple wives, but took his friend’s wife to bed with him (while his friend was off at war) and got her pregnant. He tried to cover it up, but that didn’t work, so he had his friend killed. Scandalous! But God called David a “man after his own heart,” and Jesus came anyway.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 7:20 PM: Polls are closing along the east coast and reports are coming in with some kind of results. My computer is protesting the election by refusing to anything until I restart it, but the restart is going on 15 minutes so far. Whatever. I’m thinking of King Solomon, wisest guy who ever lived. Unless you count the 300 wives and 700 concubines. Scandalous! But Jesus came anyway.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 9:36 PM: Still too early to tell who’s going to win this thing, though stuff is starting to really list toward Trump. But lots of people are also talking about the really big upset, which is the change of Toblerone’s shape to include LESS CHOCOLATE! I’m thinking about a regional governor named Pontius Pilate, who could find no fault with a man called Jesus of Nazareth, but had him publicly tortured and put to death anyway, just to appease the crowds. Scandalous! But Jesus came anyway.

Wednesday, 11/9/2016, 6:59 AM: I went to bed still uncertain of the outcome, but with a prediction in mind. All night I dreamed various scenarios. I woke to the news that Donald Trump is our next president. I don’t know if this is good for America or not. I don’t know what I’d feel if they had gone the other way. What I do know is that the sun is rising, I still have breath in my lungs, and God is still good.

There have been many scandalous people in positions of power throughout history. It is no coincidence that the names most often associated with human horror were also people in government leadership. Such is the way of the world.

Yesterday I repeated the refrain “But Jesus came anyway,” but that’s not the most accurate way to phrase it. See, Jesus didn’t come in spite of scandalous human leaders. He came because of them. He came for them. And for us, with all our own scandalous sinful lives. Jesus came precisely because he alone can solve our problems, can remove our scandal, and can give us hope and a future.

Whatever you’re feeling this morning, whether anger, fear, triumph, gladness or sadness, set it aside for a moment. Rejoice that your good God reigns. Remember that Jesus came for this. And that Jesus is coming again to take us from this.

#onelifematters

Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. But no matter how many hashtags we post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Friendster, MySpace, etc., in the end it seems like it… doesn’t matter. At least, it doesn’t seem like the hashtags are solving the problems, does it?

I’m not trying to be cynical. I recognize that there are deep issues here. I’m distressed by the stories of what seem to be hasty decisions by police officers. I’m distressed by stories of violent protests against police officers. My little brother is black; his life matters. One of my closest friends is a cop; his life matters. I have a wife and two children; their lives matter. My life… well, that might be debatable some days, but you get the point.

In the end, there’s only one life that matters. More on that in a moment.

It’s been weighing on my mind how we react on social media to every incident. (And note, I say “we” because I believe I have been just as hasty at times.) We see a video or a meme and quickly hit the “share” button, but have we bothered to look more than three paragraphs into the news articles before forming an opinion? Have we waited for due process to reveal the truth of the matter? Are we so quick to jump to a conclusion based on which voice is telling us what to think that we end up contributing to the problem?

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? – Matthew 7:3

In so many ways this is just our human nature blatantly on display. It’s no different than when we rush to judgment on our neighbor because something in their life doesn’t look right to us. We think we know all that’s behind their behavior, we put on our holiness hat, we point a finger and cry foul.

But God will judge us all. And what will he see when he looks at us?

Well, this is why I say there’s only one life that matters. And it isn’t mine. Or yours. It’s the life of a man who came exactly because of all the crap we do to each other day after day. All the times we rush to judgment. All the times we assume we know the score. All the times we take sides against each other. All the times someone makes a hasty decision that ends a life, or a deliberate and well planned one.

Jesus came for all this. He saw this moment in time, when it seems like the world is falling apart around us. He saw all the other moments when our hopes soared and when they came crashing down. He saw all the rottenness in all of us and the rotten things we do to each other. He stepped in… and lived better.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. – Lamentations 3:22

He was compassionate. He was kind. He healed. He forgave. He chastised. He called for repentance. He rebuked. He called. He sought. He sacrificed.

Jesus lived as though every life matters, because to him, every life matters. So he didn’t just live to show us an example, he lived to be a substitute, and then did the unthinkable – he gave up the only life that truly matters, the only perfect life anyone ever lived. He offered it up as appeasement for all of our failure to love each other, for our failure live as though all lives matter. His one life for all of our lives, to make our lives matter.

We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. – Hebrews 10:10

And God accepted that sacrifice as full substitution for everyone. That’s the point of the resurrection. Jesus’s return to life was no gimmick to wow the crowds. It was a sign that his life matters so much that even death can’t hold him down. Can’t hold us down, either, because we have him on our side. That’s how it works – he can overcome death for himself, he can overcome it for us.

So now what? I’m of the mind that if we live as though his life is the only one that truly matters, because only his life truly gives our meaning, then we don’t contribute to the problems – we become the solution. When we live as though Jesus’s life is the only one that matters, we think less about how we can make ourselves significant and more about how we can accomplish his mission of saving the lost. When we live as though Jesus’s life is the only one that matters, we’re less likely to point the finger of blame at others and more likely to ask the question, “How can I help?” When we live as though Jesus’s life is the only one that matters, we draw others to him and show the true meaning of the Gospel to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

Blue lives matter. Black lives matter. All lives matter.

One life matters.

Little Churches

How do you define church?

Dictionary.com offers these top definitions of the word “church”:

1. a building for public Christian worship.
2. public worship of God or a religious service in such a building: to attend church regularly.
3. the whole body of Christian believers; Christendom.
4. any division of this body professing the same creed and acknowledging the same ecclesiastical authority; a Christian denomination.
5. that part of the whole Christian body, or of a particular denomination,belonging to the same city, country, nation, etc.
6. a body of Christians worshiping in a particular building or constituting one congregation: She is a member of this church.
7. ecclesiastical organization, power, and affairs, as distinguished from the state.
Every one of those definitions falls short of the true meaning of what the Church is, and even all of them taken together still doesn’t measure up to it. Our English word “church” can be traced back to the Greek word kyriakos, which literally means “the Lord’s dwelling.” Where does God dwell? Paul writes in Eph 2:22 – “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” In other words, God dwells in his people.
Whenever you see the word “church” in Scripture, we’re actually translating a different Greek word, ecclesia. This word can either mean “a called out people” or “a gathering.” Words like “assembly” and “congregation” work as well. But the most important point about this word is that Scripture never uses it to refer to an organization, a hierarchy, a building, or a function or event. It refers to people – people called out of the world gathered together in the name of Jesus.
Jesus said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” While the Church can be all the people of God in all the world, it is also present where two or more people come together in the name of Jesus, united by their saving faith in him.
Have you ever thought of your family as a church? It fits the definition. If you are a Christian parent seeking to raise your children as disciples of Jesus, you should know that your family is a little church all on its own. You might not be called by a larger congregation into public ministry, yet you have a responsibility to shepherd – to pastor – your family. This is especially true of fathers, to whom God has given the role of leadership in the family, but it’s also true of mothers (all the more when the father is not present or not a believer), grandparents, uncles and aunts.
As a Little Church, your family can do all the things a larger congregation, and the Church as a whole, does. Think about the main things you do at church:
  1. Worship: In corporate (large body) worship with your congregation, you sing, praise, pray, and hear the Word. At home, you can sing songs of praise and devotion to Jesus. You can lead your children in prayer, confessing sins and asking God for what you need. You can read the Bible to each other.
  2. Grow: In your congregation you have Bible studies, Sunday School, and other activities to help you grow in your faith and knowledge of Scripture. At home, you can study the Bible together, talking about its meaning, and read devotions that help to explain what Scripture says.
  3. Serve: In your congregation you have opportunities to give of your time, talents, and treasures to bring the Gospel to others and to help meet people’s needs. As a family, you can find ways to financially support someone you know who is struggling, or reach out to people with the Gospel, or do work to benefit someone who needs your help.

 

Really, the only difference between your local congregation and your family is size. So start looking at your family as a Little Church, and use some of these practical ideas to help you worship, grow, and serve:

  • Who is the “pastor” of your Little Church? If you have the nuclear family, God’s clearest call is to the dad. But not every family is the same. Determine who is the natural “head” of the household, bearing in mind the roles God has given us in Scripture. If there is no dad, then it’s mom. But maybe it’s Grandpa, or an adult son, or an uncle. That person should take responsibility to lead the family spiritually.
  • Set aside time for study of the Word and for prayer. Not sure where to start? Remember that the Word has power all on its own, so the simplest thing is just to open the Bible and read. There are also many great devotion books, kids’ Bibles, and other resources for families. (see the bottom of this article for some links to some good resources)
  • Look for ways to serve. Sit down as a family and brainstorm the things you’re interested in and can do in your community. Try to come up with a family or an individual you know who needs your help. Look for a mission opportunity through your congregation. Find a way to serve together as a family, using the gifts God has given you.

 

Resources for growth:

  • The Story Bible – a beautifully illustrated Bible written toward kids, with questions for discussion about each story.
  • The Jesus Storybook Bible – a cute kids’ Bible aimed at helping children see Jesus in every story.
  • WELS.net Daily Devotions – a resource site from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod with daily devotions on many topics.
  • Focus on the Family – a conservative Christian organization aimed at helping families be spiritually strong, with lots of great devotional content
  • Seeds Family Worship – a site full of Scripture songs and devotional content designed for families
  • Mike Westendorf’s blog – the blog of Christian musician Mike Westendorf. Why his blog specifically? Because he’s the one who got me thinking about this topic a lot lately, and he has lots on his blog to encourage and get you thinking about how to grow your Little Church.